Modern Turkey Advent Threatened in ‘Midnight at the Pera Palace’

Time travel. The Années folles. The fight for independence. These are the main ingredients in the eight-episode Turkish series “Midnight at the Pera Palace.” Shot in the emblematic hotel that hosted distinguished personalities like Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie, the Pera Palace is located in Istanbul, Turkey. First known as Byzantium and then Constantinople, Istanbul was the city the world fought over and wondered at for thousands of years. With all that, the show glides into the atmosphere of the inter-war occupied Ottoman Empire. Hop into the Orient Express and indulge in the exquisite journey of the Pera Palace, “the last whisper of the Occident on the way to the Orient.” 

Based on the book “Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul” by Charles King, “Midnight at the Pera Palace” tells the story of Esra (Hazal Kaya), a vehement journalist who mistakenly goes back in time when staying at the prestigious hotel. In 1919, Istanbul was under the clutches of the British occupation after the Ottoman Empire lost World War 1 alongside the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria). Needless to say, meddling with time is a dangerous thing. Esra unintentionally changes the course of events, inducing the assassination of a significant figure in history – who bafflingly looks just like her. She then finds herself posing as Peride, who will play a part in liberating the Ottoman Empire from the Western occupation and birthing the first republic of the country. Esra, who was craving an undisclosed story — like a secret murder to cover — will be embroiled in one tumultuous chase for the truth; she desiderated to “accomplish things, […] to make a difference for the next generations.” She will be served with more than she could have dreamed about in her wildest dreams. “Be careful what you wish for,” as they say.

 Esra (Hazal Kaya) and Cevat (Murat Okay). Courtesy of Karga Seven Pictures.

After losing the war, the Ottoman Empire was having its last breath. The capitulation cost them to hand over control of their finances and administrative matters to the Entente Powers (mainly the British Empire, Greece and France), while also witnessing their territory be ruthlessly dismembered in favor of the winning side. This being said, the Ottoman people had a hard time accepting the severe repercussions of the Treaty of Sèvres signed by Sultan Mehmed Vahdettin VI — who is considered by his nation a traitor who sold his country out. This is when Mustafa Kemal, later granted the title of Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”), steps in. He will eventually lead his country to renegotiate the conditions of the capitulation, marking the beginning of tremendous and grand transformations that will lead the Turks of today to hold him dear. 

Despite his name being mentioned several times in the show and staying at the Pera Palace, Kemal doesn’t appear very much on screen. The focus is given to the other characters who — directly or indirectly — assisted him in shaping the future of the country. This led me to think: maybe every story that has a hero’s name etched in history books, also encompasses concealed heroes. People who selflessly enable the hero-to-be of the tale to see his mission through while not minding not being celebrated or even remembered themselves. And although “one can never be sure how much is fact or fiction,” “Midnight at the Pera Palace,” which references the Turkish Republic proclaimed at midnight on Dec. 31, 1925, ably shines a light on those heroes hidden in the shadows. 

While historical events unravel, the characters also have their own personal stories. For instance, Ahmet (Tansu Biçer), the present hotel manager at the Pera Palace, travels back in time with Esra. His character is first introduced when the journalist, bewitched, is gazing at the charm of the place. The “déjà-vu” phrase hints at her upcoming time travel. One striking element is how, all throughout the show, clues are slipped in such a painless and questionless manner, making it nearly impossible for viewers to see what’s coming. It is only once the final episode comes to an end that everything falls into place, like a perfect combination of pieces that come together in the most sensible way.  

 Esra (Hazal Kaya) and Halit (Selahattin Pasali). Courtesy of Karga Seven Pictures.

Allusions to history — sometimes subtle, sometimes more blatant — are dropped into the episodes. Viewers notably can discover the photo studio of the Abdullah Frères (who were pioneers of photography). A bartender jadedly wishes that the country “never [had] been so foolish as to have taken [the Germans’] side in the war.” Meanwhile, Agatha Christie is insecure about her writing, although the thriller author is said to have written “Murder on the Orient Express” in room 411 of the hotel. Further, at one point, Mustafa Kemal is invited to join the British officers at their table for dinner. However, Kemal politely turns down the offer, explaining that, “by [Turkish] traditions, it is the host that entertains the guests,” so “they are welcome at [his] table, if that is their wish.” According to various sources, a similar interaction took place in real life. The scene doesn’t only stir up Turks’ attachment for “one of the great men of this century” (to quote President J.F. Kennedy’s own words), it goes further by having viewers respect and root for Atatürk regardless of their origins.

