Noor, a soap opera to test the moral compass



 
The Turkish soap opera Noor has become a veritable pop-culture phenomenon in the Arab world. While it has attracted millions of viewers, the show has also angered conservative Muslim clerics who have denounced its creators as 'soldiers for Satan.' MENASSAT explores the Noor sensation.
 
By LAYAL ABU RAHHAL
 
Nour
The cast of the Turkish soap opera Noor which has become a test of cultural norms in the Arab world. R.R.

BEIRUT, August 22, 2008 (MENASSAT) - From the land of samba, my mother's voice shouted through the din of a bad long-distance connection. It was the first call since she left Lebanon. When I asked her how she and my father were doing and how she was spending her time, she said joyously, "We are fine, and we are watching Noor every day."

Without any doubt, the Turkish drama series has become the latest pop-culture sensation to take the Arab world, and parts of Brazil, by storm, leaving screaming fans and controversy in its wake.

The highest religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh, head of the senior clerics’ council, has denounced the series in no uncertain words. He said last month that the Turkish series was banned for all Muslims because it contained "material which contradicts the principles of Islam… spreading evil, and having a devastating moral effect."

"The series invites sin and even promotes it, depicting murder as being normal," the Sheikh said, branding its makers "preachers for the devil and soldiers for Satan."

Turkish flop, Arab hit

Noor is not the first racy non-Arab soap opera to woo Arab audiences, and it is not the first to cause controversy in the Arab world.

Not so long ago, Arab viewers were infatuated with the characters on the Mexican soap Whatever the Price. Men were infatuated with the voluptuous female lead, Maria Mercedes, while women swooned over the leading man, Alejandro Aldama.

Still, the audience share for Noor is huge by any measure. According to statistics published by the MBC group, which licenses the Turkish series in the Arab world, about 3 to 4 million people tune in for Noor every night.

Anywhere Noor lands, the program has been received as a sort of pop-culture guest of honor – creating lively debates on the streets and in media circles throughout the Arab world. And with Internet chat forums, interaction with Noor's viewers has reached massive levels.

One need only go to the MBC website to see proof of the discussion groups that have resulted from the series.

But what makes the series so popular?

In chat rooms on MBC and in other forums, Arab viewers say that it offers the Arab viewer something that Arab soap opera's have failed to offer.

The soap has on-screen kissing, and an unapologetic romantic story line. It also features the characters drinking alcohol and partying. It has dream-like sets with beautiful locations, luxury houses, and characters wearing the most expensive designer clothes.

One culture and arts writer with Al-Quds Al-Arabi in London said the story was “romantic and aspirational” for the poor who dream of that kind of life.

According to much of the Arab press, the real reason for the series' success lies in the romance between the two lead characters: Noor, the female lead played by Turkish actress Songül Öden, and Mohannad, played by Turkish actor Kivanç Tatlitugl.

Ironically, the show was a flop in Turkey before it became a huge hit in the Arab world after a Syrian production company, Sama Art Productions, began dubbing the show in a Syrian Arabic dialect.

The female voice of Noor in the Arabic version of the series, Laura Abu Sa'ad, offered an explanation for the show's popularity in an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based English language daily The National.

"The success of Noor shows that Arab Muslims want to follow a moderate Islam rather than the more extremist style we can see in parts of the Middle East," she said.

"I know it's dangerous to say so but we are in the 21st century; we must say what we feel."

Controversy

The show is apolitical so it has managed to bypass many of the Arab government censors. But is doesn't shy away from social controversy.

In the series, Noor must contend with Mohannad's first wife – he's a divorcee –, threats of rape at gunpoint, a kidnapping, and a whole host of other melodramatic events that make for a saucy plot line. Mohannad himself sports a western look, and with his dubbed Syrian accent is meant to portray a modern-day Arabic Don Juan: tender, loving, romantic and abusive in just the right ways.

Indeed, reports of a rising divorce rate in the Arab world have been attributed to Noor's popularity, although chat discussions often dismiss such claims as ridiculous.

Certainly, the characters are non-practicing Muslims, and the female characters are largely independent, which makes the show a volatile mix for the more conservative Arab audience.

"We do things in our lives, like those shown in Noor, but we don’t talk about it," said Laura Abu Sa'ad. "For example, so many girls become pregnant and they have abortions, but we don’t talk about it. When we see this on TV, it's like we see something that we don't usually get to watch or discuss. It gives us a chance to breathe."

Reactions to Noor have not been limited to Internet discussion groups or the media.

The Saudi newspaper Al-Iqtisadiya reported that people from the southern town of Al-Hajra destroyed the satellite dishes in the village after the town Sheikh, in his Friday sermon, asked them to "save our children from the misconceptions of this series."

In one shocking incident at the Aljoumhouri hospital in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, sources reported that a number of nurses watching the program were distracted to the point that they underestimated the stage of labor for one woman giving birth.

According to eyewitnesses, a doctor happened to be passing by and noticed the woman was suffering from complications. In the end, she required a Caesarian section to save the baby.

In Jordan, parliamentary members criticized the minister of culture Nancy Bakir for meeting the Turkish actor who plays Mohannad, during a reception at the Turkish embassy in Amman last month. Rumors circulated that she had asked for a picture with him. Bakir has hinted she might resign "because of unbearable pressure" over the incident.

"The public smear campaign against me has been ferocious,” Bakir said.

According to the London-base Al-Sharq Al Awsat, Turkey is witnessing a real estate boon as Arabs, particularly from Saudi Arabia, buy up property in Bodrum, where many of the series' scenes were filmed.

In Lebanon, pop singer Roula Saad capitalized on Kivanc Katiltug's stardom with producers laying down a hefty US$120,000 for his appearance in a new video clip.

On Facebook, a group dedicated to the Turkish actor has more than 90,000 members.

But as the show has failed to gain popularity in Turkey, Tatlitug's star has risen much more in the Arab world than in Turkey itself, where some have called him a soft porn magazine star.

It remains to be seen whether Noor's popularity will survive this year's Ramadan period, which starts in September.

Part of Noor's popularity is thanks to the fact that Arab soap operas, or musalsals, typically air only during the Muslim fasting period. Beginning next month, Noor will have to compete with dozens of Arab-language soap operas, some of which inevitably stir up controversies of their own.