Contribution by Nahid Akhtar
A few North America TEN administrators travelled to Turkey earlier this month in search of some of the film sites we see every week in Turkish dizis, but what we experienced far exceeded our expectation! I was one of those lucky admins. I had been to Turkey several times before, sometimes for work, but most times for pleasure. During those previous trips I had limited my stay to Istanbul which is a beautiful city, but by no means representative of the rich cultural diversity of the country. This trip though, we expanded our travels to the south eastern part of Turkey, in the Anatolian and Mesopotamian regions. I’m usually content with ten-day vacations and towards the end I am quite ready to go back home. But this time, I felt my time in Turkey was too short. The warm hospitality of the people and the culture aside, the amount of history and tradition in the region is so extensive that a mere ten days does not do it justice. Suffice it to say that I got a taste of the region, and my appetite has been whetted.
*While there we were able to meet with the star of the popular series Hercai, Akin Akinozu, as well as a few of the supporting cast members. We also met with the incomparable Yildiray Gurgen, the genius behind several series soundtracks, including Siyah Beyaz Ask and Vatanem Sensin.
This is the first of three blogs about our amazing trip.
We spent our first few days in Istanbul looking for some of our favorite dizi sites. We decided to stay at the Anemon Galata which is where some of the scenes in one of my favorite dizis, Asi was filmed. For those of you who have seen the series, this hotel was where Demir and Asi stayed during her short business trip to Istanbul in Episode 19. The boutique hotel is charming and small, with a killer view of the Galata Tower. It’s situated in the Beyoglu area of Istanbul, right in the heart of everything. The hotel is modestly priced by American standards and smaller than it appears in the series, with baroque molding and small balconies over looking the Galata tower. But the pièce de résistance is the quaint rooftop restaurant that overlooks the Bosphorus from two directions.
While in Istanbul we also took a whirlwind tour of Beykoz where we found the Erkenci Kus house (the caretaker was kind enough to let us walk through the property and the house), the little Cay Bahce where Mahir and Feride would meet in Karadayi, and to Sariyar where we saw the Aski Memnu house, and then onto Uskudar where we had tea and Turkish coffee (kahve) at a child- sized table in Kuzey’s neighborhood (Selimiyeh). We also saw the famous Cukur insignia while walking the streets of Istanbul. One of the days we were there, we took the ferry over to Buyukada Island (Big Island) where Mahir and Feride stayed during their search of the deceased prosecutor’s secret island house.
On one of the nights we were in Istanbul we had the great pleasure of meeting with composer Yildiray Gurgen. You can experience his phenomenal work in popular series such as Siyah Beyaz Ask and Vatanem Sensin. Mr. Gurgen generously took several hours of his time to talk to us about the composing process and the various nuances of creating series soundtracks. We will post a detailed article with podcast about our encounter with Mr. Gurgen in October.
After our whirlwind tour of Istanbul, with barely contained anticipation, we set off for Mardin, a step closer to the filming location for Hercai. Our senses were bombarded simultaneously! Our drive from Mardin airport was in the early evening, just in time to witness the sun casting its fading glory over the limestone-rich scenery. Any way we looked, there were fields bathed in the rich golden color of the region. The mostly linear habitats aside the never ending roads washed with honeyed hues. We were left in awe of the stunning beauty, the air lightly fragranced with the harvest and the low hum of call to prayer or family voices, guffaws of laughter ever so often. There was an absence of horns, trucks or lines of traffic. Cars were rather sparse.
As we approached Mardin, it was apparent that the ‘linear’ streets were a facade that covered up the labyrinth of residences which were anything but systematically arranged! Our luggage had to be transported by mules. We were escorted to our konak (mansion) through steps going down into a low ‘valley’, winding, climbing, twisting, flattening out, narrowed lanes – providing brief glimpses into people’s homes. Most of the doors were just left open, safety clearly not being a concern or issue here. There was no street lighting, so we stumbled about with our iPhone torches. Our compass was always the tall minaret which seemed to be centre point, in this highly dense area – until we happened upon the perfectly refurbished habitat that would be our abode for the next few days.
