Turkish Drama in the Arab World: Social Impacts, Religious Reaction and Dramatic Void in the Arab World
Nour, which is named after the main character in the dubbed Turkish soap opera which was shown on the Saudi-owned MBC satellite channel in 2008, immediately became a hit. The high ratings it got were partly due to its unconventional use of colloquial Arabic. Non-Arabic dramas too have been dubbed earlier in classical Arabic. “The last two episodes of Nour, shown on August 30, 2008, attracted 85 million viewers in the Middle East and North Africa [Mena] region, out of which 50 million were females,” said Mazen Al Hayek, MBC’s official spokesperson and the group director of PR, marketing and commercial. MBC, which started broadcasting Turkish dramas in 2008, has telecast nearly 20 series. The others are shown on Arabic satellite channels such as Abu Dhabi TV and Dubai TV.
The demand for drama, which has become a target for several Arab channels in the past few years, has increased in recent months with the expansion of its broadcasting map, after overcoming some accent barriers. The demand for Turkish drama has increased, especially with the decreasing output of the two important TV production cities in the Arab region, Cairo and Damascus, due to the political turmoil in both countries for more than a year. Several years back, “I bought a one-hour (one hour of copyright) Turkish drama for $600 [Dh2, 203] or $700. Today, there are [parties] who are willing to pay $40,000 for one-hour [dramas],” said Adeeb Khair, general manager and owner of Sama Art Productions, a Syrian TV production company which dubs Turkish dramas into colloquial Syrian Arabic. 
“Gümüş” (Silver) was the vanguard of the Turkish drama. Renamed “Noor” (Arabic for “light”) and characters renamed with Arabic names, the entire show became a phenomenon in the Arab world. The show was such a success that 85 million Arabs tuned in to watch the series finale broadcast in 2008. Just a decade ago international sale of Turkish television dramas amounted to less than 1 million U.S. dollars, and in just a few years it managed to reach 50 million dollars in 2010, due primarily to the huge success of those shows in the Middle East.
The Turkish Drama Fills the Void
Recent weeks have seen images from the Arab world that most would rather forget: angry mobs, burning flags, dead civilians. That there is so much more to the region and its people is indisputable. That Arabs themselves need to do a better job of articulating their own dreams, hopes and ambitions for the future – i.e. the existential elements of humanity that tie us together regardless of race, creed or religion – is also beyond dispute. The problems begin, however, when that funding is too readily available for filmmakers whose scripts are not properly developed, whose stories are not interesting enough, whose characters are not engaging and who have no idea of the concept of dramatic resolution. Instead, these filmmakers hide behind the label of “auteur”. What they seem to forget, however, is auteur is someone with an actual artistic vision and something original to say, not simply a propensity for long, slow, listless treatises on the banality of life. Of course, there are a plethora of talented, hard-working and genuinely engaged filmmakers in the Arab world. The likes of Nadine Labaki, Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad have won international awards and achieved box office success both at home and abroad. But we need more. And we need our young voices to push themselves harder and not simply take the money because they can. One must also recognize the myriad challenges that still remain for Arab filmmakers: namely the lack of an Arab audience for their films. The region is still woefully lacking in cinemas (movie theatres). And while the Arab world is officially bound by the same language, the truth is the 22 countries all have their own dialects and local customs that frequently remain specific to their own borders. The result is the absence of a genuine pan-Arab market for Arab cinema.
But this spreading out has its price. As the economic rule goes, an increase in demand leads to an increase in prices. Some experts in the industry believe that the increasing prices of Turkish dramas will eventually lead to a shift in demand. High prices have put forward the option of searching for a new window of profits for TV channels, they said. 
Dalia Ahmed, 32, is an assistant researcher in agricultural studies; and a Turkish soaps lover. She started watching them when she saw Asi by chance: “I watched a scene and liked it a lot, I was glued to my laptop screen for the next two days to finish the series, watching an episode after another.” Since then, Ahmed has watched countless series. “I was attracted to the series because they have different plots, the sceneries are stupendous and the music is out of this world. They present many songs of their heritage to the point that we use these songs as ring tones for our phones, the acting performance is so good and the good-looks of their leading characters is a plus too.” In a recent article film critic Tarek El Shennawy commented on the factors that attract an Egyptian audience to Turkish soaps: “They film outside in the natural scenery, they are meticulous about customs and make-up and they simply have a ‘fresh’ flavour in ideas, scenes, events and in exhibiting beauty… Egyptian soaps have been following the same production patterns for a very long time, our drama production is exclusive to the month of Ramadan and we leave the rest of the year for the Turkish drama to dominate and that’s why the Egyptian and Arab viewers escape to Turkish drama.” 
