Turkish TV show about urban poor hits a raw nerve

TV shows such as “Cukur” depict the lives of unemployed young men who live in poor urban districts and who try to survive in an unjust, brutal world by means of petty crime.
Saturday 27/07/2019
A poster of the television show “Cukur.” (Facebook)
Tough scenes. A poster of the television show “Cukur.” (Facebook)

ISTANBUL - Scores of tourists strike various poses in front of a run-down cafe. Camera phones flash. Graffiti decorates the walls. Violent Turkish rap music blasts from nearby speakers. “It’s Cukur!” a young woman says happily to her friend and lifts her arm for another selfie.

This derelict Istanbul back street in the district of Fatih is overrun with a new kind of pilgrim: fans who search for the spots they recognise from their favourite TV show.

“Cukur” (“The Pit”) centres on a fictional Istanbul neighbourhood of the same name where godfather Idris Kocovali leads his family clan in the fight against drugs and rival mafia bosses. Despite that “Cukur” is a poor and dangerous neighbourhood, it is a place where family honour and neighbourliness are important.

The show counts millions of fans across the globe. Many of them travel to Balat, a historical neighbourhood in the conservative Fatih district in Istanbul. The narrow streets used to house mainly Greeks and Jews. These days the run-down buildings, the small shops and tea houses are the backdrop for “Cukur.”

Since the start of the series in October 2017, Balat has changed a lot, said shop owner Ramazan Dogan. He sells fan merchandise from a small table in front of his shop: T-shirts, caps, lighters, jewellery, scarves, armbands and the prayer beads sported by Kocovali in the show.

“These sell very well,” he said with a smile. “For 40 years we have struggled to make ends meet here. We have earned these 40 days of wealth.”

Just like in other stigmatised Istanbul neighbourhoods, the residents of Balat are not used to the sudden interest and the masses of tourists. “They come from everywhere,” Dogan said. “From Germany, from Holland, from Iraq and even from Saudi Arabia! They all come to see Cukur.”

In Balat, “Cukur” is impossible to miss. The small lahmacun restaurant, the tea house, the launderette and even a small cart selling sweets use the TV show’s popularity — and that of their neighbourhood — to market their wares.

Many of the quarter’s residents are extras in the show. A violin player who boasts of a scene in the show’s pilot offers to play songs from “Cukur.” In exchange for a small fee he also allows joint selfies. “′Cukur′ has become a sector of our economy,” Dogan said.

In the small barbershop at the corner of the street, there are no posters of the series’ stars. “Absolutely not,” said Kadem Usta, a 49-year-old master barber. “The TV show shows our neighbourhood in a bad light.”

Like the shows’ other numerous critics he said “Cukur” romanticises a violent mafia culture.

“The show does not talk about family, about culture or about values. All it talks about is the survival of the fittest, the right of the strongest,” he said. “The TV show pretends that vigilante justice is normal in a neighbourhood like ours as if there was no state and no police as if we had to enforce law and order here ourselves. What kind of image does that show our children?”

Not everyone in the area shares his worries.

“There was nothing to do here and bad habits wait around every corner,” said Aytas Demir, 38, who has lived his whole life in the neighbourhood. “Since the tourists have started to come many of the families here manage to secure a small income. Instead of drugs and crime, we now have ‘Cukur.’”

Just as the shop owner further down the road he sells TV show merchandise from a camping table in front of his house. His small daughter proudly poses for a picture in front of TV show graffiti. “Things have got better since the TV show. We are very happy about it,” Demir said.

The popularity of violent TV shows that depict poor urban areas is a sign of the zeitgeist, wrote Ceren Sehircioglu in the Hurriyet newspaper. Writers and producers have woken up to the reality of those who have been marginalised and forgotten in the peripheries of big cities all over the country, Sehircioglu said.

Programmes such as “Cukur” show the lives of unemployed young men who live in poor urban districts and who try to survive in an unjust, brutal world by means of petty crime. The so-called “neighbourhood TV shows” that depicted the lives of poor families in a romantic light, wildly popular in the 1990s and the early 2000s, are too removed from the reality of Turkish metropoles, the journalist said.

In today’s Turkey, where decades of neoliberal and corrupt urban policies chased thousands from their old neighbourhoods and into soulless apartment blocks on the periphery, where unemployment, economic instability and anxiety about the future dominate the daily lives of most people and where many people have lost faith in justice and the government, “Cukur” hits a nerve.

“The TV show’s success hinges on a longing for neighbourly solidarity and a nostalgia for the old Istanbul life, for the streets where everyone knows each other and where people help each other out,” barber Kadem Usta said.

Two years ago he left his old shop because of rising rents in the gentrified parts of Balat. Now his new location might become too expensive, too. The TV programme that focuses on the way of life in Cukur is so popular that it, ironically, threatens to destroy that way of life.

The many fans who travel to see the locations for “Cukur” do not care about that. A smartly dressed couple poses for a selfie in front of the barbershop. “I come here a lot, I am a big fan,” said Arif Sezer, 32. “We live in a modern neighbourhood full of luxurious buildings but I don’t know who my neighbours are.”

His wife nods. “Here in Cukur everyone is welcome. The people are open and friendly, she said as a hard beat pumped from speakers at the corner of the street. “This is the old, the honest Istanbul.”