The Jewish Businessman Wielding Turkey’s Soft Power on the World's TV Screens

The life story of Izzet Pinto, the man who turned Turkish telenovelas into a global empire, could compete with any of the shows he sells

Izzet Pinto. His birth name was Israel Pinto, but as has been the Jewish custom for generations in various diasporas, his parents also gave him a non-Jewish name, Izzet.
Izzet Pinto. His birth name was Israel Pinto, but as has been the Jewish custom for generations in various diasporas, his parents also gave him a non-Jewish name.Credit: cem kiralim
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Stella Molinas Trevez believes in reincarnation. She even wrote about it in an autobiography that was published in Turkey and was very successful. The name of the book is “I’m 44 Years Old But My Son is 53.”

Stella is also the “cousin Stella” of Izzet Pinto, a 43-year-old Turkish Jewish businessman who leads what is perhaps his country’s most successful export industry today – the television drama series. Indeed, if news of “The Bride of Istanbul” and “Muhteşem Yüzyl” (“The Magnificent Century”) has reached the remotest villages of South America or Eastern Europe, and Israel, credit for that belongs to him and the distribution company Global Agency of which he is CEO. It is thanks to him that Turkey has become an export giant in the TV content industry, second only to the United States. And all that began with Pinto’s cousin Stella and her strong belief in reincarnation.

“The story begins in 1989, when Stella was working in Istanbul and teaching bridge,” says Pinto in an interview that was scheduled to take place in Istanbul, but after the pandemic closed the skies took the form of virtual replacements – a week of conversations on Zoom, over the phone, on WhatsApp and by email, with me in Israel.

“Strange things started to happen in the house where she lived with her mother and her children. Objects disappeared for no reason. There was a terrible plague of insects. When human excrement appeared one day in the middle of the living room carpet, the family decided to turn to a local medium. The solutions he suggested didn’t help. The buffet collapsed. A bouquet of lilies appeared out of nowhere,” Pinto tells me.

Stella Molinas Trevez, also known as 'Cousin Stella.'Credit: jessica trevez

“They summoned an Israeli medium named Ari to help them. He brought about a temporary lull in the mysterious phenomena, but nine months later fear returned to the house, when in a peculiar manner the key to the bathroom migrated from the inside to the outside of the door and Stella was locked in. Her children, Jessica and Jeffrey, complained that someone was trying to strangle them in their sleep.

“Stella traveled to Israel to consult again with Ari, the medium, who referred her to a rabbi who ordered her to affix mezuzahs in all the rooms of the house, and declared that all the phenomena the family had experienced were the result of events that took place in her previous life,” Pinto continues. “Stella consulted a medium again, this time in France, who specialized in something called an ‘astral journey.’ Something that’s not like hypnosis because she felt she was awake, but had lost her ability to move. The medium asked: ‘Where are you now?’ Stella replied: ‘In France.’ What year is it? ‘1950.’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Martine.’ ‘How old are you?’ ’I am 30 years old.’

“Stella discovered that Martine was married to a French government official and had a child with him, and when the child was 3 years old she fell in love with another man and divorced her husband. Her husband later sent a hit man who murdered her. All that happened in 2000. Stella returned home to Turkey in the hope that if she wrote a book about her experience, it would help her to find her son from her previous life and the man she had loved.”

Stella wrote “I’m 44 Years Old But My Son is 53.” Izzet read the book, and told her they had to distribute it outside Turkey too. He offered to be her literary agent, and that was the start of his career as a distributor.

“I searched on Google and found a book fair in this genre in New York,” he tells me. “I sold it to a publisher in Taiwan. It turned out that this was the first Turkish book ever translated into Chinese, and it became a best seller. Then came the translation in Portuguese. I had connections with Thailand and they translated it there too. It was my first success in this business.”

Since then, that business has grown immeasurably. Pinto has expanded the borders of his empire far more than Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who in his day expanded the borders of the Ottoman Empire up to the gates of Vienna in the West. Pinto now heads the huge industry that distributes little pills of comfort every evening to tens of millions of TV viewers all over the world, from the Far East to America.

