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The invasion of Turkish soap operas
Published in Daily News Egypt on 23 - 12 - 2008

They have continuously been slammed as corny, unrealistic and unreligious. But despite the negative reports, the raving success of Turkish soap operas this year has proven to be a phenomenon with substantial cultural impact that even the biggest naysayer can't deny.
The sudden invasion of Turkish soaps began last July with the one and only "Noor, "Gümüs in Turkish. Three to four million people in Saudi Arabia, the only Arab country with a real rating system, tuned in daily to channel MBC 4 to watch the show, according to the Associated Press.
"Noor centers on the trials and tribulations of Noor and Muhannad, a young couple united in an arranged marriage. While Noor has had a crush on Muhannad since childhood, Muhannad, on the other hand, was forced into the marriage by his grandfather. Noor ultimately manages to win Muhannad's heart and starts to work out their differences. Originally hailing from the countryside, Noor sets out to prove herself in Istanbul's fashion world. Meanwhile, Muhannad begins to love his wife, but as their love blossoms, the the highs and lows of their relationship grow more extreme.
Although critics have attributed the show's success to Muhannad's striking looks and his ideal devotion as a husband, it is Noor's independent and willful personality that captivated female viewers across the Arab the world. Being able to balance a successful marriage and a flourishing career is everything a woman wishes for; and after all, there is a reason why the show is named Noor, not Muhannad.
Before "Noor began wrapping up, another Turkish soap was gathering pace on MBC 1 - "Sanawat El Dayaa (The Lost Years). The series became increasingly popular so that viewers, once again, were adjusting their daily schedules to catch it. "The Lost Years charts the love life of Yehia, an ambitious man from a poor neighborhood in Istanbul who climbs the socioeconomic ladder until he becomes a successful businessman. The central plotline of the series is the love story between Yehia and Lamees, a bright young woman born to an upper class family. Like "Noor, "Years also sees the pair attempting to bridge their differences and overcome the obstacles that threaten to drive them apart.
The success of "Noor and "The Lost Years paved the way for the next Turkish hit "Lahzit Wadaa, (A Moment of Farewell) and "La Makan La Watan (No Place, No Home-country), currently broadcast on MBC 4 and MBC 1, respectively, along with "Al Ajniha Al Monkasera (The Broken Wings).
While being shown last summer, Saudi Arabia's top religious figure, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh, called the shows "wicked and "malevolent; branding Arabic television channels airing the soaps "un-Islamic.
"Any channel that helps to further increase the popularity of these shows is ultimately a warrior against God and his Prophet, he said in comments cited by Saudi's daily Al Watan.
"It is haram to watch Turkish series ... They are replete with wickedness, evil, moral collapse and war on virtue that only God knows the truth of.
But the grand mufti's remarks seemed to have fallen on deaf ears; fans shrugged off his statements and continued to watch the show religiously. According to news reports, 85 million viewers tuned in for the final episode of "Noor while 68 million tuned in for the finale of "The Lost Years.
Saudi-owned TV broadcaster MBC itself also didn't pay much attention to the Mufti's remarks, adding more Turkish soaps to the lineup of its upcoming season. It's safe to say that the Turkish soap momentum doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
"Turkish drama is now an established genre, Mazen Hayek, MBC's marketing director, told Al Arabiya.net.
But why are Arab viewers exceedingly entranced with Turkish soap operas?
Although the Arab world does possess a well-established television industry - with more than 40 productions broadcast in the holy month of Ramadan alone - Arab viewers seem to have gotten weary of the same actors and actresses playing out the same old dreary plots every year.
"There are only a handful of actors monopolizing TV series, said Mai Mohsen, 25. "For example, there is Youssra who plays out the role of the perfect superwoman every year, and we are bored with that, we want to see new faces and new stories.
Consequently, Arab viewers were compelled to look elsewhere for their daily TV dose. With Turkey being a Muslim nation with similar cultural mores, it wasn't difficult for Arab viewers to connect with the characters, perhaps more so than popular American shows like "Friends or "Grey's Anatomy. Social concepts of family traditions, arranged marriages and domineering mothers-in-law are among the primary dramatic elements of Turkish soaps, all of which remain dominant in the Arab world.
The popularity of Turkish shows could also be attributed to their ability to function as outlets for escapism from the hardships the average Arab viewer confronts every day.
"In my country, Egypt, people are dying in bread queues, inflation is at an all time high, and 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, 'Noor' offers them some distraction from their lives, said journalist Ethar El-Katatney on her blog Muslimah Media Watch.
"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? she added.
Although Turkish soaps were greatly welcomed by Arab viewers, some of whom changed their vacation destination to Turkey and started naming their newborns Noor and Muhannad, critics and experts in the TV series industry stood at the other end of the spectrum.
According to acclaimed scriptwriter Lamis Gaber, writer of the award-winning TV drama "King Farouk and the upcoming biopic "Muhammad Ali, Turkish soaps are similar to Chinese products, cheap and non-durable.
"Arabs love new fads, Gaber told Daily News Egypt. "It's a matter of time until they get enough like they previously did with other soap operas such as 'The Bold and the Beautiful.'
"One thing that is worth noting is that a work of art is an expression of its culture; you have the Turkish culture dubbed with the Syrian dialect which undoubtedly influenced it, and then there are viewers from other cultures all over the Arab world so it's mumbo-jumbo, she said.
On the other hand, renowned critic Rafiq El Sabban understands the appeal of Turkish soaps to Arab viewers. Turkish dramas simply contain all the successful ingredients of hit shows, according to El Sabban.
"The Turkish soap operas have everything the audience wants, El Sabban told Daily News Egypt. "It's full of melodrama and suspense which the viewer finds entertaining. It relies on the great décor and the great Turkish sites which are intriguing [to] the Arab viewer.
Egypt's terrestrial Channel 2 recently acquired the broadcasting rights for "Noor and is currently airing it in its primetime programming. "The thing is they initially criticized them and then they go off and buy them; it's nonsense, said Gaber.
Turkish soaps have undoubtedly become a sensation in Egypt - and the Arab world - this past year, appearing in not only media reports but day-to-day conversations among fans. Love them or hate them, Turkish soaps look like they're here to stay at least for the next couple of years.


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