Yet recently like everyone else in this part of the world, I have witnessed the invasion of Turkish series (soap operas as they are known in America) dubbed into Lebanese or Syrian Arabic dialect. Not a fan of soap operas, I did not watch for sometime… in fact, I used to mock those who did, simply because I thought of them as unreal, long and melodramatic. They say the tasting is in the eating … well to my surprise, I have spent the last 60 days or more eagerly watching Fatmagül, a series about a raped woman and her struggle! Huh! Me! While my point of view has not changed in that I still think of them as too drawn out, emotional, and fictionalized, they are well produced, presented and professionally dubbed. So what is it about these series that have attracted Egyptians from their traditional supposedly famous series into such new unfamiliar territory? Is it the fact that we yearn for slow, romantic and exaggerated plots? As humans, we voluntarily let ourselves to be drawn into very emotional worlds where the good triumphs over the evil, where the lover sacrifices all for his beloved and where the stress and bitterness of the world vanish and melt away. I really don’t know if I will watch any other series, but I felt so obliged to honour those Turkish people who are able to shoot in colourful modern scenes what we lack in our modern world infusing them with the beauty of the black and white series.
Stressing the vitality of love and positive emotions is the key word of the Turkish drama that has been screened on Arab satellite channels. The romantic story lines depicting heroes facing the harsh fleeting of time and the dramatic separation between lovers are the main theme in most of these series. This very feature is what makes them more appealing to the Egyptian viewer, who is fed up with Egyptian drama where corruption, rape crimes and tragedies involving street children are the most prevalent topics. It is true that such topics reflect the economic and social transformation of Egyptian society, but presenting the same themes over and over again has forced the viewers to draw back.( It is equally true to assume that women make up the majority of the audiences, and they are desperate for romance. For them, the Turkish drama presents an escape from the marital conflicts and dull routine in their daily lives for the first time they see romance, kisses and hugs among married couples, and not between romantic but temporary, illegal relationships as depicted in the Egyptian drama.) So what exactly is the influence of such Turkish dramas on Egyptian television drama producers? Egyptian actor Nour El-Sherif, who has followed the show, was quoted as saying that it appealed to Arab women because it showed that a man could be deeply in love with a woman who was not particularly attractive. There might be another reason, however. None of the women in Time to Part wears the hijab (head cover). Most tend to be fashionable blondes in revealing European attire — not exactly representative of Turkish women. Moreover, the script makes Turkey look quite secular, with marriages and divorces all conducted at a city hall, not the mosque. Egyptians love it. Film critic Ihab El-Turki says the huge success of Turkish drama is a wake up call to Arab producers. “Arab drama needs to rid itself of its rigid formulas, such as over- dependence on one star. We need better scripts and more shooting on-location,” he concludes.
The Turkish soaps have also resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Arab tourists thronging to Istanbul for the city’s historic ambiance, as well as a desire to see the spectacular mansions along the Bosporus, where many of the favorite soaps are shot. Asked by Euronews recently what it was she found in these soaps, Auhood Salim, one such tourist from Iraq did not mince her words. Reeling off the names of her favorite Turkish actors without difficulty, she said these productions showed that one could be Muslim and modern at the same time. “They show the parts of life we don’t really have in some of our countries,” she added with a discernible tone of regret and yearning. Daniel Abdul Fattah, MBC and Al Arabiya’s representative in Turkey, reflected this fact recently with a striking example during an interview with Euronews. Indicating that one of the Turkish soaps was being aired during the most violent period of conflict between Al Fattah and Hamas, he said that the sides had agreed on a cease-fire to be able to see the show. “If a series or a movie has a love story or a romance, it can stop a fratricidal quarrel and bloodshed,” Al Fattah said. But it is not just Turkish romantic soaps and historic productions that have turned the Arabs on. Another highly popular Turkish series is the “Valley of the Wolves,” which deals with current political topics in the Middle East in ways that have annoyed the U.S. and Israel.
