Tag Archives: Turkish

Kemal Pamuk: A “Downton Abbey” autopsy of the series’ first needless casualty

Apparently, there’s a special Downton Abbey surprise coming. According to Facebook:

According to Digital Spy, it could be the long-awaited, long-rumored Downton Abbey movie. Fans of the show, which ended in 2015, will probably thrilled. If you’ve followed me for a long time, then you’ll know that I was once a fan (and eventual hate-watcher) of Downton Abbey, so I’ve got my own two cents on the idea of a movie as well. But since it seems like Downton Abbey is about to come back into our lexicon, I’d like to push the conversation toward one long-forgotten character that didn’t get the time he deserved, nor the representation he needed. No, I’m not talking about Thomas, although he needs some love too. Who I’m talking about right now is Kemal Pamuk, the diplomat from Turkey.

The sad case of Kemal Pamuk

Pamuk dies in Mary’s bed. (Downton Abbey Wikia)

Introducing Pamuk into the first season story of Downton Abbey was, I thought at the time, going to provide some much needed drama to the entire Mary and Matthew dynamic. In fact, I was hoping Mary would have ended up with Pamuk since the alternative, Matthew, was her cousin. (Social mores might have been different back then, but if an episode of Poirot, “After the Funeral,” can discuss how bad it is to have an affair with your cousin, then maybe Downton Abbey shouldn’t have been pushing it so hard.)

However, Pamuk wasn’t meant to be around for long. In fact, he was meant to weirdly coerce Mary into having sex, have a heart attack in Mary’s bed from a “heart condition,” and then get stuffed in a broom closet, never to be seen again (or discovered as a mummy by one of the poor maids).

Supposedly, Julian Fellowes, the man behind Downton Abbey, said Pamuk’s early death was inspired by real life. According to what he told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2011, Fellowes told the story of the man used as the inspiration for Pamuk (according to the Telegraph):

“I did enjoy the death of Pamuk because it was true. That story came from a friend of ours. He had a great house and he was looking through a great aunt’s diary in which he found an account of a visiting diplomat who died. In the house there was a passageway only to be used by single women to go to their rooms. One of them had smuggled this diplomat into her room and he died in the middle of doing it!

She was absolutely at her wits’ end–this was about 1890. She knocked on the next door and the blameless matron in there realise[d] at once that if this story came out it would touch them all and there would be a great scandal. To avoid it they woke up all the other single women in the passageway and this group of dowagers and debutantes lifted the corpse and carried it to his own bed.

Our friend looked up the diary of his great grandfather at the same period and in it he found a note simply saying ‘We had a tragedy-nice Mr. so and so was found dead in his bed.’ Those ladies got away with it! When I heard that story I thought, ‘One day this will come in handy…!”

I get that, as a bit of cheeky, macabre fun, the story of the dead diplomat is something that would work great in a show that wants to be a subversive take on the traditional costume drama. (Is Downton Abbey really subversive? You be the judge.) But wasn’t it also a waste of a character? When the episode aired, those of us new to Fellowes (like me) weren’t yet aware of how much Fellowes uses shortcuts disguised as cheek in his storytelling. In the latter seasons, the reliance on quick shock and tidy storytelling bows became an unfortunate part of the norm. Pamuk’s death is the first instance of shortcutting in Downton Abbey.

Pamuk and the “sexual exotic” stereotype

Valentino as the  sequel “The Sheik,” “The Son of The Sheik”. (Public Domain)

One of the things I’ve realized after the end of Downton Abbey is that Pamuk was basically a “hypersexual ethnic” role. Pamuk is the son of the Turkish sultan, and he does have a big role in the Turkish government. But none of that is focused on; instead, what’s the big focus is how he’s a primal, sexual character. Yes, Theo James is hot. But it’s really annoying that Pamuk’s only defining characteristic is that he’s horny.

According to the “Arabface” page of racist-stereotypes.com, Middle Eastern characters have often been seen as a multitude of negative stereotypes, including the sexually-crazed lech. “For centuries the Arab has played the role of villain, seducer, hustler and thief — the barbarian lurking at the gates of civilization,” states the site.

Arabs trying to abduct, rape, and or kill fair skinned Western maidens has been another very popular theme that dates to the earliest days of filmmaking. In Captured by Bedouins (1912) marauding tribesmen kidnap a Western girl, try to seduce her, and then demand a ransom for her return. Their plans are thwarted when the girl’s British officer fiancée sneaks into their camp and rescues her.

