Extra-marital affairs, blood feuds, divorce and murder; scenarios that may not reflect the reality of contemporary life in Istanbul but are the plot lines of Turkish soap operas that are drawing in tens of millions of viewers from Athens to Riyadh. The rise in popularity across the Arab world and Balkan countries has made Turkish dramas a huge commercial success, and a vital component of Turkey's soft power strategy. It is a way for Turkey to export its culture of secularism and wealth to an audience desperate to know more about its close neighbour. Arab viewers are fascinated with the shows because they purport to reveal how Turks, particularly Turkish women, handle modernity. One series finale pulled in staggering global audience figures of 85 million, with over 50 million of those viewers reported to have been female. Now, as the Arab world finds itself in a period of flux, many television viewers are, consciously or not, looking to Turkey for a lifestyle and governance that is both Muslim and modern.
But in May 2013, as these shows were in their final weeks of filming for the summer season, Istanbul was witnessing its own, very real, dramatic events. Thousands of young, secular Turks took to the streets to demonstrate against overzealous construction projects Very quickly, however, these rallies grew to wide scale protests against a series of government-backed policies that were seen to curb civil liberties and promote Islamic conservatism.