Istanbul, Turkey – About midway through the Netflix period drama series The Club, the fictional character Matilda Aseo, played by Turkish actress Gökçe Bahadir, takes her formerly estranged daughter to see the building where she grew up.
The series is set around Matilda, the daughter of a once-wealthy Jewish family who has spent the last 17 years in prison and recently been released. But her plans to emigrate to Israel are cut short after she reconnects with her daughter Rasel, her only living relative.
“I wanted to leave right away, without thinking, because this street, this building, they remind me of how lonely I am,” Matilda tells Rasel during a scene that shows the characters bathed in the evening glow of warm lights shining from the windows of her former family home, the sound of the strangers now inhabiting it spilling onto the street.
Released earlier this month, The Club tells the story of the mother-daughter pair against the backdrop of a nightclub in 1950s Istanbul that struggles to make its mark as its workers and owner, along with the city’s non-Muslim inhabitants, find their lives upended by a nationalist fervour gripping the country.
One of the most-watched Netflix shows in Turkey, The Club is part nostalgia for the cosmopolitan personality of Istanbul’s Pera neighbourhood, and part lament for the decline of that legacy, which stubbornly persists in the facades of chic historic buildings, the names of streets, and inside churches and synagogues still used by the city’s dwindling non-Muslim minorities.
A cosmopolitan past
Matilda comes from a Sephardic Jewish family, the descendants of about 40,000 Jews who, after being expelled from Spain in 1492, were invited to settle in the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Bayezid II.
In the cobblestone streets surrounding the Galata Tower, Matilda and Rasel are shown as part of a small but vibrant Sephardic community that speaks Ladino, a mix of Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic that still has thousands of speakers today. Matilda attends Sabbath dinners and Purim celebrations, weddings, and synagogue services, all portrayed in detail the show’s creators went to unusual lengths to get right.
A lot of people watching the show tweet, or ask, ‘Who are these people?’ Nesi Altaras, editor, Avlaremoz
Bahadir, who plays Matilda, was tutored twice a week for three months by Forti Barokas, a film consultant who also writes in Ladino for El Amaneser and Salom, two papers in Turkey that continue to partially publish in the otherwise endangered language.
That choice of dialogue alone, which often seamlessly switches between Ladino and Turkish, is enough to pique the interest of many Turkish viewers, said Nesi Altaras, the editor of Avlaremoz, an online publication focusing on Turkey’s Jewish community.
“The bar is already very low, for what people know, so a lot of people watching the show tweet, or ask, ‘Who are these people, what is this group, what language are they speaking?’” Altaras, who himself belongs to a Sephardic Jewish family in Istanbul, told Al Jazeera. “Mainstream Turkish society has become a stranger to Jews who live in Turkey, who have lived here for hundreds of years, so I think the show really presents itself as a teachable moment.”
The legacy of a wealth tax
Simply pointing out how different the city was 70 years ago is not the most laudable aspect of The Club, though. The viewer soon learns what happened to Matilda’s family.
In 1942, Turkey’s government, at the time run by a single party, imposed a new tax on the public under the guise of raising funds that might be needed if the country was affected by World War II. The Wealth Tax was specially designed by officials to wrestle wealth away from non-Muslims – Jews as well as Armenian and Greek Christians – and executed devastatingly well. Of the roughly 350 million Turkish lira raised by the time it was repealed under international pressure in 1944, at least 290 million came from non-Muslim citizens, in many cases people who were ordered to hand over more than 200 percent of all their assets within 15 days. Those who could not pay the full amount – by some estimates thousands of people – were sent to labour camps where historians say a few dozen people even died. In The Club, it is revealed that Matilda’s father and brother were sent to such a camp in the eastern city of Askale, to never return.
Altaras’s family, not just those in Istanbul but all over Turkey, were affected as well.
“One great-grandparent went to the forced labour camps in Askale; two others lost everything,” he said. “This happened in different provinces – Adana, Tekirdag, and Istanbul. My family was affected on all sides, and unfortunately, this is not unique at all. You can find almost the same stories from other families of Jews, Armenians, Greeks living today.”
