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A Greek vs. Turk 'Survivor' just may ease a bitter past

The Turkish version of the reality TV show pits the historic rivals against each other – and is improving relations.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 2006



ISTANBUL, TURKEY

Call it hyper-reality TV. For its second season, the Turkish version of the popular "Survivor" reality-TV series upped the ante. It deposited a group of 20 Greeks and Turks on a deserted island and pitted the historic rivals against each other in a battle to see who will be the last one standing.

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Taking ancient animosities and turning them into fodder for prime-time entertainment has certainly paid off. The show – a Turkish-Greek co-production running simultaneously in both countries – has been a big hit on each side of the Aegean.

But rather than stoking those hostilities, the show is being seen as an example of how popular culture is helping improve Turkish-Greek relations. When it comes to rapprochement, say observers, popular culture is outpacing the politicians. Just this week, Turkey's bid for European Union membership broke down over the country's refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot trade.

"From the perspective of high politics – negotiations among politicians and things like that – the momentum [in Turkish-Greek relations] has been lost. From the perspective of low politics, Greek-Turkish cooperation is developing a sustainable basis," says Bahar Rumelili, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Koc University who studies Turkish-Greek relations.

"The Greek-Turkish hostilities are almost becoming caricaturized. The stereotypes they have of each other are becoming a theme of entertainment. Rather than aggravating tensions, they have the opposite effect."

Turkey and Greeks have certainly moved beyond the centuries-old belligerence that characterized their relations until even a decade ago. A devastating 1999 earthquake that rocked both countries led to joint relief efforts that paved the way for a new era of warmer relations that seem to have sparked a popular interest in how the other side thinks and feels. Several recent films have explored the Turkish-Greek divide, while in Turkey, Greek pop records are consistent chart toppers.

And "Survivor" is only the latest show to turn the Turkish-Greek conflict into ratings gold. Now in its third season, a Turkish soap opera called "Yabanci Damat" (The Foreign Groom), which tells the story of a Greek boy who marries a Turkish girl, has been a smash hit since it hit the airwaves.

Two summers ago, a private Greek channel called Mega TV started broadcasting the first season of "Yabanci Damat,"and the show drew record audiences. Newspapers and magazines began filling their pages with breathless stories about the lives of the series' stars. The show's Turkish stars were even made honorary citizens of a Greek island where part of the series was shot.

It was, in many ways, the most significant exposure Greeks had to Turks since, well, they were living together as citizens of the Ottoman Empire.

"The series entered every Greek home," says Katerina Muchachos, an actress who is actually the only real Greek member of the cast.

But the show's popularity – in Turkey and Greece – also seemed to reveal a nostalgic yearning on both sides of the Aegean for a glimpse of how things once were.

"For the first time, they saw the other deal with deep and sensitive things that are part of their culture," Alexis Alexandris, the Greek consul general in Istanbul, says about "Yabanci Damat". "They saw how it was being dealt with on the other side of the Aegean."

For Turks, meanwhile, the show seems to have tapped into a need to resolve some of the unfinished business left behind after the rather hasty departure of the Greeks who once lived with them. "I think there's a kind of psychological trauma," says Yagmur Taylan, who co-directs the series with his brother, Durul.

"We know that there are some historical problems, deep problems, and some of them are based on our fathers' and grandfathers' actions," he adds. "We don't try to solve these problems, but confront them."

"Survivor" certainly doesn't shy from confronting some of the old animosities that remain, airing footage of the Greek and Turkish contestants verbally sparring and saying inflammatory things about each other. In one segment, a Greek contestant is asked how he felt about getting on a boat with the group of Turks. "I felt like throwing them into the sea," was his undiplomatic answer.

But Acun Ilicali, the Turkish show's boyish host (the Greek version, also shown on Mega TV, has its own host), says the show's success is an indication of how much things have changed.

"A show like this would have been more dangerous 10 years ago. From the Turkish point of view, Greeks are more sympathetic now," he says.

Still, Mr. Alexandris warns against putting too much stock in pop culture. "For me, the popular culture is an important thing and it's a unifying force, but as long as the thorny issues aren't resolved, the similarities can also be divisive," he says.

Indeed, Turkey and Greece still have long-standing territorial disputes in the Aegean while the Cyprus issue continues to drive a wedge between them. Last spring, Greek and Turkish fighter jets shadowing each other over the Aegean collided, killing the Greek pilot and putting political relations on the edge.

Koc University's Rumelili says that in the past, an incident like that would probably have led to shows like the Turkish-Greek Survivor or Yabanci Damat being taken temporarily off the air and the sound of Greek music being silenced on the streets of Istanbul. This time, that didn't happen.

"I think low politics, like popular culture, now have a calming effect during crisis moments," she says. "Now popular culture has the effect of conveying to people that things are going on as usual and that these Aegean conflicts are things that go on in the minds of military strategists."

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