by Linda Barlow
Early on a misty morning, a young woman wearing a head scarf and a long, modest coat sets out on her long commute, walking and riding buses into the crowded city of Istanbul. The peaceful rural setting from which she emerges contrasts sharply with the noisy, traffic-laden city where she works, but Meryem is able to navigate between the two worlds of the humble, pious poor and the secular, Western-educated rich more easily than we might at first believe.
Bir Başkadır (English title: Ethos), a miniseries streaming on Netflix (and a Netflix original), is Meryem’s story. Most of the other main characters in the drama are connected to her in some way; she is the central spoke of the wheel that propels the narrative. Adeptly and subtly portrayed by Öykü Karayel, who was Kivanc’s partner in Kuzey/Guney, Meryem is the emotional heart of the show.
Bir Başkadır is not the usual Turkish dizi fare. A complex, multi-layered, realistic drama that is artfully and subtly told, these eight episodes bring together a network of characters from varying backgrounds whose inner lives prove to be at odds with the self they reveal to others.
In many cases, they lack deep understanding of themselves, repressing and/or failing to recognize their own feelings until they are near the emotional breaking point. Just as they can’t see the truth about themselves, they also can’t see or accept the truth about the people around them. Several of the characters tend to “otherize” those who are different, making judgments about anyone who is outside their personal sociocultural community. This happens even when they have intellectual awareness of their own prejudice.
Even so, the show is ultimately a tribute to tolerance and understanding and to the necessity of learning to see past our own biases. This, of course, is not an easy task, but Bir Başkadır suggests that those who succeed will live happier and more serene lives than those who don’t have the courage to try.
The Main Characters
Meryem, a poor, minimally-educated young woman from a religiously-conservative family, works part-time as a house cleaner in an upscale area of Istanbul. Because she suffers from occasional fainting fits, she is seeing a psychiatrist, Peri, at a hospital in the city.
As Meryem commutes between her two worlds of the countryside and the city, we gradually get to know some of the people in both places who are linked to her. They include, in the city:
Peri (Defne Kayalar), a Western-educated psychiatrist whose wealthy parents live in a mansion on the Bosporus.
Gülbin (Tulin Ozen), another psychiatrist. She is Peri’s supervisor and therapist). Like Peri, she lives the life of a secular, sexually-liberated, self-supporting woman.
Melisa (Nesrin Cavadzade), who befriends Peri at their yoga class, is an actress in a popular dizi. Frequently besieged by selfie-seeking fans, she is single, sexually free, and independent. Melisa is warm-hearted and friendly, if perhaps a little too self-deprecating with her sophisticated, intellectual friends about acting in a dizi that she believes is only watched by the lower classes. Meryem faithfully watches this dizi and her jaw drops when she encounters Melisa one morning in Sinan’s apartment.
Unbeknownst to Peri, both Gülbin and Melisa are sleeping with Sinan (Alican Yucesoy), the wealthy playboy who employs Meryem as his housekeeper and cook. Peri believes that Meryem has a crush on Sinan, which is true at the beginning of the series. But Sinan turns out to have an even stronger secret obsession with Meryem, whose headscarf he fetishizes and weeps over.
Moving to Meryem’s home district in the rural outskirts of the city, we meet:
Yasin (Fatih Artman), Meryem’s older brother, a former commando (Turkish Special Forces) who is working as a bouncer in a nightclub after the failure of his carpentry business.
Ruhiye (Funda Eryigit), Meryem’s sister-in-law, suffering from severe depression and haunted by a traumatic event in her past. Her illness keeps her bed-bound much of the time, leaving Meryem to manage the household tasks.
Ali Sadi Hoca (Settar Tanrıogen), the local religious elder in Meryem’s neighborhood, whose advice and guidance both she and her brother take to heart.
Hayrünnisa (Bige Onal), the hoca’s daughter, a university student torn between the two worlds of city and village. She is frequently seen wearing both a headscarf and a set of modern, high-tech headphones for listening to foreign music.
Hilmi (Gokhan Yıkılkan), the hoca’s student, who discourses on Jung and falls for Meryem the first time he sees her. Her first impression of him is not as positive, but we see her gradually warm to him as she realizes his worth.
Meryem is the only character in the show who interacts, sometimes very briefly, with all of these characters.
