One of the measurable impacts brought about by Noor is the recent boom in touristic visits from the Arab world to Istanbul. Tourism companies organize trips named after the show, and take Arab tourists in and around Istanbul. Foremost among the sights seen as part of these tours is the actual villa where Noor was filmed. Other sights include Istanbul’s historical palaces and shopping malls.
Commonplace belief maintains that Noor is a tool of ‘soft power’ (Joseph Nye, 2004), which helped increase Turkey’s influence in the Middle East while transforming—and in that, modernizing—the Arab world through popular culture (Barysch, 2010. Butler, 2009). What this essay is interested in is rather the reverse: how is the built environment affected by this phenomenon? In the light of the Noor example, this essay suggests that the relationship between fiction and real is not strictly one way whereby fiction merely depicts the real; this relationship is on the contrary reciprocal whereby fiction also transforms the real.
While initial research shows that visual elements of the Ottoman culture begin to proliferate in places where Noor visitors stop by (e.g. shopping malls); this is only one and a more blatant way in which fiction’s impact on the real takes place. This essay examines another angle by focusing on a more implicit way in which such impact occurs: the way in which Arab tourists experience architecture in relation to Noor. To what extent is Noor decisive on how Arab tourists experience different elements of the built environment in Istanbul? To what extent does their experience match with what the above ‘soft power’ arguments suggest?
Turkey’s popularity in the Middle East has been on an exponential rise since the introduction of Noor into the Arabic market. This rise has surely translated to better business for Turkish entrepreneurs, most enjoyed perhaps by those in the tourism business. Serdar Ali Abet, who owns a tourism agency targeting mainly an Arabic clientele, is among those entrepreneurs. While already organizing tours to Istanbul, along with the rising popularity of Noor he started repackaging those tours by relating them to the TV show. Inspired by the previous examples of ‘movie tourism,’ he rented the century old mansion where Noor was shot, to which he later started organizing daily excursions. When he rented the waterside villa for 200.000 TL (approx. €100.000) for five months, many of his colleagues were convinced that his investment would not succeed. He spent an additional amount of 15.000 TL (approx. €7500) for the repairs, and undertook the costs of the necessary licenses and staff. His initial idea was to offer to his clients something that other agencies could not: the ‘Noor trip.’
“People were coming to the villa where Noor was shot – not to Turkey” states Abet (2010). [i] Figures indeed support Abet’s bold claims. Already a well-earning businessman, his profit increased by an unusual amount of %60 percent thanks to his introduction of the ‘Noor’s Villa’ tour into the Istanbul package. To keep his competitive upper hand, he decided to charge the outsiders—that is, those tourists who are not his own clients—for a relatively large amount of $50. [ii] Yet, even the price tag didn’t stop the tourist raid. The Abud Efendi Mansion where the melodrama was shot was receiving up to 300 visitors per day, which summed up to 15.000 Noor fans for two consecutive summers. [iii]
Further changes could also be observed. After the owner of the villa received offers from Arab entrepreneurs who had plans of turning the place into a restaurant or a theme hotel, the price of the villa has risen from $35M to $50M. Businesses ranging from tableware to carpet manufacturers sponsored to decorate Noor’s villa. Souvenirs decorated by pictures of the lead actors were produced and sold outside the villa’s entrance. A number of tourism agencies that were nott allowed into the villa arranged guided boat tours that passed by its whereabouts; others repackaged their Istanbul tours with the theme of Noor in order to mimic the experience.
But changes are not limited to the villa itself. Cevahir Mall, which according to the tour schedule is the visitors’ next stop after Noor’s villa,[iv] was also affected from the rising number of Arab tourists. While being owned until recently by a conservative Turkish family, a Kuwaiti consortium now runs this mall. Emergence of Arabic speaking staff in the mall and of Arabic guidebooks placed at the mall’s entrance was among logistic changes that soon took place. Arabic writings in the window displays, and the mall’s executive committee’s decision to enlarge the praying room and presenting it as a ‘Masjid’[v] are concrete spatial changes that coincided with the rising number of Arab visitors. [vi]
There is one set of statistics which seems to overlap on both the villa’s and the mall’s side. In both contexts, women and children provide the real driving force behind tourism. Abet says it is mostly this group of visitors that drag the rest of their families along to the villa. On the villa side, women and children also seem to be the most enthusiastic about their visits: they are the ones who frantically walk up and down the aisles and through the rooms of the villa. On the mall side, Ufuk Isman who is the director of PR & media relations of Cevahir Mall says that the stores that are most visited by Arab tourists are those which sell lingerie and cosmetics products.
