Bulgarians warm to Turks

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For centuries, people in Bulgaria haven't had much good to say about their neighbors in Turkey. But that's changing now that Bulgarian TV viewers are hooked on Turkish soap operas. Reporter Matthew Brunwasser has the story.

MARCO WERMAN: Historically, the people of Bulgaria have not had warm and fuzzy feelings for their southern neighbors in Turkey. That could have something to do with the fact that the Ottoman Turkish Empire ruled Bulgaria for 500 years. But today, Bulgarian TV viewers find Turkey alluring and fascinating. That's because they're hooked on Turkish soap operas. Reporter Matthew Brunwasser sent us this report from Perushtitsa, Bulgaria.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: The uprising of 1876 was the My Lai massacre of its day. Atrocities committed against Bulgarian civilians by Ottoman Turks helped sway world opinion against the crumbling empire. Most of the inhabitants of Perushtitsa were slaughtered. Resident Atanas Harizanov says locals are proud that they held off the longest.


ATANAS HARIZANOV: We are bigots when it comes to Turkey. Here the uprising lasted for nine days and no where else.

BRUNWASSER: Since independence in 1908, Bulgarians have feared that Turkey might try to retake lands. But these days, Bulgarians are being assaulted by a new Turkish weapon, which no peace treaty ever envisioned: the soap opera. The invasion started last year and shows like this one, Ask-i-Memnu or Forbidden Love, have flooded the airwaves. One of the main Bulgarian channels shows Turkish soaps six and a half hours a day. Even here in Perushtitsa, says resident Harizanov, Bulgarians have fallen under their spell.


HARIZANOV: They are changing the consciousness of the people of Perushtitsa, despite the deeply buried pain of the past. I don't believe that its hatred anymore. But little by little, the Turkish soap operas are building a bridge of trust and curiosity.

BRUNWASSER: Bulgaria used to consider its southern neighbor backward and strictly Islamic. No longer. The Turkish TV shows are filled with glamorous Istanbul locations and attractive characters living European lifestyles. Alexei Pamporov is a sociologist at the Open Society Institute in Sofia. He says the shows have drastically changed opinions, by undermining what Bulgarians thought Turkey was like.

ALEXEI PAMPOROV: People live very poor there. Everything is hold by the army and there is no civilization. And what the soap opera is changing, it's changing perspective. It's showing the European [INDISCERNIBLE] face of Turkey, that that they have good roads, they have good houses, they drive modern cars, they have the same passions that we have, they are not so different than us let's say.

BRUNWASSER: Pamporov says positive feelings between neighbors are important for closer political relations between states. Tour operators in Sofia say the shows have encouraged a growing wave of Bulgarians to visit Turkey. On this boat tour of the Bosphorous in Istanbul, Bulgarian tourists glimpse the waterfront villa of Gumus, or Perla in Bulgarian, the glamorous female lead of a popular Turkish soap. Bulgarian tourist Danilea Sivenova says the shows are more than just escapist entertainment. She says Bulgarians are drawn to the traditional family values shown in the programs.


DANILEA SIVENOVA: I think that we Bulgarians over the last 20 years have lost a lot of the human values which we had in the past. Specifically, how should relations be in a family? How should we support each other? How to preserve hierarchy in a family? All these things which we lack, we find in these shows.

BRUNWASSER: Vessela Tomova says she doesn't watch the shows herself but that her family is crazy about them. Bulgaria was isolated during Communism and Turkophobia was deeply ingrained. So the shows' popularity, she says, is helping Bulgaria become a more normal country.

VESSELA TOMOVA: If they change their view towards Turkey, this means that Bulgarian people are now open to the whole world.

BRUNWASSER: Turkish soaps are also catching on in other Balkan countries and traditional foes of Turkey, like Greece and Serbia. Turkey's soft power is clearly potent. Winning back territories through TV screens, lost long ago on the battlefield. For the World, I'm Matthew Brunwasser, Perushtitsa, Bulgaria.