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 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.”


  1. Thanks for such a great post on this show! I was amazed this summer on my trip to Lebanon, how huge this show was. Everyone had the song as their ringtone, people were discussing it around the dinner tables, and we had to come home early each night to watch it at 10 on MBC4. I have to admit, I got fairly addicted as well, even with my limited understanding of Arabic, and I have texted my sister-in-law to see what happened! You are so right about the cause of its popularity: no man is as sweet, romantic, modern, and good-looking as Muhannad, even among American men. I agree, as well, that the fact that it shows a more modern family, whether it is realistic or not, is appealing to many throughout the Middle East.
    We always joked that the nicest thing was that each member of the family, from the Jido down to the grand-daughter was in some kind of love story. It is a fun escape for anyone, especially those living in a closed society, or as in Lebanon, always confronted with political problems and the like.
    Thanks again!

  2. As for the recent entry--hubba hubba! (Although, I don't typically like them so blond.)
    I think the religious leaders are right: these shows probably do take a toll on morality.
    However, It is also important that society learn to control THEMSELVES. Meaning, God gave us free will for a reason. It's up to us to figure things out, realize right from wrong, and then choose to exhibit self control. It's not right for the goverment or any other authority figure to take those choices away.
    You're not a good person if never even had the choice to be bad.
    I hope that makes sense.

  3. Hi Ajnabiya!
    The whole phenomenon here has taken on a life of its own - it is a manin topic of discussion almost anywhere you go. Many women are already upset that in just a few short days, the lfinal episode will be aired - and then what?
    So glad to hear you enj9oyed this post!

    Hi Schmlinda!
    You made LOTS of sense, and I am in total agreement with you. If only men here would learn that they must control themselves, I think most women's lives here would dramatically improve. Thanks for your terrific observations.

  4. So When are they gona dub it into engish?Oh to be youg again!That guy is a hunk!

  5. It is no threat to Islam, but it sure is a threat to the husbands and men who treat their women awful and have nothing to offer them.

    It is a threat to all men with low self esteem. To the rest of us men.......who cares?

    If they get to look at him, I get to look at Asalah. Fair play.

  6. Hi Always...!
    Or at least they could do English sub-titles!!! I'm freaking my son out with the drool all over my keyboard - he thinks I'm too old to have such feelings!!!

    Hi AbuSinan!
    I just think it's a shame that the religious leaders don't feel that the followers of Islam would be able to make correct/moral decisions for themselves or manage to control themselves - I guess they don't have much faith in Muslims!
    Asalah is indeed a beautiful woman to look at - and that voice of hers - love it.

  7. Hey Susie,

    More pictures of the female hotties please. C'mom toss the dog a bone!!!

  8. It is a soap opera, of which the Middle East has hundreds of them on any given day. The problem I find, besides it being ammoral trash, is that families are letting their young children watch this garbage. My fourth grader has contempories in class falling asleep during lessons because they stay up to watch. This is not a children's program. Adults can choose with what they want to pollute their minds but it is just wrong to let elementary school children be exposed to this. Another sad fact of life in the ME.

  9. I watched half a show awhile back...I didnt get the attraction..probably just me.

  10. They're crazy about it in Algeria too! Really a pan-Arab thing! Also waiting to see English subtitles at least so I can see what it's all about. Thanks for the review!

  11. Susie,
    Now what is sinful is 4 u 2 put the pic of the actor next to the "mufti"... this is (haram) so wrong in so many ways... none of them religious in anyway... just kidding... nice 2 have u back again

  12. Wow you did the topic justice! I did a tiny post about this a while back and I'm definitely going to go back and link it to your post.

  13. Tell your son not all the women think Muhannad is so hot. My daughters have watched the show occasionally, and they don't like him. They tell me that all the romantic stuff he does is usually to try and make up after he has been less than considerate of his wife's feelings. I don't know since I don't watch it; the whole thing is unappealing to me. Here in Palestine, the schools have banned any notebooks or other products that have pictures from the show on them.

