Thursday, August 28, 2008

Noor: TV Soap a Threat to Islam?

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 ├╝ber-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.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Life of Leisure on the Red Sea

Jeddah is often referred to as the Bride of the Red Sea and is one of its largest seaports. There is abundant and thriving sea life and coral reefs alive with colorful fish, octopus, sea turtles, crabs, and many other sea creatures. The Corniche runs along Jeddah's Red Sea coastline, stretching along for nearly 100 kilometers. A main highlight of the Corniche is the King Fahd Water Spring, a famous Jeddah landmark dominating the city's skyline, believed to be the world's tallest fountain. Its spray's height reaches over 1000 feet straight up into the air. It is a quite spectacular sight, especially when viewed at night as its water plume is lit up by floodlights, attracting visitors as a must-see sightseeing stop.

The Corniche area is sprinkled with luxury worldwide chain hotels. It is home to several mosques, including the gorgeous Floating Mosque, which at high tide actually appears to float in the Red Sea. The Corniche boardwalk is home to dozens of artistic sculptures, which are all part of the world's largest open air museum located throughout the entire city of Jeddah.

Life along the Red Sea has a lot to offer. There are many resorts available, ranging in price from the very reasonable with bare minimum, older accommodations to the extremely expensive, offering posh accoutrements and a wide variety of amenities, and many in between. Most places are available for anyone and everyone who can afford to pay, where Islamic laws and Saudi cultural observances are adhered to. And some are private beach clubs which cater to foreign clientele, require annual memberships, and where Western ways are allowed, such as women not having to cover.

Some of the lodging available rivals those of the finest resorts in the world, with luxurious bedding, fine comfortable furniture, and clean modern facilities. Pristine beaches, swimming pools straight out of paradise itself, and well-planned lush landscaping complete the total package. Offerings such as boat tours and rides, jet ski rentals, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing expeditions, and other water sports provide male guests with plenty of activities. I say male guests because, aside from the boat rides, women do not generally participate in those other water activities. If they did, they would have to be properly attired - covered from head to toe in loose fitting clothing so as to not show off the female form. To me, and maybe to most women here, that just doesn't sound very appealing. My guess is that many husbands would disapprove of their wives participating in such activities anyway even if the women wore Islamically acceptable gear.

Last weekend we spent a couple of days of one of these resorts. My brother-in-law went spear fishing, catching lots of fresh fish which we ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He cleaned them, added spices and lemon, then wrapped them up in foil and cooked them for about half an hour on the grill we brought. We brought the grill with us and it was placed out on the large balcony. The fish was fabulous. I actually prefer my fish this way rather than baked in the heavy sauces like my husband's family usually makes.

The two bedroom unit we occupied also had a living room, a small kitchen, and two bathrooms. One bedroom had a king bed and the other was furnished with twin beds. The beds were clean and comfortable, however no towels or shower curtains were provided at all. The rattan chairs in the living room could stand to be replaced, but the couch was actually not bad. There were individual AC units in each room which worked well and there was also a regular sized TV which was not the best but adequate. The kitchen had minimal supplies, including an old toaster oven, a few plates and some silverware. Luckily we brought things with us so we weren't in bad shape there. The unit was tiled throughout and when we first got into the room, there were four men mopping the whole place and making sure everything was in order.

The pool below our balcony was occupied by various children 24 hours a day while we were there. Mothers, most of them dressed in abayas and veils and a few dressed Islamically casual in colors, watched from chairs along the side of the pool. In the general pool area was a coffee shack, a snack stand, and a little hut that sold water toys and such. Other veiled women sat on the balconies for hours on end. Bicycles were available for rent and a small open garden area with seating overlooked the inlet.

Two large covered docks jutted out on either side of the property, equipped with tables and chairs where families could enjoy a picnic. All sorts of boats and jet skis constantly drove by, providing some entertainment for those seated on the docks.

When we chartered a boat for a 30 minute ride up and down the inlet, it was just the five of us on board. We passed many other boats loaded with families, many of the women dressed in black abayas and veils, out enjoying the warm day, cooling off in the ocean breezes.

I told my husband that I thought it was a shame that those women will never be able to enjoy feeling the wind blowing through their hair, something I have always enjoyed. By the way, I did not wear my abaya on the boat ride. I dressed modestly and wore a bright colorful scarf over my hair.

During the short trip, we passed many other resorts and huge mansions and stunning villas, along with dozens and dozens of various sized boats and yachts. At one point, a group of maybe half a dozen young jet skiers kept circling around our boat, shooting their jet skis straight into the air for at least six feet or so. Then they would pop back up from the water and do it again. Their antics definitely made our boat ride more enjoyable and exciting.

So far I have only visited four of the many resorts in this area north of Jeddah. I hope to be able to stay at more, especially that intriguing looking one with the
thatch huts!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Adam's World

First off, my apologies for being gone from blogging for the past couple of months. I had to extend my trip to the states to take care of some business. We no longer have Internet, phone service or cable at our home there - which was probably just as well since there was so much work to be done and blogging would have only distracted me. I arrived back in Arabia a couple of days ago to the open arms of my husband and my son and to the stifling and oppressive heat of Jeddah in August. Thankfully, all is well and I appreciate the concerns of those of you who may have thought something was wrong due to my lengthy absence.
I realize that, up to now, I haven't written much at all about my son, who is a typical teen. I have purposefully sidestepped around it to give him his space this past year during his adjustment period. We uprooted Adam at age 14 from the only home he had ever known, took him away from his friends, his school, his life. I feel that it has probably been a much more difficult adjustment for him than it has been for me. All in all, I feel that he has handled it like a real champ. Of course he has his moments, and if he had his druthers, his choice of where to live during his teenage years would definitely not be in Saudi Arabia. But he is making the most of it, and I can only hope that one day he will look back on this time of his life as a positive experience he is grateful for and as an opportunity that not many people get.

