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.
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 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 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.” 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.
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.]
 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).
 Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey Second Edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1968) p. 301.
 Nesi Altaras, “The Club Recreates the Ladino-Speaking World of Jewish Istanbul,” Jewish Currents, January 21, 2022.