You can find almost the same stories from other families of Jews, Armenians, Greeks living today. Nesi Altaras, editor, Avlaremoz
Altaras says his great-grandfather, who spent eight months in a labour camp, was by no means wealthy. “He worked as a mechanised scissor holder, cutting dresses from premade fabric. So he was not someone who would be making a lot of money, not a wealthy industrialist by any means, but just a person who worked with their hands and had a craft.”
When the Wealth Tax was announced on November 11, 1942, Pera’s streets turned overnight into a yard sale as non-Muslim families desperately tried to raise money to pay the tax. “Everything, including my grandfathers’ toys, were sold in auction,” Altara said. “Colour pencils, a toy wooden horse, a couch, rugs – every single household item was sold and still they were so far from being able to pay off the debt the government decided they owed, that my great-grandfather had to go to the camp.”
The show’s producers used the nightclub to bring together characters affected not only by the Wealth Tax, but also increasing pressure to marginalise non-Muslims, and urbanisation that found even conservative Muslim villagers suddenly grappling with life in a fast-paced and unforgiving Istanbul.
“We wanted to deal with the idea of living together with differences, by creating fictional characters we decided to tell the process of people who had been discriminated against in society for various reasons, coming together under the roof of a club and being a family,” producer Zeynep Günay Tan said in an interview with Istanbul-based arts magazine Bant Mag.
In their interactions, the characters, and viewers, slowly learn about the multicultural fabric of the city.
Haci, a fictional Muslim villager who moved to Istanbul hoping to work as a musician in the club, is told one Friday afternoon by his manager he cannot take a break to attend Friday prayers. He watches as the same manager tells Matilda she too must work and miss the Sabbath dinner that night. Later, Matilda walks through a street in her Jewish neighbourhood accompanied by Haci, and they pause as women are heard singing a song in Ladino. Haci asks who they are. “They are Sephardic Jews who immigrated here centuries ago, like me,” Matilda tells him.
“Like us,” Haci replies.
The Club is full of such moments showing the organic interactions and opportunities for mutual understanding that would have been unavoidable for Pera’s residents in the tumultuous 1950s.
Awareness, but little effort at justice
But that awareness did not prevent future violence. Rumours of tensions between Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims in Cyprus, for instance, spilled over into organised pogroms against non-Muslims in 1955, as largely Muslim mobs destroyed thousands of minority homes, businesses, and places of worship.
Istanbul’s Jewish community continued to be targeted by right-wing extremists even in the last two decades: in 2003, for instance, a series of car bombs hit synagogues in Istanbul, including the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Galata that once served the city’s Ladino Jewish community.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has occasionally referred to what he calls the “fascist mentality” of the single-party era before 1950 in criticism of the opposition Republican People’s Party, which ruled at the time, and how it treated minorities. “They were ethnically cleansed because they had a different ethnic cultural identity,” Erdogan said in 2009. “The time has arrived for us to question ourselves about why this happened and what we have learned from all of this.”
But neither Erdogan nor other Turkish leaders have taken any concrete steps to address the Wealth Tax, the 1955 pogrom, or other attacks on minorities. The Democrat Party, which won the first free and fair elections in the country in 1950, campaigned on a pledge to pay reparations for the Wealth Tax, but never kept the promise.
Activists who speak out on the forced migration and mass deaths of Armenians in 1915, events some have called a genocide, for instance, are still prosecuted in Turkey under laws that criminalise “insulting” the Turkish state, or the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In 2007, far-right extremists in Istanbul gunned down Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian-language newspaper Agos.
On November 11 every year, to mark the imposition of the Wealth Tax, Peoples’ Democratic Party lawmaker Garo Paylan, himself an Armenian Christian from the eastern city of Diyarbakir, even introduces a bill calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the tax and why no one was compensated for it.
“His request for an inquiry every year is not even voted on; it’s not even introduced into a committee,” said Altaras. “That would be the first step [to resolving the Wealth Tax issue] because we still do not know have a complete list of everyone who paid the tax, everyone who was sent to a forced labour camp, everyone whose lives were ruined, or just how much was lost.”