When we moved to Arabia last fall, Adam entered the country on a temporary Saudi passport. As the son of a Saudi man, he is granted automatic citizenship. Oddly enough, Saudi mothers do not transfer automatic citizenship to their children. My husband thought it would be easier to get him into the country this way (and indeed it was) instead of going through the visa process like I had to do, which delayed my own trip to Arabia for another month after their departure while I awaited approval.

Shortly after they arrived, my husband began the process of applying for Saudi citizenship for Adam. All the paperwork and proper documentation was turned in by November, and then we waited. And waited. And waited. And we are still waiting. Despite my hubby's efforts, nothing has sped up this process. Apparently, he was told, Adam's application has been approved and is just waiting for the signature of the prince in charge of that ministry. And he will sign it only when he is good and ready. Consequently when it came time for our trip back to the states in mid-June, Adam had to remain in Arabia. Since he had entered Saudi Arabia on a temporary Saudi passport, he couldn't very well leave the country on his US passport, since it didn't show that he had ever entered the country in the first place.
 Of course Adam was upset at first about not being able to make the trip back to the US, as was I, but he accepted it. While we were gone, he stayed at the home of one of his uncles, who made sure Adam was comfortable, pampered and kept busy. Adam composed a long wish list of items he wanted me to get him, mostly CDs and DVDs. Some of Adam's taste in music is not readily available in Arabia. When I could get to a computer, Adam and I were in touch by email (he kept adding to his wish list!) and several times we even managed to chat online. I found it amusing that several of my friends in the US, when they learned that Adam hadn't been able to travel with us, asked me if it was because the Saudi government wouldn't allow Adam to leave the country. I guess technically you could say that was the case - bureaucratic red tape -but once we get his documentation back, he will be able to come and go as he pleases. But he is not being kept there against his will or forbidden to leave, like some people might have imagined.

A few months after we arrived in Arabia, I asked Adam how he felt about things, in particular the separation of men and women in society here. Adam told me that he almost felt as if he were being punished for doing something wrong. I thought that was an interesting perspective that I hadn't even considered before. The social situation is awkward for him since he has always hung out with girls and his very best friend back in Florida is a girl. Here in Arabia, this is impossible and most of his girl cousins who are in their teens choose to cover their hair when Adam is around, although I think it is really determined by their parents. For all intents and purposes, any marriageable female is supposed to "cover" in front of any male they could possibly ever marry. This includes cousins and aunts.
My husband has spoken to Adam in Arabic since he was a baby, so Adam has a basic verbal understanding of Arabic, however he had never learned to read or write the language and he has always been shy about speaking it. So when we arrived in Arabia last fall, logic would dictate that Adam would not survive in a public Arabic speaking school. However since his dad is Saudi, we must get special governmental approval for Adam to attend an international English speaking school. This rule only applies to Saudi students, who are expected to go to Saudi schools. Adam had to be tested to prove that he cannot read or write Arabic, and then a government ministry must grant permission for Adam to go to an international school. And we must go through this process every school year. Like the citizenship process, this approval, too, takes forever. Last school year, since Adam was not granted permission to attend school until January, he missed the whole first half of the school year. Plus, he was kept back in 8th grade, which he had already completed in the states.

As you can imagine, the first few months Adam spent in Arabia were getting pretty boring for him. There were many radical changes from his old life in America that he had to adapt to. He especially missed his friends who were starting high school without him. Once he started school however, his life greatly improved. He made new friends and since he had been out of school for several months, he actually gained a new found appreciation for education which he never had before. Adam's school put him in the company of other students from all over the world. His teachers are also from all over the world, and his school really reminds us of his old school back in Florida.

With the fall term starting again in just one week, we are still awaiting the approval for him to be allowed to attend the international school again. An administrator of the school just told us that she has only received approvals for 15 students so far out of a total of 114. This whole difficult approval process thing for me makes no sense whatsoever. How could he be expected to attend an Arabic school when he doesn't read or write the language? So why give the parents such a hard time about it? It is obvious that since he was raised in America up to this point, he reads and writes in English. By not granting the permission in a timely fashion, how can keeping him out of school for months on end possibly be to his advantage? The whole situation just seems ludicrous to me. I just don't get it. We are maintaining an optimistic and positive attitude and have already paid his costly tuition for this coming term. So please keep your fingers crossed!
 Back in the states years before, we had had several bad experiences with the coaches when we tried to get Adam interested in sports, so we were all pretty much turned off by it. But in Arabia he has played a variety of sports in PE class and, much to his delight, found that he was actually quite athletic. He even joined the school rugby team with determination, dedication and enthusiasm. As a result, he has lost any remaining baby fat of his youth and has developed into a sturdy young man, almost as tall as his dad. He has to shave regularly and it looks like he will eventually be as hairy as his dad too.

We were very pleased with his last report card of the school year with 5 A's and 3 B's. After all the upheaval in his life during the past year, Adam has adapted remarkably well and we are so proud of him. He now has a maturity he did not possess before and he is a pleasure to be around and hang out with. He has a dramatic flair and is quite adept at doing impressive foreign accents and different voices. And he's funny, constantly making me laugh. He is also a gifted writer and graphic artist and loves music of all kinds. I'm sure whatever he decides to do with his life, he will be successful and accomplished. What more could a parent ask for?

(All photos and graphic art in this post by my son Adam.)