By Mary Bloyd and Paola Cesarini
“Alef” premiered on the Turkish digital streaming platform BluTV on April 10, 2020. The last of the eight episodes aired on May 22, 2020. Reaching many viewers during the quarantine, it was reported that BluTV experienced a 140% increase in viewership since the release of the series. An erudite, tightly conceived, intensely scripted, and superbly produced serial killer drama, “Alef” offers viewers a new level of gritty and gruesome on Turkish television screens.
“Alef” narrates a multilayered quest for identity where the name of the serial killer is perhaps the least relevant aspect of the entire storyline. Beneath the veneer of being a mystery detective story, the series offers an impressive but admittedly challenging exploration of Islamic heresies, marginalization, corruption, revenge, jealousy, grief and insanity. For those willing to go along for the ride, this series offers a viewing experience that is intellectually rewarding and visually stimulating.
Screenwriter: Emre Kayis developed the concept and the script, which is chock full of interesting historical, theological and cinematic reference (for more on these, click here.) The series narrates a clever and original tale, where ambiguities unfold quickly.
Director: Emin Alper directed the show with a fast pace, depth and quality that is more characteristic of independent filmmaking than for a television production. The setting for the series takes place in Istanbul’s winter which creates a heavy, “film noir” atmosphere.
Production: The art direction, photography, cinematography and the scenography of the series are of high aesthetic value and quality. An uncommon professionalism and technological know-how surround the storytelling of “Alef”.
The Actors: The series is skillfully and brilliantly cast, with a treasure trove of experienced actors.
As Kemal, Kenan Imirzalıoglu offers an intense, but understated portrayal of an enigmatic, introverted, highly intelligent, Western-trained investigator. As expected from this legendary, award-winning actor, Kenan delivers a strong performance, staying in complete character and focus throughout the series.
Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan gives life to Settar, the grumpy, fiercely independent, strongly opinionated veteran detective of the Istanbul Police Department.
Melisa Sözen is Yasar, a sophisticated university professor and a quasi-expert of Islamic studies. She enters the story as a consultant on the case and evolves into Kemal’s romantic interest.
The Plot: The remainder of this article outlines the plot of “Alef” and offers an interpretation of its more recondite significance. Be warned; there are definite spoilers ahead. For a spoiler-free review of the series published at the midway point, click here.
“Alef” opens with scenes of a Greek Orthodox ritual taking place along the shores of the Bosphorous. A disfigured corpse is discovered and brought up from its deep, turbulent waters. The body belongs to a transsexual with an obsessive interest in Sufism. Before investigation of the case can gain any traction, a famous novelist is found on the brink of death, with his body bearing the signs of brutal torture. The serial killer leaves messages about cults and Sufism for the Istanbul police who will investigate the case.
When a link between the two victims is found, an odd pairing of two experienced detectives is assigned to the case. Kemal Tekin is a calm, controlled and cerebral investigator. He has just returned to Istanbul after four years of service with an elite investigative unit at Scotland Yard in London. His senior partner is Settar, an old-style, instinctive, irascible and insubordinate Istanbul cop with 30 years of experience, the total opposite of Kemal. They are given a team of young investigators and ordered by their Chief to solve the case quickly.
Through a series of recordings, the killer requests that a novel written by Faik Ahlat Karaca (FAK), who committed suicide in the 1960s, be printed within a week by one of Turkey’s main publishers, or new murders will follow. The novel narrates the arson of a deviant Sufi sect’s lodge in Ottoman times where all who were in the lodge perished. Researching this novel takes the team to Associate Professor Yasar Turan from Istanbul University’s Department of Islamic Research, who authored the only known review of FAK’s novel. When she becomes involved in the case, the story line shifts toward Ottoman history, Sufism and religious heresies. Slowly but surely, a mysterious connection takes shape between the murders and a deviant Sufi sect devoted to an XVI century heretic leader (Kutb.)
The clues left by the serial killer lead to mystical themes. For example, with blood on the wall, he draws the symbol of Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It signifies the number one and indicates the oneness and unity of the creator. This symbol is also seen in the way the murderer ties up his victims. These clues reflect content in the novel the killer wants published to tell the story of arson in the lodge of a deviant Sufi group.
At the home of one of the victims, a miniature painting draws the attention of Kemal. This painting is also present in the novel the killer wants published. Tracing the miniature leads to a still active Sufi community. While the team looks for the owner of the miniature, they uncover the name of a businessman who has lost his mind. Coincidentally, this man is none other than Professor Turan’s father. Pursuing this link, Kemal consults with Turan to learn more about Sufi deviant sects. When Settar refuses to pursue the mystical clues left behind by the killer, he and Kemal start leading separate investigations only to land in the same place. In the meantime, however, Settar’s priorities have dramatically changed, and regrettably, Kemal arrives too late to prevent a disaster.
