August 26, 2009
Ramadan in the Arab World is connected with many things in my memory, but most of all the relationship that is growing even stronger between the people and their television sets.
As we used to fast when we were young, we did not think a great deal of the deep meanings of fasting, we only felt that we are getting stronger, we felt like heroes being able to defeat our own temptations and weaknesses, fighting our battles against dribbling mouths when we used to bring our noses as close as we could to a big bowl of desert in the fridge without sinking in, especially in a weather that was boiling hot, almost like being smacked by a whip of fire through a window overlooking hell.
Of course we needed to watch TV to keep us occupied. I used to watch the English version of Sesame Street and I envied the Cookie Monster while the clock was ticking away the moments until we heard the loudspeakers from the mosques declaring that it is time to dig in, drink and eat whatever we wanted. We thanked God that we were not one of the many poor people around the world who have nothing to eat all year round. We knew that hunger and deprivation are the enemies that we should fight and defeat when we grow older.
Writing a couple of weeks ago about the top Syrian actor Duraid Laham and his seasonal work for Ramadan, triggered my appetite to write about an important aspect very closely connected with Ramadan, though it has nothing to do with fasting, faith, or any other form of religious rituals.
Anyone who lived long enough in the Middle East would have noticed that people get glued to their TV sets in Ramadan. Ramadan turned to be the season of drama and entertainment on TV channels. Most television channels compete to steal the time of the Muslims who are supposed to be offering more of their time for worship and charity work, but since I worked a significant time of my life in TV stations, I felt the need to vent some of my bottled views before my memories go frothy.
Ramadan is the month most production companies get geared for all year round, the majority of satellite channels will never release their best production of Drama but during this month, after all, it is the only time of the year all members of all families follow the same routine of eating their meal at almost the same second in each city, and most of them do that while watching TV.
Ramadan has turned out to be a month of trade, entertainment and consumerism, even though we are supposed to consume much less than any other time of the year, since we are not eating 3 meals a day, and supposed to share what we have with the needy, but quite the opposite happens. People stand in long queues to buy things normally they do not need, and in amounts that looks like we are going to be struck with a famine, or subjected to a nuclear attack and might starve to death while in hiding for the rest of our lives.
Shopping for dates, juices, meats, sweets, disposable cups, new utensils and everything that can go down the pipes is accompanied with entertainment to make such experience a memorable one. Entertainment on TV screens in Ramadan is a completion and a race because the revenues of advertising rise like no other time of the year, promoting things that we have already bought, and hypnotizing us to think that we still need to buy some more to stay alive otherwise we will collapse out of sheer depravation.
Getting ready for Ramadan starts in the Arab world in fields of entertainment through the silver screen, everyone in the media market rolls up his sleeves, writing sarcastic scripts, historic or hysteric 30 episode series since Ramadan is almost 30 days, and fishing for new faces to play the new soup operas and dramas, and many cooking shows.
Dramas on TV during Ramadan are almost a racing competition between two leading countries in this field, Egypt and Syria. Egypt is known for producing social drama, while Syria is in the lead of documenting historical drama. The social drama in Egypt does not need a great deal of financing, most of the work can be made on comparatively limited budgets, the story can be written easily about everyday life, and the locations of shooting are usually indoors in an apartment. Studios are where most of the activities go. The costumes cost is minimum; no research is needed as such for most aspects. Unlike the Syrian drama that costs a great deal, since in general its arguments are subjects of the past, and talks about important turning points of history, thus lots of research goes into documents, costumes, antiques, horses, locations and huge numbers of actors involved every year.
In general Syrian drama comes at the lead regarding the amount of work documenting the Palestinian plight and the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. One of its best dramas aired in the past Ramadan was 'Altaghreebeh Alfalasteeneyeh’ or the Palestinian Exodus, starring Jamal Suleiman (in the photo with the author) and Khalid Taja from Syria and Juliet Awwad from Jordan and a long list of leading actors and actresses.
Syria remained the strong guard and protector of Arabic literature, language and theatrical traditions, while the language of other works of the Arab world’s productions has been deformed beyond recognition.
The society has changed even in Syria, but it is still the only country whose drama offers us the chance every Ramadan to have a little peek into the past, to experience what being colonized was like, and how women used to be totally isolated from men, and how the structure of the family was different, and how responsibilities were distributed. The competition in the field of drama in Ramadan sometimes develops into diplomatic tension, it touches certain spots of pain of our fading history.
The main characteristic difference between both dramas is that the Syrian drama is almost always highlighting the collective efforts; the hero is the nation or the group, unlike championship in Egyptian drama that is claimed by individuals. Every successful Syrian drama reflects every participant as a star or a hero regardless of how humble the role is, because the work itself is gigantic, as a collective championship. The Egyptian drama on the other hand is characterized by a leading role for a leading actor or actress, and should there be two actresses in the lead, it is inevitable that interruptions of work would happen and debates are published regarding whose name should appear on the top.
