Arabic TV Culture Shock

When I left Amman to come to the US for college, the satellite TV industry was just starting to boom. What seemed like overnight 24/7 availability of TV content, with programming from all over the Arab world (as well as the rest of the world) was fascinating, and marked the start of a new era.

What we all quickly learned, both as consumers as well as programming creators, was that controversy sells. Satellite TV channels subsequently competed with each other to capitalize on controversy in all its forms, ranging from political, religious, social, and sexual, and they raced to rake in the cash.

Fow a while, Arab satellite programming content (and its viewers) were like children suddenly faced with the horrific, exciting, life-changing, and confusing changes of adolescence. Wanting to grow up, but not knowing exactly how. Excited by all the possibilities, but scared of what they meant.

We were at once bombarded with the contradictions of calls to repent and disconnect from the Internet and Satellite TV, which were broadcast only a couple of remote control clicks away from the enticement of gorgeous, exposed flesh dancing to music in our very own language.

Digression: The Arabic music video clip is possibly one of the greatest Arab inventions of the 20th century; whether you love or hate them is besides the point, since you will find yourself talking about them at one point or another, either with passionate hatred and rejection (perhaps caused by discomfort with the public display of sexuality? Maybe out of concern for the moral direction of our children?), or impassioned admiration for either the singer, the outfits, or the girls. (Sometimes the music might actually get some attention too).

The news channel Al-Jazeera quickly became THE news source of the region, simultaneously portraying the image of professional objectivity and fulfilling the regional taste for drama and controversy. Then again, any reporting from the Middle East will by default contain some level of drama – we’ve had a tumultuous past and continue to have a tumultuous present. Different channels have since sprung up with their own agendas, and it’s interesting to sometimes see the same news item being reported in different ways across channels.

One of the phenomena created by the news stations that I didn’t get enough time to absorb before coming to the United States is the studio-staged debate shows, such as Al-Ittijah Al-Mo3akes (The Opposite Direction).

Recently, however, we found a way to watch Arabic TV at home without a satellite. There is a company called Talfazat which provides Arabic TV channels over the Internet, and you can stream it through your TV.

I am generally not that great of a consumer when it comes to TV – I used to love it, but I just don’t have time for it anymore. Plus, I have no attention span anymore to actually watch a series of shows; I lose track after the 2nd or 3rd episode, so I don’t even try anymore. (Except for Project Runway, which we’ll have to talk about some other time).

Last night, however, when everything else was done and I got a chance to sit down, my in-laws had Al-Jazeera turned on. And wouldn’t you know it, Al-Ittijah Al-Mou’akis was on, and so was the heat! I witnessed a debate between a high-ranking pro-Allawi (Iraqi) official, and an Iraqi dissenter (I didn’t catch who he was), and boy were they going at it. I only caught the tail end of the discussion, but was able to witness the argument go from raised voices, to finger pointing, to simultaneous shouting, pounding on tables, and complete disregard for the presenter (Faisal Al-Qassem) as he attempted to end the discussion and wrap up the show. He ended up doing his best (but not really succeeding) at shouting over their war cries and accusations of monstrosity and criminality, and I was shocked that he was able to make it without getting bashed in the teeth by a flailing arm or a shaking fist.

As I sat there with my jaw hanging open, I tried to imagine that kind of debate happening on one of the broadcast channels here in the US, and I simply couldn’t. I’ve seen some ‘heated’ debates before, but they were nothing like this.

On one hand, I felt a twinge of sadness to think that we are in such a state of division and disagreement that we literally would jump down each other’s throats (and do much more to each other) given half a chance. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like the fact that we can even have people of completely opposing opinions feel comfortable enough to have an open debate on a television station that’s watched by millions of people across the world. Perhaps I am naive, and perhaps there is more to it than that. (For example, I have a secret – well not to secret anymore I guess – belief that Al-Qassem has a thing for getting people so riled up and angry that they want to hurt each other).

I am curious as to what people think – I know we have miles to go before we have “freedom of speech” and an open media, but have we made progress? Is attacking each other’s ideas from across a debate table freedom of speech, or is it simply disrespect for other people’s opinions?

For now, I’ll keep watching.

Oh, and by the way, I haven’t caught any of those salacious music videos yet, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled. Wink, wink.

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