A scene from Turkish TV hit drama 'The Bride from Istanbul.'Credit: Star TV

And like that same magnificent 17th-century sultan – who is the subject of a flagship Turkish TV series called “The Magnificent Century,” for whose worldwide distribution Pinto’s company is responsible – he himself has no comfort and no rest. He is a tortured soul who is burning inside in a fire of endless guilt. And his sense of guilt and missed opportunity are fueled by a crucial story that he himself experienced – a story that he also decided to commit to writing. His autobiography, “In Honor of My Father,” which his cousin Stella helped him write, is about to be published now in Turkey.

In the name of the father

Izzet Pinto was born in Istanbul, in the Şişli quarter on the European side of the city, where he still lives today with his wife Rosette and their son Aksel. For generations, and to this day, Şişli has been a hub for Istanbul’s bourgeois Jewish families.

His birth name was Israel Pinto, after his grandfather, but as has been the Jewish custom for generations in various diasporas, his parents also gave him a non-Jewish name, Izzet. At the time there was a handsome Turkish film and TV star named Izzet Gunay. If that was the inspiration for his name it was right on target, since in the end Pinto also found himself in those same worlds – as a leading player.

The cover of Pinto's new autobiography, 'In Honor of My Father.'

I first heard the name Izzet Pinto by chance during a visit to Istanbul in late 2019. I had read an item in the local Jewish newspaper Shalom, featuring a photograph of Ryan Zinke, the then-Secretary of the Interior in the administration of President Donald Trump. On the dais of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Zinke gave Pinto the TOA (Turk of America) Outstanding Achievement Award for his part in promoting Turkish culture. Nowhere in the report was it mentioned that Pinto is Jewish, but there was no need: His surname identifies him unequivocally as a descendant of the Jews who were exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century.

In his speech in Washington, Pinto recalled that when he finished high school in Istanbul he traveled for the first time to the United States and stayed with a family in Houston, Texas, as part of a student exchange program. He invited the family to the awards ceremony and pointed them out from the dais.

Now, after a week in his virtual company, I understand the great importance Pinto attributes to people who played a role in his life. Every detail from his past seems significant, as though he is actually living inside a drama – perhaps of the kind that he and his company are disseminating worldwide.

He thus gave me precise biographical details about the players in his life story and didn’t relax until he explained everything. Such meticulous attention to detail is a typical Jewish trait, which perfectly suits the culture of melodrama that characterizes the TV series he deals with.

Our conversations repeatedly switched from his own story to family stories, maybe because of the embarrassment we feel, as Turkish Jews, when we have to talk about ourselves. We prefer to change the subject, so as not to offend the evil eye. After a week in Pinto’s virtual company, I could picture his network the people who have constituted the Istanbuli Pinto tribe, which is still considered to be headed by the figure of his late father, Isaac.

Izzet Pinto and his late father, Isaac. Izzet barely utters a sentence without mentioning him.Credit: gila kantar

He barely utters a sentence without mentioning Isaac. Paternal devotion is a trademark of Jewish families, who seem to have been cast in a mold that is totally different than that of surrounding Turkish society, where the portrayal of fathers ranges from tyrannical to egotistic to indifferent.

Missed opportunity

In fact Izzet Pinto’s story is about a son who bore the entire burden of responsibility and obligation. But there is also a subplot: The son feels that he disappointed his father’s hopes and that when he finally succeeded in fulfilling them, he also missed the opportunity to make amends – a tragic missed opportunity that still plagues him, and can only be compensated for by being written about in a book, which may become a film or a TV drama in its own right.

Pinto: “My father taught me and trained me from an early age to go into business. He pinned all his hopes on me. I was born, as the saying goes, with a silver spoon in my mouth. But my father didn’t want me to grow up as a spoiled Jewish child; he wanted me to build myself with my own two hands. When I was 8, he sent me to the flea market in Istanbul to sell junk there. When all the kids my age spent their vacations in their families’ vacation homes, I was sent to try to earn money.”

