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Turkish soap ‘Noor’ takes Arab world by storm

Viewers tuning in up to three times daily to watch the show

With his strawberry blond curls, blues eyes and engaging smile, Muhannad is setting the pulses of millions of Arab women racing in a television series critics claim is scandalizing traditional Muslim values.

Despite being branded "subversive" and "anti-Islamic" by top Muslim clerics, millions of viewers from Beirut to Algiers tune in up to three times a day to watch the Turkish-made soap opera, "Noor", dubbed into Arabic.

The series tells the story of Muhannad and his equally stunning wife Noor as they wrestle to reconcile the conflicting pressures of traditional and modern worlds.

"I love it because it is as glamorous as the foreign soap operas (American and Mexican) we sometimes watch," said Cairo resident Safaa Abdel Hadi, a self-confessed Noor addict.

"But at the same time the family in 'Noor' is Muslim and they have similar traditions and customs, so we relate to them much more," she added.

Noor tells the story of a young mother who abandons her family home to start a new life with her baby and the story of another woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock -- issues frowned upon in the conservative Arab world.

"We must not fool ourselves into thinking that because they are Muslim they are like us. The show reflects Western culture and problems, not our own," said 34-year-old Nadia Abdel Rahman of Egypt.

In order to protect the sensibilities of conservative Arab and Muslim viewers, the production company, Sama, which provides the voice-over, has deleted intimate scenes considered to be "inappropriate".

The program is aired by Saudi satellite channel MBC, which last spring arranged a dinner banquet in Dubai in honor of the two main actors, prompting fans of the soap to go wild.

Producers Sama also won over a wider audience by using for the voice-overs everyday Arabic, rather than the more ceremonious classical version of the language.

Kivanc Tatlitug, who plays the role of Muhannad, has proved such a hit with female viewers that Arab media has carried reports of a number of jealous husbands filing for divorce from their wives.

Bigger than the Olympics

From the souqs of Tunis to the markets of east Jerusalem, T-shirts bearing pictures of the glamorous couple, Muhannad and Noor, are selling like hotcakes.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Nablus, several coffee shops have been renamed Noor and Muhannad in tribute to the soap's two lovebirds, who in the original Turkish show are called Gumus and Mehmet respectively.

"I sell more than 500 photos of the stars of 'Noor' each day, particularly ones of Muhannad. The girls are mad about him," said Hussein, a Syrian street vendor near Syria's Damascus University.

A travel agency in the northern Israeli town of Nazareth has even cashed in on the phenomenon by offering trips to Turkey, which include a visit to a mansion on the banks of the Bosporus where the series is filmed.

"Noor" drew more viewers than the Beijing Olympics in Beirut, where cafe and restaurant owners have put up big television screens to ensure that their customers, and staff, can get their daily fix.

"Such series reflect how the lives of Arab people are torn between modern life and their traditions," said Lebanese sociologist Melhem Shaul, who specializes in the media.” Somehow these shows help ease the anguish that grips us," Shaul added.

"Women who work but are oppressed by their husbands or male chauvinists who are forced to be on an equal footing with women, can identify with the characters."