young journalist travels back in time to 1919 Istanbul, accidentally
disrupting the natural flow of history. She must act quickly to
prevent the assassination of Ataturk – which would threaten the
very existence of modern Turkey.
This is the plot of “Midnight At The Pera Palace,” a Netflix series based (very, very loosely) on the popular book by Charles King. I read King’s book several years ago, and found his nonfiction recounting of the Pera Palace Hotel’s long and storied history to be very entertaining. I have even spent a night at the famous hotel myself, but that’s another story.
who has read the book will notice immediately that we are on a very
different journey in this eight-part series. At first, I was keenly
disappointed, when the chimes struck midnight, an earthquake rumbles
through the elegant room, and next thing we and the protagonist are
staring around wildly disbelieving (“Is that Agatha Christie? Oh my
God, it’s Ataturk!”). It was like watching a mishmash of “Back
to the Future” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” I
thought with dismay.
after the first episode, I let myself just fall into the fantastical
story. Misgivings aside, “Midnight at the Pera Palace” does have
a lot to offer. Anyone who has been to the Pera Palace will
appreciate revisiting its rich history, which is offered here in
terms of how it serves the twisting, time-travel narrative.
cast features many well-known Turkish actors. The journalist Esra is
played by Hazal Kaya (a graduate of Bilgi University, where I teach
as a matter of fact), and her “Doc Brown” assistant and Pera
Palace manager friend Ahmet Bey is played by Tansu Biçet. Halut, the
would-be assassin of Ataturk, is played by Selahattin Pasali.
giving away too many spoilers, Esra accidentally travels back to the
Pera Palace in 1919, and due to a case of mistaken identity, is
indirectly responsible for the murder of Peride at the hands of the
conspirator Halut. Peride is a fictional historical character,
daughter of the Pera Palace owner. In this recast history, it is
Peride who is supposed to save Ataturk from an assassination attempt.
Turkish history buffs of course know the famous true story of how
Ataturk survived a real such attempt on his life, but was saved when
a pocketwatch given to him as a present stopped the fatal bullet.
any rate, with so much at stake, it is up to the enterprising Esra to
assume the identity of the now-dead Peride. She must assume the
manners and role of an early 20th Century daughter of
powerful patriarch while at the same time get to the bottom of the
plot to kill the future Father of Modern Turkey.
all time travel stories, “Midnight At the Pera Palace” enjoys
playing with the trappings and mores of the past (“Knowing what we
know now …”). For instance, somewhat predictably, Esra-as-Peride
invokes the rage of her father through her millennial free spirited,
assertive ways. And when she lapses into English when conversing with
a British officer, her mystified sister asks aloud, “When did
Peride learn to speak English?” which will probably make modern
Turks chuckle, since for them, speaking English is as customary and
commonplace as having a smart phone.
thought I had while watching the series was that it’s revealing and
interesting to see the Pera Palace and its environs presented by
Turks. King’s book, for those who haven’t read it (and I
recommend it), is well-researched and carefully observed, with lots
of dishy history on the hotel’s many stellar guests, and its role
not only as the end point on the Orient Express, but as a character
in some of the 20th Century’s most important events.
the series, history again is more of a foil and backdrop, but
directors Emre Şahin
and Nisan Dağ
the cast allow we yabanci viewers a glimpse into how that pivotal
time in Turkish history is viewed by Turks themselves. It is almost
always more interesting to see history through the eyes of the
locals, for they will have an eye for the little details, the
mannerisms, ways and habits of speech, that may escape the notice of
example, there is the character of Sonya, a White Russian who was one
of many forced to flee Russia following the 1917 Bolshevik
revolution, and who is working as a maid at the hotel. She and Ahmet
Bey sit and have a drink together at the hotel bar and their
exchanges, while no doubt romanticized (would a recently arrived
White Russian speak Turkish as fluently as Sonya does?), the scene is
touchingly portrayed, and one can’t help but reflect on the current
reality of thousands of newly arrived refugees from Ukraine, not to
mention the millions of Syrians who’ve been here well over a
revealing exchange occurs earlier in the series, when British
officers patronizingly invite Mustafa Kemal to join them at their
table. “Thank them on my behalf,” the Turkish general tells the
waiter curtly. “But they are guests in our country. Tell them they
are welcome to join me at my table.” Watching this scene, a
yabancı such as myself reflects that Turkey, then as now, has always
been home to many guests, welcome or not.
Esra-as-Peride and Ahmet Bey scrambling, Marty McFly-like, around the
city, eluding and following the conspirators, scrambling to restore
history, to in effect, save Turkey, it also occurred to me that the
directors wanted to show that Turkey is ever in search of its
identity, and in a sense, ever-threatened from without and from
within, by topsy-turvy events, chance or not.
Give “Midnight at the Pera Palace” a shot, if you’re in between
series at the moment. It’s time-travel angle may strike some as
awkward and derivative, as it did me at first, but ultimately it’s
a well-cast, beautifully shot and at times illuminating glimpse into
one of the most interesting chapters of modern Turkish history. It
reminds us that history is always being recast and rewritten, and has
some fun along the way.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.