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Palestinian TV airs daring satire

A rarity in the mideast, the political show spares no one – but even President Mahmoud Abbas is chuckling.

By Joshua Mitnick / Correspondent / September 25, 2009

At a recent Ramallah shoot, writer-actor Imad Farajeen (l.) parodied Hamas’s requirement that female lawyers wear hijab in court as producer Sami al-Jabber (r.) looked on.

Joshua Mitnick

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Ramallah, West Bank

On "Saturday Night Live," which has long parodied politicians ranging from Jimmy Carter to Sarah Palin, these characters would be well within bounds: An Islamist judge who is a latent homosexual. A negotiator who emerges from peace talks stripped to his boxers. A president who worries about his Israeli-issued checkpoint pass.

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But this is Palestinian state TV.

Premièring during the holy month of Ramadan, the first-ever Palestinian political satire show turns national leaders and military strongmen into absurd protagonists on its nightly broadcasts, winning a growing viewership.

A rarity across the Middle East, the comedic production known as "Watan a la Wattar" marks a seminal experiment in self-mockery and free speech in a society torn by internal politics and hemmed in by Israel's military occupation.

"Through comedy you can reach the heart of the audience more quickly," says actor Manal Awad during a break in filming at an upscale Ramallah loft studio. "The Palestinian people deserve to laugh because we have enough drama. If you make people laugh at difficult topics, you force them to look at things with a different point of view."

Palestinian introspection

The show also holds potential to spark meaningful debate at a time when an easing of hostilities with Israel is allowing for greater introspection among Palestinians.

The title – "homeland on a string" – refers to the precarious state of the Palestinian national project, which has been split for two years between rival regimes: Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA), headquartered in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Based on a stand-up routine by writer-actor Imad Farajeen, the show explores the Gaza-Ramallah divide – albeit with trepidation, initially.

"At first we were afraid people would not understand us, because this is new," says Mr. Farajeen, who, along with Ms. Awad, is one of three regulars in the show. "We are a very politicized society. They don't always like to talk about political problems."

Producers insist that no party, no politician, and no institution will be spared – even its sponsors. A recent episode skewered PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party.

The president reportedly chuckled despite an imitation of him as stiff and dour, and the suggestion that it will take another 500 years for Fatah to hold a new congress (a meeting held last month was the first in 20 years).

While some innuendo and curse words have been chopped by censors at the state-run channel, none of the political content has been altered, says producer Sami al-Jabber. The dissipation of the second Palestinian intifada (active resistance to occupation) and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from West Bank cities has allowed Palestinians to open up about their internal problems.

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