What did your mother have to say about that?

“A mother is a mother. But she had total confidence in my father and she put him in charge of my education.”

And did you meet your father’s expectations?

“Not really. At the age of 20, after my return from the United States, I moved to Bangkok. I didn’t have any plan. The idea was to export shoes to Turkey from there. The business collapsed, but I insisted on staying on to prove to my father that I wasn’t a failure. A Chinese businessman loaned me money. At first I opened a clothing store of 10 square meters, and I started to sell.

“I bought six stores. But then came the fall. At the age of 25 I returned to Turkey and to my parents’ home, depressed and without a penny to my name. I saw the sadness in my father’s eyes. He didn’t get to see me succeed. He fell ill with cancer and died 11 years ago, with a feeling that I had disappointed him and that everything he had invested in me had gone down the drain. But he never reprimanded me; he continued to encourage me and to hope along with me that the wheel of fortune would turn in my favor. He was a man with such a good heart, and the nicer he was, the guiltier I felt.”

A scene from Turkish TV drama 'Muhteşem Yüzyıl' ('The Magnificent Century').Credit: TIMS Productions

When did your luck begin to change?

“The first step was when I volunteered to be my cousin Stella’s literary agent. The success of her book encouraged me to enter the field of book distribution. But it was hard work without much compensation. And then one day Jessica, Stella’s daughter, tossed out a suggestion, as though incidentally: Why not sell television formats abroad? She happened to know, from school, the creator of the local reality show ‘Perfect Bride,’ and he authorized me to sell his format; it’s a program in which mothers choose a bride for their sons. I checked on Google and found that there was a fair called Digital MIPTV in Cannes. I traveled there and managed to sell the program to an Italian TV channel. Suddenly the Turkish media started paying attention to me. My picture was in all the newspapers. I received the prize for outstanding entrepreneur.”

What year are we talking about?

“2007. My father was still alive, but breathing his last. Immediately after the award ceremony I raced to the hospital to show him the certificate. When I finally managed to convince the guards to let me go to him, he was unconscious. I blamed myself that maybe he died because of me.”

I assume that you don’t place such a heavy burden on your own child.

“With my son I’m in the middle. I don’t make him work like a mule the way my father did. But still I prepare him for real life.”

It is out of Pinto’s sense of a missed opportunity that “In Honor of My Father” emerged. In order to close a circle, Pinto wrote the book with his cousin Stella. He told her his life story, and she wrote and edited what turns out to be a work in which his Jewish identity plays an important part.

The cover of your book has a photo of you with your son on your shoulders. Not of your father, although the book is dedicated to him.

“If you’ll notice, you see my son Aksel touching a white butterfly hovering above him. That butterfly is significant. When I buried my father, a white butterfly suddenly arose from the grave. And during all the seven days of mourning, a white butterfly came to the window of our home. I fully believe that butterflies are souls and that the white butterfly was the soul of my father, coming to reconcile with me and tell me how sorry it was that he didn’t get to see me succeed and didn’t meet his grandson. It was after his death that things started to work out.

Sexual harassment vs. romance

Indeed, in 2008, shortly after Pinto sold “Perfect Bride” to Italy, more and more producers of Turkish drama series began to use his services to market themselves abroad. It began with the series “1001 Nights,” which Pinto succeeded in selling to 55 countries, including in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. In Israel it was aired on the Viva Plus channel from 2014 to 2015.

“1001 Nights” is very loosely based on the original “1001 Nights” stories. In this series, it’s as though there is a solution to a very real and vexing dilemma: what is the boundary between sexual harassment and sexual exploitation, and genuine romantic love. I believe that no such clear and universally suitable solution has been presented before in such series when it comes to understanding the line between what is permissible and what is forbidden in sexual relations.

