Turkish soaps dubbed in Arabic appear to be a big hit among Arab viewers in the Middle East, many of whom feel they can identify closely with the characters portrayed on the shows. However, this has had an unusual effect on people’s behavior and relationships. Earlier this year, a Saudi Arabian newspaper, Al-Yawm, reported a man who divorced his wife and threw her out of their home after she complained he was not as romantic as Muhannad, a lead character in the Turkish soap opera Noor. A similar case was reported not long after of a man who divorced his wife after she hung a framed picture of...
Muhannad on their bedroom wall.
Turkish soaps tell the same stories Arabic soaps do, but show them in a different context. The Turkish soap Noor, for example, is one of about a dozen series that is particularly popular among viewers. It relates the story of an unhappily married woman who tries to gain her husband’s love by playing the role of a dutiful wife. Muhannad, her husband, has lost his true love to a tragic accident, and because of cultural constraints is forced to remain in a marriage with Noor. The series traces their hardships together, and Noor’s attempts to win her husband’s heart, which she eventually achieves, and her own self worth.
The hardships dramatized in Noor are not unlike those in many Arabic soaps. The only difference is that Turkish soaps take place in a secular society that is predominantly Muslim. The characters in Noor observe fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and show arranged marriages, but also portray the social liberties not openly represented in Muslim societies, like drinking alcohol in public, or having a child out of wedlock. As a result, a show like Noor is particularly interesting to Arab viewers who share similar hardships but feel constrained by their traditions to express them.
While most Arab viewers may feel a direct connection with characters in Turkish soap operas, some do not. Arabs governments and religious clerics particularly have denounced satellite channels for broadcasting these soaps and have declared them un-Islamic. Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia condemned the shows saying that they “destroy people’s ethics and are against our values”, warning people not to watch these shows. Despite that however, the last episode of Noor attracted more than 85 million viewers across the Middle East, a record for Arabic TV.
Would these shows be just as exciting if they were taking place in Arab society? Possibly. However, the distance between Arab and Turkish culture is a comfortable one and makes for better stories. Arabs are more curious about Turkish culture and society today than ever before. Since the introduction of the television series Noor, for example, Turkey has experienced a surge in the number of Arab tourists, mostly from the Gulf, with an estimated 100,000 visitors this year alone.
Just as Mexican soap operas were once a big hit with Arabic TV channels during the 1980s; it is possible that Turkish soaps will also begin to lose their popularity among Arab viewers. Syrian soaps, for example, are particularly popular during Ramadan, and may ultimately overshadow the romantic effect Turkish soaps have had on Arab viewers. en.v
Al Ijtiyah (The invasion)
The first ever Arab TV series to win an Emmy award, Al Ijtiyah is a Jordanian-produced drama series about a love affair that survives the Israeli massacre of Palestinians from Jenin in 2002. The series first aired on LBC over Ramadan in 2007, and tells the story of an unlikely relationship between Mustafa, a Palestinian freedom fighter persecuted by the Israeli authorities, and an Israeli woman that is able to flourish amidst the violent Israeli raids. A number of Arabic TV channels refused to air the series for fear of it portraying an affectionate relationship with the Israelis, and representing the TV channel as being partial to what happened in Jenin.
Bab al Hara (The Neighborhood’s Gate)
Watched by millions since 2006 and for over three seasons in a row, Bab al Hara is one of the most popular television soaps in the Middle East. The series follows the everyday lives of people in a small town in Damascus in the 1930s and 40s under French mandate. Set in the old part of the city, the stories reflect the romance and drama of the period. It has been criticized for portraying Arab families as being extremely patriarchical, with men berating women and exaggerating their control over them. Series four aired on Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) during Ramadan of this year.
Rasa’il al-Hubb wal-Harb (Letters of Love and War)
Gold winner of the best Arabic Drama Promo at the Promaxarabia 2009, Rasa’il centers around two characters; a young exploitative Syrian intelligence officer, and a wrongfully accused political prisoner. The show is set in the early 80s and follows the escape of the prisoner to Beirut who becomes a journalist and supporter of the resistance against Israel. The Syrian authorities asked the director to change the script, and after some negotiation agreed to air the show. Similarly, Qatar’s state-owned TV station had some reservations about the show, but they were mostly around scenes of Israeli military torture techniques towards its prisoners, and as a result removed the scenes from the show.
By Dwan Kaoukji