Several films with the same theme were popular in the 1980s; desert sheikhs abducting and threatening to rape Western maidens; Brook Shields in Sahara (1983), Goldie Hawn in Protocol (1984), Bo Derek in Bolero (1984), and Kim Basinger in Never Say Never Again (1986).

The idea of the exotic and sexual Middle Eastern man can also be used as sexual currency, or as Arabstereotypes.com so aptly describes it, as “dangerous romantic heroes.” This is seen in 1921’s The Sheik, in which the title character, played by 1920s heartthrob Valentino, saves the life of a white woman who was about to be raped by another sheik. Just so happens Valentino’s character isn’t actually Middle Eastern, but the rapist sheik actually is.

In the film, Valentino plays an Arab who kidnaps a white woman and holds her captive, waiting for her to fall in love with him. When she escapes and is kidnapped by another Arab sheik who plans to rape her, Valentino’s character becomes the romantic rescuer of women (who the storyline later reveals, is not in fact Arab).

The site also outlines how Harlequin novels also draw from the sheik stereotype to draw readers into the fantasy of a dangerous, exotic ideal.

Harlequin romance novels tend to have a common storyline of white women being abducted by Arab men and falling in love with them in the process. The Sheik, written by E.M. Hull in 1919, is the first known Harlequin novel based on a romance between a white woman and an Arab sheik, which initiated a genre that continues to the present. Many contemporary Harlequin novels revolve around the figure of the sheik as a domineering seducer and abductor of women who are either Arab or European, or Euro-American. In these storylines, Arab men are either threatening, or sites of romantic intrigue, and white men are often needed to rescue the damsel in distress.

Looking back at his death, it’s clear to me that Pamuk probably had a lot more he could have offered as a character instead of getting the short end of the stick with his awful storyline. At best, he could have been a viable threat to Matthew’s eventual love for Mary (because at the time Pamuk comes on the scene, Matthew could care less about Mary). However, he’s portrayed at his absolute worst. That is to say, he’s portrayed simply as a dick, in all senses of the word.

What about actual Turkish actors? 

(L) Theo James as Pamuk, (R) Turkish-Australian actor Deniz Akdeniz, who could have been a great Pamuk.

The stereotype Pamuk plays into is one thing. Add on top of that the fact that the character isn’t played by a Middle Eastern actor to begin with.

Theo James is British with Greek ancestry. While he might have more tan skin than the average Anglo-Saxon, a Middle Easterner darker skin doesn’t make.

It seems like his casting was consistent with lazy casting that figures that any person with a tan (natural or otherwise) can play any ethnicity and race. As I called it in my article about Henry Zaga being cast as Afro-Latinx X-Man Sunspot, being “white ethnic” grants you a specific set of privileges. In short, the amount of roles you could play are endless.

“As a white actor, Zaga could audition for–and land– as many leading roles as he wants. As a “white ethnic” actor, he can take not only traditionally white roles, but also those that call for non-white roles as well, such as Sunspot. Another example of this is Zach McGowan, a white actor who, because of his slightly darker “surfer boy” look, has been cast to play native Hawaiian historical figure Ben Kanahele in Ni’ihau.”

Granted, if a Turkish actor did portray Pamuk, the character itself would have to have been rewritten. It’d be useless to have proper representation only for the character to instantly die. But if Pamuk had a real storyline, the character could have been a great moment for Middle Eastern representation.

It’s not like Pamuk is going to come back in the Downton Abbey movie, so I’m not expecting anything great in the way of representation of any type. If Fellowes can’t bear to reprimand Mary for being a butt, then I doubt he’d bring in refreshing racial diversity or treat Thomas with any respect. But there are lessons we can learn from Pamuk and his characterization.

1) Pamuk’s death serves no purpose, therefore his character might not have even been warranted.

2) Pamuk’s characterization as a sly racial stereotype can give writers an instance of what not to do when creating layered Middle Eastern characters, even characters that only show up for one episode.

3) If you have to kill off a character, don’t stuff them in a broom closet.

What the New Study on Ancient Egypt Says About Media Representation

Science and the fight for representation in the media has intertwined in a brand new study coming from Germany. The study focuses specifically on ancient Egypt. What the scientists have to say about their findings could give Hollywood food for thought, if they decide to dissect the scientists’ results.

