The impoverished neighborhood of Hürriyet in the southern Turkish city of Adana (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

For many years, the impoverished neighborhood of Hürriyet in the southern Turkish city of Adana was just another inner-city area plagued by crime and gang warfare.

Then, in 2016, a ground-breaking TV drama series brought the district into the spotlight. 

Sıfır Bir – Bir Zamanlar Adana (01 – Once Upon A Time in Adana) was initially conceived and developed by residents, who broadcast the first two seasons for free online. Three more seasons were produced after it was bought by an online streaming service. 

(Credit: Dilan Karaman)

It followed three childhood friends as they dealt with gang warfare and tried to root out drugs and crime in Hürriyet, in the city’s Seyhan district.

The show proved hugely popular among viewers and critics alike, with one review by writer Hüseyin Akcan in Duvar describing it as having “a primitive power which is shaped around the neighborhood”.

But Hürriyet residents remain divided about the show and its impact on their lives. Some argue that the new interest in their neighbourhood and an influx of sightseers have given the area a boost and shown the outside world their culture of communal support and artistic expression. 

(Credit: Dilan Karaman)

Others insist that the series misrepresents the reality on the ground, tarnishing the area’s reputation by portraying it as a crime-infested den. The years of violence are now a thing of the past, they argue, with people now just trying to make a living and improve the lives of their children.

The impact of the new-found fame is clear: right at the entrance to the neighbourhood is a döner restaurant named Sıfır Bir in honour of the series. Elsewhere, sightseers come to take photographs of the park that’s central to the show’s action.

Barış Aydık, 17, works as a waiter in Hürriyet (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

But Barış Aydık, 17, a waiter at another restaurant across the road, said that the programme distorted reality.

“The neighborhood which is described in the series does not actually represent this place,” said Aydik, adding that like many other locals, he didn’t watch the series after it transferred to the fee-paying platform. Viewers made assumptions about life here, he continued.

“Because they don’t know what’s in our hearts, they talk badly about us. If there is anyone who wants to know us, they should come here.”

Mehmet Germiş, 25, works as a cook at another restaurant. A fight at the age of 14 left a groove in his eyebrow, a mark he said that many young men his age in the district also bore. 

Mehmet Germiş, 25, still has a scar from a fight he was involved in at the age of 14 (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

“The kids who don’t have scars on their faces are the new generation,” he said. “Anyone over a certain age here has scars.”

Germiş, who was born and raised in Hurriyet, said that the series had been accurate – up to a point.

According to Tarkan Şahin, there is too much violence in the TV series about Hürriyet and some of it has never happened.  (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

 “The representation of the neighborhood in the series falls short,” agreed Tarkan Şahin, a 26 year-old school dropout who is now unemployed. “There were bad incidents but not that much violence. In the series, even the kids are killing each other. It never happened.”

Some argue that the community’s struggles gave rise to a flurry of creative expression that was ignored amid the sensationalism that came to define the district. Germiş, a rap and graffiti aficionado, said that most families in the neighborhood owned a string instrument. 

Most families in the neighbourhood own a string instrument (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

İsmail Tilhe, the muhtar of nearby Yenibey, agreed. 

“Even though the residents are poor, there is big artistic potential,” he continued, noting that Müslüm Gürses, one of Turkey’s most famous arabesque singers, and actor and director Yılmaz Güney both came from Hürriyet.

İsmail Tilhe, the muhtar of Yenibey, claims that the gangs and drugs that are mentioned in the series don’t exist (Credit: Dilan Karaman) 

“The gangs and drugs that are mentioned in the series don’t exist,” Tilhe insisted.

Adana, a cosmopolitan industrial city of 2.2 million inhabitants in southern Turkey, is known for its local cuisine, not least its namesake kebabs. 

Hürriyet, however, with a population of just over 6,000, had long suffered from neglect and emerged as a hotbed for political movements, gangs and delinquency. It was a ghetto akin to other notorious areas such as Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı and Sulukule neighbourhoods and Diyarbakır’s Sur and Kaynartepe districts. 

There continues to be little in the way of government support. No NGOs appear to be operating in the neighbourhood, though there is some information on anti-drug and anti-violence training on the website of the nearby Seyhan municipality. A cultural centre called Seymer appears to be defunct.

Locals say that the community has stepped in where the state has failed them. 

“How everyone helps each other in the show is real. This is a neighborhood exactly like what you see on the show,” said Mehmet Öncü, 32.  

Mehmet Öncü, 32, claims that Hürriyet is presented accurately in a ground-breaking TV drama series created in 2016. (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

Öncü, who is unemployed, suggested that the TV series would help the area’s fortunes.  The renewed attention would only encourage the neighborhood to improve, he said, adding that “anyone who wishes can come here, our door is open to everyone”.

Anıl Donma, 19, left school four years ago when his father was sent to prison. He said the interest from outsiders had actually helped the neighborhood address some of its earlier troubles.  

“As far as I have observed, it was difficult to enter the neighborhood before the series,” he said, adding that the influx of sightseers was “better than the neighborhood being known as a bad place”. 

Anıl Donma, 19, believes that the interest from outsiders has actually helped the neighborhood address some of its earlier troubles. (Credit: Dilan Karaman)

Cemal Koçyiğit, who is 18 and works in a coffee house, also thought that life in the neighbourhood had improved.

“After the show, a bunch of people from Ankara, Diyarbakır, Istanbul started coming to the neighbourhood. Obviously, it helped businesses and the cash flow,” Koçyiğit says.

Germiş agreed that better times were surely ahead for Hürriyet.

“Yes, those things happened years ago.” he said. “The residents fought against [gang warfare] that may affect their kids, some of them were even arrested, but the last fights ended eight or nine years ago. Now everyone is focused on the struggle to earn a living.”