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October 31, 2006

The Revolution Will Be Televised

The fluffy precinct of girl talk and pop stars, Arab chat shows are changing the way women think in the Middle East. Will the real battle for hearts and minds be played out on the boob tube?

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On a softly lit set transformed into a chic, minimalist living room, five Arab women sit on orange and yellow couches, gossiping and laughing in front of a live studio audience. Another episode of the Arab world's top-rated TV program, Kalam Nawaem--which roughly translates as Sweet Talk--is underway. Modeled on American hit The View, Kalam Nawaem, broadcast out of Beirut, is a potent mix of cozy chat and edgy issues.

Its four hosts include a Palestinian actress, a Lebanese TV veteran--their blue-jeaned, blowdried sleekness straight off Madison Avenue--and a maternal Egyptian self-help columnist, a sort of Muslim Dear Abby. Only one host--Muna AbuSulayman, a Saudi Arabian working on a Ph.D. in American literature--is veiled, her shimmering hijab the shade of moonbeams.

Veiling happens to be the topic for today's show. "Congratulations on taking up the hijab!" AbuSulayman says enthusiastically, smiling at Kalam Nawaem's first guest, actress Hala Shiha. Known for her sexy film roles and scanty outfits, the young Egyptian star stunned her followers by recently deciding to wear the veil. "I'm really at peace--wearing the hijab gives me true power," Shiha says, her head swathed in a bright orange polka-dot scarf pushed back to expose her amber eyes. The audience's women--most with carefully coiffed manes, some in shoulder-baring halter tops--applaud wildly.

After chatting about upcoming film roles with Shiha, the hosts move on to their next guest: Dominique, a sloe-eyed pop star who recently scandalized fans across the Middle East by posing as a sexy mother in a music video. The group dives into the controversy--how could Dominique mix motherhood with eroticism? Talk about indecent-- cuddling her child while her husband comes on to her! But Dominique fends off the criticism, saying the video exemplifies her motherly devotion: how else could she have resisted her husband's caresses while caring for her baby?

It's soft daytime stuff, to be sure, but Kalam Nawaem, like a lot of new Arab shows available via satellite TV, is pushing its society to think in provocative, fresh ways. While the U.S. talks about Middle Eastern democracy as a matter of toppling dictators and totaling ballots, a quieter revolution is underway. In the past three years, Arab satellite-TV viewers have more than doubled. Today, about 80 percent of the Middle East's population is watching, according to Arab Advisors Group, a market research company. No longer exclusive to the elite, satellite TV has become standard mass-market entertainment, and anchors and talk-show hosts are using it to tackle taboos, challenge traditional authorities, and draw women in as never before. "Talk shows are raising people's consciousness," says Myriam Sfeir, an editor at the Beirut-based Journal Al-Raida, which focuses on women in the Arab world. "They're reaching women who are stuck at home, or who think being liberal means wearing short skirts and going to the beach. People are getting used to seeing women on TV--and they're starting to think their message of personal freedom makes sense."

People are also seeing women in a huge array of roles previously occupied only by men. Flip through Arab channels and one sees a complete range: veiled female scholars working on their Ph.D.s dispense Islamically correct advice to live callers on talk shows; female war correspondents in flak jackets broadcast from the streets of bombed out Lebanon; pouting Arab pop singers grind their way through sexually titillating songs. In poor and rural areas of the Middle East, where satellite TV is a new phenomenon, many women are learning for the first time about freedoms they are forbidden in daily life. More than half of Arab women are illiterate, meaning TV, rather than books or newspapers, serves as their window on the wider world. A Saudi Arabian woman--banned by law from voting, driving, or going out unveiled--can watch her Jordanian and Egyptian sisters do all those things on television. Meanwhile, talk shows like Kalam

Nawaem are gently nudging viewers to speak out. "These four kind-looking mommies, sitting and chatting on a warm yellow couch, have tackled the most difficult issues, from homosexuality to incest, from abuse to murder," AbuSulayman wrote in a recent article for the Middle East Broadcasters Journal.

"We make them watchable, believable and understandable." It's not the first time pop culture has revolutionized society: after Soviet block kids of the 1980s glimpsed the outside world via McDonald's, Levi's, and western ads, eastern Europe's Velvet revolution was born. Today, a generation of Middle Eastern youth is growing up on a diet of Paris Hilton and reality shows, pumped in through sat dishes, cell phones, and the internet. Cultural horizons are being stretched--well beyond the comfort zones of some Arab conservatives.

Until about a decade ago, Arab television was a seriously staid affair: state-owned channels with stiff presenters reading government-approved cue cards. But with the advent of fiercely competitive regional channels, there has been an explosion of sexed-up programming. Oblivious to the western stereotypes of Muslim women, networks (the biggest funded by wealthy Saudi Arabians, royals, and other gulf businessmen) churn out shows based on American formats, such as Who Wants to Win a Million? and the stunningly successful Middle Eastern version of American Idol, called SuperStar. The shows have attracted millions of fans--and controversy.

"These programs are in contradiction with our habits and with the principles of Islam," fumed Lebanese cleric sheikh Muhammad Hamdi. "We are seeing youngsters kissing and expressing emotions on TV. This is indecent."

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