What the DNA discovery actually is

As CNN reports, researchers from Germany’s University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena have finally been able to do what scientists invested in studying Egypt have been trying to do for years–learn more about the genetic history of ancient Egyptians, a people who have been fought over by the Western World. That fight has played out in our modern media, with white actors playing the parts of historical ancient Egyptian characters, most notably the sheer number of actresses who have played Cleopatra.

The scientists used 151 mummies from Abusir el-Meleq, Middle Egypt. “The samples recovered from Middle Egypt span around 1,300 years of ancient Egyptian history from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period,” states the study, which was published in Nature Communications. The scientists found that ancient Egyptians from that area were more closely related to “Neolithic Anatolian and European populations.” Modern Egyptians, however, have more of a a genetic relationship with sub-Saharan Africans.

The reason behind the genetic surprise isn’t much of a surprise when you take into account the historical context the ancient folks of Abusir el-Meleq lived in. According to the study, Abusir el-Meleq was inhabited from around 3250BCE to about 700CE and was an attractive burial site because of its active cult to the god of the dead, Osiris. The site was part of a wider region during the third century BCE, a region that included the northern part of the Harakleopolites province and the Fayum and Memphite provinces, the latter two of which Abusir el-Meleq had close relations with. The Fayum province saw a huge influx in its population, more than likely from Greek immigration. During the Roman Period, many Roman veterans, described by the study as being people who weren’t “initially at least…Egyptian but people from disparate cultural backgrounds,” settled in the Fayum province after their time with the Roman army was done. After settling, they became a part of the local society and intermarried among the locals. Immigrants also influenced culture in Abusir el-Meleq, where coffins featuring Greek, Latin, and Hebrew names and Greek art remain.

However, the rate of intermarriage in the Fayum and surrounding areas was localized because of the high population of Greek and Roman immigrants. Intermarraige also seemed to serve political and social gains, since Roman citizenship was at stake and while Egyptians were granted citizenship under Roman rule, no doubt one could gain more rights of a Roman citizen if they married up, as it were.

“Our genetic time transect suggests genetic continuity between the Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic and Roman populations of Abusir el-Meleq, indicating that foreign rule impacted the town’s population only to a very limited degree at a genetic level. It is possible that the genetic impact of Greek and Roman immigration was more pronounced in the north-western Delta and the Fayum, where most Greek and Roman settlement concentrated, or among the higher classes of Egyptian society,” states the study. “Under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, ethnic descent was crucial to belonging to an elite group and afforded a privileged position in society. Especially in the Roman Period there may have been significant legal and social incentives to marry within one’s ethnic group, as individuals with Roman citizenship had to marry other Roman citizens to pass on their citizenship. Such policies are likely to have affected the intermarriage of Romans and non-Romans to a degree.”

The amount of sub-Saharan ancestry in modern Egyptians possibly comes from greater trade between the two regions. That trade also includes transporting slaves.

“Possible causal factors include increased mobility down the Nile and increased long-distance commerce between sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt,” states the study. “Trans-Saharan slave trade may have been particularly important as it moved between 6 and 7 million sub-Saharan slaves to Northern Africa over a span of some 1,250 years, reaching its high point in the nineteenth century.”

Despite the genetic breakthrough of tracing the genetic lineage of Abusir el-Meleq, the scientists stress that this one study probably (and more than likely isn’t) indicative of the lineage of the entirety of ancient Egypt.

“It is possible that populations in the south of Egypt were more closely related to those of Nubia and had a higher sub-Saharan genetic component, in which case the argument for an influx of sub-Saharan ancestries after the Roman Period might only be partially valid and have to be nuanced,” the study states. “Throughout Pharonic history that was intense interaction between Egypt and Nubia, ranging from trade to conquest and colonialism, and there is compelling evidence for ethnic complexity within households with Egyptian men marrying Nubian women and vice versa.”

In closing, the scientists stress that more studies need to be made of the ancient peoples of southern Egypt and Sudan in order to give a much more complete (or near-complete) picture of the vastness of the Egyptian genetic story.

Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)

How this affects the always-raging argument about how to portray ancient Egyptians in film and television? Does that mean Gods of Egypt is actually accurate??

