In new TV characters, Palestinians see their own
First-ever local soap opera captivates Palestinians as they break their Ramadan fast.
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — Fast is out. Television is on. All the members of the Abu Tarboush family, Hanan and Ahmed and six of their seven children, gather around to watch "Shufi Mafi" – Palestinian slang that roughly translates to "What's Up?"
Tonight's episode: Love in the Internet age. Two characters who can't stand each other "meet" anonymously on a online chat site, fall in love, and agree to marry without having met – yet.
"How can she marry him without even seeing him?" Hanan snickers while Ahmed fiddles with the antenna to try to get better reception.
Many people are getting the wildly popular episodes of "Shufi Mafi," the first-ever prime-time Palestinian soap opera, on satellite channels. But others, like the Abu Tarboush family, haven't been able to afford a satellite dish and are instead getting the series through local television, where the picture doesn't always come through clearly.
But a picture of Palestinian society, however, does. The makers of the show, running weekday evenings during the Islamic month of Ramadan that began Sept. 23, first conducted focus groups among Palestinian university students to get a broader perspective of what is really on young people's minds.
"We found that there are a lot of things other than political issues that are affecting the students," says Raed Othman, the chief executive officer of the Maan Network, which produced the show with the help of a grant from the Search for Common Ground, a US-based organization that fosters conflict resolution.
Most of the episodes take a comical approach to important issues, ranging from drug abuse to strained family relationships. One segment deals with the hot-button issue of dating and intermarriage between Christians and Muslims.
Politics are in the air, naturally, but are rarely center stage. References to guns and checkpoints are rare. In the one episode that deals with the road map – a US plan to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – most of the characters acknowledge that they don't really know what the road map represents.
Since the setting is a university campus, featuring students and staff alike, the school dean weighs in on ethical dilemmas toward the end of each episode. The result feels like "Father Knows Best" meets "Seinfeld." This is part Palestinian morality play, part entertainment.
The concept, after all, is a Ramadan institution, as traditional as the katayif – a sweet stuffed pastry – Hanan has put on the table. For years, Arab channels have featured special melodramas and sit-coms to be played each evening after iftar, the festive breakfast meal people eat at sundown.
But those Ramadan serials have typically been Egyptian or Syrian, the leading producers of soaps during the holy month. This year Egypt has produced some 50 TV series for the month and Syria followed with 45 productions.
Previously, says the director of "Shufi Mafi," almost all portrayals of Palestinian life have been directed by foreigners. "What's different about this is that it touches topics that have never been discussed on a Palestinian screen," he says. "The impact is already being seen. If you go out at 8 p.m., the streets are empty. [During the day] you can find people imitating the characters."
The holy month, which ends on the date that the Koran is believed to have been revealed, ismarked by dawn-to-dusk fasting and self-reflection. But it is also a time for bringing families together. And after they eat, says cultural critic Yusef es-Shayeb, they like to have a laugh.
"It's an Arabian tradition after iftar. People are tired from fasting all day, and so they like to sit together and enjoy a series on TV," says Mr. Shayeb, who writes about film and the arts for Al-Ayyam, a major Palestinian newspaper. Palestinians, he says, are accustomed to watching shows from Syria, Egypt, or the Gulf countries. "But a Palestinian series is different. Through this, we are laughing about our own suffering."
Hanan agrees. "For the first time, we are seeing problems on TV that are our problems," she says. "They talk about the economic situation, and I don't think most of the other Arabs have a situation like we do."
A grandmother at 35 – early marriages are common here – she says she likes the role models that the show presents for her daughters. Although neither she nor her husband went to college, she hopes Haneen – her veiled and doe-eyed 14-year-old in charge of serving tea to their guests – will receive a university education.
"I'm happy that my children, especially my daughters, are able to see an example of a student who likes to study," Hanan says of the female characters on the show.
While the actors generally present good models, no one in the family understands why not one woman on the show wears any kind of hijab, an Islamic covering for women. "It's not right," Ahmed clucks.
Across town, where the Maan staff are working after 10 p.m. to edit the final episodes, Mr. Othman has a perfectly good answer. "We try as much as possible to reflect the reality, but with drama, we can dream. We can criticize the reality of local life." None of the actresses he cast, he says, would have been authentic in hijab. Moreover, he points out, most TV dramas in the Arab world have women dressed in a more liberal fashion.
Following the successful showing here, Othman is working on selling the series to Arab satellite channels so it can reach a wider audience. Showing this more complex picture of Palestinian life, he says, will probably be a surprise even to Arab viewers.
"For the Arab world, it would be the first time seeing a Palestinian drama," he says. "They see a Palestinian hero with a gun and a mask on his face. Well, not all of us are part of a brigade. We love, we hate, there are drugs in our schools. This is the reality."