A Yemeni man has been executed after murdering five people, among then one woman, in an effort to imitate a Turkish soap opera. Mohamed al-Ali al-Azab, 31, admitted before a crowd of tribal chieftains, who gathered to witness his execution, that his crime was inspired by the Turkish TV series ‘Valley of Wolves.’ The incident began with a dispute between Azab and another man in the Dawran district in the western governorate of Dhama and culminated with Azab killing five people, amongst them the other man’s mother in a shootout.
Social worker Layla Abu Shama emphasized that the popularity of Turkish series amongst women in particular is proof that these programs deal with topics that correspond to their own personal issues and aspirations. “It is important that parents talk to their children and discuss their interests as this reflects what is going on in their minds,” she said. 
According to journalist Seyfullah Türksoy, the secret to its success lies in the Middle East’s quest for a ‘hero’: “It’s a necessity and because of this necessity, people have found a hero who defeats and challenges America and Israel. I think series like ‘Valley of the Wolves’ will be influential in the future and the effect of Turkey on cinema and art will continue, especially in the Middle East. Maybe there will even be new heroes.” Sociologist Hülya Uğur Tanrıöver thinks this may be a bit of a stretch: “Non-dictatorship regimes were less common in Muslim dominated societies, until now. When you break out of a dictatorship regime, you look for political, social and cultural models that are close, but at the same time different from your own. People in that region already needed, and liked, the kinds of stories and lifestyles shown in the Turkish TV series, and that’s why they’ve accepted them.
According to a report on the MBC website, a man recently left his wife after she said she had contacted the lead actor of Noor and was planning to meet him. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is apparently threatening fines for cars with pictures of Muhanad on their windows. 
“It seems most viewers are female,” said Hana Rahman, who runs an Arab entertainment blog (waleg.com). “They’re so swept away by the main character. He’s become a heartthrob here! He has even caused divorce cases in Saudi Arabia. “We made the series with a Turkish audience in mind,” Tatlıtuğ told al-Arabiya Television during a recent visit to Dubai. “The fact that it has amassed such a following in the Arab world just proves how much our cultures have in common.” Many Saudi women explained their devotion to the show as a form of escapism from stifling, love-less marriages. “Our men are rugged and unyielding,” quipped a 26-year-old house-frau who preferred to remain unnamed. “I wake up and see a cold and detached man lying next to me, I look out the window and see dust. It is all so dull. On Noor, I see beautiful faces, the beautiful feelings they share and beautiful scenery.”
They are very comfortable with it. It varies from country to country. Turkish soap operas are popular all over the Arab world. Turkey has a cultural, soft power influence right now. People will refer to soap operas as an indication that a Muslim country can produce modern, culturally authentic TV stories; there is a kind of Turkey [showing that there] is a way to be modern and Muslim. Since many of these old governments, including [Hosni] Mubarak’s, said basically that these two things were not reconcilable, but people want that and they love to see Turkey [doing] that. People think Turkey is respected as a country; this is also appealing. There is more interest and hope for attention in Libya and Syria than there is in Egypt and Tunisia. By and large, people are pleased to see Turkey taking an interest in what is going on in the region.
Turkey and its government should be thankful to the soap stars who are conquering hearts and minds on their behalf — and on the cheap. The government can claim the benefit and ride a wave of popular support among the Arab masses, something which burnishes Turkey’s already popular image in the Arab world (indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is already considered a hero on the Arab street due to his strong show of solidarity with the Palestinian people; rather for his Israel-bashing). Between topics including romance and social upheaval that rattles traditional values, and highlighting the Palestinian cause, one can see a blurring of the lines between art and reality, and the effect one has on the other. Who said that capturing hearts and minds in the Muslim world is mission impossible? It’s just that the United States hasn’t figured out the right way to do it. Sometimes, it seems the U.S. government still thinks that public diplomacy is exchange students and a few diplomats who can speak Arabic and struggle on satellite television in the region to explain U.S. foreign policy. Welcome to the power of the stars! I am not talking about the ones in the sky, but rather a handful of good-looking blond and dark Turkish movie stars who are taking the Arab world by storm (during the Ottoman Empire, most of the Arabs would not have regarded this as occupation since this was a Sunni Muslim regime, the Young Turks are only a very late phenomenon in that history). The Arab world is embracing Turkey, opening its living rooms and flocking around their television sets to watch over 140 episodes of second-rate Turkish soap operas that don’t even do well in Turkey itself.
