ISTANBUL (Reuters) - With his blond hair, blue eyes and romantic gestures, Turkish actor Kivanc Tatlitug has captured the hearts of women across the Arab world, his fame creating a wave of regional interest in his homeland.
Dubbed “the Middle East’s Brad Pitt” by Turkey’s media, he has led the growing success of Turkish TV dramas across the region through his soap opera “Noor” and given a boost to his country’s tourism industry in the process.
That success coincides with a rise in Turkey’s profile in the Arab world since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation at the Davos World Economic Forum of Israel’s January offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which won him popular praise across the region.
Tatlitug attracts acclaim of a different kind on promotional visits to Arab countries.
“The reaction is unbelievable. I am faced with people screaming. There are people who cry with joy. Age is not important,” said the 25-year-old, a former basketball player and male model who won the Best Model of the World contest in 2002.
The surge in the Arab world’s interest in Turkish popular culture reflects cultural and religious similarities between the Arabs and their northern neighbor, a predominantly Muslim but secular country which is trying to join the European Union.
It also comes as Barack Obama plans to make Turkey the first Muslim country he visits as U.S. president to emphasize that “democracy and modernity and Islam can all coexist,” his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said in Ankara last week.
Trade and business links between Turkey and the Arab world have flourished since Erdogan’s AK Party, which has roots in political Islam, came to power in Ankara in 2002.
The series “Noor,” aired by Saudi-owned MBC satellite television, focuses on the relationship between Mehmet — whose name in the Arabic version is Mohannad (not Mohammad) — and his wife Noor. Its final episode attracted nearly 85 million viewers across the Arab world, a record for Arab TV.
“Mehmet is blond and has blue eyes, yet I am a Muslim and we have a culture which is very close to that of the Middle East,” Tatlitug told Reuters in an interview in Levent, an upmarket Istanbul neighborhood.
“People felt a contrast between the outer appearance and the behavior,” said the actor, son of a patisserie owner from the Mediterranean city of Adana. “He is not somebody who goes out and indulges in roguish behavior. He is a man who shows great respect, interest and love for his wife.”
Tatlitug is building on the success of “Noor” in the Arab world with a new series “Mirna wa Khalil,” in which he also plays the romantic lead, Halil.
“Noor” has also courted controversy.
Prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan denounced the series as evil, saying it was permissible to kill satellite TV executives for broadcasting “indecent material.” But the fatwa has not dented the series’ popularity.
“Noor” is one of about a dozen Turkish TV series featuring on Arab TV, including the historical drama “Broken Wings” and the latest hit, action drama “Valley of the Wolves.”
Interest in the soaps has fueled a surge in visits to Turkey by Arab tourists. The number of Middle East and North African visitors jumped 50 percent in two years to nearly two million in 2008.
“My mother insisted we visit Turkey instead of anywhere else mainly because of the TV show,” said 24-year-old Egyptian Shereen el-Gazzar. “On my last trip to Turkey last summer, many Egyptian women were comparing the scenery to what they saw on TV,” she said.
Serdar Ali Abet, owner of tourism operator Karnak Turizm, said he expects his firm to double its number of Arab customers this year after a 50 percent increase last year to 25,000.
Last summer he brought groups of Arab tourists to the picturesque Abud Efendi villa where some of “Noor” was filmed, overlooking the Bosphorus strait on the Asian side of Istanbul.
“In my view there will be a 100 percent increase this year after Davos,” said Abet, referring to Erdogan’s angry walkout from the debate including Israeli President Shimon Peres where he accused Israel of “knowing very well how to kill.”
Turkey has also earned plaudits in the region for its efforts as a Middle East peace mediator under Erdogan’s leadership, capitalizing on its unique position in having close ties with Israel, Arab countries and Washington.
Turkey’s modern ties with the Arab world, which it ruled for centuries as part of the Ottoman empire, were marked by Arab wariness of the avowedly secular Turkish state.
But Erdogan’s government has fostered stronger trade and business links with the Arab world.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia last month with some 150 businessmen hoping to win infrastructure and industrial contracts. Trade with Saudi Arabia alone surged to $5 billion in 2008 from $2 billion in 2006.
Turkish consumer electronics maker Vestel is also looking to cash in on the growing interest in Turkish soaps.
Last year it launched an advertising campaign fronted by Tatlitug across the Middle East and north Africa.
“The success of our adverts ... prompted us to launch another campaign with Kivanc Tatlitug in Syria,” said Vestel emerging markets communications director Zeynep Oral. The firm aims to double its Syrian market share to 10 percent in 2010 from the 5 percent it hopes for this year.
This month it will hold a party at a five-star Istanbul hotel where 100 winners of a competition for its customers in Syria will be able to meet the star in person.
Additional reporting by Will Rasmussen in Cairo; editing by Tim Pearce and Sara Ledwith