Arab television shows are once again caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between the desire to entertain and the desire to control, the desire to be amused and to observe religious traditions.
Over the past few months, Arab countries banned several soap operas, dramas, serials and documentaries, but audiences often found their favorite shows available on pan-Arab satellite stations and other alternatives to state-run television.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan (Sept. 1-28 this year), when viewership peaks, is a particularly sensitive time when concerns about propriety often clash with those of producers interested in reaching the largest audiences of the year. Series about Bedouin tribes came under attack this year as did series deemed too political, too sectarian, too indecent or too controversial.
Bedouin soaps Funjan al-Dam (Cup of Blood) and Saadoun al-Awajy were banned by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively. The first, a Syrian-produced drama set in the 19th century that was to air on MBC, was banned after Saudi officials claimed it provoked inter-tribal rivalries.
"The ban imposed on the Bedouin drama Funjan al-Dam reflects the fact that the Arabic drama is exposed to the worst kind of suppression," leading actor Gamal Suleiman told reporters after learning about the ban.
The latter, aired exclusively on Abu Dhabi TV, drew criticism from the leaders of a number of Arabian tribes who appealed to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The star-studded series, named after a Bedouin sheikh who died 180 years ago, dealt with the dispute between the Shammar and Unaiza tribes of northern Saudi Arabia between 1750 and 1830. Khalifa banned the drama after its eighth episode.
Similarly, Kuwait banned the controversial soap opera Lel Khataya Thaman (The Price of Sin) last year over fears it would incite sectarian hatred and divisions within the community. The drama dealt with the controversial Shiite form of temporary marriage known as "Mutaa."
Arab TV producers often try to push the limits of what is acceptable in their Ramadan programs, although any political, social or religious criticism is usually cloaked in allegories or relatively safe historic settings.
But historical accuracy has also become a flashpoint in the clash of politics and entertainment.
In Egypt, authorities banned a locally-produced show about former President Gamal Abdul Nasser set to air during Ramadan because of what local press said were fears about pubic incitement, especially following a controversial Ramadan series about King Farouk's life that aired last year.
Minister of Information Anas al-Fiqi denied this but did not provide an explanation for the Nasser ban, which aired on pan-Arab satellite stations.
Similarly, a Syrian-Egyptian soap opera about the colorful life of Syrian singer Asmahan al-Atrash, who lived in Egypt during World War II, was banned in Syria but continued to be broadcast by other satellite channels.
The late singer’s family filed suit against Asmahan claiming it did not paint an honest picture of her life, gaining greater popularity and attention for the show, which has been a hit in most Arab countries.
Syrian authorities also banned the Syrian-produced Reyah al-Khamaseen (Dusty Winds) last month, which dealt with the politically sensitive issue of political detainees and corruption, although censors eventually rescinded the ban and allowed the show to air on Syrian TV.
The entertainment-politics blur
There are numerous indications of the blurring boundaries between entertainment and politics in the Arab world. In Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, newspaper cartoons and comic TV programs have long been a platform for caustic political satire. The connection between politics and entertainment in the developing world sometimes takes indirect forms, however.
This year, Egyptian TV canceled the series Bent men al-zaman dah (A Girl from this age), about the lives of marginalized people in Egypt's shantytowns, because it was considered too racy for Ramadan. The move angered the show's leading actress, Dalia al-Beheiri, especially since the series she starred in last year was also canned.
Last year's series Sarkhat Ontha (A Female's Cry) related the story of a young man who undergoes a sex-change operation and how he faces the world in his new body.
Kuwait has also banned a number of Egyptian movies this year and last because of indecent scenes, including the star-studded 2008 productions Lelat al-Baby Doll (The Night of Baby Doll). Al Rayes Omar Harb (Chief Omar Harb), Cabaret and the 2007 production Heen Maisara (When the Time Comes) were also banned.
Kuwait’s media authorities in 2004 banned the award-winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11by U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore, because officials argued that Kuwaiti law prohibits any kind of offence against friendly countries. It also banned the Ramadan drama Al Tareek ila Kabul (The Way to Kabul), which was to air on Jordanian TV, the same year.
Reigning in freedom
Such bans are not new and with ever more choices available to Arab audiences via satellite TV Arab governments have sought to reign in the channels with a proposed satellite charter that would impose restrictions on the channels.
The Arab League’s charter, adopted in February by all but Lebanon and Qatar, would allow governments to suspend or revoke licenses on general grounds, including “immoral” acts. Banning dramatic works because of their potential political effect on viewers is not a policy enacted only in the Arab world.
The Egyptian movie Alexandria-New York, directed by the late Youssef Chahine, was banned from the New York Film festival in 2004. The movie was a biography of the Chahine in which he expressed his personal feelings towards the United States, where he received his education in the mid-forties. In it, Chahine criticized America’s contradictory policy towards Arab issues. The ban was accompanied by criticism of Chahine in the American press accusing him of instigating hatred between Arabs and the United States.
Despite its ostensible commitment to entertainment, the television and film industries are often venues for the expression of political, social and economic discontent. And the responses to such diversionary pursuits by governments across the region demonstrates their belief in the potential for entertainment to influence and alter audience opinions about history, politics, race, sex, sectarian beliefs and class differences.