What's on during Ramadan? Antiterror TV
CAIRO — In addition to the fasting, feasting, and prayers, in most Egyptian households the Muslim holy month revolves around TV.
Once the sun sets in the Arab world, the 30 days of Ramadan are like November television-sweeps month in the US - and then some.
This year there are dozens of mini-series and specials ranging from the story of an Arab living in post-9/11 America to a Kuwaiti drama featuring a character who is a lesbian.
But every night at 10, the Refaat family gathers in their living room to watch the most talked about show in the Middle East, "Al Hoor al Ain" (The Beautiful Virgins). It's loosely based on the November 2003 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 18 people, all of them Arab. And it's one of a handful of shows aired here this month that are challenging the view that Islam justifies terrorism.
"This show is very important because it is treating a very delicate and crucial subject," says Rafiq al Sabban, an Egyptian film critic. "It's not solving the problem, but that's not the job of art. It is forcing viewers to confront the problem and think about it."
Al Hoor al Ain, which concludes Wednesday night, was written by a confessed former member of Al Qaeda. It tells the story of a young Saudi male torn between two sheikhs with competing versions of Islam - one militant and the other moderate. The story is narrated by a Syrian girl burned in the bombing, and stresses that the attacks were Arab-on-Arab.
Militant Islamist websites have savaged the show, and some imams in Saudi Arabia have warned worshippers not to watch it. They have singled out the show's title as particularly offensive. Al Hoor al Ain refers to the virgins the Koran says await good Muslim men in paradise. While the Koran makes no mention of "martyrdom" as a qualification, militant groups have used the passage to attract young suicide bombers to their cause.
Despite the objections of conservatives, it is the No. 1 show in Saudi Arabia this Ramadan, according to the Saudi newspaper Al Okaz. And many have hailed the program as a powerful attack on extremism.
"This is an integral part of the battle against terrorism," says Abe al Masry, production manager for the Saudi-owned and Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, which is broadcasting the show. "It shows how bad people intentionally misread religion, and exploit religion to recruit terrorists."
In the Refaat household in Cairo, the show is a source of contention. Ahmed, a 23-year-old who's studying business at Cairo University, says the show ignores the root causes of terrorism.
"In the show the Saudi government is made to look like the good guys," he says. "But it is their corruption and their oppression which is driving kids to blow themselves up."
His sister, Amira, a 25-year-old who works at a health club, says the show teaches "that true Islam is not about killing people."
Al Hoor al Ain does not confine itself to tackling terrorism. The cast of characters living in the compound, the ultimate victims of the bombing, hail from Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, and are trying, often in vain, to get along. They suffer the range of ills that plague their respective societies. There are abusive husbands, sterile wives, rebellious daughters, and sons who turn to drugs.
"All these families want to be united, but they don't ever reach that understanding," says Mr. Sabban the Egyptian film critic. "It's a metaphor for the Arab world. They are quarreling and they are loving each other, and they are quarreling again."
Another annual Ramadan show, "Tash Ma Tasha" (Whatever Comes Comes), has provoked an even fiercer response from Islamists, who have sent death threats to the Saudi show's producers.
The show portrays Islamic extremists as incompetent and unthinking half-wits. In Wednesday night's episode a small Saudi village is divided when some villagers want to install electricity and paved roads. The conservative village sheikhs warn that such modernization will destroy their way of life. The paved road will be like a huge black snake coming from hell, one religious leader warns.
A third show this year, "The Rocky Road," exposes the hypocrisy and corruption among the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
In recent years, Ramadan miniseries have triggered controversy, frequently angering the US, Israeli, and various Arab governments, or as in the case this year, Islamic fundamentalists. Last Ramadan, a series called "The Road to Kabul," about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was cancelled after just eight episodes. The show's creators had received death threats for portraying the Taliban in a negative light. Industry insiders, however, say the reason for the show's cancellation was US pressure on the Qatari government, which produced the show. The US reportedly feared that scenes of CIA agents selling heroin to fund the mujahideen would fire anti-American sentiment in the region.
In 2001, after the second intifada broke out in Israel-Palestine, a pair of Arab TV serials recounted the exploits of Salah Eddin, who drove the crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187. "After the last intifada, that's when these serials start getting more tense and more political," says Marlin Dick, an American researcher in Beirut.
Ramadan serials have long been a tool exploited by Arab governments to sway public opinion. But the Saudi support for and willingness to air such programs represents a total volte-face for the government, says Egyptian screenwriter Wahed Hamid. Mr. Hamid wrote the first-ever Ramadan serial to tackle the issue of terrorism. It aired in 1993, with the blessing of the Egyptian government, which was at the time battling its own terrorism problem.
"For years the Saudis have refused to show my series because they were sympathetic with terrorists, and they were the ones encouraging these extremists," Hamid says. "Now that the terror groups have started to attack them, the Saudis are rebroadcasting it once every two months."