Their Personal Struggles
We learn in Meryem’s early sessions with Peri that she is taking care of the wealthy man she works for, Sinan, almost like a wife…or a mother. She cooks for him, washes and irons his clothes, cleans up for him and makes his luxury apartment sparkle. Later we see that Sinan’s own mother, who lives in a messy, ramshackle apartment, has been a resentful parent to him, and that he, in turn, has been a sarcastic, inattentive son. Their relationship is clearly fractured, and neither knows how to repair it.
Because Meryem is hesitant about discussing Sinan, Peri concludes that she must be secretly and inappropriately in love with him and that repressed sexuality is the root of her fainting problem. “So obvious,” says Peri to her supervisor Gülbin, “classic case.”
This repressed sexuality derives, Peri believes, from Meryem’s pious and restrictive Islamic upbringing. Peri shares with Gülbin her distress and frustration over having to find a way to treat a covered woman whom she believes is stuck in a culture that demands deference and submission to male authority figures like Meryem’s imam.
Because of her secular upbringing and her social class, Peri is biased against women who wear the headscarf. She has been inculcated with the historical notion, from Atatürk’s era, that the Ottoman Empire’s emphasis on religion in governance held Turkey back as a modern nation and restricted the equality of women.
The dilemma here is a real one, reflective of problems that have long caused divisions and misunderstandings in Turkey between the secular elites and the far more numerous but less privileged conservative majority. As a personal note, since I lived in Turkey during the 1970s and ‘80s as the gelin of a Turkish family (my husband was a Turk), I can testify that such a divide was evident during those times. My own in-laws were secular, highly-educated, and quite condescending (although kind) towards women who covered their heads. Peri’s rich parents, who appear briefly in the series, would have shared that lifestyle and would, no doubt, have impressed upon Peri their own negativity towards the headscarf as a symbol of female oppression.
In more recent years, though, some women have taken back the headscarf as a symbol of empowerment and pride in their religion. Others wear it because it is the custom of all the women in their community do so. Indeed, the people living in Turkey have a variety of beliefs, traditions, and subcultures, and this series gently suggests that serenity is more likely to come to those who respect the beliefs of others without prejudice.
This what exactly what Peri is struggling to do. She is aware of her bias against covered women and embarrassed by it. She likes Meryem and wants to help her. Professionally trained to guide others in confronting their repressed feelings, Peri wrestles with her own powerful emotions.
The series mirrors some of the problems in Turkish society without expressing a preference for any particular lifestyle. It does not hesitate to present the irony that a woman who is dedicated to a secular lifestyle smudges her office with an herbal ritual stick and calms herself with yoga and meditation.
Also, we are quickly introduced to Peri’s own psychiatrist’s disdain for Peri’s biases. Gülbin is disturbed and angered by Peri’s confession of her feelings about Meryem because, contrary to Peri’s assumptions, Gülbin is not a member of the secular elite; she comes from a pious, middle-class Kurdish family. Both her mother and her sister cover their heads.
Gülbin’s abla is so intensely religious that she angrily rejects Gülbin medical knowledge and professional recommendations for the treatment of their neurologically-impaired brother. Gülbin has tried to escape her traditional past, but her sister resents her for it. After several violent confrontations between the sisters, we uncover the fact that the rage they both feel, and take out on each other, goes back into their childhood when they, as Kurds, were forced into exile from their home in eastern Turkey. Her sister covers her head, but what Gülbin has covered is her Kurdish heritage.
Unable to deal with her anger and disconcerted when she realizes she’s been sleeping with Peri’s patient’s employer (Sinan), Gülbin basically fires Peri as a patient. Fortunately, Peri had made a new friend in Melisa, the dizi actress (who is also sleeping with Sinan, but doesn’t take him seriously or permit him to cause her any pain). Melisa gives Peri some good advice about accepting Meryem for who she is without getting too caught up in the rules or expectations of her role as Meryem’s therapist. She has a light-hearted approach to life that Peri would do well to emulate.
The Jungian Influence
There is another way in which the idea of covering is presented in the drama, and that is related to Carl Jung’s theories about the unconscious mind, the shadow self, and repression. The psychiatrists refer several times to Jung in the sense that psychotherapy often involves the uncovering of memories that are painful to bring into conscious awareness. At times, repression of these thoughts and feelings cause symptoms that therapy can help to alleviate.
Jungian ideas have penetrated even into Meryem’s outlying district because of Hilmi, Ali Sadi Hoca’s student and Meryem’s admirer. Some of the show’s lovely imagery, such as the persimmon tree outside Meryem’s house, the dreamy fields, misty forests, and the quarry with the shadow that looks like a covered woman’s face might be seen as representations of Jungian archetypes.
