Well before the pandemic imposed a night-time curfew on Turkish streets (writes Andrew Finkel), there were many who went voluntarily into lockdown certain evenings of the week to watch their favourite television series. The Turkish dizi is a cultural phenomenon – somewhere between a soap opera and an epic – but an addiction that demands a huge commitment of time plus a knowledge of Turkish to acquire. However, thanks to Netflix and subtitles it is a world now easier to enter. Helena Finn, who as both an academic and a diplomat knows Turkey inside out, tuned in to a rebroadcast of the 2015 series Kara Para Aşk (Black Money Love) and found herself transported back to Istanbul and memories of evenings along the Bosphorus. ‘It captured my imagination due to the cleverness of the script with its literary references, and the superb performance of its cast,’ she says. And so she volunteered to be our Virgil, leading us through all 164 episodes of this most legendary of Turkish dizis.
'While all of this verges upon melodrama, the acting is so good,and the suspense so gripping that we gladly engage in the willing suspension of disbelief'
On Black Money Love, by Helenea Kane Finn
Kara Para Aşk, masquerading as a classic detective series, is actually an epic tale of contemporary Turkish life. At its centre is a compelling love story with Shakespearean overtones, but it deals with corruption, vulnerability, class disparities, and the contrast between the traditional values of the rural hinterland and the sophistication of one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures, historic home to 12 civilisations, Istanbul. In some ways the main character is the Bosphorus, a metaphor for the power of nature, the ebb and flow of time, the endurance of the city on its shores. We travel over the city’s fabulous bridges connecting East and West, as we travel under its Roman arches connecting modern Istanbul to its classical past as Byzantium. Some of the most important scenes in this saga are set in one of the world’s other great cities, Rome, intensifying Istanbul’s connection to its pre-Ottoman heritage.
One encounters also the extent to which the radical reforms of the last century have eradicated recognition of the exquisite aesthetic accomplishments of Turkey’s own imperial Ottoman past, such as the mystical dances of the dervishes and the beauty of Ottoman calligraphy. References are made throughout to the greatest Turkish writers, as well as to European philosophers and Sufi poets. There are also allusions to the golden era of black-and-white Hollywood cinema from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, most particularly to Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. The clever dialogue harks back to the films of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The musical score of Kara Para Aşk is haunting, reminiscent at moments of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess. Each of the images in the opening credits echoes some element of the plot – a glass of tea, a lighthouse, a diamond engagement ring, a bullet, a cigarette lighter. The characters wear their religion lightly, as an integral aspect of their lives. There is a breathtaking absence of ideological extremism. These characters are so well drawn, their lines are so intelligently written, and the actors are so very convincing that one must remind oneself that these are creations of the authors’ imaginations, not real people whom one might come across in Bebek or Karaköy or Anadoluhisarı. In the guise of a television series, the authors Eylem Canpolat and Sema Ergenekon have produced a work of art.
The story is a fine silken carpet that we observe from the outset as it is woven, stitch by stich, on its loom. The colours are rich, but delicate. Although there are unexpected floral displays, it is pleasingly coherent. This epic opens in snowy Van, as the hero, Ömer Demir, succeeds in freeing a group of children from traffickers. Upon his return to Istanbul, two days before the party to celebrate his engagement to Sibel Andaç, he receives an award for this achievement. Ömer is a detective with a university degree who has trained at the Police Academy in Ankara. He is highly intelligent, dedicated and intrepid. He and his colleague Arda are no ordinary undercover police detectives, however. They engage in philosophical debates, quoting Erich Fromm and Leo Tolstoy.
We first encounter the heroine, Elif, a jewellery designer with her own company in Rome, as she walks, carefree, down the Spanish Steps, on the day she will return home to Istanbul for her 31st birthday. Like the hero, she is highly intelligent and creative, not in solving mysteries, as he does, but in designing the exquisite jewellery that is the most successful branch of her father’s extensive business. Engin Akyürek as Ömer, and Tuba Büyüküstün as Elif are two of Turkey’s most accomplished film actors, masters of their craft, whose characters come fully to life. In some of the loveliest scenes, they quote the Sufi poets Rumi and Şems, the Italian philosopher Cesare Parvese, and the Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet to one another, or engage in philosophical discussions about destiny, the eternal nature of love, or the meaning of truth. The casting of the supporting actors in this complex drama, is exceptionally good, right down to the two very young children.