We were greeted by our gracious host Gunal Bey, at the beautiful, historic Mardius Tarihi Hotel. His warm welcome and hospitality made us feel like we were guests in his home. More than that, it felt as though we were at our own homes! Some of the exquisitely appointed rooms even featured an old style Turkish shower reminiscent of Kurt Seyit ve Sura complete with wash basin and towels. You can read about the rich history behind the Mardius hotel in one of our previous blogs. I can only speak for myself when I say, that my stay at the Mardius was among the most memorable in my lifetime.
We didn’t waste much time as our stay in Mardin was brief. The next day we headed to Midyat a town about 60 kilometers (~30 miles) outside of Mardin, where the majority of Hercai is filmed. Midyat is a bustling little metropolis, a bit more contemporary than Mardin in the ‘high street’, with shops selling gold jewelry, retail stores, stores that sell grain and nuts, olives and produce and surprisingly, local wine stores. We were told that the best wines in Turkey are from the Mardin region. The walk into the old town is not very far, but it can be punishing combined with the midday heat. Water is readily available and mostly inexpensive to purchase, doesn’t harm to carry your own.
While in Midyat, we found several filming sites including the location of the famous swing in the sky that Miran built to gain Reyyan’s trust, the Sadoglu and Aslanbey mansions in all their splendor, the courtyard where Miran and Reyyan were married, and the museum where Miran first sees Reyyan during a flashback in episode 8. To top it all off, I even found a butterfly ring exactly like the one Miran gives to Reyyan – with the shop keeper assuring me this is where the production purchased it from too!
During our jaunt we also ran into some of the cast from Hercai on the streets of Midyat. If you click through the slides below you will see us with Gulcin Hatihan (Handan) , Asli Samat (Melike) , and Serhat Tutumluer (Hazar). Gulcin is perfectly fluent in English and told us she is an American resident and had visited the States earlier in the summer. She also told us that she had trained in theatre and has directed plays in New York! She looked much younger than her on-screen character and even younger than the age she told us she was! She was pleased that the new season was starting in slightly ‘cooler’ temperatures, to which most of our team silently snorted as we melted into the ground. Asli is perfectly adorable, again much younger and slimmer than her on-screen persona. She was very accommodating taking photos with us and the many passers by that recognized them. Serhat resembled most his character, hurried movements and totally huggable. He was most pleased that Hercai had such a far reach and wished us a pleasant remaining stay in his country.
In one of the locations, we made friends with Muzaffer, who plays the role of one of Miran’s body guards and can be seen Episode 13. He was kind enough to take us to the Sadoglu mansion, which was still closed at the time as the production team were arriving later that evening. As such, we couldn’t go in, but we had fun taking pictures in front of the imposing wooden doors. You can see Muzaffer standing in front of the Aslanbey mansion.
On our way back to Mardin we decided to go to Beyazsu (Literal translation- White Water), an oasis in Mardin’s arid and tree-free geography, with its cool and clear water, local trees and greenery. The drinking water of Mardin and other districts is also supplied from Beyazsu spring. It is also an area where locals go for white water rafting and tubing. We didn’t do those activities but we found a delightful area where open air cafes lined the narrow sections of the river. It was just what we needed. The day was hot, mid 90’s (Fahrenheit) but the refreshing breeze along the river and our feet soaking in the fresh water, cooled us down. I ordered the local fish which was grilled to perfection!
But the crowning glory came on our last night in Mardin. We had the immense pleasure of meeting with the leading star of Hercai, Akin Akinozu. Akin, who arrived smelling divine and in his favorite white shirt, is even more striking in person than on screen. He’s just as animated with the same Miran-like intensity, making it indiscernible at times whether you’re speaking with Miran or Akin. Speaking fluent English with a slight American accent, Akin said he was pleased to be conversing in English as he misses it. And as we have observed from other Turkish drama actors, Akin was genuinely taken aback and pleasantly surprised to find he has a fan base in North America.
