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Turkish soap operas in the Arab world: social liberation or cultural alienation?

Issue 10, Spring 2010

By Alexandra Buccianti

Noor and Muhannad from the Arabized Turkish soap opera Noor

Noor and Muhannad from the Arabized Turkish soap opera Noor

 

Dubbed Turkish soap operas conquering the Arab world:
social liberation or cultural alienation?

 

In 1980 oil magnate J.R. Ewing was shot and injured in the hit series Dallas, which featured an unconventional family’s struggles over power, wealth and sex. The shot was heard around the world, with millions of fans desperately wondering “Who shot J.R.?”. It was the first time that a TV series had captivated simultaneously so many people around the world. Five years later, the Arabs were shooting at the stars with the launch of the first Arab satellite system, Arabsat-1. Except for experts and visionaries, no one was predicting that it was “the beginning of the end” for the state domination of television in the Arab world.

 

Almost a quarter of a century later, on August 30, 2008, 85 million Arab viewers were glued to their TV sets for the finale of the Syrian-dubbed Turkish soap opera, Gümüş1 (Noor2 in Arabic), a Kanal D production that received little attention in its homeland in 2005. After falling in the past for Victoria Principal, Ridge Forrester, and Latin American telenovela characters Kassandra and Rosalinda , Arab audiences are now turning to Turkey, a close yet estranged neighbor with whom they share a tumultuous history.

 

The mastermind behind this phenomenon has been the MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) media empire, a combination of Saudi capital and Middle Eastern know-how, and a success story that started in the 1990s with the birth of a private Arab media field. As Naomi Sakr explains, many factors fuel the field’s potential including the fact that “Media flows are (…) facilitated where the language is shared3”. The Arab market is indeed unique: a large and essentially young audience with some 20 countries sharing a common language. Researchers have thus observed a relative “depoliticization” of media over the years with the progressive development of mass entertainment programming.

 

Despite the spectacular success of Arabic musalsalat (soap operas), Arab audiences have always shown great interest in foreign productions. Within this context Turkish soap operas, Noor being the most significant case, have generated a media revolution. My aim is first to describe this triumph and then to introduce the various repercussions that resulted from it. On one hand, it would be interesting to analyze this new form of drama on the Arab entertainment scene, explaining its emergence as a “genre” as well as a successful model of “hybridization”. On the other hand, in a region of long Ottoman domination, what linguistic and cultural issues do these series and their dubbing in dialect raise? What have they exposed about Arab societies in terms of values?

 

I will tackle these aspects through a close analysis of the Arab press from March to July 2009, the period that witnessed the peak of the series’ success. The analysis will include general literature about soap operas formats as well as musalsalat in the Arab world.

 

Moreover, I shall draw conclusions about Arab drama and entertainment as a whole, as well as its inherent contradictions, mostly in terms of values. Finally, I will discuss the next trends within this field as well as Arab satellite media in general, including the possible return of local dialects after the domination of standardized Arabic.

 

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1 Silver in Turkish



 

2 Light in Arabic



 

3 Sakr, Naomi. Arab Television Today. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
—.
Satellite Realms: Transantional Television Globalization and the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.

 


 

4 Çemberimde Gül Oya, a 2004 Kanal D production


 

5 Ihlamurlar Altında, a 2005 Kanal D production


 

6 Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates). «Noor’ lights up beacons of change.» 28 July 2008.

http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticleNew.asp?section=citytimes&xfile=data/citytimes/2008/july/citytimes_july273.xml


 

7 Beirut hosts The 2nd New Arab Woman Forum (NAWF). 11 September 2008. http://www.ameinfo.com/168434.html


 

8 According to its official website, the study gives a panorama of annual TV consumption in over 80 countries and territories worldwide http://www.iconoval.fr/publicmedia/original/171/78/fr/2009_%2003_%2024_%20CDP%20l%27ann%C3%A9e%20TV%20dans%20le%20monde%20VF.pdf


 

9 Dagge, John. "The Noor phenomenon." The Middle East, 2008.


 

10 Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates). «Noor’ lights up beacons of change.» 28 July 2008.http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticleNew.asp?section=citytimes&xfile=data/citytimes/2008/july/citytimes_july273.xml


 

11 Radsch, Courtney C. Arab TV series among top 10 global programs. 30 March 2009. http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2009/03/30/69563.html


 

12 Rossholm, Anna Sofia. Reproducing languages, translating bodies : approaches to speech, translation and cultural identity. Stockholm: Häftad. Almqvist & Wiksell international, 2006.


 

13 Stam, Robert. Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film. John Hopkins University, 1989.


 

14 (Dagge 2008)

 


 

16 Al Ahrar (Egypt). «Fatayata so'oudiyat yataa'lamna al turkiya min ajl Muhannad.» 01 July 2008.


 

17 Al Manar (United Arab Emirates). «A'wdat al haymana al tukiya ba'd al Mixiq'iya.» 06 April 2008: 65.


 

18 Mansour, Mohamed. «Ba'da mawjat al musalsalat al Mexikiya wal Iraniya wa akhiran al Turkiya.» Al Quds Al Arabi, 17 April 2008: 13.


 

19 Arabic TV serials too costly, MBC Chairman warns. 21 May 2008. http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/05/21/50195.html.


 

20 Al Ghad (Jordan). «Al Nouri: Najah' al musalsalat al turkiya youmathel tah'adi lel drama al a'arabiya.» 17 June 2008.


 

21 Robert Clyde Allen, Annette Hill. The television studies reader . London: Routledge, 2004.Sakr, Naomi. Arab Television Today. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.


 

22 Middle East has its own Brad Pitt. 11 Mars 2009. http://www.welt.de/english-news/article3357687/Middle-East-has-its-own-Brad-Pitt.html


 

23 Turkish soap star sparks divorces in Arab world. June 29, 2008. http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/06/29/52291.html


 

24 Turkish soap opera upends traditional Arab gender roles. NBC News, July 31, 2008.


 

25 Al Rayah (Qatar). Salman al A'wda Yansah' al MBC bi tahzib al musalsal al Turki Noor. June 30, 2008.


 

26 (Dagge, 2008)


 

27 For more details about this event and its symbolic significance, please read : Hammond, Andrew. «Reading Lohaidan in Riyadh: Media and the struggle for judicial power in Saudi Arabia.» Arab Media and Society, Issue 7, Winter 2009 http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=702#_edn3


 

28 Sambidge, Andy. MBC expands soap opera shows despite Mufti fury. 21 October 2008. http://www.arabianbusiness.com/535285-mbc-expands-Soap operas-despite-mufti-outrage.