Netflix's The Club

Gökçe Bahadir as Matilda Aseo in ”The Club.” Mehmet Ali Gök/Netflix

Turkish popular culture has struggled with representations of Turkey’s multiethnic and multicultural present and past since the founding of the republic in 1923. Once the seat of a vast multiethnic empire, Istanbul’s cosmopolitan makeup has diminished following various government campaigns of genocide, ethnic cleansing and Turkification over the last century. Cultural producers at certain points along the way, however, have made a strong effort to represent what was lost or repressed in those bloody histories. Cultural and academic interest in Turkey’s ethnic minorities increased in the early 2000s as the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, led by current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pursued European Union (EU) accession and closer ties with international organizations that promote multiculturalism. State involvement in these efforts largely faded as the process to join the EU broke down and the AKP regime turned increasingly authoritarian at the start of the last decade. Scholar Aslı Iğsız has appropriately criticized the instrumentalization of multiculturalism in the early years of the AKP and pointed out how this approach reified ethnic and cultural differences rather than transcended them.[1]

Recently, however, interest in Turkey’s multiethnic past has been renewed with the appearance of The Club (Kulüp), the second Turkish dramatic series produced by Netflix and released in two parts in Fall 2021 and Winter 2022. The show is set in the mid-1950s among the cast, crew and management of a trendy nightclub, Istanbul Club (Kulüp İstanbul), in the Beyoğlu district of the city, which had historically been home to non-Muslim populations and housed most of the foreign consulates. The show, directed by Zeynep Günay Tan and Seren Yüce, is typical in some respects of the now globally popular Turkish dizi genre. The plot is thick with melodrama and focused on themes of family and kinship in the context of a period piece. It is atypical, however, in its centering of non-Muslim characters and its depiction of a polyglot subset of society whose dialogue often switches between Turkish and Ladino, as well as Greek, English and Hebrew. The use of Ladino, the language of Turkey’s Jewish population, in the show marks the first time it has appeared in a Turkish film or television production. Ladino is a syncretic language based on Spanish with vocabulary that draws from Turkish, Hebrew, Greek, Italian and other Balkan languages spoken by Sephardic Jews who emigrated to the Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century. In many respects, Ladino represents the Sephardic/Ottoman counterpart to Yiddish, and like Yiddish it is spoken by an ever-dwindling number of Jews, most of whom are part of the small community that remains in Istanbul.

Evident in the storyline of The Club is the paradox at the heart of Turkish history—its remarkable pattern of development, modernization and democratization that has gone hand in hand with regimes that have punished and marginalized its ethnic and religious minority communities.
Evident in the storyline of The Club is the paradox at the heart of Turkish history—its remarkable pattern of development, modernization and democratization that has gone hand in hand with regimes that have punished and marginalized its ethnic and religious minority communities. Historians, policymakers, and cultural figures have been attempting to square this circle for generations, often with infelicitous results. For example, in his sweeping history, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Bernard Lewis wrote of the notorious 1942 tax that crippled minority communities across the country, “The capital levy was a sad affair…Its effects should not, however, be exaggerated. In a Europe dominated by Hitler’s Germany, Republican Turkey’s one essay in persecution was a mild and gentle affair.”[2] This levy, known in Turkish as the Varlık Vergisi, exacted largely expropriative taxes on Turkey’s non-Muslim populations of Greeks, Jews, Armenians and dönme (descendants of a sect of Sabbataean Jews who had converted to Islam more than a century prior). Hundreds of individuals unable to pay the exploitative tax were sent to work camps, and not all returned alive. Although Lewis did acknowledge and detail the extent of the prejudice inherent in this sordid episode, the fact that Turkey avoided full cooperation with the belligerent autocracies on its doorsteps and its ensuing progress toward democracy and Westernization was, in his estimation, allowance enough to place this episode in a historical parenthesis. While the Varlık Vergisi has received ample attention in recent years in historical scholarship, Lewis’ general attitude has persisted in the popular imagination of scholars and policymakers alike, both in Turkey and in the West. That attitude may change for viewers of The Club as the experiences of Istanbul’s Jewish and other minority communities are brought vividly to life.