The narrative structure of this saga is similar to that of a 19th-century Victorian, French or German novel. It is episodic in the way the works of Dickens or Trollope were produced for eager readers awaiting the next chapter in print form. Like the 19th-century novel, although the plot is intricate and highly convoluted, all the pieces come together in the end. It deals with four families whose lives are endlessly intertwined and whose relationships with one another are often in conflict with their own interests. In the course of Kara Para Aşk, the characters evolve and mature on the basis of their respective experiences. The central theme is the extent to which love can be at odds with integrity, and the challenges presented by the search for truth and transparency. A refrain from a song made popular in Turkey decades ago by Ajda Pekkan springs to mind, Çikar yol hangisi, sevmek, sevilmek mi? (Is it better to love or to be loved?). Although Black Money Love was made in 2014/2015, it captures the ambiance of 1970s Istanbul, before its society was ripped apart by the secular/observant divide. There is a level of tolerance for all varieties of personal expression.
Ahmet and Zerrin Denizer are wealthy members of upper-crust Istanbul society, owners of a modernist mansion on Cevdet Paşa Caddesi in Bebek featuring spectacular views of the Bosphorus. Their daughters Aslı, Elif and Nilufer are part of an exclusive world, sheltered from the realities of the less affluent in their own country. Ahmet Denizer came as an impoverished youth to Istanbul from Malatya and made his fortune. Aslı suffers from psychological problems that require regular medication and have prompted her parents to send her abroad for years at a time. She has a son, Can, by her first marriage, but she is now wed to Taner, a man whose comfort is assured by the wealth of the Denizer family. Elif is an accomplished artist whose creative jewellery designs keep the entire family business afloat. She will soon add to her boutique in Rome with another in Istanbul. Nilüfer is the spoiled youngest daughter, doted upon by her mother, highly emotional and quite self-absorbed.
The Demir family is headed by the widowed Elvan, whose husband Burhan, a jeweller in the Covered Bazaar, was murdered when their sons, Hüseyn and Ömer, were young boys. Burhan Demir was from Hatay, thus linking both families to their origins in the countryside. Elvan is devout, gracious and kind. She leaves the table with a smile to visit a friend or to say her prayers when her sons drink rakı. She dispenses wise advice, but she never imposes her views. The sons have joined the police force in part because they want to solve their father’s murder. The Demirs live as an extended family in a charmingly ramshackle home much in need of repair, the interior of which is filled with warmth. They have a wild, uncultivated garden with a well alongside stone steps leading down to the road. The very setting is rustic, in sharp contrast to the urban splendour of the Denizer home. Their way of life reflects their rural past, unlike that of the Denizer family in Bebek. The older brother Hüseyn is married to Melike, orphaned as a child, also from Hatay. Their children are Demet, a student who aspires to be an actress and desperately wants to improve her lot, and young Hasan, a boy much neglected by his father.
The Dündar family is headed by Tayyar, a widower whose wife has died many years before. He owns hospitals across Turkey performing many services including organ transplants. His mistress, Pinar, is decades younger, several miles taller, and one of the former recipients of a scholarship from the foundation he has created. Tayyar’s son by his deceased wife is Mert, a spoiled young man with his own red convertible who has not had the discipline to complete his education and whose life is filled with pointless social engagements. Tayyar’s other son, Fatih, is the child of Nevin, whom Tayyar had raped. Tayyar’s family comes from Adana where his father, Yusuf, was the leading figure in organised crime. Fatih has been forced to cooperate with Tayyar in his many nefarious activities including organ- and diamond-trafficking and the consequent money-laundering. Tayyar has not acknowledged Fatih as his son; known in the crime world as Metin, he is officially registered as the son of Tayyar’s deceased brother, Bülent Dündar.
Fatma and Bekir Andaç are the parents of Sibel, Ömer’s fiancée, and her younger sister, Hatice, a medical student. Bekir is bedridden and awaiting an operation that will enable him to walk again. He is a gambler who plays the horses unsuccessfully. The three women in the family are determined to survive, despite their lack of income. Fatma works as a cleaning lady. Sibel is a grade-school teacher whose education was provided for by Tayyar’s foundation. As a result she has become caught up in his money-laundering operations. The extent to which criminal elements prey on the vulnerable is at the centre of this family portrait. At a later point Fatma and Hatice are taken in by the Demir family.