Although he’s obviously aware of fans in Turkey and the Middle East, Akin said he had no idea that the series would hold appeal to North American audiences. He was curious if we understood the nuances of what is being said due to the translated subtitles. Akin was visibly thrilled to learn that his stellar acting, as well as that of the supporting cast, were most effective in conveying the messages and portraying the emotions intended by the production. Lighting up, he said, “That is the best feedback that an actor can get.” Akin told us he believes the appeal of the series stems from what he calls “the magic of the yellow,” referring to the limestone and the rich, golden color of the soil in the Mardin region which serves as the backdrop for the series.
There are acres upon acres of grain fields burnished by the sun and interspersed with low rise, angular habitats. Regardless of the time of day, the region is awash with shades of yellow and amber. He commented that the director spends a lot of time working with the production team to use or imitate this light in the scenes. Without this ‘yellow’ contribution, Akin feels that the series would be just another drama, and that it’s the scenery and setting that give the story a phantasmal, fairy tale quality. With humility, he noted, “the real star is Mardin. I am just the story teller.”
Akin, who turned 29 on September 22nd, leaves you with an indelible impression of a well-centered, composed gentleman who knows exactly what he wants. Bursting with a barely contained vitality to achieve his aspirations, he beams without an iota of shying away from the hard work. He is intelligent in spoken word, quick witted, innately humorous, as well as considerate. Unlike many of today’s youth, he looked directly at each person with whom he conversed and engaged with intense concentration.
Slimmer than when he first burst into our lives in the first episode of Hercai, he says the rigorous production schedule does take its toll. When asked about his workout routine, he said he exercises more to release the day’s working pressures and for mental balance than to achieve a vanity goal. Some eighteen months ago he decided to forego meat, and now mostly consumes fish and vegetables. He says that for now, he has no desire to revert back and feels healthier for having made the change. When asked how he chose to pursue acting, he said he made the decision in his last year as an applied math major at UC Berkeley.
As the son of an actress and the grandson of Turkey’s voice of documentaries, Akin was raised among artists, so becoming an actor wasn’t an alien idea. However, his parents, especially his father, didn’t receive the news with enthusiasm. But Akin says he has a streak. An intent to move things his way. And his strength of will eventually convinced his parents. Now, of course, they are very proud of him.
We were intrigued as he shared his thoughts on the acting process. He explained that he is a fan of method acting, and he shared stories of Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando and other familiar western actors. He says he stays in character until a scene has been completed. He confirmed that the angsty Miran/Reyyan storyline can be emotionally draining, yet he takes it in stride and accepts it as part of his job. When asked if he requires any artificial props for the crying scenes, he told us that he did not – unless the director required a specific aesthetic effect, for example a single drop of tear on a specific part of his face, or if were issues of continuity as filming (even within a scene) is not always sequential. We marveled when he said that if he has to cry four times in a row to complete a scene, he really cries four times in a row! Akin said he lives and breathes Miran while filming. And the long hours (sometimes 16-20 hours) and the backdrop of Mardin help him stay in character. Due to the tight filming schedule, the script is not always finalized in time to rehearse lines. As a result, Akin said it is not uncommon for him to be working on his lines into the early morning hours, even after a long day of filming past midnight. Sleep is an actor’s luxury, it would seem.
We wondered how he got his current role as Miran Aslanbey in Hercai. He told us he has the advantage of being able to look completely different with very slight changes to his appearance. He had decided to change his look by cutting his hair and growing a beard and coincidentally, he was given an audition for the role of Miran. Apparently, the casting director saw him with his new look and made the decision almost on the spot. So the look that Miran has, is one Akin created as part of his screen tests. That bowl fringe – you know who to call out!
We were curious what he thought about Miran. Akin emphasized he absolutely does not condone the violence depicted against women; however, he feels it is important to portray this and bring this out to show what goes on in society, even today. Overall he is pleased with Miran as he has interpreted him. “I like him. I can identify with him,” he said. “But Miran has a lot to learn about himself, and hopefully he will do just that over the course of the series.”
We asked Akin what the most challenging part of his role in Hercai was. He said for him, the easiest were the lines and the acting. The most difficult was the physical working environment and the ultra long hours. He used as an example the famous bridge scenes which were completed when the climate was close to freezing. He said there were times that his hands had to be covered with make-up because they became so red with the cold!