A scene from the film 'The Pocket Hercules: Naim Suleymanoglu.'Credit: Simon Bruty / Getty Images

In 2011, Pinto was amazingly successful in selling “The Magnificent Century” to 100 countries worldwide. The series tells the story of the life and loves of Suleiman the Magnificent. The court intrigues, the conspiracies and the incitement of the women against each other have made this series one of the most powerful and moving melodramas produced in Turkey.

The secret of the global success of Turkish TV series, Pinto explains, is first of all the plot. “We aren’t ashamed to produce melodrama and don’t camouflage it with supposedly sophisticated adornments. I would say that the Turkish series provide the opposite of what the American TV series industry offers. In American drama series the plot races forward. With us the pace is slow. If you missed an episode – in the next one you immediately are brought back to the plotline. For us a season includes several dozen episodes, not 10 or 12 as in U.S. series. For us the objective is for the series to become part of the viewer’s life.”

Does the government interfere in the content?

“The government is proud of the TV series industry. It sees it as Turkey’s soft power. What fame Turkey has earned thanks to its series! What the politicians were unable to do, the TV dramas are doing. Relations with Israel, for example, have reached a nadir. But unrelated to that, Israel is one of the major consumers of Turkish series. But yes, there are red lines that we don’t cross. There’s no need for government intervention for that. We make sure that the series will deal with family issues, without blatant sex or nudity. I personally think that there’s room for change and a little less conservatism.”

I remember that there were quite a few scandals surrounding the series “The Magnificent Century.”

“Yes, it was almost outlawed in Turkey, because they claimed that it presents Suleiman the Great, our national hero, as a lewd skirt chaser, and they threatened its creators with lawsuits. It’s also the most expensive TV production in Turkish history.”

Izzet Pinto doesn’t anticipate a waning of this and other TV genres. Turkey is at the height of the “boom” – large numbers of young people are attracted to acting, photography and television. Acting courses are popping up all over.

The long promenade along the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul. The documentary 'A Dream of Istanbul,' about Turkish architect Aaron Engel is yet another Jewish story that hasn’t been told.Credit: Yavuz Sariyildiz / Shutterstock.

At present, Pinto is relatively calm, especially after his book is about to be published. He feels that he has reconciled with his father, and that Isaac Pinto’s soul will stop knocking at the window in the form of a white butterfly and will finally find peace.

He has only one wish: to make his book “In Honor of Father” into a film. He has already chosen a director. He is Ozer Feyzioglu, the man who directed the film “The Pocket Hercules: Naim Suleymanoglu,” which airs on Netflix and tells the true story of the Turkish Olympic weight-lifting champion from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s. I watched the movie and understood why Pinto liked it and identified with its hero. The world-class weight-lifter is attached to his father in the same symbiotic relationship as Pinto and his father. Another similarity between Suleymanoglu, who because of his short stature was dubbed “the pocket Hercules,” and Izzet: Both, like the ancient hero, are carrying a heavy burden of expectations on their shoulders.

If the project gets underway and Pinto’s book becomes a film, it would be the first full-length Turkish feature centered around a Jewish protagonist who will discuss his identity in Turkey. There has been increasing interest recently in the role of Jews in the development of contemporary Turkey; in recent months I watched on Zoo, two festive premiere screenings held in Istanbul of documentaries on the subject.

One is “Bella’s Story” by Banu Yalkut Breddermann, about Bella Ashkenazi, a Jewish woman who fought against all odds to take part in the revolutionary 1950s “village institutes” project, by which urban Turkish intellectuals, among them Jews, mobilized to eliminate illiteracy in the villages of Anatolia.

Another documentary being screened in Istanbul is “A Dream of Istanbul,” directed by Perihan Bayraktar, which is about Turkish architect Aaron Engel – whose contribution to shaping the face of Istanbul, including its large parks and the long promenade along the Sea of Marmara, is yet another Jewish story that hasn’t been told.

After the conversations Pinto and I continued to correspond on WhatsApp. And still, I found it difficult to digest the strange story about his cousin Stella. I sent him another question: Is he sure that she didn’t the whole thing up?

Pinto replied laconically: “Her book tells a true story. It’s a memoir.”