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The first St. Nicholas was Turkish and now the predominantly Muslim country has a modern Santa film.
In Istanbul's sprawling Eminonu district there are alleys full of shops selling tinsel, artificial Christmas trees and dozens of different models of Chinese-made dancing Santa Claus dolls.
“We are selling Christmas symbols here; it’s a big opportunity for business in a time of economic crisis,” said Tuna Alkan, a dentist by profession but seasonal helper in her husband’s landmark shop Urgancilik. “It’s funny though, because I am a Jew and they are Muslims and we are surrounded by Christmas.”
Now, with “Neseli Hayat,” Turkey has its very first Christmas movie. Prolific writer, director and comedian Yilmaz Erdogan has brought a new Christmas icon to the streets — one that is uniquely Turkish.
“Neseli Hayat” translates to “A Cheerful Life,” but another title could easily be “The Turkish Santa." Erdogan stars as Riza, a working-class man who has lost his job, his friends and his money to a disastrous pyramid scheme. Down and out, Riza is forced to take a job as Santa Claus in a toyshop in one of Istanbul’s new shopping malls. Dressed up in the obligatory red suit and white beard, Riza tries to get into character without any idea what this is all about.
In one of the films more memorable scenes, Riza and the other mall Santas are given a lesson on how to speak Santa’s lingo. Riza’s boss gives a hearty “HO HO HO,” followed by the other Santas with equal enthusiasm, if a thick accent. When Riza is called out to give his own attempt, however, the greeting is feeble, more gasp and wheeze than holiday cheer.
The film plays on the irony of Riza’s predicament, zooming in to highlight him giving the introductory two kisses to his mall friends — a giant mobile phone and hamburger — his plastic beard pressed up against a bright yellow French fry. His compulsory, and often awkward “ho ho ho's” are usually followed by a cheery "asalam alaikum," a common Arabic greeting meaning “peace be upon you.”
The film highlights not only how Muslim Turks have rediscovered the Western saint of secular Christmas — and his roots in Turkey — but also how they have adapted this icon to a Muslim culture. “Neseli Hayat” may not be “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but this cozy little Christmas tale is fully adapted to the Turkish ethos.
Move aside Santa; the Turks have found their own “Efendi Claus.”