“Yunus Emre:” A Review of a Turkish Television Series

“Lovers yearn for You, but Your love slays them”  —line of poetry by Yunus Emre

Yunus Emre was a Turkish Sufi saint and poet of the 13th-14th century, and “Yunus Emre” is a Turkish television drama series, in 45 episodes over two seasons, based on his life (on Netflix, in Turkish with English subtitles).  I’ve been binge-watching it, because it seems to me to reach for, and often to succeed in capturing, romantic and dramatic themes of the spiritual life in a way that I haven’t seen portrayed.  It’s been a time travel portal into medieval Turkey that’s both entertaining television tourism and a welcome respite from contemporary American politics.  And the music is wonderful; reed flute, oud, and drums, enhanced with strings and voices, and well aligned with the action.

We meet Yunus Emre as he graduates as a Cadi, a judge of the Sharia law, at the preeminent Madrassa in Konya, Turkey, in the year 1268 (CE), and takes up his position in the city of Nalihan.  The new judge, dedicated to restoring and establishing justice, makes the wrong call in case after case, confusing his decisions with justice.  In the process he meets the Sheikh, the spiritual teacher of the local dervish lodge—while raiding it, self-righteously, in search of a dervish whom he mistakenly believes to be a murderer—and discovers that the Sheikh is the illiterate and visually impaired old timer and storyteller who had been his traveling companion on the road between Konya and Nalihan.  The Sheikh challenges Yunus’ judgement in sentencing an innocent dervish to death, which outrages Yunus but eventually prompts him to begin to review his judicial decisions.  Eventually, Yunus corrects his mistaken judgments, case by case, and resigns his high-status judicial position to become a lowly student of the Sheikh.

Aspects of Yunus’ personality emerge in his relationship with the Sheikh; his greed for respect admixed with his desire for justice, and different qualities of ambition, personal and spiritual.  Even as he is angry at the Sheikh for challenging his “justice” as Cadi, Yunus begins to listen.  The old man’s manner in talking with Yunus, personally open but firm on the issue, creates the opportunity for Yunus to enter into the spiritual friendship that has already begun to transform him.

The series seems to me to divide into three parts.  Part 1, episodes 1-6, involves Yunus’ coming to Nalihan, becoming the Cadi, making and repairing his judicial mistakes, and deciding to relinquish his official position to become a dervish.  Part 2, lasting the rest of season one and well into season two, involves his initial and transitional studies under the Sheikh, in which he struggles with himself to establish a psychological foundation for spiritual experience, through such assignments as cleaning the dervish cells and the toilets in the dervish lodge, while attending the Sheikh’s assemblies.  Part 3 involves Yunus’ spiritual unfolding as he becomes a Sufi saint and poet.  I thought the first two parts were more completely realized than the third, but that’s no criticism; spiritual experience can’t really be shown, and the portrayal of Yunus’ transition from scholar-jurist to dervish to God-inspired poet is credible.  As a psychologist interested in spirituality, I found the portrayal of the psychological issues involved in Yunus’ arriving at the decision to embark on a spiritual path, then struggling with himself at various stages along it, presents the process of achievement, renunciation, new achievement, consolidation, repeated again at each next stage, in a way that I haven’t seen in any other drama.

As Yunus’ personality transforms, so do his attitudes.   As the series begins, in his graduation examination at the Madrasa, Yunus is scornful and dismissive of poets and poetry; “They lie!”, yet by the end he has become a divinely inspired poet.  Early in the first season, he is contemptuous of dervishes as uneducated and misguided slackers, yet he becomes one as a spiritual student of the Sheikh.  All along, the Sheikh both recognizes Yunus’ potential and thwarts his superficial understanding and ambitions, setting him tasks that provide contexts to struggle with himself again and again.

The pace, I should say, is glacial, especially in the first season, which I welcomed as a respite from the the frenetic political environment of the new American presidency; one can only take so much of that intense emotional roller-coaster without losing one’s balance, and the long view of looking back from here to 13th century Turkey reminds us that “this too will pass.”  The second season seemed to have been written with more made-for-tv drama than the first; it moved faster and had somewhat more violence and sex, though very little by American standards.  The English subtitles were often just indications of what was really being said—a Turkish friend says the translation is “atrocious”—but that pulled this viewer in to guess what they were really saying.  I found it amusing when the translation differed between a scene happening in one episode and then its being featured in the extensive recap at the beginning of the next episode.  It suggested that the budget was spent on the production and there wasn’t much left over for English subtitles, or maybe they were an afterthought.  I couldn’t have watched it without them, so, thanks.

The acting is very good.  The cast established the characters believably; so much so that when one cast member—the Sheikh’s daughter—changed from season 1 to season 2, the change in how the part was played—not better or worse, but different—remained jarring well into the second season.  The mayor, in season two, is worthy of Lear, and Molla Kasim, the dervish who can never get beyond the rules of conduct to the meaning of conduct, is a perfect contrast to Yunus.  Yunus and the Sheikh, whose relationship is at the core of the series, kept me wondering what was going to happen next.  And the Sheikh, responding to each situation with stories and unexpected instructions and actions, portrays a spiritual teacher in the world—the world of that time—in a way that feels valid and true.  Of course, this implies that the screenplay is well written, and the directing also true to its intent; otherwise it could not have been accomplished.  Even the seeming miracles, such as the Sheikh’s occasionally knowing what others are thinking or what is happening at a distance, are integrated into the action so seamlessly that one could miss them.

The devotional context of Yunus’ studies in the dervish lodge is impossible to replicate today; there is no sense trying to train ourselves to live in medieval Turkey.  Yet “Yunus Emre” highlights issues that are part of the spiritual life wherever we live it, and in a most entertaining way.  And, at a time in American political history when the question of what is true often seems to mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to, “Yunus Emre” refreshingly reminds us that truth exists as such.  When Yunus is adjudicating crimes, somebody committed them and somebody didn’t.  And spiritual truth exists beyond the rules and formats which are there to help us approach it.