By Linda Barlow
Last spring, I happened to see a video at the time when Istanbullu Gelin, The Bride from Istanbul, was drawing to the end of its third and final season. On the streets of Bursa, where the drama is set, people were being interviewed about the show. One woman said, “I love it. It’s about life. Hayat. Real life, real families, real problems.”
That’s how I feel about Istanbullu Gelin, too. In fact, it’s one of my top three favorite Turkish shows. So many dizis weave a tale of young lovers trying to begin a relationship in the face of obstacles, with a long, drawn-out courtship that takes months to consummate.
But in Istanbullu Gelin, the main romantic couple, Faruk (Özcan Deniz) and Süreyya (Aslı Enver), are not typical young lovers, but an older pair who have both completed their educations and labored in the world as talented and serious professionals. Their courtship is ardent, but short—they are wedded and ecstatically bedded before the end of episode 2.
The dizi was inspired by the true story of a singer who married into a traditional Bursa family (link: https://www.doyouknowturkey.com/based-real-love-story-bride-istanbul/ ).
The obstacles begin as Faruk and Süreyya strive to deal with realistic issues that any husband and wife are likely to confront—conflicts with in-laws and siblings, unanticipated consequences of past actions, the necessity for compromise, threats to the health of loved ones, financial worries, and family tragedies. Hayat. Together the new couple charts the course of a life together, sailing in sparkling seas while learning to weather tempests and survive shipwrecks. With them on their journey is a delightful cast of fully-developed supporting characters, each of whom has his or her own complex and multilayered story.
MODERN VS. TRADITIONAL
In the ancient city of Bursa, where the drama is set, Süreyya is the bride from Istanbul and as such, she is something of a foreigner. In this dizi, Istanbul represents the modern, sophisticated, fast-paced new world, where the old traditions are no longer observed and respected.
How can Süreyya, a trained musician who plays multiple instruments and enjoys singing in nightclubs, possibly fit into a conservative Anatolian family from Bursa dominated by Esma hanım (Ipek Bilgin), Faruk’s formidable mother, whose sons acknowledge her primacy by playfully calling her “Esma Sultan”?
As we quickly learn during the first episode, Faruk’s mother Esma Boran has already chosen a suitable bride for her eldest son. Ipek (Dilara Aksüyek), the beautiful but spoiled young woman whom Esma has been grooming as a daughter-in-law for several years, is in love with Faruk. Or rather, she’s in love with the fantasy of being the bride of the eldest and most powerful son in the Boran family.
Both Esma and Ipek are furious when Faruk arrives at the family home with his new wife at his side. Independently, they plot to make Süreyya miserable, prove that she is unworthy, and send her scurrying back to Istanbul.
But this doesn’t turn out to be as easy as they expect. Süreyya is a woman who has survived difficult circumstances, and, despite her past, she has a sunny nature. She is affectionate, optimistic, self-reliant, and naturally inclined to be happy. Although respectful of her mother-in-law, Süreyya is not intimidated by her. And while she doesn’t initially understand how complicated life in Bursa will be, she is not going to be chased away.
Ipek is forced to settle instead for the second son, Fikret (Salih Bademci) who has long been madly in love with her. She is willing to ignore her own indifference to her new husband in order to establish herself as a power in the Boran family.
And what a family it is! Esma, the matriarch, is a widow with four grown sons. Faruk, the eldest, is the ağabey of all the brothers, a role he takes seriously. He’s also the head of the family firm, a transportation company. Fikret, the second son, is volatile and emotional, passionate about Ipek, and violently jealous of his elder brother. But he’s also friendly and affable, hiding his envy of Faruk while continually trying to prove himself.
Osman (Güven Murat Akpınar), the third son, is the quiet one. Geeky and bookish, a dreamer and a writer, he seems on the surface to be the most tractable, but in reality he is strong-willed and independent-minded. He’s the one Boran son who has followed his own path professionally, choosing engineering instead of working for the family business. Osman is also the first to fall in love with Süreyya. But when he realizes that Faruk has captured her heart, he resolves to hide his impossible passion forever.
The fourth brother, Murat (Berkay Hardal), is still young enough to be reckless and rebellious, always getting into scrapes. Murat upsets the household order by seducing Bade (Hira Koyuncuoglu), the youngest member of the household staff, a delightful team who represent the “downstairs” to the Boran family’s “upstairs.”
The family also has a pair of shadow members: Adem (Fırat Tanış), an outsider with a grudge and a dubious past and Garip bey (Tamer Levent), a successful Istanbul attorney whose history with Esma becomes a mysterious and compassionate story in itself.