  14. Maybe this show with be the saving grace for the Middle East. I won't hold my breath though.

    Adam, I think that the majority of women prefer their men tall, dark and handsome with curly/wavy hair. From the pics I have seen of you, I would say you fit the bill son!

  15. Tell your son that some women still prefer their men, "tall, dark, and handsome"--- emphasis on the "dark"!

    When I was young, I could not see myself with a blond man no matter how handsome he was-- nowdays, grey would be my preferred hair color!

    Anyway, the show sounds enticing. Reminds me of an Egyptian soap opera that aired piecemeal during Ramadan one year, about a Saudi man and his two wives. All of Riyadh sat in front of the TV after iftar. If I'd remember its name, I'd try to buy it.

    The religious argument against this sort of thing is intriguing. Seems like a clash of might against right. One thing is sure-- there's no stopping soap operas in any language.

  16. Hi Holland!
    My apologies for gearing this post more for women's benefit! I'll see what I can do for you...

    Hi Nicole!
    It has really surprised me how many younger kids here are watching this soap too. I don't know what the parents are thinking. Kids should definitely not be watching.

    Hi CoolRed!
    I've tried watching too, but with the language barrier, I just haven't gotten hooked either.

    Hi Stranger!
    I think with English subtitles, they would have an even bigger fan base. Could happen - you never know.

    Hi Anonymous/Q!
    I thought I should include a photo of the Mufti somewhere in there... but what was really hard was choosing which photos of Kivanc/Mohannad to put in!

    Hi Eman/SaudiWoman!
    Thanks so much. I'll have to look up your post too!

    Hi Queen and Marahm!
    Your comments brightened my son's day! Thanks so much.

  17. Ah man this made me laugh. I was gonna blog it too...maybe i still will with beautiful link to u too of course hehee. It reminds me of another popular soap sometimes with the right actors and actresses and plot you have a winner.
    I never prefered blondes either but i sure did a double take first time i saw this man. whoa...
    that is sooo funny that it bombed in turkey first I wonder if they are re-airing it there too.
    Very good post and all around great review! Maybe you should try to get it published in papers like here in UAE where they are more liberal about "opinions".

  18. Intersting that each year Arabs get hooked on a foreign series...before it was Mexican dramas...can anyone say Guadelupe! Apparently what is on offer native wise isnt that great. This past few Ramadans the soaps on offer have been critisized for their violence towards women....I have to agree...hardly one nights viewing did not result in a wife, daughter or sister not getting slapped or beat by either her father, husband or brother. What sort of message is that to send out? If the ladies in the Arab world prefer to see a series in which the woman is treated halfway respectful...then why not.

    Personally...I prefer to watch either Animal Planet or less drama...ha ha.

  19. I agree with schmlinda: selfcontrol!
    Without proper niyah nothing superficially pious will have weight.

    I think you've allready pointed out the real problem of the show! It shows a perfect husband, a shining example of loving tender masculine care.
    Which arab man would like that to be held over his head? And it's too late now: new ideas and ideals have been implanted into female heads!

    Yeah, defenitely a heart-throb, but I don't like blonde, I like dark brown. And I have serious reservations about men who are too handsome: I don't believe the male psyche can deal with being both handsome ànd male!

    I agree with the previous writers: Give me a tall, dark, moderately goodlooking man, who is good and loving to me.
    (no blondes)
    And Adam was looking really cool on your last post, I think a lot cooler that the creepy noor-hero or really awful Brat Pitt!

  20. Hi AMW!
    Great to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words of support!

    Hi CoolRed!
    I know there are lots of soaps from various countries around the Middle East. I don't watch them; I've never been a big fan of soaps particularly. I'm surprised to hear about the violence towards women though - I had no idea. Thanks for your comment.