Like so much in the series, the symbols are subtle rather than obvious (and the cinematography is beautiful). But the richness of the covered, hidden, and unconscious world resonates. Likewise, the thorny emotional pathways of psychotherapy help bring understanding to agonizing emotions and insight into suffering.
It’s not only in the bustling city that people are suffering. A long commute away from the heart of the city, Meryem’s home community is also beset by conflict. Ruhiye, her brother’s depressed wife, attempts suicide and Yasin, Meryem’s brother, is near the end of his patience with his beautiful wife’s mysterious malady.
Yasin (brilliantly acted by the talented and versatile Fatih Artman) is a passionate and sometimes explosive man, with a military background and a domineering manner. But he is also devout, loving, responsible, and capable of kindness. Even more than Meryem, he relies on the wisdom of the local religious leader, Ali Sadi Hoca, to guide him. Still, the combination of the debts resulting from the failure of his business, his wife’s distressing illness, and his young son’s refusal to speak has driven him to the edge.
When Yasin helps Hayrünnisa, a young woman from their local community who has been attacked by a stray dog, he feels a mixed attraction and puzzlement because she looks familiar to him. It takes a while for him to discover that he has seen her before in two different contexts — she is both the hoca’s modest, hair-covering daughter and one of the two wild, uncovered women he has recently tossed out of the club where he works for causing a disturbance in a bathroom stall.
Hayrünnisa, a university student, is the perfect image of a young woman torn between two different worlds. She loves to hang out with the local “bad girl,” a leather-jacket wearing, motor scooter-riding young woman who throws a rock through Yasin’s window and manages to stab him in the leg during a violent scuffle. (Her friend might also be her lover; this is implied but it is never confirmed). Hayrünnisa’s personal conflict with which life to choose is complicated by the sudden death of her mother. Should she remain at home to care for her widowed father or return to university where she can abandon her headscarf and, perhaps, come out of the closet?
Hayrünnisa unknowingly provides the stimulus for Ruhiye to confront her own darkness. In a very Jungian sequence, Ruhiye dreams of her husband going into an idyllic forest for firewood to keep them both warm. After far too long away from her, he returns with no firewood and the mark of a woman’s lips on his throat. On the same day, Yasin goes into the village for bread and does not return promptly because he has encountered Hayrünnisa and taken her to the doctor for treatment of her dog bite.
When Ruhiye overhears Meryem suspiciously asking her brother why he stared so intently at Hayrünnisa during her mother’s funeral, Ruhiye fears that she is losing her husband. This proves to be the lever that finally moves her to gather her courage and confront the trauma in her past that has driven her to such despair. In a metaphor of the process of psychoanalytic confrontation with the unconscious, Ruhiye travels into the heart of darkness, the old stone quarry in her home village where she and her closest friend were raped as young girls.
Ruhiye has been told by Yasin that her rapist is dead, but she intends to find his grave and spit upon it.
She goes alone to the quarry where the violation took place. The courage and resolution this takes is cleansing. As it turns out, she does get the chance to confront her rapist, who is not, after all, dead. She learns that her husband has already exposed, beaten, and shamed him publically. She turns down the rapist’s plea that she kill him because he can’t take the shame of his exposure any longer.
Directly confronting the reality of her old trauma helps Ruhiye realize how lucky she was to escape her home village and how genuinely loving her husband is. This experience frees her from her depression. (Unrealistic, but it works as a psychological metaphor). As her burden is lifted, her silent young son begins to speak, as if he, too, has had some kind of breakthrough. When they return to their home, Yasin’s own anguish is relieved as he rediscovers the beautiful, smiling woman whom he has long loved.
It was a mistake, he realizes, to cover up the retribution he had exacted on the rapist. Hiding this from Ruhiye did not, as he’d hoped, save her from the pain of remembering her trauma.
Meryem’s own journey of self-discovery is not so dramatic. In spite of her fainting spells, she is the most balanced person in her family, level-headed and cheerful, hard-working and not a complainer. Although she is initially a bit skeptical about psychotherapy, she is open to trying it. Peri is taken aback, though, when Meryem tells her that she required her imam’s permission to see a psychiatrist and that she is expected to report back to him every detail of the session.
