One lazy weekend three months ago, I decided to do nothing but watch TV.
The first evening, I turned to MBC 4 looking for the usual dose of silly American sitcoms and talk shows. Instead, I found an Arabic soap opera and quickly turned the channel.
Unable to sleep later that night, I turned to the same channel and found the same show playing, actually, the same scene I’d seen earlier. I watched a little bit more. The next afternoon, there it was again: “Noor (Gümüs), a Turkish soap opera dubbed in Syrian that has become a sensation across the Arab world.
The first episode I watched out of curiosity. The next 100 or so I watched out of obsession.
At first it was a secret addiction few people talked about, soon the show and its cast garnered themselves a cult following.
According to the Associated Press, about 3 to 4 million people watch it daily in Saudi Arabia, the only Arab country that has an audience-measuring system. It’s more difficult to gauge the exact number of viewers in Egypt, but around one of every three people I talk to tune in every night.
Facebook groups created for the show have members ranging from 5,000 to 70,000, who actively post discussions, upload photos and comment on the latest dramatic developments.
Much of the show’s success can be attributed to Mohanad’s strikingly good looks and Noor’s admirably willful personality. The young Turkish actors Songül Öden (Noor) and Kivanç Tatlitu (Mohanad) have become household names – literally. The names are becoming a popular choice for newborns in Saudi Arabia, according to one viewer.
Back to the show, the couple’s marriage was arranged by Mohanad’s grandfather Fikry Sadoglu, an omniscient, yet caring self-made man who built a textile empire and taught his grandchildren to run it like a well-oiled machine. He grew up in the countryside with his best friend, Noor’s father.
While Noor is an idealistic, ambitious country bumpkin who came to Istanbul to make something out of herself, Mohanad is a spoiled rich kid who grew up in the family’s waterside villa with a silver spoon in his mouth.
It took a while for the two to work out their differences and realize how much they love each other, but as their love grows, the highs and lows of their relationship become more extreme.
Noor is a creative fashion designer, driven to succeed mostly to prove to her husband that she is more than a naïve village girl. Meanwhile, Mohanad tries to balance his work as chairman of the holding company with his relationship with Noor and a past that constantly comes back to haunt him.
One of the main storylines of the show was the reappearance of his longtime girlfriend Nihal, who everyone thought had died in a tragic accident. She literally comes back from the dead and introduces Mohanad to the son he never knew he had. Although his feelings for her have apparently been overshadowed by the love for his wife and newborn daughter, Nihal still represents a major obstacle for their matrimonial happiness.
The show is peppered with a series of dramatic plotlines that has the family dealing with everything from abortions, adoptions, miscarriages and illegitimate children to drug smuggling cases, suicides and kidnappings.
There are also a number of near-death experiences that have the family in and out of the hospital more than the ambulance trolleys.
Just when things seem to be going awry, a disaster happens that brings the family or the squabbling couple back together. Hey, it wouldn’t be a soap opera otherwise.
The lives of other family members are central to the show, with several characters appearing and disappearing as needed, doing good or evil as the plot calls for it. A few examples are Noor’s conniving business partner Abdeen and Fikry’s son-in-law Tarek who had links with the Turkish mafia.
One of the main characters is Sharifa, Mohanad’s mother, who lives loyally with her husband’s family even though he left her for another woman. She is the stereotypical domineering mother, and at first is the image of the evil mother-in-law. In time, however, she becomes a supportive, loving figure in Noor’s life.
Mohanad’s sister Dana is married to his best friend Anwar, and the story of this quirky couple is no less dramatic. They were together long before they got married, and had a daughter out of wedlock. Because of the family’s constant interference in their lives, the pair found themselves on the brink of divorce several times.
After much hesitation, their cousin Bana marries her doting boyfriend Kamel, who has insecurities about her wealth versus his meager journalist’s salary. Meanwhile, Bana’s brother, the mischievous Fajr, is always working his way out of a dilemma.
The show has attracted the attention of people of all classes, men and women alike, young and old.
“But it’s dubbed! That’s always the first thing people who don’t watch the show utter. Yes, it’s dubbed, but once you are engrossed in the drama, it becomes not so obvious, perhaps since Turkish is close to the Arabic language.
Turkey is a Muslim country, so it’s easier to relate to the family’s traditions and customs than it is to connect with say, “Desperate Housewives. At the same time, it shows a lot of the contradictions present in modern day Muslim societies. While the Sadoglu family fasts during Ramadan, they drink and a number of the characters have sex outside marriage.
Although some of the scenes are censored for the Arab audience, some clerics have dubbed the show “un-Islamic, saying that it clashes with the religion’s values and traditions. That, however, has not deterred the growing number of fans across the region.
When some of the cast visited Dubai this spring, thousands of fans clamored to get a glimpse of the Turkish heartthrob.
Arab fans have idolized Noor and Mohanad. They have an understanding, supportive and passionate relationship that deals with its share of problems – perhaps their marriage is the kind of relationship many aspire to have but cannot find.
In a country like Egypt, for example, a generation that grew up watching Abdel Halim Hafez serenading his beloved in black and white movies, many women will say that chivalry and romance are dead. A lot of the women who watch “Noor long for this kind of passion in their own lives, and a lot of men are now being taken to task for not treating their wives they way Mohanad treats Noor.
Two months ago on Dream TV’s “Al-Ashera Masaan, Mona El-Shazli cited a recent report that linked higher divorce rates in Gulf countries to greater expectations born by the show.
While there are no official figures, women in Egypt share the same sentiment. Hoda Ahmed, a 50-year-old fan, said, “Noor is independent, she is strong and she doesn’t need a man to support her, but she chooses to be with Mohanad because she loves him. She’s not afraid to call him out when he’s being selfish or stubborn. She’s not afraid to take risks in her professional life and he supports her in the decisions she makes, even if it takes some convincing.
Could the show lead to matrimonial revolution in a country where divorce rates are up to nearly half of couples splitting within the first four years? Probably not.
Still, as Suzanne Hamed, said, “Men can really learn something from the way men treat women on this show.
“Noor is now playing on Egypt’s terrestrial Channel 2, Sunday to Friday at 9 pm.