Every evening for the past four months, a tall young man with soulful blue eyes has been stealing hearts across the Middle East, from the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip to the gated mansions of Riyadh.
But it's not just the striking good looks of Mohannad, hero of the hugely popular Turkish TV soap Noor, that appeal to female viewers. He's romantic, attentive to his wife, Noor, supportive of her independence and ambitions as a fashion designer — in short, a rare gem for women in conservative, male-dominated surroundings.
Noor delivers an idealized portrayal of modern married life as equal partnership — clashing with the norms of traditional Middle Eastern societies, where elders often have the final word on whom a woman should marry and many are still confined to the role of wife and mother.
Some Muslim preachers in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia have taken notice, saying the show is un-Islamic and urging the faithful to change channels. But the show may be planting seeds of change.
"I told my husband, 'learn from him (Mohannad), how he treats her, how he loves her, how he cares about her,' " said Heba Hamdan, 24, a homemaker in Amman, Jordan. Married straight out of college, she said the show inspired her to go out and look for a job.
Noor seems particularly effective in changing attitudes because it offers new content in a familiar setting: Turkey is a Muslim country, inviting stronger viewer identification than Western TV imports. The characters in Noor observe the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and Mohannad and Noor were married in a match arranged by his grandfather.
But it also upholds secular liberties: Protagonists have a drink with dinner and sex outside marriage. Mohannad, while faithful to Noor, had a child with a former girlfriend, and a cousin underwent an abortion.
Even though some of the racier scenes are sanitized for Arab consumption, clerics have been sermonizing against Noor. "This series collides with our Islamic religion, values and traditions," warned Hamed Bitawi, a lawmaker of the Islamic militant Hamas and preacher in the West Bank city of Nablus.
But the purists seem powerless to halt the Noor craze.
In Saudi Arabia, the only country with ratings, 3- to 4-million people watch daily, out of a population of nearly 28-million.
In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in Hebron, the West Bank's most conservative city, maternity wards report a rise in babies named Noor and Mohannad. A West Bank poster vendor has ditched Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein for Noor and Mohannad.
Whether the Noor effect will be lasting is not known. The season finale falls on Aug. 30, the day before Ramadan begins and religious fervor intensifies. Next up on MBC will be Bab al-Hara, a Ramadan favorite that looks nostalgically at traditional Arab life.