What Turks Are Watching

A new wave of anti-American pop culture.

Allies aren’t supposed to behave like this. In Turkey—a stable secular Muslim democracy that’s practically European—the country’s biggest-budget-ever movie, Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, is preparing to hit shelves on DVD and is scheduled for a U.S. theatrical release this summer. Based on a television series that has been a record-breaking hit for four seasons, it’s a military thriller about an elite Turkish intelligence officer who near-single-handedly smites a group of reckless U.S. soldiers who make Abu Ghraib look like a Sunday picnic. The film, which received some press coverage in the States, is only part of a wave of anti-American pop culture that’s sweeping the country.

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq starts off factually enough, with a depiction of a July 4, 2003, incident in which around 100 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade stormed the barracks of a Turkish special forces office in Iraq, arresting 11 Turks who allegedly were planning to assassinate the Kurdish governor of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Americans not only handcuffed the Turks but also forced hoods over their heads and held them in custody for more than two days. The U.S. government later apologized, explaining that its soldiers couldn’t tell the difference between Turks and Iraqi insurgents because the Turks were not in uniform. Turkey didn’t buy it, and this blockbuster is the payback.

As the flick takes a sharp turn toward fiction, one of the 11 Turks in the 2003 debacle commits suicide to regain his warrior honor. His suicide note is sent to Polat Alemdar, the Turkish intelligence officer who stars in the Valley of the Wolves television show. Alemdar heads to Iraq to find U.S. Special Forces Cmdr. Sam William Marshall (played by Billy Zane), who, in his role as a self-described “peacekeeper of God,” is busy leading a massacre of machine-gun fire on unsuspecting civilians at an Iraqi wedding. Survivors are sent to a facility where a Jewish-American doctor (played by Gary Busey) pulls out human hearts with Mengelian apathy and sells them to aristocrats in London, New York, and Tel Aviv. When one of the American soldiers expresses concern that a truckful of Iraqi civilians are packed in too tight to breathe, a fellow soldier stops the car and bullet-soaks the trailer and its human cargo. “I was making sure they could breathe,” he quips, pointing to the holes in the truck.

The snide James Bond tone isn’t totally out of place. This is, after all, a movie, where the American soldiers—in their black tank tops and cutoff khakis—look more like characters from video games like Street Fighter. And the dialogue is cartoonish, Western capitalist chest-thumping. In one scene, Alemdar asks Marshall: “Isn’t the boss of American soldiers the American capitalism?” Marshall counters: “The United States has been paying for your nation for the past 50 years. We send you the elastic for your panties. Why can’t you produce anything?”

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called the film “pure fiction.” But when Turkey’s speaker of parliament, Bulent Arinc, attended a premiere of the movie in Ankara, he said it was “a great film that will go down in history.” When asked whether the movie meshed well with reality, Arinc told Anatolia, the state news agency: “Yes, exactly.”

Naysayers and diplomats can say that Valley of the Wolves: Iraq is just one film, but it’s also part of a larger pop-culture trend that has taken root ever since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, a hugely unpopular war in Turkey, which borders Iraq. All last year Turkish bookstores were hard-pressed to keep the best-selling novel Metal Storm on shelves. The novel, written like one of Tom Clancy’s international potboilers, depicts a U.S. invasion of Turkey in March 2007. Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld are characters, although the U.S. president is a nameless, nap-loving warmonger who defers most of his decision-making to fellow members of Skull and Bones. In the book, whose title is America’s name for its invasion, the U.S. military swiftly bombs then overtakes Ankara and Istanbul (the U.S. president, who is also deeply evangelical, aims to restore Istanbul to its Christian Byzantine glory). It’s like a nightmare version of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Americans’ motive is Uncle Sam’s lust for the country’s rich borax supply (Turkey is home to 60 percent of the world’s borax, a mineral used in weapons, radiation shields, and space technology). In the second phase of its invasion, Operation Sèvres (named after the World War I treaty in which the West gutted the Ottoman Empire), the United States creates a Kurdish state and lets longtime Turkish enemies Greece and Armenia ravage what’s left of the country. A lone Turkish secret agent counters by stealing a nuclear weapon and vaporizing Washington. First published in December 2004, the book has surpassed 150,000 copies sold—unheard of in Turkey. “This novel is not just another conspiracy theory; it’s a possibility theory,” Orkun Uçar, one of the book’s authors, told Al Jazeera.

This wave of anti-American Turkish pop culture is so widespread that it has been the sole topic of its own Senate foreign relations committee hearing; Turkey is, after all, a key NATO ally. But if the senators aren’t interested in reading Metal Storm, watching Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, or listening to the Turkish rock group Duman (sample lyrics: “What kind of excuse is this? You’re after oil again”) here’s a simpler explanation of what’s going on in Turkey: It’s not all that dissimilar to what’s going on in the United States. Anti-Turkish pop-culture references turn up in, for example, episodes of 24, which started last season with a Turkish national kidnapping the secretary of defense; or The West Wing, in which an international incident centered upon Turkey’s beheading of a woman accused of having sex with her fiance. (Turkey, one group pointed out, doesn’t have a death penalty anymore and hasn’t executed anyone since 1984.)

Or maybe the memories go back further than that. During a recent vacation to Istanbul, I did hear one complaint more than a few times, a long-lingering wound to their national pride: the hugely popular 1978 American film Midnight Express, which was nominated for six Oscars and won one for its writing. In it, Billy Hayes, an American tourist jailed for smuggling hashish, tells a Turkish court, “For a nation of pigs, it sure seems funny that you don’t eat them! Jesus Christ forgave the bastards, but I can’t! I hate! I hate you! I hate your nation! And I hate your people! And I fuck your sons and daughters because they’re pigs! You’re all pigs!” So perhaps one good movie deserves another.

Not that all this is about visceral bitterness; culture—especially pop—is by nature a knot of influences with everything becoming a fad sooner or later. “For years, we, the people of this area, Turks, Arabs, Iranians, Russians, or people further away, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, were always characterized as bad in Hollywood movies,” Bahadir Ozdener, one of the writers for Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, told me. “We are accustomed to this, we do not show any social reactions to this, and we just watch them as movies and place them in our movie archives. We think that democratic societies should get accustomed to being shown as bad people because of what they have done.” Widespread Turkish antagonism toward America may just be a bit of nationalist whimsy, the way Americans occasionally haze their French allies. It’s not like we actually despise the French … oui?