Love from Turkey

Kivanc Tatlitu

This guy has got Saudi women glued to their television screens. He’s the male star of a Turkish soap opera which has been dubbed into Arabic and is broadcast across the region by Dubai based MBC 4.

Our men are rugged and unyielding,” quipped a 26-year-old Saudi house-frau who preferred to remain unnamed. “I wake up and see a cold and detached man lying next to me, I look out the window and see dust. It is all so dull. On Noor, I see beautiful faces, the beautiful feelings they share and beautiful scenery.

Although the Middle East has satellite access to many foreign soap operas, this one has struck a very deep chord because the characters are Muslims.

The story line as described in this article is classically silly:

[it concerns] ..the trials and tribulations of Noor and her husband Muhannad, a young couple with a child and the kind of lives that could only be dreamt up by a scriptwriter: Muhannad’s beautiful first wife fell into a coma and, thinking her dead, he married the almost as beautiful Noor, only for wife No 1 to recover. Noor herself has been kidnapped, threatened with rape at gunpoint, estranged from her family and has undergone a difficult pregnancy. She has been jealous, in and out of love with her rich spouse, happy and sad.

Nothing to write home about! But…. it takes place in a Muslim society and that makes all the difference.

Although the characters are Muslims, they are not seen praying. They are wealthy, educated and largely independent. The female characters do not wear Islamic headscarves, preferring tight jeans, bare arms and, occasionally, plunging necklines more associated with Paris than Riyadh.

Apparently, fascination with the show has led 100,000 Saudis to travel to Turkey this year (in contrast to 40,000 last year).

According to the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC, which airs “Noor” across the Arab world, 3 million to 4 million viewers in this country of 28 million have been tuning in daily.

“Viewers first fell in love with what is familiar in the show: Muhannad’s arranged marriage, the respect shown to elders, the family all living together in one house,” said Alanoud Bashir, a radio journalist who has done a show about the series. “But what led to their utter fascination is what differentiates it from their lives — the romance within the marriage, the open, honest communication between husband and wife. Many women have said to their husbands, ‘Why can’t you be more like Muhannad?’ “

According to several local newspapers, Saudi men have divorced their wives after finding photos of Muhannad on their cellphones or because they found their wives too taken with the Turk with the soulful eyes.

In the series, Muhannad is not afraid to show his soft side, and he showers his wife with flowers, gifts and surprise vacations after they fight. Several cartoons in the local press show men promising their wives to have plastic surgery to look like Muhannad.

“He has the looks, and he has the romance,” said Abdullah Najjar, an engineer with Saudi Arabian Airlines. “It’s very difficult to compete with him.” (The Washinton Post)

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh recently issued an edict , fordidding Saudis to watch it.

“It is not permitted to look at these serials or watch them,” Al-Sheikh said over the weekend. “They contain so much evil; they destroy people’s ethics and are against our values. Any TV station that airs them is against God and his messenger. These are serials of immorality.”

But he won’t be able to stop it. And the program is popular throughout the Middle East. It’s not just a fad among Saudi Arabian women who are wealthy enough to take holidays in Turkey.

The significance of the Noor phenomenen is that it’s more clear evidence that people throughout the Middle East do want to embrace modernity and that the central problem has nothing to do with Islam itself. In the Middle East the struggle is against the autocratic regimes which have had a vested interest in holding things back. There really isn’t any doubt that given a chance, people will embrace freedom, democracy and modernity. Once these things have been achieved, religion will become a ‘take it or leave’ it thing, just as it has in the developed world.

Television can be a remarkably subversive force (rememember that during the Apartheid period it was not permitted in South Africa?).

The enthusiasm for Noor really is a wonderful thing. Sure it’s just the sort of low-level popular culture which is easy to decry by those of us who have had ready access to it forever. But popular culture is an evolving and dynamic thing. It throws up masses of low level rubbish, but at the same time it tends toward increasing complexity and depth. Why? Because modernity makes people demand it and the market obliges (good old contradictory, transformative capitalism) .

Just look at the success of Dr House and consider the issues it raises.

I sure look forward to the day when somehing like that comes out of the Arab world and is dubbed into English. And I’m convinced it will happen.

Hugh Laurie as Dr House

2 Responses to “Love from Turkey”

  1. 1 tom

    Yes, I read this over the weekend when it appeared and was amused and pleased. Here we have something which, by all accounts we would regard here as a pedestrian and dull piece of soap, but which in the Saudi context is scandalising ‘public opinion’ and undermining the social fabric. My heart is all aflutter at the thought. Its obvious grip upon the public is particularly pleasing and a clear sign that Saudi society is on the verge of major change. It seems likely that their are sections of the ruling class who, having seen the writing on the wall, are preparing public opinion (of the inverted commas type as well as the real thing), for these changes by allowing this show and its Western variants to be aired and freely accessible to the public. Should this be so it is a very positive development and represents a weakening of the power of the theocrats. Indeed the edict issued by the Grand Mufti seems so much bluster and appears to confirm this diminution of power – it reds like an appeal he hopes will be followed rather than an order he knows will be obeyed. Lets hope he continues to squirm.

  2. 2 Doug1943

    The social and political evolution of the human species has been a journey from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.This has been accomplished, in the main, by changes in the way we understand and try to shape the world, primarily but not exclusively via those activities we call “economic”. These changes, over time, have allowed ordinary people greater and greater freedom — from domination by nature, and from domination by other people.Here we see the interaction between the material and the social: satellite technology, a great leap forward in humanity’s control of the material world, freeing us from restrictions of time and space,  is facilitating the advance of freedom from social domination, which will in turn — when the creative energies of women in the Middle East are finally unleashed — affect our advance in understanding and controlling the material world. This soap opera is indirectly nurturing future generations of female engineers and scientists.Base and superstructure, interacting.

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