One clear day in February, when Ali Babacan visited Yemen, his hosts brought him to a centuries-old, mud-brick building outside Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. There, about a dozen tribal leaders were waiting for the Turkish foreign minister with curved daggers drawn. If Babacan was at first startled, he soon realized that he was being greeted in a way once reserved for newly arrived Ottoman governors—complete with drums and a traditional dance that had probably not been performed for a Turkish official in almost a century.Not so long ago, top Turkish officials didn’t bother to visit Yemen, or for that matter most other countries in the Middle East. In the nearly 90 years since the founding of the modern Turkish Republic, its leaders have tended to equate the East with backwardness, and the West with modernity—and so focused their gaze primarily on Europe. Meanwhile, Arab countries, once ruled by sultans from Istanbul, looked upon Turkey with a mixture of suspicion and defensive resentment.
Today that’s changing. Not only is Turkey sending emissaries throughout the region, but a new vogue for all things Turkish has emerged in neighboring countries. The Turkish soap opera Noor, picked up by the Saudi-owned MBC satellite network and dubbed in Arabic, became a runaway hit, reaching some 85 million viewers across the Middle East. Many of the growing number of tourists from Arab countries visiting Istanbul are making pilgrimages to locations featured in the show. In February, Asharq Alawsat, a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, took note of changing attitudes in a widely circulated column, “The Return of the Ottoman Empire?”
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