We soon see, though, that Meryem has her own ways of negotiating her male-dominated subculture. If necessary, she will resort to subversive methods, like silence, changing the subject, or telling the occasional white lie. “I pick up ladies’ underwear from under Sinan bey’s bed…do you really think I’m going to tell the hoca that?” she retorts to Peri. “I know what to tell and what not to tell.”
Early in the series, she goes running to the hoca for advice the moment any crisis occurs, but after a few sessions with Peri, she is happy to avoid Ali Sadi, especially if it means she can keep her therapy private. She and Peri have several small conflicts, but Meryem enjoys the sessions, is no longer fainting, and is getting more in touch with her emotions.
Early on, she becomes aware of the angry feelings she experiences when she is asked to make coffee for one of Sinan’s overnight female guests. Later, when she finds herself with a suitor from her own neighborhood, Hilmi, who may not be as intriguing as Sinan, but is much more friendly and engaging, she is able to transfer her affections to this more appropriate man.
As Meryem grows more confident, she opens up to the other people in her life. She tells her brother that she hates it when he keeps coming at her, getting angry with her and ordering her about. Startled by this, he apologizes. When she disagrees with Peri, she says so. She accepts and is pleased by a gift from Hilmi, and she reciprocates by gifting him with a thoughtful — and practical — present of her own.
Despite her progress in therapy, Meryem faints once again at the end of the series when something happens that will force her to make a very important decision. But this time she awakens with a Mona Lisa smile.
Basically, the characters who are willing to uncover and confront the shadows dancing in their unconscious minds that are causing them conflict and pain, find a modicum of healing and serenity. Those who fail, like Gulbin and her sister and Sinan, continue to suffer.
As for the Ali Sadi Hoca, he is deeply shocked when the platitudes that he has been using to comfort the members of his congregation fail to help him in the aftermath of his wife’s death. On top of that, his daughter Hayrünnissa leaves him to return to college, removing her headscarf as she goes. The distressed hoca does not reject her; his love supersedes any disappointment he may feel. Soon he is able to find the courage to face his own loss and trauma by making a journey in same vehicle where his wife died.
At the close of his story, we see a re-creation of Ruhiye’s symbolic dream where her husband goes in the woods for firewood and returns without it. Here the hoca comes out of a similar forest with an arm full of firewood. With it, he lights a fire and, very soon, he is blessed with companionship to assuage his loneliness.
The cinematography in Bir Başkadır is extraordinary. The camera lingers, long and slow, over certain scenes that sometimes seem disconnected from the story, yet work to set a more realistic tone than the usual larger-than-life fantasy tone evoked by many traditional dizis. When the camera pans around Istanbul, we see crowded buildings stacked together, laundry hanging out to dry on clotheslines strung up in tiny balconies, dogs and cats wandering the crowded streets instead of the usual gorgeous views of the historical peninsula, the Galata Tower, and the Bosporus. On the outer edges of the city, we see pastoral scenes with sheep and chickens, fields and trees in the misty morning that hint at a more serene life in the countryside (although the reality that is presented is quite different).
The show incorporates both traditional Turkish music, old film footage, and video from earlier eras, providing wider and deeper imagery of Turkey over the years than we usually see. Some of these clips take me back to Turkey as I first remember it fifty years ago, when old American cars, lovingly repaired, ran on the streets of the city, along with a few even older horse carts, and there were no bridges yet crossing the Bosporus. Performances of once-famous Turkish singers and musicians are presented at length, usually as closing montages over which the credits run.
In many ways, Bir Başkadır feels like a love letter to Turkey, to all its diversity and change, to all its different types of people. For anyone wondering about the title, Bir Başkadır in Turkish means “It’s Something Else” in the positive sense, or “It’s special.” (There is a Turkish song with the titles Bir Başkadır Benim Memleketim. (My country is special).
The English title, Ethos, is not a literal translation. Ethos actually derives from Aristotle’s three precepts of persuasion, Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, which are useful rhetorical terms when presenting a speech, conducting an argument, or writing advertising. Ethos refers to the appeal to credentials or authority—I.e. “trust me on this, I know what I’m talking about because I’m an expert in the field.” Pathos is the appeal to people’s emotions and Logos is the appeal to their reason.
The use of this title for the English version might imply that there are two more parts to come of this series. It does have something of an open-ended finale. This lends hope to those of us who thoroughly enjoyed Bir Baskadır would love to see more about these very intriguing characters.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Linda Barlow
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