President Abdullah Gül said Turkish soap operas were the focal point of the meetings with officials of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which broadcasts Turkish soaps on TV. “They asked me what will happen at the end of the Turkish series,” Gül said, “and said their wives were always sitting in front of the televisions for the shows.” Gül said it was important that another culture liked Turkish television series.
“In 2012, despite problems at our southern borders, we hosted some 32 million foreign tourists. Turkey gets nearly $25 billion in income from tourism. All people in the sector try to promote the country to the world but the most effective promotion is that of culture and arts. As a result of these efforts, the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry was chosen as the best tourism organization in Europe last year in Portugal. This is the result of our synergy.” Günay said the ministry has aimed to support Turkish cinema in recent years, adding that they are preparing to develop a new cinema law. “TV dramas promote Turkey around the world on their own accord. I learned the names of many dramas and their actors while abroad over the years. I heard their names abroad for the first time and wondered about them. Many of my friends abroad joke that they organize their meetings and travels according to our TV dramas. They ask me ‘Is Turkey really so beautiful?’,” he said.
Turkey is expecting the number of Saudi tourists this year to top 100,000, including King Abdullah’s wife Hissa al-Shaalan, who has been the subject of YouTube videos showing her swanning through the markets and sweet-shops of Istanbul. “From 41,000 (tourists) last year to 100,000 this year — the same year this show became phenomenally successful,” said Turkish diplomat Yasin Temizkan “It’s more than just a coincidence.”
Many Arabs were shocked and appalled this month when a prominent Saudi cleric declared that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV stations that broadcast “immoral” material. But the comment, by Sheik Saleh al-Luhaidan, was only the most visible part of a continuing cultural controversy over Arab television. This summer another Saudi cleric denounced the Arab world’s most popular TV show ever – the dubbed Turkish series “Noor” – calling it “replete with evil, wickedness, moral collapse and a war on the virtues.” He also urged Muslims not to watch the series, which portrays the lives of moderate Muslims who drink wine with dinner and have premarital sexual relations. And last week, as if to provide comic relief, a third Saudi cleric said (in all seriousness) that children should not be allowed to watch Mickey Mouse, labelling that Disney cartoon character a “soldier of Satan” who should be killed. The show and the liberties it displayed prompted unusual condemnations from hard-line clerics throughout the Middle East, including Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Asheik, Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric, who issued an instruction that Muslims should not watch it.
That divided response was apparent this month when Luhaidan, who is chief justice (judge) of Saudi Arabia’s highest legal authority, the Supreme Judicial Council, commented about killing the owners of satellite TV stations that broadcast indecent material. His comments were quickly rebroadcasted, and an uproar ensued. Critics across the ideological spectrum, including some hard-line Saudis, berated him as having crossed the line. Some of the television networks Luhaidan appeared to be referring to are owned, after all, by members of the Saudi royal family. Luhaidan is said to have been surprised by all the controversy. A few days later, apparently under pressure from senior figures in the Saudi government, he appeared on state television to explain. He said he had not meant to encourage or condone the murder of TV station owners. Assuming other penalties do not deter them, he said, the owners should first be brought to trial and sentenced to death – and then they could be executed. 
There is no doubt that the Turkish drama plays an important role in the Arab World socially, religiously, and politically, especially among the youth and women as the Arab drama, especially Egyptian and Syrian, faces artistic drawbacks since the 1980s . It is clear that the Turkish drama presents a new kind of suspense (may be common in Turkey and the West) that appeals to the Arabic viewers: scenery. Moreover, through drama, Turkey can go back to the world to rebuild the cultural and social ties between the Turkish and Arab peoples. Most of the Arabs see Turkey as a great model of an Islamic country with modern traits.
Mohamed Zayed, Researcher in Middle East Affairs
Please cite this publication as follows:
Zayed, Mohamed (September, 2013), “Turkish Drama in the Arab World: Social Impacts, Religious Reaction and Dramatic Void in the Arab World ”, Vol. II, Issue 7, pp.35-42, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=4125)
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