Isman is indeed well aware that this change is linked to ‘Movie Tourism’ from the Arab world. “I don’t know if Turkey is doing this as part of a larger government policy or not, but we’re now creating a ‘Turkey dream’ in the Arab world--just like the ‘American dream’ that the US had once created”. [vii] Upon asking what prompts him to make such remark, he shares more of his insights:
Until recently lead characters in the Turkish films and TV series were common people. Now, this has changed. If you look at ‘Asmalı Konak’, ‘Bir İstanbul Masalı’, and ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’,[viii] they do not tell the stories of ordinary people. Their plots are about the lives of the wealthy upper class – about people who live in absolute luxury, wear the fanciest clothes and drive the most expensive cars. Handsome men are passionately in love with their women, and women have much more freedom compared to their Arab counterparts. But what makes these more attractive from, for instance, Brazilian soap operas, is that the whole story takes place in a predominantly Muslim country. Therefore, when Arabs watch these TV series, what they watch is not so much a love story that takes place in Turkey as it is a desirable model into which they wish their country to evolve in future. [ix]
‘Reading’ the Noor phenomenology
A popular interpretation of the ‘Noor’ phenomenology perceives it within the Turkish strategy of “soft power”. [x] According to Nye, soft power:
[I]s the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced. [xi]
Indeed, from Monocle magazine to the Germany’s international public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, stories similar to the ones above have been covered in mass media with an emphasis on Turkey’s intentions of becoming a lead actor in the Middle East. Among those who take Noor seriously is the deputy director of the think tank ‘Centre for European Reform’ Katinka Barysch. For her, the series is Turkey’s own way of “exporting its culture, ideas and values,” as part of a strategy that will help the country gain regional leadership. [xii] No matter how reasonable these perspectives sound, they fail to account for how Istanbul (and, in particular, Noor’s villa) are perceived through the eyes of Arab visitors.
An architectural hermeneutic investigation could be of benefit toward alternative readings of the Noor phenomenology. The particular way in which most visitors experience Noor’s villa is key to understanding how fiction leaves an impact on real life. Serdar Ali Abet, who is the owner of the tourism agency that rented Noor’s villa, says that when Arab tourists first arrive at the villa, they seem somewhat disillusioned. “Apparently, for them the villa is not as gorgeous as it seems on TV,” he says. Abet stresses that as visitors walk through the aisles and rooms, all they talk about is the melodrama. He records that visitors are most interested in seeing “Noor’s room”, “the table at which Noor dined” and “where Noor and Mohanad had their first kiss”. [xiii] They also use additional help from technology and multimedia in order to enrich their experience. To give one example, “as they lie down on Noor’s bed, they play the show’s theme song on their cell phones, as if trying to re-enact a famous scene from the show. Some turn on their video cameras, and have friends or family members record them as they do the re-enaction,” says Abed. [xiv]
An important characteristic of the villa is that it has a long history behind it. “The Abud Efendi villa is over 150 years old. It was build by the famous Ottoman architect Karabet Balyan and it already has a rich history by itself.” says Abed. [xv] He goes on to explain that his initial idea was to include this history as part of the tours he conducted: “At first we arranged a guided tour for the Arab visitors, providing them information about the history of the villa. But nobody was really paying attention: it was as if the real history of the villa didn’t exist for them.” [xvi]
Key Points Driven From the Study:
I. The notion of real versus fictional (as part of architectural hermeneutics):
The disappearing borders between ‘real’ and ‘fiction’, as we see in the case of ‘Noor’s villa’, neither is new, nor it is unique to the relationship between films and the film sets. Blaise Pascal was addressing the same problematic in his book Pensées over three centuries ago, when he said “How vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things of which we do not admire the originals”. [xvii] The same phenomenon may be observed in the case of Noor, whereby the visitors of Noor’s villa are disappointed when they visit the ‘original’ setting--what they have long admired is its numerous reproductions via scenes in the TV series. What is important in the Noor case is that this disappointment or disillusion will continue to strikingly affect the ways in which visitors experience the villa.
