It has long been known that Turkish television series aired in Arab countries have resulted in an increased interest in Turkish culture, yet the shows have also begun attracting more students to the discipline of Turkish literature, according to academics. In Iraqi universities, Turkish literature now trails only English literature in terms of popularity.
“The ever-developing relations between [Iraq and Turkey] and Turkish soap operas on Iraq TV have triggered this new trend. Students are eager to learn Turkish, while families also want their children to learn Turkish,” Professor Talib al-Qurayshi, the head of the Iraq University Foreign Languages Department, recently told Anatolia news agency.
When Turkish Literature and Language Department head Ziyad Tariq Abduljabbar took over his new department’s management in 2008, there were only 60 students but there are now 730 undergraduate students, 17 post-graduate students and three PhD students in the program.
Speaking about the links between Turkish soap operas and the country’s literature, Nilüfer Narlı, a sociologist at Bahçeşehir University, said Turkey had increased its “soft power” in the Middle East and Balkan countries.
“As the circulation of soap operas in the international arena has increased, learning Turkish language and culture have become very important in the Arab and Balkan countries. This is what we call ‘soft power,’ within the context of the culture industry,” she said.
Of course, there are other reasons for the increased interest in Turkish in Iraq, especially economic ones, said al-Qurayshi. “Growing investment and business opportunities draw people to learn Turkish in Iraq. Students are concerned about their future and the current investments have triggered the education in Turkish.”
Still, there are plenty of cultural reasons for the increased interest, Narlı said. “Turkish contemporary Nobel Laureate writer Orhan Pamuk’s presence [on the scene] and the increasing translations of his books also affect this situation.”
As more Turkish novels are being translated into different languages, the interest in Turkish literature is being raised, Narlı said. “The literature is not a part of the ‘soft power’ theme, but it is very important.”
Commenting on Turkish literature and its impact in the Balkans and the Middle East, Marmara University Turkish literature professor Nihat Öztoprak said: “Turkish soap operas such as Aşk-ı Memnu [Forbidden Love], Yaprak Dökümü [The Fall of the Leaves] are adaptations of famous classical Turkish literary works. People in foreign countries watch those series and they become interested not only in the series and the cast but also with the people who wrote them.”
As such, people become acquainted with writers such as Reşat Nuri Güntekin and Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil, according to Öztoprak.
“With the rising awareness in Turkish literature, the neighboring countries have realized that Turkey is not a ‘desert’ country,” he added.
People in Arab countries have started to do research on Turkish writers as they seek to learn more about people like Güntekin. This situation, according to Öztoprak, leads students to learn about the Turkish language and Turkish literature.
At the same time, Pamuk’s Nobel award greatly helped in spreading awareness of Turkish literature.
Growth of Turkish departments at Iraqi universities
The founder of the Turkish Language and Literature department at Iraq University, Çoban Hıdır Uluhan, said the department was established in 1971 with only four academics. “Today we have a total of 17 academics.”
Noting that they were hoping for the support of foundations and universities in Turkey, Uluhan said the university needed more books and sources on Turkish literature.
“We also want to send our students to Turkey on an exchange program during the summers,” he said.
“Turkish language and visiting Turkey is a must for our students in order to experience the country and Turkish culture,” Uluhan said.
* Hatice Utkan contributed to this article.