David Randall: Modern Turkey would rather not hear about its sultan of swing

Four corners of the world

Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00

Something of a kerfuffle in Turkey over a period drama portraying perhaps the greatest Ottoman sultan as a man not entirely devoid of foibles and vices.

The Magnificent Century is based on the 16th-century ruler Suleiman, and shows him swigging wine and taking energetic R&R in his harem. This has not gone down well with religious conservatives and those swept up in the current fashion for idealising the Ottoman golden age.

There have been demonstrations at the broadcaster's headquarters, and Turkey's television watchdog – having received tens of thousands of complaints – has told the producers the programme was "contrary to the national and moral values of society" – an ominous phrase if ever there was one.

The complainants are fortunate that the film-makers chose Suleiman. They could have gone for, say, Ibrahim the Mad, a fearful old pervert deposed after he had all 280 of his harem put in weighted sacks and thrown in the Bosphorus; or Abdul Hamid II, who had such a phobia about assassination that even to use the word "bomb" was forbidden, which is how a chef who wrote the words "bombe surprise" on a menu came to be dismissed; or Abdul Aziz, a spendthrift who maintained a private household of 5,000 servants, including a man whose sole duty was to replace the royal backgammon table.

But instead they went for Suleiman, mainly because, unlike his psychopathic successors, he is at the apex of Turkish achievement. Easy to smile at protests over the portrayal of a contemporary of Henry VIII, but the equivalent here would be a film depicting Churchill as a drunken child abuser. There again, given our taste for debunking, it may already be in production.

* Of all countries vulnerable to revolution, Yemen, with its fragile regime, seems the most likely. But the government has a secret weapon.

Demos there tend to be packed and enthusiastic until noon, whereupon most drift away. Is there a curfew? A desire to get back to work?

No. There is qat, a stimulant leaf which more than half the 23 million population spend afternoons and evenings soporifically chewing. Mohammed al-Qadimi, a student who has attended Yemen rallies, said it would be hard to motivate himself to protest all day.

"After I chew I can't go out. When I chew qat, the whole world is mine. I feel like a king." The opiate of the people, indeed.

* Teachers the world over have long set pupils that tired old essay: The Story of a Penny, or its local currency equivalent.

It may be this that inspired the founding of a website called WheresGeorge.com, which tracks individual banknotes and their adventures in circulation. People register a note's serial number and denomination, record its present whereabouts, spend it and wait for further sightings.

The site's most nomadic item is a $1 note which began its chronicled life in Dayton, Ohio, on 15 March 2002, and, a fraction over three years later, had travelled 4,191 miles. Some 15 different correspondents charted its progress, although it would have passed through many more hands.

And not just hands. One $1 note, which managed 7,293 miles in two years, was at one point, its chronicler excitedly relates, produced from a bikini top on a Florida beach to pay for an ice cream. The site is a good example of how we are still at the stage when the web can take a prosaic truism – in this case, that money changes hands – and, by adding ordinary experiences, make it seem fresh and revelatory.

One day, such sites will look quaint.

* And now, all the way from America, comes the year's most annoying verbal fashion. When a certain kind of person wants to emphasise their displeasure, they ask a question, and add the phrase "question mark" at the end, as in: "Do you really want me to do that, question mark?" It'll be here soon, ready to join that other defining mark of the aggravating: "I hear what you're saying."

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