Noor-Mania

“Mohannad is a hottie” is the answer I got when I asked my tween cousins why they watch the 175 episode Turkish soap opera Gümüş (‘silver’) that was renamed Noor (‘light’), dubbed in Syrian colloquial Arabic, and consequently spread like wildfire in the Arab world.

It’s true that the Turkish ex-basketball player who won the 2002 Best Model of the World award is hot (though too pretty for my liking). But as media outlets all over the region have found out, that’s not the only reason why 4 million out of Saudi Arabia’s population of 28 million are tuning in, nor why revenues from adverts aired during the serial in Egypt are bringing in a reported LE 20 million ($4 million).

There are no major taboos being broken or ‘revelations’ being offered in this series. What makes Noor different from any other soap opera is this:

It’s ‘real’ escapism. That’s a paradox, but I mean what I say: it’s escapism, but because Arab viewers identify so much more with this show than they do with any ‘western’ glamorous glittering soap opera it has become very close to their hearts.

The show revolves around a family, with Mohannad being a son who works in the family business and is coerced into marrying Noor by his father after his pregnant girlfriend dies in a car crash. The values the show embodies—tradition, loyalty, patriarchy, family business, cohesion, arranged marriages etc are very much things that—although we might see in Bold and the Beautiful—are very different when portrayed in a so called ‘Arab’ environment.

At the same time it isn’t just another Arabic show where death/crying/crime/screaming/double-crossing, etc., makes up the bulk of the show: here, the romance between a husband and wife takes the forefront, which isn’t the norm in most Arabic shows.

And best of all: Noor is a village girl who suddenly finds herself married to a rich, handsome hubby from a great family—who doesn’t love her. And instead of curling up into a ball and letting him ride roughshod over her, she stands up to him and eventually manages to make him fall in love with her. She sets up her own business without his help, and deals with the hardballs life throws at her with aplomb.

But it’s not just Noor’s relationship with her husband; it’s her seemingly fulfilled life. She’s an Arab Cinderella: she’s gorgeous, independent, successful, strong and took control of her own life and came out on top. Hell, the show is named after her, not him.

And it ends, of course, happily ever after.

It’s the dream of almost every girl, though many may never admit it.

Watching Noor is no different from picking up a romance novel and wishing that your prince charming will be like the one you’re watching/reading about: drop-dead gorgeous and every inch a masculine man, but of course sensitive to you and your needs and wants. Mohannad is gorgeous, manly, sensitive, caring, romantic, yada, yada, yada. He fits the bill perfectly.

So many articles I’ve read online have decided that Arab women are watching the show because the relationship between husband and wife includes the trio—love, respect and equality—that is missing from theirs.

That may be true in some cases. But it’s equally important to mention that escapism from unhappy oppressed marriages and from the ‘hairy, dark, wife beater tyrant’ husband they’re married to isn’t necessarily the case for many viewers. Not every Arab woman needs to ‘revolt’ against her ‘treatment’ by ‘Arab’ men, and not every Arab woman is desperately held back in her professional life.

So it’s presumptuous to assume that the show is ‘planting seeds of change‘ or that it has any real power over people’s lives. Noor wasn’t a light bulb that suddenly made Arab women wake up and realize their rights and what their lives could be like if they demanded them—they don’t live in that much of a bubble.

Sheikhs and muftis have stepped up to condemn the show, saying that it violates Islamic values (there’s drinking, premarital sex, abortions, etc), which may be true. But to believe that it’s actually ‘dangerous’ enough that we need to ban the sale of show-related merchandise is preposterous.

So what kind of danger does it pose exactly? The host of Dream TV’s Al-Ashera Masaan (’10 o’clock,’ an Arabic program) cited a report that linked higher divorce rates in Gulf countries to “greater expectations born by the show.” What a load of crap. Reminds me of the accusations Nancy Ajram got when she first started singing and research that said she and fellow singer Haifa Wahbi “destroy” eight households in Makkah and 12 in Madinah every day. Only this time it’s Mohannad that’s making women dissatisfied rather than the other way round? Guess what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

If one was to believe this ridiculous statement, then therein lies the fly in the ointment—I really don’t think a bunch of whining women is going to ‘change’ these ‘Arab’ men, nor will the women divorce their hubbies if they’re really so dissatisfied.

Divorce rates are up to nearly half of couples splitting up within the first four years of marriage. Do you really think Noor will help make marriages better by showing men how ‘wrong’ they are in the treatment of their wives? Or that women will become so dissatisfied with their lives they’ll ask for a divorce?

Not to be harsh on my gender, but if Arab men have a lot to learn from Mohannad, then Arab women also have a lot to learn from Noor.

Then again, one should keep in mind that these are fictional characters.

And as with any fictional character, it’s easy to point out the fact that scripts and books in no way represent real life.

How many rich, beautiful, successful women do you know who are married to complete hotties and are in mutually loving relationships? Add to that the fact that women ‘like’ Noor represent a minority in a lot of ‘Arab’ societies: she’s disgustingly rich—she lives in a mansion (the show is actually filmed in a palace)—and she doesn’t exactly look like the average Arab.

So basically, the show is divorced from reality. Mohannad is a knight in shining armor but then again he doesn’t exactly have to work all day and night to put bread on the table (literally), as many men in Arab countries have to. It’s not easy to be romantic when you’re worrying about how you’re going to scrounge up money to pay the rent or electricity bill. In fact, I’d call it downright silly. Roses and moonlight aren’t going to feed your kids.

The poor in Arab societies aren’t like Noor. They are already aware that what they watch is so far removed from their life, and they’d have to be silly (or incredibly naïve) to think that Noor’s life could be theirs. But strangely enough, watching ‘rich’ shows is very common during bad economic times.

When asked why people watch ‘rich’ shows, Chuck Kleinhans, a professor at Northwestern University, answered, “People are always interested in what is not like them. They know their friends and family; they don’t know the superrich. Some of this is curiosity. Some of it is envy. Some of it is jealousy. Some of it is snarkiness.”

In my country, Egypt, people are dying in bread queues, inflation is at an all time high, and 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day—Noor offers them some distraction from their lives. Yes, it’s sad that fictional characters have become more real to some than their own partners or spouses, but who are we to begrudge them an hour a day of ‘real’ escapism?

So for some it’s escapism, a chance to see a better life. For others who may be living comfortably, Noor might be a normal woman and the show might be just a sappy soap opera. For women in unhappy marriages, poor or Desperate housewife-like, the show represents the married life they want. For others yet it’s Noor’s fulfilled, ‘girl power’ filled life that attracts. For others it’s a way to kill time.

For others it’s not necessarily so deep—eye candy is as good a reason as any.

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