    Hi Aafke! & Happy Birthday!!!
    I've never gone for the "pretty boys" either. It never appealed to me going out with a guy who was better looking than me!
    Adam loved your comment and says "Aafke Rocks!"

  21. Thank you!
    Well, I think Adam rocks!
    And no man can be better looking than me! Besides, that would upset their mental equilibrium, and that would make them useless.
    But eh, what about Adnan? Looks very handsome? seems you could have done much worse!

  22. Hmm... Interesting post there, Susie! :-D

    Personally, although I am 20 and spent my teen years watching soaps here in the West, after I accepted Islam I changed my habits. I felt is was no longer acceptable to stare at men (especially in their boxers) or dream about them. The Quran commands us to lower our gaze, and I can see why by the many examples of some women who watch this show. Fantasizing about another man who is not your husband is not only forbidden in Islam but also gross :-P I'll leave it at that because I don't wanna confuse you with all the religious stuff & fatawa *lol*

    "Mohannad" is not attractive one bit & does not make my heart flutter, but that may be because the only man who can make me feel all love-dovey and I'm attracted to is my husband, hehe!

    I honestly don't like watching these shows because we have a saying: "Satan will open 100 doors just to get through 1".

  23. This is wildly popular in the UAE, as well, but apparently the demographic that watches most are older women. Are the clerics really worried that they'll want to engage in pre-marital sex? That their values in their golden years would somehow be corrupted by a TV show?

  24. I meant to comment on this days ago.. When I first read this Kalila was sitting in my lap & when the pic of the guy came up she said "yummy yummy yummy" I about cracked up laughing...

    I agree w/ those htat say they like guys tall dark & handsome (or most women do) that is me too.

  25. Woehahahahaaaa!!!!
    I cracked up reading this!
    Don't show your baby such haraam pictures!!!!

  26. i donno why people make it a big deal, if u didnt like a show others liked it ,,, so!!

  27. I was wandering the mall last nite and came across a stand that sells pictures on glass etc. You can give them a personal photo and they will engrave it on glass..or laminate it onto wood etc. They also have pre made pics on wood and glass...mostly of the king or notable figures...imagine my surprise to see that Mohannad and Noor were figured prominently among those pics. A whole section of glass engravings and laminated wood pics were devoted to those characters...and people were buying them....go figure.

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  29. Hi Aafke!
    Thanks - I think my hubby is still a pretty handsome guy too! And he's humble too...

    Hi Sooni!
    Aw, come on - it doesn't hurt just to look! I like that saying about Satan - I hadn't heard it before. Thanks for commenting.

    Hi AbuDhabi/UAE!
    That's interesting about the older women watching it there - from what I have read about it, women of all ages have been hooked, from pre-teens on up!

    Hi MamaKalila!
    Sounds like Kalila knows a good thing when she sees it!

  30. Hello dear Susie!

    I really enjoy your posts and find them very interesting. This post caught my eye in particular -- I'm a North American living in Istanbul, and I hope you don't mind my throwing my two cents' worth in. I've never seen the show, and I've never heard anyone around the office mention it, but I've caught a bit of buzz from the blogosphere.

    The thing I wanted to address, if you don't mind, was this part of the post: "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." I know this is probably a question of semantics, and Istanbul is certainly not representative of Turkey as a whole, but based on observation, there *are* many women here who consider themselves thoroughly Muslim and do not cover their hair, and also bare their arms. Islam covers an enormous diaspora of cultures, nationalities, and countries (of course) and the variety of interpretation is endless. I don't know any Muslim woman in Istanbul who thinks she is less of a Muslim because she doesn't wear a turban or carsaf; I know several Muslim women who have lived with their partners before marriage; plenty of Muslim women bare their arms and proceed to go out on a sunny summer afternoon with their best (covered) friends.

