Posted on October 10, 2010 - by Mira
Published in Yemen Today
Photo below of a Yemeni main street by Mira Baz
On a main street in Sanaa, Mohannad smiles down daily from a Turkish Airlines billboard at drivers and pedestrians.
He should be happy. The finale of the Turkish soap opera he starred in, titled “Noor” in its Arabic version on MBC, was watched by 85 million Arab viewers aged 15 and older, MBC Marketing Director Mazen Hayek announced at a conference in Beirut last year. That’s a quarter of the total Arab population, or 1 in 4 Arabs who watched it. And the majority of them were women. Quite a hit, particularly since the soap opera had not fared as well in its own home country.
Arab viewers were glued to their TVs and planned their schedules around the show. It became a family affair. Husbands and wives, parents and children, tuned in together to watch and afterwards discuss Noor and Mohannad’s love and troubles. Women became infatuated with Mohannad. A frenzied crowd gathered outside the Dubai headquarters of al-Arabiya satellite news channel when the handsome young actor and award-winning former model who played Mohannad turned up for an interview last year. 2008 and 2009 saw the unprecedented Mohannad fever spread across the Middle East, T-shirts of him and Noor reportedly outselling Saddam’s.
“I used to hear: Why can’t my husband be like [Mohannad]? Why can’t our relationship be intimate like theirs?” said Dr. Afaf al-Haimi, Professor of Sociology at Sanaa University. “The show had a romantic relationship that Arab women lack, particularly in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, where marital relationships tend to be dry and lack romance and intimacy.”
Dubbed in the Syrian dialect, “Noor’s” success is in part due to its colloquial and everyday language, in contrast to the use of the more literary Classical Arabic in the Mexican soap operas that dominated the 1990s. But the show’s success can mainly be attributed to the greater appeal and proximity of Turkish Muslim culture to the Arab culture than that of the West.
The popularity of “Noor” says something significant about the state of Arabs today. Although the marriage of the protagonists Noor and wealthy businessman Mohannad was arranged by his grandfather, the soap opera portrays a secular and progressive Muslim lifestyle more commonly found in northern Middle Eastern countries. Mohannad is faithful to his wife and supportive of her career in fashion design. The couple fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but also drink wine with their meals. Noor does not wear the traditional Muslim hijab and veil, and has to deal with her husband fathering a son from a previous, premarital sexual relationship.
Even though racy scenes were censored for Arab viewership, the soap opera came under intense fire from religious scholars. The Associated Press reported Muslim preachers in Saudi Arabia and the West Bank labeling it as un-Islamic. A Hamas lawmaker and preacher said the show “collides with our Islamic religion, values and traditions.”
But the series’ popularity was undeterred, even as conservatism continues to spread across the Middle East.
“We as Arab society in general, we love to be conservative to our religion,” said Akram al-Hindi, head of English programming and news in the government-run Yemen satellite TV channel. “But sometimes we feel it too much; we have to have an escape.”
Another phenomenon emblematic of the current Arab condition is the satellite explosion in the last decade of both religious channels and programming on the one hand, and often-explicit music video channels, Arab and Western, on the other.
Arab viewers are torn between the infamous Hayfa Wehbe, the sexy Lebanese singer with suggestive lyrics and videos on Rotana TV, and renowned Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi on al-Jazeera or popular Muslim televangelist Amr Khaled. Both men preach about the importance of modesty and, particularly, the obligatory hijab for women. Add to the mix the growing, religion-fueled political rhetoric of extremists, and you have a messy salad.
“Satellite channels do in fact have these two contradictions,” said Dr. al-Haimi. “There are many religious channels that forbid what is forbidden and sometimes even what’s halal (permitted). And on the other hand, there are many channels with a lot of openness to the Other – not just music clips – and women are usually at the center of all of them. Arabs are confused really. They’re caught in between.”
So how to explain this bipolarity?
“It’s human nature,” said al-Hindi. “Sometimes you want to show that you are conservative in society. But in the end, you need a kind of resort. You want to relieve all these boundaries around you. Everything’s ayb (shame), everything’s haram (forbidden). Once you build a fence, the curiosity is built. The higher you build it, the more you want to know about the other side.”
The uncontrollable infiltration of satellite TV into the homes of the Arab populations was a sudden departure from the government-dominated channels of the previous generations with their non-commercial, dumbed-down clichés. Even the very conservative Saudi government tried but couldn’t stand in front of the tidal wave and had to finally relent, said al-Hindi. The Saudis then jumped on the religious-programming bandwagon. The proliferation of the Saudi-funded Wahhabi puritanical form of Islam, not only through media but also in education and in mosques, is widely blamed in Yemen for the changing values of the last three decades.
“I think the Saudis are the source of the problem,” explained al-Hindi. “If you look at old photos, Yemeni women in the past worked in the field together with the men, their faces exposed. They sang together in the field. And they knew their religion, they knew the limits. This has now changed.”
Dr. al-Haimi agrees. “When Sanaa University first opened,” she said, “we had a musical group, we had a theater. Now it’s gone. They changed it to “Hall.” They removed the word “Theater,” and that’s wrong. The university should have a theater. Change comes from within the universities.”
More progressive, at times also Saudi-funded, Hollywood movie channels like the MBC group have had a sizeable viewership as well, especially among the Arab youth. This toxic combination of extreme openness and conservatism has led many to conjure up conspiracy theories revolving around the destruction and control of the Arab mind.
But more tangible is the resulting religiosity of some Arabs in their countries, characterized by the conformity to strict social rules – even as they at times admit that these contradict religious dictates – and the contrasting behavior when traveling abroad.
“Most people from Yemen and the Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia,” said al-Hindi, “when they travel to Egypt in the summers, they do everything that’s forbidden in their own countries. The women take off their veils and wear jeans, for example. They say in Egypt people are modern. Come on. You either do it here and there, or don’t do it anywhere.”
Some see this battle of contrasts in the media to win hearts and minds as contributing to the growth of extremism, which is filling the gap or aiming to do so with simplistic and ready religious answers. Along with the perceived slanted American foreign policy, Arab regimes share the blame for creating hollow Arab societies, by oppressing their people, suffocating the media and judiciary, starving the educational institutions, and dodging accountability by blaming and accusing the West.
“These Arab political systems have created a lot of these things,” said Dr. al-Haimi. “Why should we exonerate them? Who created the Afghan youths [that fought the Soviets]? America and the Arab political systems. They were fighting for America, but then they became victims of these systems.”
Extremists have thrived in that hollow space, argues Dr. Raufa Hassan, an activist and head of the Cultural Development Programs Foundation.
“The religious programming content is male-dominated,” she said. “And the media jointly with the mosque and the school and the state leaders have an effect that’s so strong. That’s why you see the trend toward conservatism is stronger and stronger, to the point where people started to be radical without feeling it, judging themselves and others and not allowing any space for differences.”
The tug of war between the liberal and the conservative media rages on, and it’s likely to continue. It’s anyone’s guess which will prevail in the end. For now, Arabs remain locked inside this love-hate triangle.
Leave a Reply
Here's your chance to speak.