News from the Mideast

by wjw on June 23, 2010

A note on Turkish soft power: I posted a couple years ago about the Turkish telenovela Noor, which turned out to be a huge hit once it was translated into Arabic and marketed in the Arab world. Arab women were stunned and fascinated by the male hero, who openly loved and supported his wife, allegedly a new idea in those parts. The fictional hero was cited as a co-respondent in divorce cases by men who failed to live up to his standards.

Well, the mighty Turkish soap operas march ona wave of Turkish melodramas, police procedurals and conspiracy thrillers — “Yaprak Dokumu,” “Kurtlar Vadisi,” “Asmali Konak,” “Ihlamurlar Altinda” and now the steamy “Ask-i Memnu,” the top-rated series in Turkey (think Madame Bovary on the Bosporus) — are making their way onto Arab televisions, wielding a kind of soft power.

Through the small screen, Turkey has begun to exercise a big influence at Arab dinner tables, in boardrooms and bedrooms from Morocco to Iraq of a sort that the United States can only dream about . . .

Politics and culture go hand in hand, here as elsewhere. If most Arabs watch Turkish shows to ogle beautiful people in exotic locales, Arab women have also made clear their particular admiration for the rags-to-riches story of the title character in “Noor,” a strong, business-savvy woman with a doting husband named Muhannad. Dr. Shafira Alghamdi, a Saudi pediatrician, was on vacation here the other day, shopping with two Saudi friends, and volunteered how Arab husbands often ignore their wives, while on “Noor,” within what remains to Arabs a familiar context of arranged marriages, respect for elders and big families living together, Noor and Muhannad openly love and admire each other.

“A lot of Saudi men have gotten seriously jealous of Muhannad because their wives say, ‘Why can’t you be more like him?’ ” Dr. Alghamdi said. Meanwhile, she was illustrating another consequence of the show: the sudden, spectacular boom in Arab tourism to Turkey. Millions of Arabs now flock here. Turkish Airlines has started direct flights to gulf countries (using soap stars as spokespeople). Turkish travel companies charter boats to ferry Arabs who want a glimpse of the waterfront villa where “Noor” was filmed. The owner recently put the house on the market for $50 million. Until lately he charged $60 for a tour, more than four times the price of a ticket to the Topkapi Palace.

Even fatwas by Saudi clerics calling for the murder of the soap’s distributors haven’t discouraged a store in Gaza City from hawking knockoffs of Noor’s sleeveless dresses (long-sleeved leotards included, to preserve feminine modesty) . . .

Culture may well be trumping politics: A Hamas leader not long ago was describing to a reporter plans by his government to start a network of Shariah-compliant TV entertainment when his teenage son arrived, complaining about Western music and his sister’s taste for the Turkish soap operas. Then the son’s cellphone rang.

The ring tone was the theme song from “Noor.”

I’ve long wondered if the best way to triumph in the clash of civilizations would be to carpet-bomb our enemies with consumer goods: generators, refrigerators, trash compactors, televisions, stereos, music videos, Play Stations . . . once they’re hooked on Left 4 Dead, Lady Gaga, and Noor, we can declare victory and go home.

Meanwhile, in Saudi, women frustrated at not being allowed to drive are now threatening to breastfeed their foreign drivers, which according to a recent fatwa by no less an authority than Shaikh Abdul Mohsin Bin Nasser Al Obaikan, member of Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, will turn them (the drivers) into their sons.

The campaign will be launched under the slogan: “We either be allowed to drive or breastfeed foreigners,” a journalist told Gulf News.

Amal Zahid said that their decision follows a fatwa issued by a renowned scholar which said that Saudi women can breastfeed their foreign drivers for them to become their sons . . .

Under this relationship, foreign drivers can mix freely with all members of the family without breaking the Islamic rule which does not allow mixing of genders.

Breast milk kinship is considered to be as good as a blood relationship in Islam.

Not that this is meeting with complete approval:

Another Saudi woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned: “Does Islam allow me to breastfeed a foreign man and prevent me from driving my own car?

“I have not breastfed my own children. How do you expect me to do this with a foreign man? What is this nonsense?” she said.

I totally love this. “You offer bogus religious readings to prevent us from doing something totally reasonable, we’ll come up with an even more outrageous bogus religious reading to point out the insanity of the process.”

They probably should just chill out with a few episodes of Noor.

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