The Theology: The point of departure for “Alef” is the Ottoman-era repression of so-called “deviant” Sufi tariqas. These sects rejected Islamic orthodox practices such as prayer and fasting as the only true way of worshipping Allah, in favor of greater mysticism and asceticism. In many ways, these were comparable to heresies that emerged against Catholic orthodoxy during the Middle Ages (e.g., Free Spirits, Fraticelli, Henricians.) When these sects became increasingly radicalized, anti-social and even anarchical, the Ottoman Empire eventually labeled them as heretic. By the end of the XVII century, most of them were eradicated. In 1925, the Turkish Republic banned all Sufi orders and institutions due to their stubborn opposition to the new secular order. Some, however, did manage to survive in secret.
Midway through the series, “Alef” introduces Ismâil Ma’Suki and his Melâmî branch of the Bayrami (Sufi) Order. The Melâmîs professed the “one-ness of being” — i.e. everything is One and One is Everything (and hence the reference to “Alef”.) For the Melâmîs, everything is a manifestation of Allah. The Universe itself is Allah. Theologically, however, this notion undermined the Islamic orthodox notion of tawhid, the uniqueness of God and of the separation of God from his creation. It also opened the way to pantheism and polytheism. Even worse, the Melâmîs regarded their leader (the Kutb-i Mehdi) as their temporal and spiritual chief, a notion that constituted a direct threat to the absolute power of the Sultan. When Ma’Suki’s ideas spread beyond the Anatolian peasants and artisans and into Istanbul’s educated and wealthy classes, the Ottoman state executed him and 12 of his disciples.
In the “Alef” series, the Ma’Suki sect has allegedly survived over the centuries by concealing itself within an accepted Mevlevi lodge, and after 1925, a Mevlevi cultural organization. However, it is internally divided. One faction seeks to restore adherence to Ma’Suki’s original radical ideas. Another faction plans to merge the sect into the mainstream Mevlevi Order.
This theological conflict lies at the heart of the serial killer’s motives but is compounded by an overlapping and more severe tension. Apparently, under the leadership of Settar’s son Günes, the radical wing of the hidden Ma’Suki tariqa has offered refuge not only to religious dissidents but also to other “deviants” from mainstream Turkish society. When a combination of adverse circumstances leads to the brutal and near total extinction of the Ma’Suki radical group, its survivors are thrown into despair. Some go mad and become vagabonds. Some like Günes end their own life. Others decide to take justice into their own hands.
The Significance: “Alef’s” script sets up a challenging puzzle and creates an illusion for the viewer. If only they can put the pieces together in the correct order, the killer can be identified. In reality, “Alef” takes its audience on a wild goose chase where the truth remains elusive until the very end. The key element for solving the mystery remains missing until the last few sequences of the series. In short, this is no Agatha Christie story. There is simply no way anyone can guess the identity of the serial killer based on the information introduced during the first seven episodes. In the end, however, it is not the name of the murderer that matters most in “Alef.” What does matter is the underlying motives that have led the serial killer to embark on such a horrific killing spree.
In “Alef”, the members of the radical Ma’Suki lodge who perished in an arsonist’s fire embraced a direct emotional connection with the divine. They accepted into their midst members with diverse sexual orientation, some who had been rejected by their own families. From this point of view, some might consider that “Alef” is making a statement against sexual and religious intolerance. However, this interpretation is only one among several deeper readings of “Alef”, whose brilliance derives from its ability to inspire complex reflection on several interesting issues that still exist today.
“Alef’s” social commentary does not end there. Interspersed within the various episodes, there is plenty of criticism directed at Turkey’s class structure, entrenched privilege, corruption and bureaucratic irrationality. This is very cleverly voiced through Settar’s inimitable sarcasm and rebellion against established rules and authorities. Various conversations with his superiors are hilariously illuminating in this context. Perhaps, however, no scene is more emblematic of Settar’s worldview than his discussion with Kemal about the nature of the serial killer.
Kemal: “A serial killer without hope… what does that mean?”
Settar: “What did you expect from a serial killer in this country…?”
“Alef” also hints at the devastating consequences of such runaway human emotions as dissatisfaction, fanaticism, jealousy and revenge. Finally, the series offers a nuanced exploration of grief and the madness that often derives from it. The most frustrating loose end at the conclusion of the series concerns Kemal’s mental state. Periodic visions of his wife and child leave many unanswered questions as to what really happened to them, and why Kemal decided to return to Istanbul and leave behind a prestigious career with Scotland Yard in London.
By the end of “Alef”, we will have witnessed Settar’s inexorable descent into insanity following his son’s suicide. This brings forward the concern that with Kemal’s continuing visions, will he be far behind? Only a second installment of the series could deliver these answers. At this point in time, however, there is no indication that another season of “Alef” will appear on our TV screens.
Spellbinding detective dramas abound around the world. With so many superb series available, especially from the United States and Northern Europe, “Alef” faces tough competition but can easily withstand comparison with the best productions in the genre of crime and mystery. Western audiences probably need some assistance to decode “Alef’s” complex historical and theological references. But without a doubt, “Alef” offers both clever entertainment and the unique opportunity to learn about this fascinating subject from a different culture.
Copyright by North America TEN, Mary Bloyd and Paola Cesarini
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