A Subversive Soap Roils Saudi Arabia

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- A Turkish soap opera featuring an independent fashion designer and her amazingly supportive and attractive husband is emptying the streets whenever it's on and has more than doubled the number of Saudis visiting Turkey this summer.

Millions of people -- especially women, apparently -- are tuning in nightly to find out whether the couple will stay together or be torn apart by jealousies and old flames.

But "Noor," the story of a multi-generational, upper-class Turkish family, has also sparked a backlash. The show has become the subject of angry Friday sermons in this strict Islamic kingdom, and the country's chief cleric recently issued a fatwa calling it "decadent" and sinful to watch.

"Noor" has had such a deep influence because, unlike American or Mexican soap operas broadcast here, it is about a Muslim family living in a Muslim country. The show is also dubbed in an Arabic dialect, not classical Arabic, which makes it easier to understand and feels more intimate to viewers.

And then, there's that husband.

The blue-eyed, blond Muhannad, played by Kivanc Tatlitu, a 24-year-old Turkish actor and model, is tall, handsome, romantic, respectful and treats his wife, Noor -- the title character -- as both a love object and an equal.

"Saudi women fantasize about what they're lacking," said Amira Kashgari, an assistant linguistics professor at King Abdul Aziz University who writes about social issues for al-Watan newspaper. "They are almost obsessed with this show because of the way he interacts with and treats his wife."

Saudi Arabia, a deeply patriarchal society, has few role models for powerful, independent women. The kingdom does not allow women guardianship over themselves, whatever their age. They are not allowed to drive and cannot travel without the permission of a male guardian, sometimes their sons.

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.

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