Women’s living conditions back in the day were obviously utterly different from what they are now. While Atatürk set an example for the world by granting Turkish women the right to vote in 1934 without them having to demand it, Esra, deemed too “eccentric” for 1919, faces obstacles due to her gender during numerous occasions. Ahmet warns her to be discreet and not to raise suspicion because “women don’t have much of a voice, here in 1919” (and no one can find out she is from the future). The patriarchal political climate of the time wasn’t fitting for women to drive nor have a job. Nevertheless, Esra, to the great dismay of those passing by, effortlessly goes by a “stand on [her] own two feet” approach and finds a job and drives cars. When she stands up to “her father” for unfair treatment, she becomes “possessed” and gets disowned. The male urge to label a woman as “crazy,” “deranged” or “mentally ill” when she doesn’t conform to society is thus added to the list of engaging themes within the show. Through the character of Esra, the storyline aims to denounce the madwoman trope, meant to reduce females to erratic and emotional beings when they don’t do as they’re told. 

It is no secret that the world has been built around men’s ideas of what should and shouldn’t be. All throughout history, women have been expected to fulfill the male ideals of what it is to be a “good woman.” Mild, compliant, meek: the virtue of a woman lies within these traits. The emotional side of women, though, would make them lean towards an extreme degree of femininity, and was feared. If a woman would dare to question her role in society, rebelling or disagreeing with the male figure, then she turns into “the crazy woman who needs to be locked up.” Just like Bertha Mason is isolated in “Jane Eyre,” Esra is threatened to get sent to a psychiatric asylum because of her lack of ability to comply. She cannot be angry without being mentally deranged and requiring medical assistance. The underlying answer is that, if women stop being submissive to men, they will become a threat to them. If women are invalidated, on the other hand — through being put in a class with a derogatory name — then they are easily controlled. To this day, the concepts of “the crazy ex,” “the angry woman” or the “difficult woman” are still very much rooted in society’s historical perception of women. The latter is irrational because they cannot seem to control their feelings — unlike men who don’t have to cope with the feelings of being deprived of basic, fundamental human rights. 

 Esra (Hazal Kaya). Courtesy of Karga Seven Pictures.

Similar to the book, the show intends to highlight the diversity of the ethnicities coexisting in Istanbul. Ottomans blend together with Russians, fleeing the fall of the tsar after the Russian Revolution, urging royalty to find refuge elsewhere. That is exemplified through Sonya (Yasemin Szawlowski), a former princess-turned-maid in the Pera. Dimitri represents the Greek population, and then there’s George, the English colonizer who wants to take over the city. The mysterious reason behind his hatred towards the Ottomans is yet to be revealed. Hopefully, a second season will bring forth answers. 

I have often had the impression that love was depicted in a poetically exhilarating way in Turkish shows. It is as if a poem was being staged. The delicacy of the words, the sensuality of the body language, the burning desire in the looks — it is all blissfully dizzying and yet leaves you wanting more each time. Turkish shows give me that fascinating certainty that, no matter what happens, lovers will always find their way back to each other. And that is because the Turkish cinematic approach pulls them together like magnets. Lastly, the jazz age, the fancy 20s attire, the dazzling decor — everything merges so gracefully, blessing viewers with a delight for the eye, enraptured in a captivating, triumphant historical-thriller narrative. 

“Where does one belong if not the place that’s making one’s heart beat?,” asks Halit (Selahattin Pasali). Well, mine certainly belongs in the enthralling universe of this series. Rhythmed by a plot that intertwines reality and imagination, and a setting full of sites that shelter unforeseeable twists, “Midnight at the Pera Palace” is a jewel that reflects all the boisterous events of a modernizing Istanbul — the city whose beauty was recognized by many, including authors such as François-René de Chateaubriand and Edmondo De Amicis. As sublimely put by artist Alphonse de Lamartine, “if one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”

“Midnight at the Pera Palace” is available to enjoy on Netflix. 

By Sourour Elfourti

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