The North America TEN team thanks Akin for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet with us. It was an unforgettable experience for all of us, and very refreshing to spend the evening with a delightful man who is so talented and successful in his craft and yet remains centered and balanced.
It was inconceivable that anything could have superseded the meeting we had with Akin. Until we set sight upon Göbekli Tepe, the next day. Again, an early start, with packed bags off we set for Urfa or Sanliurfa as it is currently signposted. The city was awarded the title “Şanlı”, or “glorious”, for the role it played during the Turkish War of Independence in the 1920s. Şanlıurfa, known as the “Jerusalem of Anatolia”, is regarded as a holy site by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. According to the Old Testament, the Prophet İbrahim (Abraham), “the father of three monotheistic religions”, was born in the city of Ur. Legend has it that Abraham was born in a cave near a place where the Mevlid Halil Mosque stands now.
The cave is cordoned off with glass walls. Anyone is permitted to go inside and view; scarfs and attire to cover yourself, as you are entering a religious building, are provided complimentary. Wash facilities have been installed towards the back of the same room with the cave, for ablution (ritual of purification) to be performed for those wanting to pray.
Sanliurfa is also the site of Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site which contains the remnants of the oldest known man made structures in human history. The intricate structures were made by man more than 12000 years ago! It is about 300 m (980 ft) in diameter and approximately 760 m (2,490 ft) above sea level. This is the location where Miran brought Reyyan, in his attempt to regain her trust, in the season one finale of Hercai. The sheer size of the structures is astounding as are the very early carvings known to mankind. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles, each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and weighs up to 10 tons. The details of the structure’s function remain a mystery. The excavations have been ongoing since 1996 by the German Archaeological Institute, but large parts still remain unexcavated. In 2018, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The guide mentioned that the tree was the one where the apple was taken by Adam. Scholars have suggested locations in Mesopotamia, I remain to be convinced.
In Hercai, Miran told Reyyan that stones have memory and the stone structures of Göbekli Tepe hold within them the deepest secrets shared by people for over 12,000 years. His words struck a chord with me when I heard them. That was nothing compared to the sobering impact of actually standing among structures, that my ancestors had erected, at the dawn of time. The heat can be unbearable at times in this vicinity. It was a sweltering day, however, we were all in consensus that Göbekli Tepe with its grandiose stone structures and simplistic stone carvings is definitely worth the effort.
We then stopped in the actual city of Urfa, following the winding lanes into the centre of the local bazaar for a traditional (and very spicy) lunch. Long tables were laid out, in relaxed style, threaded through the trees. Air conditioning was provided in the form of bursts of cold water, circulating in a nozzle in the outdoor garden. Local fare is unvaried, lamb and chicken grilled meats, mince burgers, always served with wholesome salads and thick doughy bread. Consider luck is smiling upon you if it’s served warm. Jugs of chilled Ayran to quench your thirst, lightly sprinkled with salt. Don’t bother asking for butter – it’s a scarce commodity. Very rarely is your request even acknowledged. Where it is acknowledged, it’s with even less frequency delivered upon!
Hunger satiated, we went for a walk around Balıklıgöl (Literal translation-Fish Pool). Legend has it that as King Nemrut cast the Prophet Abraham into the fire he had made by burning piles of wood, God turned the fire into water and the wood into fish creating what is known today as Balıklıgöl. This is also a place for prayer. It is said that by following a simple ritual and saying your prayer, your deepest wishes will come true. In Episode 12 of Hercai, Miran told Reyyan how he watched his mother pray at the pool. We will never know what his mother, Dilsah, wished for, but we can guess it may have had something to do with her son. I too, added my prayers to the countless others already there…
As we were leaving the grounds of Balıklıgöl we saw a rather imposing hotel. This is the Hotel el Ruha, where Miran and Reyyan stayed in Episode 11 of Hercai. We couldn’t let this opportunity pass us by, so we stopped there to take a few pictures and use the amenities
Our visit to Urfa was short, sweet and thought provoking on many levels. Quite a spiritual journey, irrespective of religious beliefs.
Next stop Antakya, Asi country…
@Copyright by North America TEN
*A warm thank you to Nahid Akhtar for her generous contribution to this article.