Sea-Crossed Lovers

The story of a mixed Turkish-Greek romance builds a bridge across the Aegean

Photograph by Yigal Schleifer

istanbul — It was a classic tale of forbidden love. Nazli, a darkhaired beauty from Turkey, was on vacation when she met Niko, the dashing scion of a wealthy Athens shipping family. The two stayed in touch, one thing led to another, and they decided to marry.

Niko and Nazli’s engagement couldn’t help but wade into the historical antagonism between Turks and Greeks. Nazli’s family — hard-working baklava makers from the conservative city of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey — were dead set against the union. For Nazli’s nationalistic grandfather, Greece’s invasion of the nascent Turkish republic following World War I still seemed like yesterday. Niko’s family had even more reason to oppose the wedding: originally from Istanbul, they were among the 1.5 million Greeks forced to leave their ancestral homes because of political tensions during the twentieth century.

But love, as they say, conquers all, and Niko and Nazli married and moved in together in Istanbul. When Nazli eventually gave birth to a boy, a feud erupted: would the child be given a proper Greek name or a traditional Turkish name? Millions of television viewers in Greece and Turkey wanted to know.

Niko and Nazli are the lead characters in a Turkish sitcom-cum-soap opera called Yabanci Damat (The Foreign Groom). Now in its third season, the series has been a smash in Turkey since it began. In the summer of 2005, a private Greek channel started broadcasting the show, taking it from Turkish hit to cross-cultural phenomenon. Called Ta Sinora tis Agapis (The Borders of Love) in Greece, the series quickly drew record audiences despite its late time slot. Greek newspapers and magazines filled their pages with breathless stories about the stars of the series, and the final episode of the season, which dealt with the baby-naming, had a “Who shot J. R.?” buzz around it. (The show’s writers diplomatically named the boy Ege, Turkish for Aegean.) It was in many ways the most significant exposure Greeks had had to Turks since they lived together as citizens of the Ottoman Empire.

The show’s popularity seemed to indicate not only the limitless dramatic and comedic potential of Romeo and Juliet-style storylines, but a yearning on both sides of the Aegean for détente. “There is huge interest in each other’s culture,” says Alexis Alexandris, the Greek consul general in Istanbul. This summer, Alexandris’s consulate supported an ngo offering Turkish courses for young Greeks at an Istanbul university. Alexandris was hoping for twenty students; fifty signed up. “When you go to Athens, everything Turkish is popular among the young,” he says. In Turkey, meanwhile, Greek pop records are consistent chart-toppers, and more and more Turkish performers are singing in Greek in order to boost sales.

Alexandris is seated in a high-ceilinged office in the consulate, a grand four-storey building dating to the 1850s that served during the Ottoman era as the part-time residence of the Greek Orthodox Church’s Jerusalem patriarch. The consulate is in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighbourhood, once home to large numbers of Greeks. Not far away is the consulate’s cultural centre, a massive artnouveau mansion that used to be the private home of a family of wealthy Greek traders. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture what the Greek presence in Istanbul was like at one time.

“Greek-Turkish relations are so complex because they have to do with two nations that lived not side by side, but rather together, for centuries,” Alexandris explains. The consul general was born in Istanbul, but his family left in the late 1970s. He explains that Yabanci Damat rekindles the sense that the two nations are intertwined: “For the first time, each country saw the other dealing with deep and sensitive parts of their culture.”

Katarina Muchachos, who played Niko’s secretary in seasons one and two and was one of the only Greek members of the cast, says that Greeks might also be identifying with traditions that are dwindling at home but endure on the other side of the Aegean. On the show, Nazli’s clan come across as country bumpkins — simple folk who argue loudly and often hysterically. But they also still live as one family under the same roof, their family bonds intact. “We still have this in Greece, but we’re struggling not to lose it,” says Muchachos.

For Turks, the show seems to have tapped into a need to resolve unfinished business. “I think there’s a kind of psychological trauma,” says Yagmur Taylan, who codirects the series with his brother, Durul. Yagmur, thirty-nine, is tall, with a wispy beard. He sports a grey T-shirt with the word “whatever” printed on it. “We know that there are some historical problems, deep problems, and some of them are based on our fathers’ and grandfathers’ actions,” he says. “We don’t try to solve these problems, but to confront them.”

But as Alexandris points out, the greater challenge is to confront these problems in the real world. “Popular culture is an important thing and a unifying force, but as long as thorny issues aren’t resolved, our similarities will exaggerate our divisions,” he says. His words proved prophetic. The same day we spoke, two fighter jets, one Greek and the other Turkish, collided over the Aegean. Relations were abruptly set on edge: the Greek purchase of a Turkish bank that only a few months before had been hailed as a “Foreign Groom” deal was put in jeopardy; Turkish and Greek columnists started pointing out the other country’s perfidy; and the thorny issue of Cyprus was dragged into the whole affair. The countries’ governments hastily intervened to repair the damage, but a question remained: how long until another incident once again endangered relations? Tune in next season to find out.

The Walrus