After more than 20 years in the United States, Auntie Nour returns home to Cairo with a mission: to use her experiences abroad to help her family see others differently.
Nour — the name means “light” in Arabic — is a character in a prime-time soap opera. She’s an expert on education who wants to teach some American pragmatism to her on-screen nieces and nephews as well as their parents.
“Auntie Nour” is one of about 20 Egyptian prime-time soaps that have aired in the Arab world recently, some during the peak viewing period of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The soaps often carry some sort of moral. This year’s lesson is tolerance of people from outside the Arab and Muslim world, and of their different — often liberal — ideas.
The lesson is appreciated by some — not by all.
“Auntie Nour” is not alone in presenting this theme.
In “A Matter of Principle,” the French-educated lawyer Roaya helps her sister marry the man she loves after convincing their father that love is more important than cementing family finances with a rich husband. Roaya, a single women in her 30s, also decides to run for office in an upcoming election — delivering the message that any woman can do so.
In past years, the most popular soaps covered Middle Eastern politics, Egyptian economic hardships or the controversy of the moment. News reports say the current crop — which they characterize as having preachy Western-educated do-gooders, some glitz and scantily dressed women — have not captured as many faithful viewers.
Still, some like it.
“We have enough politics in this part of the world,” said Mona Ahmed, a divorced mother of one, adding: “Nour is educated and is helping straighten out the kids.”
The writer of “Auntie Nour,” Mahmoud Abou Zeid, describes his main character as an Egyptian at heart, a practicing Muslim, but one who manages to mix East with West.
The show’s advocacy of Western ideas raised rumors that it was financed by the United States as propaganda — an accusation denied by production officials who said Egyptian state television paid for it.
Industry insiders say writers and producers rigidly follow the government line to ensure they will get airtime and avoid censorship — not only in Egypt but also in the wider Arab world.
The TV establishment here has come in for harsh criticism in recent years, with Israeli and American groups calling some shows anti-Semitic and Egyptians condemning a particular series for supposedly promoting polygamy. The industry has taken another tack, focusing on Islamic ritual rather than politics and on dramas that emphasize openness to new ideas.
“Auntie Nour,” for example, champions the right of young people to choose their own lives, practice Islam with moderation and still enjoy their parents’ love and respect.
Her family scoffs at the plans of her nephew Diaa — who, like many young Egyptians, has been out of work since college graduation — to start a company to beautify cemeteries with trees and plants. But Nour encourages him and asks why cemeteries, where Muslims visit relatives’ graves during Ramadan, should be barren and drab.
“Tombs are the place for burial, where we go to pray for our dead and read them the Quran. It should be clean and well-preserved, to fit such a special place,” she tells the family.
Not everyone is responding well to such messages.
One 17-year-old viewer, Aya Mahmoud, was annoyed by Nour.
“She is screaming at us all the time and is preaching all the time unnecessarily,” Aya said. “No one is right all the time, even if they are from America.”