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October 31, 2006

The Revolution Will Be Televised

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Others, who believe looking at a woman is a right granted only to her husband or immediate family, object to the mere appearance of women on television-- even those "protected" by their hijabs. "Saudis are a very private people, and displaying yourself in public isn't acceptable," says Kalam Nawaem's AbuSulayman on the chastising she received from conservative Saudi circles after stepping into the media spotlight. "Most choose not to go on television. But I chose to do it, and I showed that I can still be respectable." as for her critics, "I tell them, I don't interpret my religion that way,'" she says. "I choose to interpret it as the rest of the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world do, not the 187 million in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the most conservative ones." (Like many other Arab women, AbuSulayman sees no contradiction between being a progressive career woman and covering her head.) Despite such criticism, Kalam Nawaem's success lies in the hosts' frankness about their own issues: during her divorce, AbuSulayman talked candidly about custody issues; Farah Besaiso, a Palestinian, openly discussed giving birth. "Our private moments become public, and the public private," believes AbuSulayman. "That is the power of TV, of living your life in an artificial set that resembles a living room. Millions watch you discuss a personal problem that you'd vowed never to tell anyone." The most notable case happened two years ago, when Saudi television presenter Rania al-Baz brought the issue of domestic abuse--a rampant problem in Saudi Arabia--out of the shadows and into Arab living rooms. After her husband nearly beat her to death, she published photos her father had taken of her as she lay comatose in the hospital. The pictures of her face, bloated and bloodied, prompted a debate in Saudi Arabia of what previously had been seen as a family matter. Not long after al-Baz went public, Kalam Nawaem had an unrepentant wife-beater on the show. "We really ganged up on him," admits AbuSulayman with a laugh. "We told him he had a problem with anger management."

Perched on the edge of her chic wicker armchair lined with orange silk cushions, Sybele Tabbara casually runs her hand through her honey-highlighted auburn hair. She's dressed in low-rider jeans and a snug black T-shirt, a catalog image of MTV urban chic. But the 29-year-old host of Al-Aelaty (or My Family) is not interested in dishing about pop stars. Today, she's coaxing two middle-aged women to talk about their sex lives in front of millions of viewers. "Are you still active?" Tabbara presses. "No," admits a tense-looking mother of three. "I'm not. The hormones changed in my body. My desire is not like before. The kids are physically demanding--at night, I just want to go to sleep." Tabbara nods sympathetically before turning to another Al-Aelaty guest, Dr. Suleiman Jarri, a goateed and graying sexologist. Having listened to the women's hesitant complaints, Jarri weighs in: "There's this stereotype that a woman's life is over after 40, that she can't live as she did when she was young, sexually-speaking," he says. "This is unrealistic and pessimistic." It's not the first time the family show has tackled sex. "We're starting to shock viewers," concedes Tabbara. One Al-Aelaty episode dealt with teenage masturbation (a topic even American TV is loath to touch), providing frank counsel for concerned parents. "If a mother is changing her son's sheets and she finds sperm on them," Tabbara says, "How does she deal with it?" Other shows have picked up the sex theme. Kalam Nawaem ran an episode on what AbuSulayman calls "sexual satisfaction." "It was embarrassing," she says. "None of us felt comfortable saying it."

Zaven Kouyoumdjian, a popular Lebanese chat-show host who bills himself as the Arab world's Oprah, conducted a recent show on frigidity. The topic prompted massive call-ins from women desperate to talk. "We were getting messages from women who didn't know about orgasms," he says. One caller from Sudan said she'd never liked sex because she'd suffered female genital mutilation and childhood sexual abuse. "For Arab TV, that was a 'wow' moment," says Kouyoumdjian. "People say my show is revolutionary, but I don't consider myself a revolutionary. My job is to empower people who want to speak out in a society that is based on not putting your shit out there." But in a region with a long tradition of censorship, there are limits. "We have red lines we can't cross," says future TV correspondent Moukalled, "and these lines keep changing as the power shifts." Tough talk about the powerful Saudis has to be toned down on news shows. And since many channels are funded by conservative Gulf leaders, hosts can't directly challenge Islam. Instead, they use Islam to back up progressive thinking. In an episode about Arab parents who don't want their daughters to go to college, Kalam Nawaem interviewed an Islamic cleric. "We brought a sheikh on to talk about the saying by the prophet that Muslims should seek knowledge everywhere," says AbuSulayman. To forbid schooling for girls, he pointed out, would be contradicting the sayings of the prophet.

But push too hard, and you could lose more than your job. Lebanese writer and broadcaster Samir Kassir and his wife, Giselle Khoury, were the glittering couple of Lebanese TV: smart, sexy, outspoken crusaders for democratization and reform. Kassir in particular was a keen critic of Syria and its stranglehold on Lebanese politics. Last summer, he was killed when his Alfa Romeo exploded.

The bombers were never found, but inspectors believe Syrian supporters engineered the murder. A car bomb in Beirut also nearly killed veteran television interviewer May Chidiac (think a Lebanese Diane Sawyer) last fall. She lost a leg and an arm and has endured 26 operations to date. "I'm sure I'll be threatened again," she says. "But I have a mission to be a spokeswoman for all the people who have died or been attacked. They want to silence the journalists who are working toward change. I won't let them." Now, with the help of a cane, she wears high heels with her prosthetic leg. "I live in a Mediterranean country, where women are very elegant," she explains. She started with two-inch heels and is working toward four inches. "I'm taking my first steps, like a child--soon,

I'll be able to walk on my own." Appearance isn't just a personal thing--as with American TV, jobs on the small screen hinge on being young and gorgeous. When Al-Jazeera canceled its hard-hitting show For Women Only, one staffer quipped it was because the female guests were too ugly. "I've been working with Future Television for 13 years. It's not only your experience in journalism that counts, but how beautiful you are," says Charaf Eddine, pointing out that men usually own the channels. "More than half of Arab television presenters are women, but we don't have the power. We aren't the decision makers."

The most surprising outcome of Arab women's television is the way it's shaping the attitudes of men as well as women. Many of the call-ins to talk shows come from men, and a poll found that 52 percent of Kalam Nawaem's viewers are male. Inspired by this finding, producers have launched a truly revolutionary show: four Muslim men sitting around in coffee-klatch mode, baring their emotions to millions on a new, all-male version of The View. In the old days, of course, they would have been chatting in the privacy of a men's club. Now, anyone with a satellite dish can tune in to discussions on transsexual sex, prostate cancer, and the pros and cons of democracy. Will the on-air pluralism mean concrete changes in regimes and mind-sets? It's too early to tell, though revolution by pop culture is perhaps the hardest to stem--silence one show, and an entire network rises in its place. Add in the internet, cell phones, and other methods of modern technology, and it's clear the weapons for the cultural revolution of the 21st century have been chosen.

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