Ramadan t.v. offerings, 2009
Another Ramadan, another set of soap operas in the Arab world (along with new seasons of old-established favorites like “Bab al-Hara.”)
From Beirut, the “Land and People” blog’s Zayd gives us a quick critique of this year’s crop of soap operas, that he gathered in that center of Lebanese urban life, the local greengrocer:
Much discussion is given to the current crop of soap operas; Beit ij-Jidde and Bab al-Harra are watched by most; Nabi Yusuf not by anyone. Many complain about the portrayal of Yusuf by an actor. Imm S. adamantly sticks by her Turkish soaps. When I joke with her that on the Turkish soap operas everyone is always crying, she replies, “ay, bass kwayyess ktiir” [Yes, but that’s very good.]
The difference between Turkish and Syrian soap operas comes down to food. There is no food in Turkish soap operas; whereas no matter what is going on in a Syrian soap opera–siege of the town by the French; fights in the street; death, mayhem, amshakal–there is always food being bought, sold, prepared, cooked, or eaten. Always. The theory in the mahal [the greengrocer] is this is the real reason everyone in Turkey is crying; they’ve given up their alphabet as well as their food culture…
In supplementary research, I learned that in Lebanon, at least, and perhaps elsewhere,
The most popular musalsal [Ramadan soap opera] of 2009 is the Syrian-produced “Bab al-Hara.”
The soap opera, whose name means “The Neighborhood’s Gate,” has seen almost unprecedented success since its debut run in 2006. Set in Damascus during the inter-war period of French colonial occupation, the program depicts the last moments of a society yearning for independence.
… In East Jerusalem, giant screens have been erected for fans and it even has a Syrian restaurant in Nottingham, England named after it. Syrian President Bashar Assad is reported to be a huge fan and the program has – perhaps inevitably in the 21st century – already spawned a video game.
… There are 157 original series being aired during Ramadan, representing three quarters of the Arab world’s annual televisual output. All this extra programming means Ramadan is now big business for advertisers.
Maan News gives us this account of an amusing episode on a new Palestinian-produced soap-opera called “Homeland on a Thread”:
Secretary of the PLO Executive Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo made a guest appearance on the satirical Ramadan soap opera … Saturday night.
The show, which receives increasing local and international acclaim, is critical of both Palestinian society and its governments, tacking myriad issues in each 15-minute episode. Despite its regular criticism of the government, source say the show is supported by Abed Rabbo.
The official played himself the episode “Obama in Ramallah,” which saw him excuse US President Barack Obama who apologized for being 60 minutes late for a meeting “because of the checkpoints,” an often heard excuse from the tardy.
Replying to Obama, Abed Rabbo says, “Sir, you are 60 years late in understanding our suffering under these checkpoints.”
“But [PLO Chief Negotiator] Dr Sa’eb Erekat did not tell us about the suffering of these barriers,” Obama explained.
Trying to console the US president’s ignorance, Abed Rabbo replied “[Don’t worry] Erekat doesn’t tell us what happens with him in the negotiations.”
Rollicking stuff (especially if you know some of the personalities involved.)
Qatar seems to have produced at least one soap opera with a biting social edge.
In Kuwait, the Ministry of Information felt that at least one soap opera, “Sotik Wasal” [“Your voice carried”; maybe “I already heard you”] had gone too far in its political commentary, and banned it.
The birthplace of the Arabic t.v. soap opera was originally Egypt. But Amira Howeidy tells us that now, the biggest productions there during Ramadan are not soap operas, but talk shows; and numerous talk show hosts have gained sizeable mass followings.
She writes this,
Al-Qahira Al-Yom ‘s [Amr] Adib… spoke about the role he plays and the price he pays for it. “If it wasn’t for the protection of President Hosni Mubarak I would be in trouble,” he said, alluding to his own political influence and the “enemies” he has made as a result of expressing his views on air. Adib does not shy away from making grand political statements: “This is a country that has been silent for too long and now is the time to speak up,” is typical of his utterances. When Khalifa suggested during the course of the interview that influential presenters “mobilise and toy with the masses” Adib’s response was: “On the contrary, the masses are impacting me.”
Adib may well come across as an independent, influential voice, but there are critics who take issue with his agenda. Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of the monthly cultural magazine Weghat Nazar, argues that the Adib-Khalifa episode covertly promoted Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal. “The message was clear, all that talk about change and the talk about how the president protected Adib,” El-Sayyad told Al-Ahram Weekly. A segment of the episode, where Adib predicts that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father, was censored.
Al-Qahira Al-Yom has aired live 250 days a year for a decade now. Until 2004 — the year the anti- Mubarak dissent movement Kifaya took to the streets triggering a wave of protests across Egypt — it was mainly a celebrity gossip show. Then came the shift, and for a while at least Adib was the only Egyptian discussing political developments as millions watched. Other talk shows… soon followed. Presenters vied for the loyalty of the audiences. Once they succeeded in securing it they enjoyed an influence that, arguably, no politician or official has ever enjoyed.
In a country where political groups are denied the right to form parties (the government has denied over a dozen requests to form political parties in the last two years), and where political stagnation leaves no room for change, talk shows and their presenters have unwittingly filled the gap.
Advertising companies were quick to notice the popularity of such shows among viewers…
And finally, Sumayyah Meehan of Muslim Media News struck a more moralistic note about the Ramadan soap operas:
Before, most Muslims in the Middle East would gather in the nights of Ramadan to worship or to discuss matters related to the deen [religion]. After all, the region is the cradle of Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (s). However, these days many Muslims gather to watch soap operas together, gossip about what happened in the current installment or speculate what will happen in the one to come.
It is encouraging to note that not all Middle Eastern countries streamline a barrage of juicy soap operas during the Holy Month. In Turkey, the television programming is geared towards Islamic history, living the deen of Islam and Q&A shows where callers can call in to have their questions about Islam answered live on air by a reputable sheikh. Locally produced and aired music channels in Turkey also pull their programming during Ramadan in favor of airing Islamic nasheeds [devotional songs].
Storytelling is an age-old tradition. However, Ramadan is a golden gift that should be seized by every Muslim that is willing and able to receive the blessings that come with it. Being glued to the TV and rapturously eating up all the human folly portrayed there definitely tarnishes the reality of what Ramadan is all about.
Ramadan Kareem, everyone.