Greece and Turkey, a relationship that needs less geopolitics and more soap operas

With a history riddled with conflict, the rivalry between Greece and Turkey remains a source of considerable instability in the Eastern Mediterranean area. However, despite their troubled past, their tense present and the religion that separates them, these two traditionally bad neighbors have many other ties that unite them, such as a similar gastronomy or common expressions due to a long social and cultural interaction. This is giving rise to a curious phenomenon: what politics has divided is being reunited by television.

A rapprochement between the Turkish and Greek populations has begun to emerge from the hand of the Turkish soap opera hit in Greece, which have dominated the prime time of the Hellenic television channels and have led to the beginning of a friendly dialogue between both societies outside their governments.

The pioneer was “The Frontiers of Love”, a Turkish production full of romance with notes of humor and strong stereotypes that tells the story of the son of a Greek shipping owner who falls in love with the daughter of a Turkish baklavá maker. From then on, Turkish soap operas, full of traditional values, loyalty and friendship, prevailed over Western ones. “Las Fronteras del Amor” was followed by titles such as “Sila” O “Painful life”, where the importance of family ties permeated a culture as communal as the Greek, which began to learn Turkish words and request classes to study the language.

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For Yasemín, a Turkish journalist living in Athens for six years, one of the reasons for this success lay in the cultural proximity of the two peoples. “In general we are very similar peoples. It is very easy for me to live in Greece, I don’t feel that cultural gap that could feel in other countries like England or the United States ”.

Fatma, a Turkish woman who has been married to a Greek since 2007 and has lived in the center of the Greek capital since then, coincides with her compatriot: “We are very similar, the only big difference is religion. We have lived together for many years and this is reflected in the way we cook or the expressions we use. When two languages ​​have common expressions it means that their peoples are similar ”.

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However, for María Papadopulu, a Greek shop assistant in an accessories store in the municipality of Alimos, this closeness is not so obvious: “I don’t think we have many things in common, especially in terms of culture. Turkey is closer to the Middle East than it is to us”. The same is the opinion of Eleni Papadakis, a manager of the municipality of Nea Eritrea who admits that “we may have the same way of cooking or some words and traditions in common, but up to there”.

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Another reason for the great popularity of these series was that a large part of them were shot outside of Istanbul, a city that for Greeks is very important and which they keep calling Constantinople. “Many showed great interest because their parents and grandparents came from there,” says Yasemín. Eleni also agrees that “many Greeks can see the past of their parents and grandparents reflected in them. Nostalgia for his childhood was a very powerful reason for the older viewers ”.

Istanbul was home to many Greeks until 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne between Turkey and Greece stipulated that a population exchange take place which meant that about 1,800 Greeks and half a thousand Turks they were forced to leave their homes. However, beyond the nostalgia for the lost Byzantium, Eleni believes that these series triumphed “because they are written so that many different people will like it. Wherever you put them they are probably going to be successful. ”

The presence of Turkish soap operas was on the rise on Greek screens due to the country’s economic crisis. “They were the perfect escape for many Greeks hit hard by austerity.”, Maintains Yasemín. “Greece did not have the capacity to produce its own content and bought Turkish productions.” Stories like that of the Sultan “Suleiman the Magnificent”, who recounted the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, were followed by one in ten Greeks.

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Despite their undoubted success, these series also had their detractors. The Greek Orthodox Church widely criticized the popularity of Turkish soap operas. “Watching Turkish soap operas is equivalent to telling them that we have given up”, Anthimnos, Bishop of Thessaloniki, declared emphatically in 2012. In 2019, the Greek community residing in Argentina strongly rejected the Turkish version of the story broadcast by the series “You are my life” regarding the Armenian massacre at the beginning of the 20th century, while in 2020 some Turkish soap operas were suspended from Helena television when Turkey announced the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a decision that once again confronted the two countries.

Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, a fact that probably served to prevent friction and conflict from going further on issues such as Turkey’s invasion of the northern part of the island of Cyprus in 1974. The Turkish issue- Cypriot, allegations of violation of Greek airspace by Turkish fighters and ongoing disagreements over territorial waters marked Athens’ foreign relations with Ankara during the last years of the 20th century.

However, this changed after the two intense earthquakes in the Turkish region of Marmara and in Athens in the summer of 1999 with the decision of both nations to send rescue teams to help those affected. Along with this, the process and effects of globalization, with the participation in European structures by Greece and the interest in developing closer relations with the European Union (as well as the desire to join it) on the part of Turkey, began to bear fruit. Thus began a new stage that allowed a significant advance in bilateral relations.

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“Relations between Greeks and Turks changed after the earthquakes,” says Yasemín, who believes that from there tourism and a series of cultural exchanges tended a bridge to mutual understanding between the two peoples and led to an improvement in relations. “Politics is one thing and ordinary citizens another,” says Aléxandros Papadakis, a mechanic in a motorcycle repair shop in Piraeus who used to make occasional trips to the neighboring country before the pandemic. “I have always felt very comfortable visiting Turkey. I have never had any problems ”.

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However, as of 2016, good political relations were frozen again by the refugee crisis, border conflicts and disputes over natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean last year, when a dangerous escalation of tension was reached.

Fatma believes that the relations between Greeks and Turks are in the worst moment of recent years. “When I arrived here we had very good relations and I think this can change now,” he laments. “The fault lies with the politicians, but it ends up affecting the people.” Although for Maria the fault lies exclusively with the Turkish Government. “The Turkish population may not have a problem with the Greeks, but their government has not been friendly. Their fighters fly over our islands and they send their boats to patrol in our waters ”.

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The past has not been forgotten, much less this year, in which Greece celebrates its bicentennial anniversary of the start of the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Hellas for 400 years. “Despite the good relations in recent years, there are still some Greeks who do not like the Turks because they were under their authority for a long time,” Fatma acknowledges. “And although all this is in the past, some are still clinging to it.” “I have no problem with the Turks” says Alexandros convinced. “For me everything is a matter of respect and look to the future, not to the past”.

On April 15, Turkey and Greece took a first step towards closer relations with the visit to Ankara of the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, to meet with his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and trying to find a solution to issues as controversial as the Cyprus conflict, an issue that has clouded the possible good Greek-Turkish relations in recent years and on which finding a diplomatic solution has been very difficult so far.

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