Even though the prime plot line of the dizi focuses on Süreyya and Faruk, the crown jewel of the tale is the character of Esma herself — imperious, proud, and fully aware of her high stature in Bursa society. Esma is absolutely certain that she deserves the respect she receives when she, like an Ottoman sultana, ventures out among her subjects, offering her hand to be kissed by shopkeepers and distributing her largesse to the poor.
Bursa was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and Esma hasn’t forgotten those glorious days. Her luxurious konak even has its own hamam, where she insists that each new Boran bride personally bathe her. Esma believes herself entitled to meddle in the lives of her family and servants, and she takes it for granted that they will bow to her superior wisdom.
Esma initially seems like the mother-in-law from hell. But as the drama unfolds, we begin to grasp what has made her the way she is. Some of her experiences as a young woman are slowly revealed. As the only surviving heir to the 400-year-old heritage of the Boran family, she has always borne the responsibility for her family’s future. When she married according to her father’s dictate instead of her own inclination, she was basically sold to a man who traded his name and his identity for a wealthy, aristocratic wife.
After raising four healthy sons, Esma believes she has assured the family’s future. Proud and confidant, she hopes to secure another generation by engineering her sons’ marriages to the mates of her choice. All her sons prove less malleable than expected, though, and the future of the family comes under threat from an unanticipated source.
But along with the bad also comes the good, as another seed from the past slowly blossoms, offering her the chance to find something that she long ago lost.
As with all great characters, Esma develops into much more than she was at the beginning of the story. The woman you loved to hate in season 1 becomes the woman you can’t help but love.
THE OTHER WOMEN
Esma is not the only character we grow to love. Written and directed largely by women, Istanbullu Gelin gifts us with many wonderful female characters. From Süreyya and Esma hanim and their friends and rivals on down to the paid serving staff, the women are strong and brave, smart and independent. Some of them can be manipulative, sly, vindictive, or even outright nasty, but they always stand firm and find a solution when things don’t go the way they planned.
Begüm (Özge Borak), an old lover of Faruk’s, is now a gynecologist and a single mother dealing with a serious illness but keeping things together for the sake of her son. Psychiatrist Idil hanim (Tilbe Saran), is a compassionate and wise therapist whose insights help prevent one of the main characters from destroying himself and everyone around him. Süreyya’s teyze, Senem (Neslihan Yeldan), who starts out huddled on her apartment sofa struggling with depression and paralyzing guilt, blossoms into a delightfully comic woman who finds romance and passion where she least expects it. Dilara (Neslihan Arslan), Süreyya’s best friend from childhood, wrestles with her love for an explosive and deeply-wounded man, trying to save her marriage without losing her own soul.
Most Turkish dizis have at least one villain, who is often too over-the-top evil for my taste. Istanbullu Gelin has a villain too, in the person of Adem, a business rival of Faruk’s, who, for reasons that slowly become clear, has sworn to destroy the wealth and reputation of the Boran family. Adem, portrayed brilliantly by Fırat Tanış, is my favorite villain from any Turkish dizi (with the possible exception of Mukaddes from Fatmagülün Suçu Ne?) because his situation is believable, his motivation understandable, and his character development extraordinary. Despite the deplorable things he does during the first and second seasons, Adem slowly becomes someone you find yourself rooting for.
THE TIES THAT BIND
One of the main focuses of the dizi is the concept of relationship—our relationships with our spouses, our partners, our parents, our siblings, our friends, our children, our exes, our rivals, our employees; even how we relate to our dead. Also important is how much insight we possess—or can acquire— into ourselves. These are profound psychological matters, and Istanbullu Gelin does not shy away from exploring them.
The main romantic relationship between Süreyya and Faruk, where both parties are passionately in love and have an undeniable chemistry together, plays out in a realistic manner. From the moment they meet, they seem to be almost perfectly matched. Even so, they have their conflicts and challenges—some of which are quite intense. They both do angry, thoughtless, and foolish things that threaten the relationship. For a modern, forward-thinking male, Faruk could be pretty darn oppressive at times. But both members of this couple learn from their folly, and they are convincingly compatible and in love.
Fikret’s one-sided passion for Ipek, who remains conniving and sly for most of the series, is far more problematic. Fikret makes some serious mistakes, as does Ipek, but even they find reasons to make peace at times. Osman, the third son, seems far more suited for a solitary life, although he makes a valiant attempt at romance with the beautiful Burcu (Ebru Şahin). Murat, the youngest, shows the same stubbornness as his brothers when it comes to his relationships, but his missteps are redeemed in an unexpected way.
As for the other main male character, Adem, his relationships seem doomed because of his uncontrollable rages (something all these men suffer from, although Adem is the worst). But there are a couple of remarkable women in Adem’s life, and the fact that he attracts such women may be his saving grace.