    The same is true in Dearborn, Michigan, where I was born and which I often visit when I go back. Dearborn and its environs are home to a fabulous variety of Muslim people, from Saudi, and Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia, Gaza and the West Bank, Pakistan... I'm sure there are some Indonesians in there somewhere, though I haven't yet met any there! They all decide what's best for them according to their principles and beliefs, and somehow, it works. Dearborn, Istanbul -- they are both great places with civic-minded and friendly people, where religion and individualism can peacefully coexist.

    I look forward to your posts -- best wishes to you!

  31. Hi Jess!
    Thank you for pointing out that not all Muslim women cover and do behave differently from other Muslim women around the globe. I guess with this being my first real exposure to being around many Muslims, I tend to forget that there are Muslims who do interpret the tenets of the religion in a variety of ways. Living in such a strict society like Saudi Arabia, it's always confusing to me when I see things like the women here being hooked on a soap opera like Noor. I would think they wouldn't watch it at all because most of it seems to go against the grain of the way they live here.
    How I wish it was more like Istanbul here! Thanks again, Jess.

  32. I have friends who are Ismaili Muslims and they don't cover their hair or wear traditionally Islamic clothes.

  33. Hi Anonymous!
    I guess living here, I tend to forget that not all Muslims around the world dress or act the same. Thanks for pointing that out.

  34. Hah, when people hear I am turkish, it goes like; ooohhh do you know Noor? Do you watch it?

    ehm, no I didn't know about Noor (or Gumus that's the turkish title as I found out later). But know I do :)

    There is one thing in your post which confused me a little bit. Turkiye has a mainly moslem population (ca. 98 %) BUT not all of them (the females)cover, a lot of them wear sleevles shirts, top tanks, miniskirts) so this soap is real in that matter. And even if we do not pray 5 x a day most of us fast during Ramadan. And by the way for us, religion is very very personal. We pray at home, in our room. We don't pray in shopping malls, on dirty streets... So most of the time, we even don't know if our uncovered collegue is praying or not. Because we also know, that the we can pray our i.e. Duhr prayer later - before the imam or muezzin is calling for the asr prayer. So for us there is no rush and run to the prayer room the minute call for prayer can be heard.

  35. I visited Turkey in the last Ramadan and before I go there with my friend (we are not muslim) we are a bit concerned about how it would be for two girls be alone in a Muslim country at Ramada time. What a surprise: we saw lots of mosques indeed, but most of women and men were wearing "western" outfits. We met few turkish people in a boat trip, who drink, wear bikini, don't really fasting in Ramadan and they consider themselves muslim ( why not??)
    Note that in Turkey goverment and religion are two different things. Not like in Saudi. Thats why I think they are more "open minded" if I can say that.
    Also we can't not generalize things: most of saudi people that I know, when they are abroad they party like animals,drink and smoke a lot, and women don't wear abayas at all!One of my saudi friends who lives in Jeddah has got lots of female friends and he showed me pictures of his brother's birthday costume party at his house, where man and women wher together, dancing together and some of them were wearing very tiny clothes and plentys of make up. Just like in west. He also said to me that his mom and sister don't wear veil to go out in Jeddah, only Abaya (he said if it was Ryadhi they would thou).I was really surprise when I heard all that and aldo when I saw the pictures. Perhaps you should talk to people on their 20's and see what they think about all thsi issues and if they really follow the rules. You would be surprised as well. :)

  36. I really enjoyed this post...When I saw my younger cousins hooked to the TV when Noor aired ...I gave them my 2 cents that it's just nonesense & a waste of time...well it only took me one show to get addicted myself...all plans were made around the show...even my DH watched some shows with us after hearing from other guys at his work about it & about what the mufti my DH is not a soaps guy...but he was addicted as well....
    Now we are planning to go to Turkey in sha Allah ; )

  37. Oh I remember when that came out! We're a religious Muslim family, and normally none of us watch soaps, but my mum was addicted to this for quite a while, it was a real "all the family" thing, although in the end she decided she'd rather not watch it cuz of the story or something. We never bashed anyone about it, srsly it's just another soap, zillions of people watch ones just like it.