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Soap Opera Rouses Rebellion in the Arab World

New America Media, News Report, Shane Bauer Posted: Aug 14, 2008

DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti -- In living rooms across the Arab world, a quiet rebellion is simmeringor at least some think there isand its being instigated by a soap opera.

Yesterday, the Imam of Djibouti dedicated his Friday sermon to condemning what has quickly become one of the Arab worlds most popular TV shows, Noor wa Mohannad, telling men to forbid their wives and children to watch it.

Video:Noor wa Mohannad

In the searing, humid heat after the sermon, Djibouti City was buzzing with gossip about the show. At a small shop in a narrow-allied, tin-and-wood house neighborhood, people were shouting about it.

The show is un-Islamic. Its a secular show and its making people do bad things, the store worker told me. This week, a man divorced his wife after she refused to get up and get him tea because she was watching the show, he said. That story was repeated to me by different people throughout the day, along with another that was more disturbing: three days ago a woman in Djibouti was rumored to have lit herself on fire with gasoline after her father forbade her to watch the show.

So whats creating the stir? The show isnt about a feminist insurgency. Its about romance, like every other soap opera, but its main attractionand what seems to be getting under the skin of some menseems to be Mohannad, the blond-haired, blue-eyed swooner who encourages his wifes independence and listens to her needs.

According to an AP article , imams in Saudi Arabia and the West Bank have pronounced the show un-Islamic. Istanbul's Today's Zaman reported that the Saudi Arabia Trade Ministry raided shops in Taif to confiscate T-shirts depicting the shows two protagonistscalling them contrary to Islamic and moral valuesand threatened to shut them down if they continued to sell them.

The weight of the showwhich is aired by the Saudi-run MBC4, a channel geared toward a female audiencerests in the fact that it takes place in the Muslim world, unlike the American and Mexican soaps imported to the Arab media. Its pushing the envelope of what the stricter parts of Muslim society consider acceptable: the Muslim couple fell in love before marriage, there is sex outside of wedlock, people drink alcohol with dinner on occasion, and one of the women in the show has an abortion without her husbands knowledge.

Usually, the media that conservatives in the Arab world regularly trash comes from the United States, but this is from the inside. Yesterday's sermon in Djibouti didn't seem to mean much to the family Im staying with. "It's just a show," said Aziz. "You watch it with your eyes. It doesn't do anything." When the power is cut, as it often is in Djibouti, his mother will go to another neighborhood so she doesn't miss an episode. When she heard about yesterday's sermon, she smiled and said nothing.

At 10 p.m., everyone piled into the TV room, four women and two men sitting on the spring beds and five children sitting on the tile floor and dresser. The women giggle with joy during scenes of Noor and Mohannads secret vacation to Sri Lanka, where he brings her breakfast in bed, they ride a canoe down a river, and watch the sunset together. All of the characters besides them seem to represent the relationships that women hate. At one point, a man silences his wife while he's watching sports and she tries to talk to him about their daughter.

Tongues tsssk in disgust.

The imam must have been talking about other people, one woman said during commercials. Bad Muslimsnot like uswho dont pray.

Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East and Africa.

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