İstanbullu Gelin emphasizes that our relationships must be nurtured and protected, no matter how difficult this might be, because the bonds that connect us to others are our lifelines. As Faruk tells Adem at a critical point in the story, when Adem believes he has finally achieved his long-dreamed-of revenge, “Yes, you won this round, but I feel sorry for you. You can’t even conceive what it means to protect a family. You’re all alone, but we are together, and together we can do anything.”
The relationships that bind the Boran family and their friends are stronger than all the clever plots to tear them apart. Love is stronger than hate, stronger than anger, stronger than envy and jealousy, and even, in some ways, stronger than death.
BURSA, THE SETTING
Istanbullu Gelin is set in Bursa, a green and fertile Anatolian city about 60 miles southeast of Istanbul. Bursa was the administrative capital of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Istanbul, and the city was also the center of the silk trade. Today it’s both a commercial and industrial center as well as a tourist location.
Nestled in the shelter of the mountains, Bursa has a nearby famous ski resort, Uludağ (I’ve skied there myself) where in episode 1, Faruk and Süreyya enjoy their first date together. Also in Bursa, and pictured often in the dizi’s city scenes, is the beautiful and serene mosque, Ulu Cami, famous as an example of early Ottoman architecture and particularly noted for its 20 domes.
Bursa is close enough to Istanbul (a ferry ride away) that there is a fair amount of traffic back and forth between the two cities during the show. Most of the action takes place in Bursa, in Esma hanim’s family mansion. I was interested to read that, as is the case with most dizis, the filming was largely done in Istanbul, and that the beautiful Boran konak is an old converted shoe factory located in a forested area outside the city. It was completely renovated and furnished especially for the show.
(Click on the picture to see the mansion built from scratch)
THE BOTTOM LINE
Although Istanbullu Gelin has many of the standard elements of a typical dizi (wealthy men falling in love with poor young women, shadowy figures from the past wanting revenge, jealous brawls, anguished trips to the emergency room, wedding day disasters, and the miraculous healing power of a simple glass of water), it also deals realistically and compassionately with such universal human matters as grief, insecurity, anger control, unrequited love, infertility, domestic violence, problem pregnancy, infidelity, aging parents, serious illness, and death.
What I’m glad to say it mostly lacks are gunplay, Mafia subplots, and excessive violence. This is family drama with the emphasis on the family. And despite all their conflicts and their differences, the Boran family gets stronger when they stick together and support one another.
Istanbullu Gelin proves itself to be deeply perceptive about human nature: we see love and loss, kindness and cruelty, foolishness and wisdom, sometimes in unexpected places. We see people making understandable mistakes and paying the price for both intentional and unintentional errors of judgment. Much of it rings true because we all have such experiences, even if not in such glamorous settings.
The main plot lines work so well because what is going to happen is built into the foundation of each season. Everything feels earned by the writers. When there is a surprise, the viewer’s reaction is more, “I didn’t see that coming, but it totally makes sense” rather than “Wait, what??” Indeed, one of the points of the story is that actions have consequences and that some of them will result in developments over which you have less control than you planned.
When Esma marries without love to assure the future of the Boran family, it doesn’t occur to her that she is setting in motion a chain of events that threatens to destroy everything she’s spent her life working for. When Süreyya flees her home, crushed by misery and grief, she fails to realize that she is pushing Faruk’s own crippling abandonment button, forcing his love for her into crisis. When Fikret comes up with a scheme to prove himself by advancing the Boran family’s business in a dramatic fashion, he doesn’t realize that his one true friend and partner is planning to betray him.
People don’t suffer just for doing evil; they can also suffer for trusting the wrong person, failing to perceive the emotions of others, or failing to reveal a truth because they’re afraid of hurting someone. Hayat.
As great as this story is, it runs for three long seasons, which results in a few missteps like plot lines that get dropped or characters who don’t quite meld with the others. Season 3 begins with an odd futuristic time leap that fortunately gets abandoned later in the season when other, much stronger plot lines make it unnecessary.
But in general the writing is strong and coherent, and each season brings its storylines to a satisfying climax in a manner that surprises and delights. The actors are superb—it never ceases to amaze me how versatile and talented so many Turkish actors are, especially considering the huge demands made on them by the production of a movie-length episode every week.
In short, if you care about a great story and wonderful characters and if you enjoy the warmth and sincerity of a show meant to entertain and enlighten you, you can’t go wrong with İstanbullu Gelin.
Linda Barlow is an American novelist and former university lecturer. She lived and worked in Turkey for several years during the 1970s-80s and often returns to visit the country she considers her second home. Now semi-retired, she is free to spend more time enjoying dizis and keeping her Turkish fluent.
@Copyright by North America TEN and Linda Barlow