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"Noor," or "Gümüs," the Arab World's Most Popular Television Soap Opera

A Flop in Turkey, the Show Makes Saudis and Other Arabs Swoon


Kivanc Tatlitug

Kivanc Tatlitug, whose eyes, hair, whiskers and roses he brings his wife after their quarrels have turned "Noor" the Arab world's most successful television soap opera ever. The show was produced in Turkey in 2005-07, where it was a flop.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

"Noor," or "Gümüs" in its original language, is a Turkish television soap opera that originally aired in Turkey from 2005 to 2007. It was a flop. When its producer dubbed it into Arabic (in Syrian dialect) and the show aired from 2008 to 2009 on the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), a pan-Arab broadcasting network, "Noor" became an immediate sensation and one of highest-rated television shows in the world.

The show drew appeal from all demographics through storylines focusing on a large, multi-generational family whose many members lounge through love stories. "We always joked," blogger Ajnabiya wrote on another blogger's post on the show, "that the nicest thing was that each member of the family, from the Jido down to the grand-daughter was in some kind of love story. It is a fun escape for anyone, especially those living in a closed society, or as in Lebanon, always confronted with political problems and the like.

A Brad Pitt for Arabia

But the show's most ardent gravity centers are Noor, the generously busted dark-haired actress played by Songül Öden, and Noor's husband Mohannad, played by the seemingly blue-eyed Turkish Adonis, Kivanc Tatlitug, and his blond curls. Mohannad, a rose-plucking romantic, treats his wife as an equal, supports her in her professional dreams (she is a designer), knows how to spell the word "tender"--and enact it.

He is an angelic husband, but not an angel, at least not according to the traditional Islamic repertoire of acceptable behavior. He (like other characters on the show) had pre-marital sex and fathered a child out of wedlock. He kisses his wife. On screen. Like more groundbreaking Western television fare of a few decades ago, the show includes a storyline about a character's abortion, alcohol flows freely at mealtime, none of the women wear anything like veils, and religion is subordinate to the challenges and pleasures of everyday life, passions of the heart included.

Bill Bennett in Arabic

Inevitably for radically conservative societies like Saudi Arabia (that is, officially conservative, but obviously not nearly so in the privacy of Saudis' homes, considering "Noor"'s success there) the show drew the wrath of the country's clerical establishment. Sheikh Saleh Al-Laheedan, chairman of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judiciary Council, in September 2008 called for the murder of satellite television executives who bring such shows as "Noor" to Saudis' televisions.

The slightly more level-headed Saudi Gazette worried that "many seemingly innocent soaps may also affect children adversely," citing "Noor" among those soaps.

Record Viewers

For all the gripes, when the show's last episode aired on Aug. 30, 2009, it attracted a record 85 million Arab viewers, or close to a third of the population of the Arab world (from Morocco to Iraq). In 2009, MBC teamed up with Turkey's Momentum Productions to make a $2.5 million to $3.5 million feature film of "Nour"--in Turkish for dubbing into Arabic (the message: don't mess with a working formula).

For Turkey, the series' Arabic version has been an unexpected boon, in tourism especially. Arab tourists are flocking to Turkey as a result of the show, and to Istanbul especially, where the story is anchored. To accommodate the influx, the show's production company converted the fictional home of the hero into a museum. Some 70,000 people just from Saudi Arabia visited in 2008.

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