The visitors’ villa experience does not have so much to do with what they are seeing as it does with what they have seen or will be seeing. The architecture that they really experience is both of a past and of a future tense of architecture. On the one hand, when visitors re-enact scenes from the TV show and using the show’s theme song as an aid to their re-enaction, hermeneutics for them is defined by their past tense experience. This is a key reference point from their ‘pre-visit’ experience. On the other hand, when they record one another on video cameras, they create material to be viewed in future--their relation to the architecture that surrounds them is then dominated by a future tense experience. This is likely to be used for a (‘post-visit’) (re)experiencing of the architecture. Therefore, although the visitors are ‘presently’ face to face with the original villa, their real time (or present tense) experience is actually defined by reproductions that both come from the past, and made for the future.
II. History and tourism aspect:
The whole Istanbul experience of the visitors is affected by the melodrama whereby (if one talks in conventional tourism terms) the villa for them is the museum/historical place visited (which in ‘fact’ itself is a historical place but this aspect is not important for the visitors--the villa is important for the visitors in its ahistoricity). By the same token, the shops in the Cevahir mall are museum shops. These analogies are confirmed also by Abet’s decisions to acquire a museum licence from the ministry of tourism, hire a security firm for the protection of the villa and organize guided tours, which end with a visit to the Cevahir Mall. [xviii] The melodrama is said to strengthen Turkey’s historical bonds with the Arab world/Middle East, but paradoxically the villa’s own historicity as such is not of primary importance for its visitors.
Visitors’ attitude towards Istanbul’s historical places is no different. According to Abet, Arab tourists with a few extra days in the city prefer to spend their time in the posh Bağdat Avenue rather than the two millenia old ancient city. [xix] The former rose to popularity in the last two decades thanks to the increasing number of luxurious brands that have been setting up shop. Abet claims that the well planned wide streets, cleanliness and ‘modern architecture’ of Bağdat Avenue along with its upper class frequenters, offer the ‘movie tourists’ something that historical Istanbul cannot: strolling in the same streets as Noor. Thus, a few days spent in such an area promise the ‘Noor tourist’ the first hand experience of Noor’s daily routine.
III. The ‘Freedom’ aspect:
There is strong emphasis on how women and children take the lead during the Arab tourists’ Noor-related Istanbul visits. A significant example to this emphasis is Abet’s conversation with one family which was among his customers. Abet records that this family was about to spend their holidays in France but when the children and their mom insisted on seeing Noor’s villa, the destination changed from Paris to Istanbul.[xx] Observations by the Cevahir Mall also suggest that women take the lead in deciding which shops are to be spent most time at. Popular perception suggests that together with the imagery presented in the TV series, all these facts point to the Arab women’s desire to be free from the religious/traditional limits which are supposedly holding them back. It is often argued that this piece of fiction is a way for these women to have access to the kind of freedom that they have been longing for. [xxi] However, the particular choice of characters and settings in the TV show as well as other facts from the mall and the villa point to another dimension regarding freedom. When one looks at the kind of acts portrayed in Noor, which the above arguments associate with freedom, it is evident that this freedom has for the most part to do with financial freedom, and it is for a certain group of people/economic class. This view is also supported by some changes that took place in Noor’s villa after it became a shrine for tourists: product placement took place in the villa, whereby famous interior design or kitchen appliances brands sponsored the tourism company and placed their products in the villa. Therefore it is not difficult to conclude that the potential social subversive power that is attributed to the show is more of an illusion then reality.
