by Eda Savaseri
“Land of our Birth, our faith, our pride,
For whose dear sake our fathers died;
Oh, Motherland, we pledge to thee
Head, heart and hand through the years to be!”
-Rudyard Kipling – The Children’s Song
Netflix’s Turkish TV series, The Club, is set in the 1950s and allows us to get a look at a minority in Turkey which has been overlooked for many years, the Sephardi Jews. The series aired on November 5th in Turkey and internationally. As far as I have been following, as a native myself, it has been receiving excellent reviews and has been praised especially by the Sephardi Jews, for its realistic depiction of that era, the historical facts and for the use of the Ladino language.
The Club tells the story of a woman, a mother who tries to reconnect with her rebellious daughter. The Club, as the name suggests, is a night club that serves as an intersection for most of the characters. As the series continues, we learn more and more about the characters’ troubles and life stories.
Although The Club offers great songs and some masterfully executed dancing and singing, it is does have a somber atmosphere. Nevertheless, it does not get boring since it succeeds in creating wonderful characters one can get invested in.
The rest of this review will have spoilers so if you haven’t watched the series, you might want to come back to this review later.
“After all it is your motherland, you can’t just leave!”
Two sacred things for each and every one of us: our mothers and our motherland. The protagonist of The Club’s story is Matilda (a brilliant performance from Gökçe Bahadır), a woman who originally comes from a wealthy Jewish family. Unfortunately, at a very young age she commits a crime, ends up losing her family as well and, since she is pregnant at the time she is convicted, she is forced to give her daughter up for adoption. The series starts as her story but gradually we not only learn about her past and get to know her daughter Rasel (Asude Kelebek), who grew up in an orphanage, but through her forced employment at the Club after being released, we also get to learn about the people around her.
Matilda is broken, she feels betrayed by her motherland although she never speaks about it in that way. Considering what happened to her and many other non-muslims at that time, it would not be wrong to assume they felt that way. The Sephardi Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century and lived mostly peacefully until the World War II came about.
In 1942 the Turkish government issued a new tax called the “Wealth Tax” that was to be levied on non-muslim citizens. The problem with this tax was that the non-muslims were not given enough time to pay it. The short 2 weeks notice for the heavy tax forced many non-muslims to sell their belongings, and some of those who couldn’t pay on time were sent to labor camps. This tax law was abolished in 1944 and marks the demographic change of minorities in Turkey. A product of the political scene of that era, it also remains as a scar on the cosmopolitan history of Istanbul where people from all belief systems lived happily together. Matilda’s family is also victim of this tax law.
In the first episode, all Matilda wants is to go to Israel but as she finds herself visiting her old neighborhood, and she hears “Yo Era Ninya” being sung by the women who are doing housework, we can feel her nostalgia for the past. As the Anatolian worker from the Club, Hacı (a touching performance from Sezer Arıçay) appears behind her and compliments the song and later offers her an apple, for a minute, just like them, we as the viewer feel that we are not different, we are all people eating the apples that grow on the trees on our motherland.
As the only person next to a kin to Matilda, David (Murat Garibağaoğlu), tells her, “you can’t just leave motherland. You just can’t leave it behind even when you try.”
The Characters & Motherhood
It is impossible not to notice the effect of their mothers on the characters of the Club. Let’s take Rasel first. Matilda never called her daughter and, had Rasel not been in grave trouble, Matilda was planning on leaving her behind. We still admire her persistence once she decides she will stay and take on the responsibility of being Rasel’s mother, at least from now on. Rasel is a handful. Unlike many kids who grow up in an orphanage, Rasel has been spoiled by David because he probably felt guilty for not adopting her. When Matilda says she is her mother, Rasel is furious because at least she had her dreams about a saint like mother. Now, in flesh, Matilda can’t live up to her dreams.
The Club’s owner Orhan (Metin Akdülger, brilliant as the ambitious boss) has a mother who expects a lot from her son and it’s interesting to note that Selim (Salih Bademci singing, dancing and stealing our hearts with his acting) also has a similar mother who is not satisfied with the choices her son has made. After all, the entertainment industry wasn’t a very respectable industry back then. Orhan comes from a wealthy family and has big dreams just like Selim. Together they want to become the entertainment trend setters because back then the entertainment industry in Turkey was led by non-muslims and all shows felt like reproductions of shows in European capitals.
As Selim and Orhan find success with their shows, which are never before seen acts in the night life scene, Orhan allows himself to be pressured by a political figure to make sure all his staff is made up of muslim Turks. His choice was disappointing as until then Orhan had seemed to be a very honest and respectable man. But then we find out about his mother, their secret, and it becomes an interesting story arc that explores the choices we have to make to be successful. The rest of this story arc will probably be explored in the new episodes coming in 2022.
We don’t get to see Fıstık İsmet (Barış Arduç yet again doing a great job with troubled İsmet) and Selim’s mothers that much. Selim’s mother is cruel and lets Selim know she doesn’t care about his career and that he is wasting his education on nonsense. İsmet’s mother can’t resist helping his father who abused her. İsmet is enraged by the naivety of his mother who can’t seem to enjoy being protected by İsmet and can’t just shut the door on his father’s face.
Another important character unrelated to a mother-child bond is Çelebi, (in a wonderful performance from Fırat Tanış). We sense that he knows Matilda and his obvious hostility raises questions about their shared history. The first six episodes reveal some of their past but I hope that the next installment will provide more insight into Aziz (Çelebi is the name he took later; Matilda knows him as Aziz) and why he has a love hate attitude towards Matilda.
Through these various characters, we see how the mother child relationship shapes the social narrative against a politically charged milieu. A mother is not always a saint but a mother to us is always holy. No matter how we have been treated and tortured or how many times we have been disappointed, we always seek the comfort of a mother’s touch or an encouraging word. Just as Tasula (Merve Şeyma Zengin) tells Matilda about Rasel, “She must be thankful that she has you, a mother who cares about her”.
Why The Club Is Important
In an honest and sincere confrontation with Turkey’s recent history, The Club offers insight into the lives of Turkish Jews of Hispanic descent, uses their language Ladino very well (confirmed by many Sephardi Jews in a variety of interviews), has cinematic beauty, includes touching songs in Ladino and Turkish, some of which were composed for the series. The costumes, decor, acting is spectacular. The relationships between the characters keep us guessing and wondering.
The series’ strongest asset is character building. Good or bad, they are all interesting and feel authentic to that era with their language and mannerisms.
If you are looking for a series that will reveal some hidden, and maybe dark, parts of Turkish history you must watch The Club. Just like the night club, the series also show all sides of Turkey, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the hideous. A beautiful elegy to motherland and to mothers who are always loved and never forgotten.
The four episode second part of the series has already been announced and will start streaming on Netflix on January 6, 2022. Here is the official trailer:
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Eda Savaseri is a Turkish copywriter from Istanbul. She loves cats, books, chocolate and traveling. She loves sharing things that she learns and apply towards self-improvement.
She enjoys writing about a multitude of topics and loves to share her thoughts about TV Shows she’s watching. You can find her blog here.
I loved this series. It was a real eye-opener to see the treatment of non-Muslim Turks. Much of this happened during my lifetime, so I consider it “recent” history. I loved seeing actors that I’ve watched in other programs. I really believe Turkey has some of the most gifted actors in the profession. In fact, the editing, cinematography, music, costumes, etc. are first rate. This is another winner for Turkish entertainment.