The story is set in motion when the murdered bodies of Sibel Andaç and Ahmet Denizer are discovered together in a car near the lighthouse at Ağva. Under ordinary circumstances the undercover policeman Ömer and the wealthy designer Elif would never have met, but this tragedy brings them together. Ömer will stop at nothing to discover who is responsible for the murders, and Elif ultimately unites with him in this effort. This is not a typical detective story in which all the parties are gathered before the fireplace in the last scene to hear which of them is guilty. Indeed, the audience learns only a third of the way through that Hüseyn has perpetrated this crime at the behest of Tayyar, from whom Ahmet has stolen diamonds worth a small fortune. However, by the time we reach the end, we understand that Ahmet’s sister Nedret, a powerful and extremely wealthy woman from Malatya, has ordered Ahmet’s death in revenge for him taking away her illegitimate daughter, Filiz. A family feud is at the heart of this tragedy. Ultimately, she is even more powerful in Turkey’s criminal underworld than Tayyar. The crime network extends throughout the country, including the trafficking of children in Van.
The fact that Elif’s father has been killed by Ömer’s brother creates a Romeo and Juliet aspect to their love story. When Romeo kills Juliet’s brother Tybalt, a tragic ending is inevitable. In this case, when Ömer discovers the night before his wedding to Elif that his brother has killed her father, he underestimates her extraordinary generosity of heart, and believes that they must part. Throughout the story, although Elif is highly intelligent, she is shown to be extremely naïve about the intentions of those around her. She has absolute faith in the genuineness of her duplicitous friend Bahar. She is also very impressionable, initially allowing Bahar to dissuade her from pursuing a relationship with the man she loves. She fully trusts her lawyer, Şebnem, another graduate of Tayyar’s foundation, who provides him with inside information about the Denizer family business. At a later point Elif will be ruthlessly manipulated by a corrupt psychiatrist, also a minion of Tayyar’s.
In the case of Ömer, although he is capable of rapidly dissecting any complex set of circumstances and understanding the motivations of those who have perpetrated crimes, he is blind to the faults of those he loves. Though his sister-in-law, Melike, is well aware that something is amiss with his fiancée, Sibel, he is oblivious to this, despite his ability to solve financial crimes. Despite the fact that it has become obvious to his colleagues Arda and Pelin that his brother, Hüseyn, is corrupt, he is unable to perceive this until it is forced upon him. As for the murders of Ahmet and Sibel, he is only able to grasp the truth when it is revealed to him by Fatih, who prompts Hüseyn’s confession. As the most gifted and intelligent person in his own small world, he consistently underestimates the cleverness of his mafia adversaries.
Elif and Ömer both have a difficult time telling one another necessary truths. When the doctor warns Elif that Ömer may lose the ability to move his left arm due to a gunshot wound, she is unable to break this to him. Ömer believes that not everything should be told. Since he and Elif are both in their early 30s, it is clear that they have had other relationships in the past. However, he prevents Elif from speaking of her earlier boyfriends. When İpek appears on the scene he finds himself unable to tell Elif that he was once engaged to her. Most importantly, when Ömer learns that Hüseyn has killed her father, he cannot bring himself to tell her the truth and prompts İpek to deceive Elif about the paternity of İpek’s son, Yağız. In this case, although he does not tell the lie himself, he causes a damaging lie to be told. While his credo stipulates never lying, it does not necessitate revealing necessary truths.
Although Elif initially lies to Ömer about the money-laundering, once she has made the decision to risk losing him by telling him the truth, even if she may conceal things from him, she no longer tells outright lies. During their second trip to Rome, when they visit the Bocca della Verità, or Mouth of Truth, Elif promises Ömer that she will never lie to him again. As for Ömer, although he has told Elif that he wants a relationship that is completely transparent and honest, when the time comes for the crucial test, he does not live up to the high standard he has set himself. Elif’s requirement is unconditional love. In this too, he falls short, when he is initially unable to forgive her for money-laundering, despite the fact that she has done so under threat of her sister Nilufer’s death. She herself does exhibit unconditional love when she returns to Ömer despite his brother’s treachery. Indeed, when Hüseyn is believed to have died, it is Elif who tells Ömer that she has forgiven him and that he should do so as well by attending his funeral.
Although Nilüfer has deceived Ömer on countless occasions, Elif thanks him for continuing to consider her his sister. To this he replies that he has learned from her how to have a big heart. Elif’s indescribable capacity for forgiveness is most on display on two occasions. When she is presented with a falsified document indicating that Yağız is the son of Ömer, she observes that the child is very lucky to have him as a father, and goes to visit İpek to beg her forgiveness for disbelieving this. Much later, finally released from the charge of murder by Ömer, who has found Hüseyn alive and insisted that he confess to all three murders he has committed, Elif forgives Nilüfer for her silence about the crucial fact that Hüseyn was not dead, even though it would have meant a life in prison for her. Both Elif and Ömer, while endlessly frustrated by Nilüfer’s persistent loyalty to Fatih, understand that, as Ömer noted in an early conversation with her, we can’t help with whom we fall in love. His profound capacity for empathy enables him to recognise the significant pull of the heart over the logic of the head.
