DAMASCUS // With its on-screen kissing, dinner-party wine drinking and unabashedly romantic plot line, the hit Arabic TV show Noor was always in danger of upsetting religious conservatives. And finally it has happened: Saudi Arabia's leading cleric has condemned the soap opera as "wicked" and "malevolent". The grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, prohibited Muslims on Sunday from watching the series, which he said was "replete with evil" and a "warrior against God and his Prophet".
But the Syrian team behind the series, which is hugely popular in the Middle East, insists it represents the true social aspirations of ordinary Arabs, and amounts to a public-opinion poll rejecting religious extremism. "The characters in Noor are Muslims, but they are more open than Arab Muslims," said actress Laura Abu Sa'ad, who provides the Arabic voice for Noor, the female lead from which the show draws its name. "The fact so many people watch it means they need to see this type of thing; people watching it want to be more free, to kiss, to drink."
Shown daily on the MBC 4 satellite channel, Noor was originally a Turkish television series that flopped domestically. However it became a surprise smash hit after Syrian firm Sama Art Productions dubbed it into Arabic. For hundreds of thousands of viewers across the region, watching Noor has become a precious hourlong daily ritual. "The success of Noor shows Arab Muslims want to follow a moderate Islam rather than the more extremist style we can see in parts of the Middle East," Ms Abu Sa'ad said. "I know it's dangerous to say so, but we are in the 21st century; we must say what we feel."
Unlike many older successful Arabic TV serials, the show eschews politics and concentrates on the trials and tribulations of Noor and her husband Muhannad, a young couple with a child and the kind of lives that could only be dreamt up by a scriptwriter: Muhannad's beautiful first wife fell into a coma and, thinking her dead, he married the almost as beautiful Noor, only for wife No 1 to recover. Noor herself has been kidnapped, threatened with rape at gunpoint, estranged from her family and has undergone a difficult pregnancy. She has been jealous, in and out of love with her rich spouse, happy and sad. In short, all the necessary ingredients for soapy melodrama.
Although the characters are Muslims, they are not seen praying. They are wealthy, educated and largely independent. The female characters do not wear Islamic headscarves, preferring tight jeans, bare arms and, occasionally, plunging necklines more associated with Paris than Riyadh. Interviewed at Sama Productions' head office in central Damascus, Ms Abu Sa'ad - a famous Syrian television star - said the show had struck a chord, especially among Arab women whom she estimated made up 80 per cent of the audience.
"There is no romance in anyone's life, and in Arabic countries women are sitting in their homes, watching TV and wasting time, so they want a dream; they want an escape," she said. Beyond that, Ms Abu Sa'ad said the show also tapped into a desire to air issues that remain a taboo in the more conservative parts of the Middle East. "Noor is both conservative and liberal," she said. "It stresses the importance of family and it's an old-fashioned love story. But it's also very open, not like the Arab world; this guy is living with his girlfriend, that woman is pregnant from her boyfriend. This is all a source of shame among Arabs yet in spite of this everyone is watching Noor.
"So why? There is a contradiction within the Arab viewers. They want traditions and they also want to see a more modern, open society." The serial has a particularly large following in Saudi Arabia, known as one of the most religiously conservative parts of the region. That popularity is evidence people are yearning for social change, according to Ms Abu Sa'ad. "It proves that all Arab societies need to break some of their rules. We do things in our lives, like those shown in Noor, but we don't talk about it. 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 watch or get to discuss. It gives us a chance to breathe."
Adib Khair, a blunt-speaking Syrian who set up and runs Sama Productions, said he had not expected the show to be such a sensation, despite market research that showed it had the basic theoretical qualities to be popular. "If I tell you what the story is before you see anything, I'd say it's about two people who get married and then they fall in love," he said. "You'll tell me 'how boring' I know. Married and then they fall in love. That's the story. I'm not carrying big issues."
Because the show has no direct political content, there is no need for it to undergo the political censorship common in the Middle East. However, it is cut and there is some editing of content. The original Turkish episodes are 80 minutes long, compared with 45 minutes per Arabic episode. "We censor slightly," Mr Khair said. "It's not huge; there are no big emotional things, no graphic kisses in the first place, no love scenes, no nudity. If we find for example a lot of drinking shots that are not essential to the plot, we take them out. But if someone is drunk and it's part for the story, we leave it."
Mr Khair, who went to university in the United States, said that despite the modern flavour he was not trying to push any particular social agenda and was merely giving viewers what they demanded. "Personally speaking I would love for us all to be more liberal; I would love to have religion separated from government," he said. "That's just me. I'm not trying to translate my ideas into a series then pass them on to people. People want to be more liberal; they want to be more aspiring."
The success of Noor has brought with it hours of chat show discussions and miles of newspaper column inches analysing exactly what makes it so special. "It has become an absolute phenomenon," said Anwar Badr, a culture and arts writer with al Quds al Arabi, a London-based Arabic daily newspaper. Despite its simple, populist narrative, he confessed to watching the show regularly, if not devoutly. "It's hard to avoid it," he said. "It's on everywhere you go and everyone is talking about what happened in Noor."
He attributed its success to tapping into the dreams of people wanting to escape from the daily grind of their lives. "Of course it has been well advertised and promoted," he said. "It's romantic, it's also aspirational. If you're a poor person you can see into the lives of the rich, with their beautiful cars and houses, and their good families. Everyone wants to watch and they like to dream of that kind of life for themselves."
Mr Khair, Sama Productions' general manager, said he had come to the conclusion it was the modernity, lack of complexity and absence of overt politics that had helped make Noor a hit. "I've come to see the secret of the success as something simple," he said. "It's us in the Middle East as we'd like to be in 15 years' time. It's us, as we want to be socially, politically, economically; it's what we aspire to.
"You see rich and poor, you see people inside a restricted and religious society, but religion is not something that is enforced on them. Look at the cars, fashion, homes; it's aspiring. I'm showing you how a poor person in our part of the world would love to be looked at. It's a reflection of the audience and their aspirations." With Noor's popularity showing no sign of waning, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti issued his stark condemnation on Sunday, apparently on behalf of the Higher Council of Religious Scholars, the government body that advises the kingdom's rulers on matters of religion.
According to comments reported in al Wattan newspaper, the mufti said any channels airing the show were un-Islamic. "It is not permitted to watch Turkish series," he was quoted as saying. "They are replete with wickedness, evil, moral collapse and war on virtues that only God knows the truth of." The remarks had little effect on Syrian fans of the show, who watch privately in their homes or out in public cafes, many of which have television sets that are switched from the usual Arabic music channels to MBC 4 when Noor starts.
Nada, a 26-year-old Damascus resident, said she tuned into Noor every evening. "It's the romance and the fashion and the lifestyles," she said. "And I'd love to meet a man like Muhannad who is honest and caring. It's not as if Noor is the most important thing in my life, but I like to watch. It's what we all talk about." @Email:email@example.com