The Club’s Politics of Representation


The plot of The Club centers around the character of Matilda Aseo, played by Gökçe Bahadır. Matilda, newly released from prison following a general amnesty in the early 1950s, attempts to reconnect with her daughter, Raşel (Asude Kalebek), who was orphaned following Matilda’s imprisonment for murdering Raşel’s father. After an encounter with the gruff and mysterious club manager Çelebi (Fırat Tanış) at the police station, Matilda decides to accept a semi-indentured position in the laundry of the club—rather than a one-way ticket to Israel—in hopes of maintaining relations with her troubled daughter. Matilda quickly ascends the backstage hierarchy as she grows close to the club’s sensational new star, Selim Söngür (Salih Bademci), whose character is a thinly disguised homage to the legendary Turkish vocalist of the same era, Zeki Müren. Müren’s flamboyance and obvious but unspoken queer identity is mirrored closely in Bademci’s performance as much as it is in the script. Söngür’s stardom ultimately brings a whole new set of pressures onto the community of the club as its owner, Orhan Şahin (Metin Akdülger), is increasingly pressured by Turkish business organizations and mafioso figures to fire his non-Muslim staff and replace them with “real” Turks—a move Şahin is loath to undertake as, it turns out, he himself is secretly Greek.

Over the course of the show, we learn that Matilda’s family suffered greatly from the Varlık Vergisi. The tax not only impoverished her family’s shipping business, but resulted in the death of her father in the Aşkale work camp, ruined the otherwise cordial relations the company had with Muslim Turkish customers and staff and drove her to murder her then-boyfriend, a Muslim, for having sold out her family to local henchmen. Viewers see intercommunal tensions at the club spiral and the climate of Turkification intensify as Turkey democratizes in the late 1940s and 1950s. The show reaches its climax with an event that is better known in popular histories and serves as a grim bookend to the Varlık Vergisi—a pogrom unleashed against Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities on September 6–7, 1955. A fake news story claiming that the ancestral home of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding figure, was bombed in Thessaloniki, Greece, sparked the violence. With the tacit approval of local authorities, the pogroms included massive destruction of Greek-held properties, desecration of Greek and Armenian churches and widespread, gory violence resulting in at least a dozen deaths in the Beyoğlu neighborhood and on Büyükada, then a largely Greek and Jewish enclave in the Marmara Sea. These scenes are depicted at length in the series finale, interspersed with historical photographs of the events, which, while powerful, briefly alters the show’s tenor from soapy melodrama to documentary and historical reenactment.

The politics of representation in The Club is its most immediate, affecting and laudable quality. The series not only presents Jews as its main characters but also brings to life a culture and lifeworld that until now has largely been consigned to distant memory and historical scholarship.
The politics of representation in The Club is its most immediate, affecting and laudable quality. The series not only presents Jews as its main characters but also brings to life a culture and lifeworld that until now has largely been consigned to distant memory and historical scholarship. It is, of course, still possible to hear Ladino in Istanbul, among the 10,000 or so Jews who remain there and elsewhere in Turkey. Yet, to hear it on screen, to be immersed in a world where code-switching between Turkish and Ladino happens effortlessly and to hear newly produced Ladino music in the soundtrack evokes quite a different feeling, particularly for those, like myself, who have studied this history. No doubt, the authentic feeling of this production is the result of close cooperation with the extant Jewish community in Istanbul, who served as consultants and appear as minor characters in the show and accounts for its positive reception by the community thus far.[3] This deep a dive into a minority culture is new for the genre of the Turkish dizi. Presumably this unique direction was made possible largely due to the backing from Netflix. Other diziler usually receive support from state affiliated or regime friendly production houses, which typically favor heavy handed epics centered on the Ottoman and other Turkish dynasties that serve blunt ideological and revisionist purposes.


The Past and Present Costs of Turkification


The show’s tragic storyline also undercuts an otherwise rosy popular narrative about Turkey in the 1950s. The election of the Democrat Party in 1950 and the peaceful transition from three decades of rule by the Republican People’s Party came as a shock to nearly every foreign observer and many within Turkey. It is rightly remembered as the originating moment of democracy in Turkey, and along with the signing of the Marshall Plan documents with the United States in 1947 and Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952, as a key step leading to Turkey’s acceptance as a partner to Western democracies. As several recent studies of the period have shown, this opening of both democracy and Westernization brought with it an explosion in art, film, music and pop culture inspired by contemporary high modernist movements across both Europe and the Global South. The Club gives us a taste of this cultural explosion through the musical stylings of Selim Söngür, whose act is meant to blend the proto-rock and roll and jazz of the time with traditional Anatolian folk music.