The Syrian individual is far from wanting to be the ultimate hero in drama or politics. In any Syrian drama one can be very lucky to see tens of leading actors, iconic figures playing different roles.
The dramas from Jordan, the Gulf countries and the North Africa come in second place.
The Jordanian drama is almost unique in being the first in the Arab world to focus on the Bedouins’ society, culture, and their rich content of oral literature and history. This kind of drama proved very successful in the Gulf region and Iraq, it reminds the people in the Gulf of a few years back before the oil messed up their serene environment, and before the skyscrapers out shadowed their kind, caring neighbourhoods, and before being invaded by hundreds of foreign imported lifestyles that made them feel like a minority in their own home countries. The drama production in the Gulf is comparatively new, it is almost their own taste, and not as widely circulated as Egyptian or Syrian dramas which are considered easier to understand because of the Egyptian and Syrian simple dialects all Arab countries got used to. On the other hand, North African drama (Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia) have difficult dialects to understand, this discouraged many TV channels from buying their works. All the previously mentioned, besides other factors, lead TV channels to adopt exclusivity and selectivity policies.
But some privately owned satellite stations take advantage during the holy month of Ramadan to promote what can be described as non modest line of production to satisfy the taste of some and fill a certain gap, while other satellites, mainly state owned, have to put their brakes on as a sign of respect of the fasting viewers and the holy month. This of course attracts different lines of advertising.
In general the majority repent partially then the minute Ramadan starts packing its bag, all absurdity and sluggish production comes back on the screens in a flash.
And since TV production is a business, those who claim to be pious start to work on faith related programmes, some investors have both kinds of channels; the ones that sell viewing time using women’s bodies, and the ones that promise the viewers paradise in the afterlife where they can enjoy equally beautiful women. Women are in the mind of the producers, regardless of the media season. Some might wonder why an investor in low standards content of entertainment would want to invest in an Islamic channel. I would say that some hope to be forgiven for the junk they have been producing all year round, it is somehow like feeding the poor a piece of bread, hoping to be forgiven for eating pork…doing some good hoping to mask the bad. Some even think that the Almighty does not know how to handle their tax books. More like spraying the skunk with some cheap perfume.
Ramadan is also the season of polishing the images of some Sheikhs of Fatwa, they are invited like movie or entertainment stars, some Sheiks even have their own fans, but of course they appear on their own kind of religious channels.
The funny thing is, some TV satellite investors find it more economical to mix both lines. One minute you have a religious program aired with someone preaching until you are convinced that you are so corrupt and guilty deep down to your bones that you are going right away to hell before even being given the chance to change your pyjamas, the other minute the programme is followed by a video clip or an interview with one of the so many so-called female artists who believe deeply in the mission of economising, since they wear only the minimum size of hugging outfits, which might shrink even further during the interview. Many of them strive hard to stretch the hem over their thighs or cleavages while mentioning God repeatedly and talking about how blessed they are that God helped them swarm well while they perform their belly dance, even though many do not even know the difference between dance and stomach ache.
The thing is…some of those entertainers can’t stay away from the glamour of the screen, they have to appear on the screen for one reason or another, a month is too long a period to be deprived of lights, and surprise… surprise… they are invited to appear as guests of talk shows to teach us about our faith and talk to us about manners and how we can develop and better ourselves, and of course to fit in with the Ramadan spirit they would thank God for being able to be good belly dancers.
The majority evade talking about the occupation in Palestine, or what is happening in Iraq. They are great spirits; very sensitive souls that they do not want to ruin the appetite of the good audience, that they sedate their conscious before coming to the studios.
The historic dramas in general are not about our present struggles in Palestine or Iraq; such issues are not encouraged because they might lead the viewers to question present time corruption. The investors also know that they should be on the safe side to get the work accredited by the largest number of censorship committees in the Arab world and to be able to sell the product. Hence the drama is manipulated and dwarfed and deformed to portray what can be described as manhood stands… showing local fights in the streets, and howling males to gather the gang of friends or tribe members to protect the honour of someone’s sister because she looked out of a window, or was seen talking to a boy.
In the midst of the time Iraq was torn apart and was bleeding to death, we have been introduced to the new budding stars of Iraqi refugees on TV, who are on their way to stardom through shows and competitions of talents. No one should complain that Arab satellites do not care about Iraq; here we are bringing you the most beautiful Iraqi young girls to entertain you. The Iraqis are doing fine. The Palestinians are living a normal life too, the Gaza people are fasting all year round, and fasting is good for their health. No one dares to say that they are fasting all year round against their will.