There is a craze sweeping like wild fire across the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to the West Bank, from Syria and Lebanon to Oman and Yemen and all points in between. “Noor” is a wildly popular lavish Turkish soap opera, and interestingly enough, it was a big flop in Turkey when it first aired there two short years ago. But the producers had a great idea: dub it over in Arabic and air it in the neighboring Middle Eastern countries and see what happens.
I’m sure even the producers could not have predicted in their wildest dreams what happened next. “Noor” has become a phenomenon, causing a sensation on many levels. First off, the surprise smash hit is responsible for a dramatic increase in tourism to Turkey, a real boon for its economy. “Noor” has become so fiercely popular that my brother-in-law (a Saudi Arabian Airlines retiree) recently told me that it’s practically impossible to get an airline reservation to Istanbul. The flights are packed with people wanting to visit Turkey because of their seemingly insatiable fascination with this TV soap opera. Saudi Arabia’s visitors to Turkey alone are expected to be triple the amount from last year’s number. The set of the actual home used for the show’s main characters has been turned into a museum to accommodate the Arab fans who are flocking into the country as curious tourists.
Additionally, the show has spawned sales in T-shirts, food items, and other merchandise sporting the faces of the show’s actors. It has sparked fashion trends with Middle Eastern women who want to wear the styles worn by the female characters. Saudi hospitals are reporting that the hottest names for newborn babies are Noor and Mohannad, after the show’s two main characters. On the West Bank, posters depicting the show’s characters have out sold the prior hot sellers, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein. And the most popular ring tone for mobile phones in the whole region is the show’s theme song.
So what’s all the fuss about? Well, for one thing, the main male character is drop dead gorgeous. Every time my 15 year old son sees this actor’s face on the screen, Adam starts whining. “I hate him! It‘s not fair that he hit the gene pool jackpot like that! He‘s so perfect!” he screams.
What makes this show so appealing to the Arab world is that it is about a Muslim family and takes place in a Muslim country. Plus, the more easily understood Arabic dialect (Syrian) which is dubbed in makes viewers feel more bonded and intimate with the characters, as opposed to the use of the formal classical Arabic that is used in so much of the Middle Eastern programming.
But the show’s popularity, especially here in Saudi Arabia, has not gone unnoticed by the religious clerics, who have given it a thumbs down and issued a fatwa (a religious opinion on Islamic law) saying that it is sinful to watch the show. They fear that the show will corrupt its society, cause moral decay and encourage dating and pre-marital sex.
The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has condemned the show, calling it “satanic and immoral,” and has demanded that television stations cease broadcasting (to no avail) and that viewers voluntarily switch their channels (yeah, right!), citing that the show is an attack on God and his prophets. “It is not permitted to look at these serials or watch them. They contain so much evil; they destroy people’s ethics and are against our values,” the Grand Mufti was quoted as saying. “They are replete with wickedness, evil, moral collapse and war on virtues that only God knows the truth of.”
Now, I myself have watched the show a few times, but since I don’t really speak Arabic, I haven’t been pulled into its charismatic appeal like many lovelorn women here. The show looks like many typical Western soap operas to me, packed with drama, romance, beautiful actors, posh sets, and lush settings. In other words, it’s not very realistic at all to us regular folk, just like Western soaps.
The main female character is Noor, a beautiful and successful fashion designer. But the real key to the overwhelming popularity of the show is that MAN, Noor’s husband. The part of the tall and handsome Muhannad is played by a 24 year old über-attractive Turkish actor/model named Kivanc Tatlitug, with dreamy blue eyes, flawless skin, a manly rugged beard, and perfect blonde hair. “Why couldn’t I have been blessed with hair like his?“ my curly brown haired son Adam constantly laments.
Not only is this Turkish version of Brad Pitt absolutely breathtaking to behold, but his character is portrayed as the perfect man too. He is loving, romantic, gentle, passionate, sensitive, and treats his wife with respect and as his equal. Not only that, he supports her in her career, sweeps her away for romantic getaways, and showers her with flowers and other tokens of affection. Many of these qualities and behaviors apparently are sadly lacking in some Saudi husbands. This explains the intrigue and appeal for so many Saudi women who would dare to fantasize about a relationship such as this. In a society where women are literally considered "chattel" (the property of their husbands or fathers), cannot drive, are shrouded in black cloaks and veils, and most of whom have no careers and are relegated to the roles of motherhood and housewife, fantasies like this are the stuff that dreams are made of.
The story line reveals that Mohannad had sexual relations with another woman and sired a child before his arranged marriage to Noor. Kissing, abortion, kidnapping, comas, and marriage as an equal partnership are also sub-plot threads weaving through the fictional tale. Alcohol, which is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, flows freely at the dinner table in the show. The women characters, who are all supposedly Muslim, do not cover their hair and many of them bare their arms too. This is not at all typical of Muslim women in Turkey, or anywhere, for that matter. However, the cast of characters do fast during the month of Ramadan, but are never shown participating in any of the five times daily prayers.
The show is such a mega-hit that MBC, the channel that airs it, has added a whole new channel which broadcasts only the show “Noor” 24 hours a day. Needless to say, the obsession with this soap has caused a ruckus in some households in Saudi Arabia. I have even read reports that a few men have divorced their wives upon finding photos of Mohannad on their wives’ cell phones.
Some have suggested that the extraordinary success and huge popularity of the show in Saudi Arabia indicates that many Muslims there prefer to follow a more moderate Islam instead of the religious extremists. The show has made such an impact in the entire gulf region that during times when the show airs, streets are empty and social plans are delayed until after the program is over.
According to Adib Khair, the Syrian general manager of Sama Productions which produced the hit series, the original episodes which aired in Turkey are 80 minutes in length, while the dubbed in Arabic episodes are each 45 minutes long. “We censor slightly,” Mr Khair said. “It’s not huge. There are no big emotional things, no graphic kisses in the first place, no love scenes, no nudity. If we find, for example, a lot of drinking shots that are not essential to the plot, we take them out. But if someone is drunk and it’s part for the story, we leave it.”
Mr. Khair himself attended college in the US and explained that even though the show has a “modern flavor,” he wasn’t trying to push any particular social agenda and was merely meeting the demands of viewers. “Personally speaking I would love for us all to be more liberal; I would love to have religion separated from government,” he said. “That’s just me. I’m not trying to translate my ideas into a series then pass them on to people. People want to be more liberal; they want to be more aspiring.”
What the show has succeeded in doing is to open the eyes of many Saudi women fans, who have been made more keenly aware of their own partners’ shortcomings. The show has also managed to enlighten Saudi women about advantages and opportunities arising from a more progressive, less strict, and less severe Islamic society like Turkey. Bad news for the men here who prefer to keep things status quo, with women tightly under their control. As those wheels have started turning in the minds of many Saudi wives, they are gaining confidence, asking questions, realizing they should have options, and reassessing their lives. And the Saudi men are definitely feeling the pinch, as many women are basically starting to say, (to quote one of my favorite movies here, A Knight‘s Tale) “You have been weighed. You have been measured. And you have been found wanting.”