Reading the original CNN article on this post, I knew there would be people, scholars who believe in the “Egypt-is-Anglo-Saxon” model in particular, who would take this study to mean that they are right and everyone who believes in a much more POC model of Egypt are wrong. While the study shows that there are European ties to ancient Egypt, some of these ties are what we’ve already learned from the history books–indeed, the Romans and the Greeks did come to Egypt due to its geological location as well as for political reasons (i.e. the Ptolemaic Dynasty–a Greek ruling family with origins in Macedonia–and the Roman Period), and Cleopatra herself, as the last Ptolemaic ruler, is of Egyptian and Greek-Macedonian background.

What is semi-new is the direct connection to Anatolia, otherwise known as Asia Minor or the Near East. Today, much of Anatolia is known as Turkey. While it’s always made sense that ancient Egyptians would share genetic connections to the Middle East simply because of Egypt’s geological location to many of the countries in the Middle East, the direct connection to Turkey has never been known.

In regard to this new knowledge, what does that mean for Hollywood when it comes to casting actors for films about ancient Egypt? Regarding this information about the citizens of Abusir el-Meleq, it would still be incorrect for a director to lazily cast characters since, going by old and new genetic information, ancient Egyptians were never “white” in the Western sense. For example, Gods of Egypt, which included actors hailing from Denmark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Australia (Brenton Thwaites), Scotland (Gerard Butler), and France (Elodie Yung, who is of French and Cambodian descent), is still historically incorrect and, just on a base level, visually upsetting. Even Chadwick Boseman, who is part of the African Diaspora, more than likely doesn’t share any strong genetic ties to Egypt. Most of the actors who would at least, visually, present a better vision of ancient Egypt were actors or crew who either had bit parts or went uncredited–Josh Farah, Wassim Hawat, Julian Maroun, Ishak Issa, and Rhavin Banda, to be specific. Of course, having these guys might not make the film any more or less accurate either, since this casting would be based solely on skin color and not on historical accuracy.

Hollywood actors who would have been perfectly suited for these roles would have been actors who are of Egyptian or Turkish background, such as Numan Acar (Homeland, of German and Turkish heritage), Deniz Akdeniz (I, Frankenstein, Once Upon a Time), Osman Soykut, also known as Ozman Sirgood (The Hot Chick, Alias, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, of Eastern European and Turkish heritage), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Night at the Museum series, of Egyptian heritage), Amr Waked (Lucy, Egyptian heritage), Khaled Nabawy (Kingdom of Heaven, Egyptian heritage), Sammy Sheik (American Sniper, Egyptian heritage), Ahmed Ahmed (Iron Man, Egyptian heritage), Kal Naga (Tyrant, Egyptian heritage) and plenty of other undiscovered Turkish and Egyptian actors in America looking to make their mark in Hollywood, as well as established Turkish and Egyptian actors who are looking to break into the American market. Ditto this list for a more accurate portrayal of biblical characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

However, that’s also not to say that the European ancestry of some ancient Egyptians shouldn’t be expressed in films. This needs to be done with care, since too often, the casting practice for Hollywood is, as we’ve seen with Gods of Egypt, to whitewash with abandon. Some of the actors I mentioned are biracial, which goes right into the picture that the study itself painted about the ancient Egyptians of Abusir el-Meleq. Overall, casting history should be done with care, not with Hollywood stereotyping and tropes.

Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. (Public Domain)

The Takeaways

If there’s been any production that made an effort to be at least visually appealing in regards to showcasing ancient Egypt is Spike’s TUT, which starred Avan Jogia and a mostly brown and black cast in an attempt to show how ancient Egypt and neighboring regimes in Sudan actually interacted with each other. Sure, it’s not historically accurate, but as far as Hollywood standards go, this was a knock out of the park. If Hollywood went in this direction more often, there might be less gripes from audience members.

In short, the new study doesn’t go against what folks who are vying for better represented Egyptian-themed movies have been preaching. If anything, it clarifies things even more. It showcases that there is not only a need to show ancient Egyptians as they actually looked, but there is also a need to remember that ancient Egyptians, just like us, existed in a multiracial, multicultural world, that included intermarriage and biracial/multiethnic offspring. It would be great if the people behind the films we loved showed an interest and curiosity in creating a film that not only had a great story, but also paid respect to the people whose stories they are telling.

Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)