One of the extraordinary things about Kara Para Aşk is that even the minor characters are developed. None of them are shallow, one-dimensional figures. The authors make extensive use of foreshadowing, so that we are emotionally prepared for the next sharp descent in this roller-coaster plot. Ömer unintentionally sees Elif in her gown when he seeks her out in the bridal shop before the wedding. She remarks that it is bad luck, which he dismisses, but then, the night before the ceremony, he learns that his brother has killed her father. When Elif gives the gown to the housekeeper, Hülya, she tells her to make it a present to someone who needs it and that perhaps that person will have better luck. Pelin announces her pregnancy to Arda shortly before he captures Fatih and Nilufer, who are fugitives. Seeing that Nilüfer is going to give birth soon, he kind-heartedly allows them to escape.
Tayyar Dündar is an evil genius, a man of science whose threatening encounters with his son, Fatih, exhibit his calculated ruthlessness. On one occasion he meets Fatih on his yacht and demonstrates the efficacy of catching fish with the flesh of a human ear before asking him hypothetically whether he would sacrifice an ear or an eye should he be required to do so. This is an early foreshadowing of Tayyar’s extraction of Fatih’s kidney. On another occasion he calls Fatih to a meeting in front of an enormous aquarium filled with deadly piranha fish, announcing that they would be able to devour him in minutes with their razor-sharp teeth. He sadistically hammers Fatih’s hand as punishment for disobeying his orders. Tayyar is involved in organ trafficking, not only of kidneys, but hearts and other organs, including those of children. He regularly executes minions who fail in their tasks by shooting them in the forehead and calling upon his trusted personal physician to extract the organs. He is a master of corrupting the vulnerable. The charitable foundation he heads offers scholarships to bright young students from poor families who want to study medicine, law or education. They then become his money-laundering couriers, or serve him as lawyers, or work in his hospitals. His loyal network of corrupted officials includes judges, doctors and the police.
His son, Fatih, known as Metin in the criminal world, has a dual character. He is extremely clever and capable of cold-blooded murder, although the people he murders are guilty – one of attempted rape and another of pederasty. While in prison he kills an attacker in self-defense. At the same time he genuinely loves his mother Nevin. As a child he witnessed Tayyar cutting out her tongue so that she would never reveal his true paternity. His love for Nilüfer is profound and steadfast. Although she betrays him to the police on several occasions, he always forgives her. However, he is unwilling to meet her demand that he turn himself in and pay for his crimes in jail. Being recognised as his father’s son is of paramount importance to him, so much so that he is willing to allow Elif to spend the rest of her life in prison for a crime she did not commit. He is capable of enormous tenderness towards Nilüfer whom he marries twice – once in a religious ceremony that is not legally valid, and later in a legal civil ceremony. Nilüfer’s intention is to force him to renounce his life of crime. His is to force her to choose him and his mother over her own family. The actor Saygın Soysal who plays Fatih/Metin is capable of the enormous range of emotion necessary to portray this tormented split personality. He moves with the cat-like grace of a dancer; indeed, he teaches Nilüfer to tango.
One of the pivotal characters is İpek, a police colleague of Ömer’s to whom he became engaged while they were both assigned as young officers to Van. She never told him at the time why she broke off their engagement to marry Serhat. Much later she explains to him that when she returned home to Bursa to prepare for her wedding, Serhat, a wealthy gangster friend of her brother’s, tricked her into joining him in an isolated place and forced himself upon her. Her mother, provided with a large and comfortable home by Serhat, insisted that the pregnant İpek marry him. Yağız was born seven months after their wedding. Both Pelin and Elif correctly observe that İpek is still in love with Ömer, something Serhat knows as well. When Ömer asks her to tell Elif the lie that he is the father of Yağız, she refuses at first, but then does as he has requested. She begins to fantasise about a future with him. Once she realises that Ömer will never return to her she finally tells him the truth about the falsified DNA test. She tells Yağız that she will soon leave the police force, but that she must do one last thing to repay her debt to Ömer because he freed Yağız from Serhat when the child was kidnapped. She has understood that Nedret is Tayyar’s partner in crime. İpek is killed by Nedret’s men when she attempts to confront her, leaving Yağız an orphan.