Even when Noor does actually work upon ‘freedom’ as a leitmotif or a subtext, it does so only by associating the notion to a particular type of people (i.e. people from a specific socioeconomic class, with specific spending choices and lifestyles) and in particular types of settings. While we are informed about the ways in which Noor’s Arab fans are able to exercise this kind of freedom during their Istanbul visits, there is no clear evidence of how their lives back home are affected by the Noor phenomenology. Therefore, it could be argued that the Arab women’s Noor experience in Istanbul actually strengthens the fixed idea that the kind of social paradigm back home is impossible to change, let alone helping transform it for the better.
Conclusion: ‘Istanbul as Noorland’
The above observations suggest that, on the one hand, ‘the Noor case’ is a solid example of fiction’s incarnation. The anticipated unilateral relationship where Istanbul was supposed to serve only as an attractive setting for the TV series, became reciprocal as the movie tourists started visiting the actual spatial context in which the series was filmed. This reciprocation has been the primary factor defining the architectural hermeneutics of the city for the Arab tourist, and therefore has allowed fiction to influence the real.
On the other hand, the visitors are subjected to an isolated and sanitized Istanbul experience, confining their relationship to ‘Noor’s city’ within invisible intransitive borders. It can be claimed that such relationship is similar to what one observes in Disneyland, in its 'degenerate utopia' as defined by Marin:
[A] supposedly happy, harmonious and non-conflictual space set aside from the 'real' world 'outside' in such a way as to sooth and mollify, to entertain, to invent history and to cultivate a nostalgia for some mythical past, to perpetuate the fetish of commodity culture rather than to critique it. Disneyland eliminates the troubles of actual travel by assembling the rest of the world, properly sanitized and mythologized, into one place of pure fantasy containing multiple spatial orders... Disneyland offers a fantasy journey into a world of spatial play. [xxii]
Based on Marin’s description above, one can draw parallels between Disneyland, and Istanbul-through-the-eyes-of-the-Arab-tourist. Among the sites visited by the Noor tourists, Abud Efendi Villa perhaps best fulfils the prerequisites suggested above by Marin: The guided tours organized to the Villa, serve well to ‘entertain’ visitors by ‘inventing’ history and ‘cultivating a nostalgia for some mythical past.’ The interior decorations sponsored by various manufacturers coincide with the idea of ‘perpetuating the fetish of commodity culture’, while the ‘troubles of actual travel’ to Noor’s house are realized by ‘sanitizing’ the experience through excluding historical narratives from guided tours, and including fictive ones in their stead. Thus, echoing Marin, it may well be argued that ‘Noorland offers a fantasy journey into a world of spatial play’ --that is, a world called Istanbul.
[i] Serdar Ali Abet, Interview with the Authors, March 17th, 2010.
[ii] For comparison, the entrance fee for the Topkapi Palace where Ottoman sultans resided until the 19th century and Hagia Sophia, which used a renowned worshipping place with a 30m dome built in 5 AD; are $15 each.
[iii] Abet, Interview with the Authors.
[v] Praying room only to be used by believers of Islamic faith.
[vi] Ufuk Isman, Interview with the Authors, March 30th, 2010.
[viii] Other popular soap operas that have recently been broadcasted in Turkey.
[ix] Isman, Interview with the Authors.
[x] Joseph S. Nye. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. (New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, 2005).
[xi] Ibid, p. x.
[xii] Katinka Barysch, ‘Can Turkey combine EU accession and regional leadership?’ Centre for European Reform Policy Brief, 2010; retrieved from: http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/pb_barysch_turkey_25jan10.pdf
[xiii] Abet, Interview with the Authors.
[xvii] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 8.
[xviii] Abet, Interview with the Authors.
[xxi] See Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, (Guest) ‘Turkish Soaps Find Fans in the Arab World,’ [Audio Podcast], Jian Ghomeshi (April 29th, 2010). Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/tv/story/2010/04/29/turkish-soap-operas.html; and Mustafa Akyol, “Turkey’s Soft Power in the Arab World,” Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review (April 30th, 2010).
[xxii] David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 166-7.