Two Allies, Two Angles

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

ISTANBUL -- In "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq," U.S. soldiers shoot small children at point-blank range, harvest kidneys from Iraqi prisoners for shipment to Tel Aviv, blow a Muslim cleric out of his minaret and, to top it all off, display utter contempt for Turkish foreign policy. The feature film set a box office record in its first weekend, after opening in more theaters than any movie in Turkish history.

Meanwhile, the American television series "24" did not open at all in Turkey last fall, despite high ratings over the three previous seasons for agent Jack Bauer and the swashbuckling Counter-Terrorist Unit. The problem: In season four, the terrorists intent on destroying America were Turks.

"It's kind of like firing missiles at each other!" Yasar Aktas said of the pop culture war now playing between the United States and Turkey. The unemployed cook was one of 1.75 million people who saw "Valley of the Wolves" in its first six days in Turkey. It opened last week in Europe, where the U.S. Army issued a notice warning U.S. service members to stay away from affected multiplexes and "to avoid getting into discussions about the movie with people you don't know."

That two NATO allies that often speak of mutual respect regard each other so darkly on-screen says a good deal about the uneasy state of relations between Turkey and the United States, each of them proud, a bit insular and deeply concerned about the war in Iraq. But as protests roil an Islamic world deeply offended by caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, whose depiction the faith forbids, the state of entertainment in Muslim Turkey also offers a lesson in how easy it remains for cultures to talk past each other, even -- perhaps especially -- in an era of global satellite communication. It's hard seeing eye to eye when perspectives are profoundly different.

None of the atrocities in "Valley of the Wolves," for instance, shocked Ulas Aker in the least.

"These are things we knew were going on anyway," the cafe owner said, pulling on his suit coat as he emerged from a Thursday matinee in downtown Istanbul, where the movie was playing in 63 of the city's 72 theaters.

U.S. troops strafing an Iraqi wedding? It was two years ago that Turkish newspapers splashed news of an aerial bombardment of a wedding that U.S. commanders insisted was a gathering of insurgents. "Johnny, this is not the chief terrorist," the daily Sabah wrote sarcastically, beside a photo of a musician. "They call him santor . He makes music."

Organ harvesting? Aker said he had heard rumors, and in the movie's surgery scenes, a stocky female American soldier strips Iraqi soldiers for stacking in a human pyramid.

If anything weighed on Aker as he left the theater, it was the movie's pace.

"We both thought there'd be more action," said his companion, Erkan Basyildiz, 26. "I was completely addicted to the series."

The TV series that inspired the movie was distinctly Turkish. Its protagonist, Polat Alemdar, was an agent of Turkey's "deep state," the elusive, quasi-fascist network said to remain permanently in Turkey's official establishment while elected governments come and go. The deep state sees its mission as guarding Turkey's national essence, even if that means commingling with unsavory elements in ways that could only be guessed at until, as actually happened in 1996, the passengers involved in a car wreck turned out to include a police commander, a mafia chief and a former beauty queen. On the TV show, Polat once kissed Sharon Stone.

He moved to the big screen to avenge the notorious events of July 4, 2003, which went largely unnoticed in the United States. That day U.S. troops arrested a team of Turkish special forces in northern Iraq. The Turks were smuggling arms to ethnic brethren squared off against the Kurds, who were allied with U.S. forces already deeply miffed at Turkey for denying the U.S. 4th Infantry Division an invasion route from the north. Photos of handcuffed Turks with bags over their heads deeply humiliated and angered the Turkish public.


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