The other characters are multi-dimensional as well. Hüseyn has been corrupted because he fell in love with the Russian dancer Svetlana and has fathered her child. He covered up the murder she committed, making him vulnerable to pressure from Tayyar to commit further more serious crimes. At the behest of Tayyar and Nedret he has killed Ahmet Denizer. He killed Sibel and Bahar because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Throughout, it is evident that the deepest love he feels is for his younger brother Ömer. In the end he confesses to his crimes so that Elif will be released from a life sentence, and for the second time he takes a bullet intended for Ömer, leaving him completely paralysed. He is profoundly conflicted throughout. Although he is tormented by guilt, and frequently wallows in self-pity, until very late in the day he is unwilling to admit his wrongdoings and take his punishment.
Kara Para Aşk, as shown on Netflix in the US, consists of 164 short episodes, in contrast to the 54 longer episodes seen in Turkey and over 30 other countries around the world. Made in 2014-15, the series and and its cast have been the recipients of countless major awards. In the course of this drama all the characters evolve. Fatih finally renounces his life of crime and elects to live in hiding in a simple village house on the outskirts of Istanbul with Nilüfer, as they await the birth of their child. Aslı finds some modicum of emotional stability as she comes to understand the extent of Elif’s love for her. Mert overcomes his obsession with Nilüfer and finds happiness with Demet. He rejects his father’s wealth and opts to complete his education and achieve independence. Melike softens her attitude towards her stepson, Burhan, when he is orphaned and gives Ömer the crucial advice to choose love over career.
The central characters, Elif and Ömer, are transformed by the many challenges they have faced. We see them mature as their love deepens. Omer’s superior, Sami, predicts that Elif will insist that Ömer leave the police force, and indeed in the end she does, but only after meeting his challenge to her that she give up the wealth and status associated with her family’s business. It takes him three months to realise what he must do, but he gets it right in the end. He has decided that Elif is to be the mother of his children. It is he who has consistently wanted to marry and have a family. Once they have settled in a beautiful Aegean town, awaiting the birth of Masal, it is uncertain what lies ahead. In the final scene, outraged by the local mafia’s treatment of a neighbouring shopkeeper, they are seen running, hand in hand, after the criminals.
Kara Para Aşk captures affluent urban Turkey through the lives of the Denizer sisters, while the traditional values of the country’s rural past survive in the Demir family. The Denizer sisters move as freely in the world as would their counterparts across Europe. Elif personifies a generation of women who pursue professional careers and do not feel compelled to marry in their early twenties. Ömer adheres to more traditional values, but he is able to transcend his background to relate to Elif. While incredibly tough as a policeman dealing with criminals, he is chivalrous with women and extremely affectionate towards children. The cultural differences are evident in Elif’s preference for Vivaldi or Western popular music and Ömer’s for classical Oriental Turkish songs. He learns some Italian to please her and she pretends an interest in soccer. His present to her of a beautiful calligraphic depiction of a whirling dervish prompts her to remark that ‘We have lost something.’ The dervish inspires her new line of jewelry. Both are enamored of the Sufic tradition, quoting the poetry of Celaledin Rumi and Şems to one another.
In the course of this endlessly complicated plot, Elif is kidnapped twice and finds herself twice in prison. Her sister, Aslı, is accused first of murdering her father, then of also being responsible for the death of her mother. Each of the three sisters becomes pregnant during this eventful year – twice, in Elif’s case.
While all of this verges upon melodrama, the acting is so good, and the suspense so gripping that we gladly engage in the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Throughout there are many comic touches reminiscent of the classic films of Hollywood. Ömer is Clark Gable to Elif’s Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s 1934 film It Happened One Night. Ömer and Elif engage in endless clever repartee, such as when he surprises her on the plane on her trip to Rome, or handcuffs her wrist to his own and throws away the key. While the constructs of the detective story require some degree of mayhem and quite a number of murders, these elements recede in importance as we become increasingly engaged with the characters. One of the unifying themes is the seduction of wealth and the susceptibility of all, rich and poor, to corruption.
Overcoming countless trials and tribulations, Elif and Ömer return to one another, having understood the immense power of the affinity that binds them. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they ultimately share the same values. In a sense this is a morality tale in which the hero and heroine are united in their conviction that justice must be done and that truth will prevail. Though set in Istanbul its themes are universal, causing it to rise far above the routine formulaic constructions of other detective stories. Only when the characters have admitted their own vulnerabilities are they able to achieve the happiness to be found in ‘unconditional love’.
HKF, New York: March 17, 2021
Helena Kane Finn joined the Faculty of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul after completing her doctoral studies in British and American Literature. She later entered the U.S. diplomatic service, including two tours at Embassy Ankara, during which time she taught poetry at Hacettepe University. She has also held public diplomacy and cultural affairs postings in Germany, Austria, Israel and Pakistan. Most recently been she has been affiliated with Columbia University in New York.