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Soap opera Noor takes Arab world by storm Add to ...

It's ending today - just in time for the beginning of Ramadan - but the racy TV series called Noor will no doubt continue to generate controversy in the Arab world.

With its melodramatic subplots, which include abortion and extramarital affairs, its underlying feminist stand and its titillating romantic scenes, Noor has caused an uproar since it began airing five months ago.

In Saudi Arabia, between three and four million people watch Noor daily, out of a population of almost 28 million, according to MBC, the Saudi-owned Arab satellite channel that broadcasts the show. Elsewhere, millions more Arabs have arranged their daily plans around the soap opera, so they can watch the story of the young, beautiful, independent fashion designer named Noor and her handsome, romantic and supportive husband, Muhannad.

The blend of romance, feminism and tradition has entranced Muslim female - and young male - viewers, but some conservative Muslims say that Noor projects the wrong roles for women.

"May God curse this Noor show," swore Mazen Harallah, a taxi driver in Ramallah, as he drove through deserted streets minutes after the program began. "What problems it has caused!"

And, while numerous fans have named their babies after Noor and Muhannad and anything with the couple's picture on it flies off shopkeepers' shelves, there are also reports that many people have divorced as a result of the series.

Originally a Turkish soap opera that failed, the series was edited into shorter episodes and dubbed into Arabic by a Syrian production company.

Less conservative

Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic daily newspaper, called the show "an absolute phenomenon."

Western soap operas and series such as Friends have aired in the Arab world for years, but Noor - clearly set in a Muslim country with Muslim characters - has caused much more of a sensation.

Some aspects of the story follow Muslim traditions: The couple are the result of an arranged marriage, they live in a building shared with their extended family and they fast during Ramadan.

But the characters are less conservative than most Muslim Arabs. Some wear plunging necklines, others drink alcohol, one lives with his girlfriend. They kiss, touch and get pregnant without being married.

"This series collides with our Islamic religion, values and traditions," said Hamed Bitawi, an official of the Islamic Hamas movement and preacher in the West Bank city of Nablus, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Nevertheless, during a random visit to a five-storey building in the Ramallah suburb of Kufr Aqab, Noor was on TV screens in almost all of the 12 apartments and everyone at home was glued to the screen. Some husbands were conspicuously absent; they came home when it was over.

That may be because Muhannad is an almost impossible character to live up to, said the mother of the Al-Qadi family on the fourth floor. "Our society does not allow men to be romantic like Muhannad," said Um Sanad. "In our environment, with all the stress, it is very difficult to be romantic."

At the same time, her tall, dark-haired 16-year-old son, Sanad, sees the handsome Turkish actor as a role model.

"I want to be romantic like him," said the dark-haired Sanad, smiling softly.

'Apart of our lives'

One floor up at the Abu-Leileh home, Magdi, 20, waited until the commercials started before he answered the door. He and his friend Ahmed Bader, 18, watch the show religiously as they smoke L&M cigarettes and drink XL energy drinks.

"I love it because of the love stories and how the problems are solved," said Mr. Bader. Part of the reason for Noor's popularity over the numerous Egyptian soap operas was because "Egyptian soap operas are only 30 episodes, but this one has become a part of our lives," he said.

Across the hall, Tahiyeh Rayan, 36, has conflicted feelings as she watches Noor with four daughters and three sons. "It has destroyed the character of the young and old," she said. "It has a lot of romance." Unlike the characters on the show, all of her daughters cover their hair, as Islam requires.

As she spoke, the character Muhannad entered a bedroom where Noor lay on the bed wearing tight jeans. Muhannad leaned over her, looked deeply into her eyes and handed her a red rose.

Although Mrs. Rayan said she "opposed" the program, she watches it and said she liked Muhannad's mother, Sharifa, "because she's strong even though her husband left her and she always tries to bring the family together."

Mohammed Azmeh, a thin, bespectacled 39-year-old truck driver and father of four daughters and a son, leaves his fourth-floor apartment when Noor comes on and goes to the neighbourhood supermarket to watch the news.

But he has no opposition to his family watching it. On the contrary, he encourages his eldest daughter, 16-year-old Areen, to see it.

"It motivates women to develop their character," he said. "This show makes my daughter grow up stronger. She won't be a slave to her husband. She'll be independent."

Mr. Azmeh added that, "Any man who does not like the program for that reason has psychological problems."

Orly Halpern is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

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