A veritable soap opera, onscreen and off Monday, September 15, 2008 | 02:57 PM ET By Nahlah Ayed Noor soap opera characters Mohannad and Noor are seen on a poster behind a West Bank shopkeeper in the town of Nablus. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Associated Press) The heroine, Noor, is a voluptuous, independent and vivacious brunette who marries into a wealthy family. Opposite her plays her handsome, blond and blue-eyed dream of a man, Mohannad, who's chicly dressed, supportive and, most importantly, impossibly romantic. The heroes of Noor, a Turkish created soap opera, are Muslims but not strictly observant ones. They fast during the holy month of Ramadan, but also casually enjoy wine. They party, kiss onscreen and, most titillating of all, have sex outside marriage. Pretty mundane, you say. But after its Arab-world debut in the spring, Noor and its broadcasters have been condemned as soldiers of Satan, blamed for everything from peddling depravity to breaking up marriages. Little wonder, given its relatively racy content, that early on, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, the country's top cleric, said that any network that broadcasts Noor and shows like it is "an enemy of God and his Prophet." Palestinian girls watch an episode of Noor at their family house at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City in July. (Adel Hana/Associated Press)The networks paid no attention to the criticism. And as the show climaxed to its finale on Aug. 30, Noor proved to be the Arab world's most popular and controversial drama ever. Two weeks later, as the region contemplates a supposed death sentence against the owners of the networks that broadcast it, Noor is still the talk of the town. Some 85 million people watched the final episode. By some estimates, that means more than half of adult women in the region sat down to see what becomes of the dramatic life of Noor and Mohannad. What's strange and most fascinating is that these shows are broadcast at all in places like Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive or even go out uncovered, on networks owned by Saudis. Yet, each day, an average of three million to four million Saudis out of a population of 28 million watched Noor. Why so popular? For years Arab networks have borrowed soap operas from Brazil, Mexico and the U.S. They give the heroes Arabic voices and then broadcast them to the masses. But Noor (which is a common Arabic girl's name, meaning light), whose protagonists were given colloquial Arabic voices in the Syrian dialect, surpassed the popularity of anything that came before. Some say it was because daring ideas were introduced in a context that was familiar: Turkey is a Muslim country with values and customs similar to those in the Middle East, and the young couple's struggle against tradition rang true for many here. Others suggest women were drawn to Noor because she is so independent, and to the show because it depicted a full-fledged romance, the kind of loving, equal relationship that many yearn for. There is no doubt that many women tuned in simply to contemplate Mohannad, who's real-life name is Kivanc Tatlitug, and whose Facebook fan page boasts tens of thousands of members, many of them swooning Arab women. (There have been several reports of divorces demanded by husbands infuriated by wives who confessed they'd fallen in love with Mohannad.) More critical commentators on dozens of online chats dedicated to the discussion believe Arabs were drawn to the show because they suffer an "intellectual vacuum," or perhaps because they are gripped by an emotional "famine." There's also the daring proposal that maybe they watched because they liked it. Whatever the reason, streets everywhere from Gaza to Beirut to Riyadh would simply empty when the show was on. According to one report, a group of nurses in Yemen were so distracted by Noor that they neglected a pregnant woman experiencing birth complications, who later had to undergo a caesarian birth to save her child. And speaking of babies, there's apparently a rise in the number of Mideast newborns named Noor and Mohannad. Religious authorities frown The concern about Noor among the religious is that these shows will spread secular culture in a region that strongly identifies with Islam. That discussion peaked this weekend when it appeared that one of Saudi's top clerics issued a fatwa last week that appeared to make it permissible to kill owners of the networks that air dubbed programs like Noor. The supposed fatwa by Saudi Arabia's chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council enraged many people, even some in the religious establishment who called on the cleric to revisit his decision. Many of the show's critics felt bolstered by the ruling, and actually applauded it. "This ruling is blessed, God reward you," one commentator wrote on a Syrian website. "There is no one to deter these prostituting satellite networks, not governments nor leaders." Heated discussions erupted online, and onscreen, as news networks scrambled to explain what it all meant. Sunday morning, the cleric, Saleh al-Luhaidan, appeared on television himself, to say that his comments had been taken out of context and that he never intended to impose a death sentence on network owners who happen to be influential and powerful Saudis. But with or without a fatwa, there's no question that the religious establishment still frowns on Noor and anything that resembles her amusing life. As the show was winding down, an imam in a Saudi village delivered a biting sermon denouncing Noor. Villagers were reportedly so moved some of them went out and smashed their own satellite dishes in response. And this past weekend, Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric, belatedly forbade followers from watching foreign shows created abroad and then dubbed with Arabic voices, because he considers them a "western intellectual invasion." In a Friday sermon delivered on his behalf in Karbala, Iraq, he said such shows make adultery and unconventional relationships seem familiar and sanctioned, threatening to destroy Muslim social values. So how will this soap opera end? No one has yet proposed shutting down the networks, which is really the only way to stop them from airing these shows. They in turn are already promising more Turkish series, and all indications are that the public can barely wait.