The Club gives us a taste of this cultural explosion through the musical stylings of Selim Söngür, whose act is meant to blend the proto-rock and roll and jazz of the time with traditional Anatolian folk music.
The uninitiated American viewer would be right to pick up notes of Dave Brubeck or early surf rock in Söngür’s upbeat tunes. The prosperity that went hand in hand with this cultural flowering and Marshall Plan-led development, however, ran parallel with a campaign of Turkification that antagonized Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities. The character of Orhan Şahin, the club owner, sums this up as he addresses the press before a preview of Söngür’s show in episode two: “It’s time that Istanbul’s nightlife and entertainment venues are rebuilt by Turkish entrepreneurs… I’m not merely giving you more colorful entertainment—I’m telling you that in five years the clubs of London and Paris will be following this example.”

The Club also appears at a moment when the character of Beyoğlu’s neighborhoods is yet again being deeply contested by the state and state-aligned business interests. Some of the last architectural vestiges of the era depicted in The Club have undergone wholesale destruction and awkward remodeling as the district has increasingly invited in shopping malls and touristic enterprises, especially along the main artery of İstiklal Caddesi, that cater more directly to tourists from the Arab world. While tourism has driven the local economy in Beyoğlu for nearly two centuries, as Kyle Olson has recently pointed out, “today, heritage sites have become assets in a more directly financialized sense. Their commercial value has become primary, while their heritage value recedes into the background.”[4] Changes to Beyoğlu’s neighborhoods have, in turn, raised a whole new round of questions regarding to whom the district belongs. As Kenan Sharpe has noted, the calls to “take Beyoğlu back” (presumably from Gulf Arabs and Syrian refugees) have come largely from the secular Turkish middle class—the same class that came to dominate Beyoğlu’s cultural scene in the decades following the 1955 pogrom. These calls ignore the district’s deep history as a refuge for Istanbul’s historically marginalized groups—not only ethnic and religious minorities but also the queer community, sex workers and dispossessed classes of the contemporary moment that have been “completely left out of the conversation” about who belongs in this space.[5]

Equally relevant, The Club arrives at a time when the battle lines of Turkey’s next electoral cycle, slated for June 2023, are beginning to be drawn. The collapse of the lira this past fall and the government’s seemingly obstinate refusal to take conventional measures to ameliorate the pain as prices for basic goods skyrocketed have called into question whether Erdoğan will be able to secure another electoral victory. The leading opposition voices—who have yet to unite around a presidential challenger—have held to a nationalist rhetoric, while also promising to reverse the centralizing changes to Turkey’s constitution that cemented Erdoğan’s extraordinary powers in the last decade. So far, the opposition has promised greater democratization if elected, which could result in expanded rights and protections for minorities. Yet, if democratization is won with a currency of nationalist politics, there will remain plenty of reasons for concern for Turkey’s marginalized groups.

In this way, The Club’s final scenes—where members of the cast and crew huddle for a candlelit dinner in the club as an escape from the carnage wrought by the pogrom—are a not-so-subtle plea to remember the neighborhood’s history, and present, as a place of refuge that has persevered across Turkey’s several authoritarian and democratic transitions.


[James Ryan is Associate Director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.]





[1] Aslı Iğsız, “From Alliance of Civilizations to Branding the Nation: Turkish Studies, Image Wars and the Politics of Comparison in an Age of Neoliberalism” Turkish Studies 5/4 (2014) and Aslı Iğsız, Humanism in Ruins: The Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[2] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey Second Edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1968) p. 301.

[3] Nesi Altaras, “The Club Recreates the Ladino-Speaking World of Jewish Istanbul,” Jewish Currents, January 21, 2022.

[4] Kyle Olson, “The Past, Present, and Future of Beyoğlu,” ANAMED Blog.

[5] Kenan Behzat Sharpe, “Beyoğlu is Dead, Long Live Beyoğlu,” Duvar.English, October 1, 2021.


How to cite this article:

James Ryan "Multiculturalism, Democracy and Turkification in Netflix’s The Club," Middle East Report Online, May 24, 2022.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This