Palestinian TV airs daring satire

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

Joshua Mitnick
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.

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.

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.

"No one was allowed to talk about local issues when the Palestinians were busy confronting an outside enemy," Mr. Jabber explains. "Now in the West Bank there's kind of a normal situation. This gives us a chance to say things."

Free speech was not respected when former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat established self-government in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s, and many journalists critical of the Palestinian government found themselves in jail.

TV official: Show should reflect 'good taste'

Free expression is a work in progress, even under the reformist administration of Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Alleging bias, the PA shut down the Ramallah bureau of Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera in July after a guest accused Abbas of collaborating with Israel in Mr. Arafat's death.

Faten al-Wan, a television reporter for the US-backed Al Hurra satellite television network, says the satire show airs criticism that would provoke government protests if presented in a news broadcast.

"They are giving [the government] a hard time in every possible way," she says. "This is incredible. We don't do that as journalists because if they don't like what you say, you get phone calls."

The decision to air the political satire is part of a broader move by the PA to transform itself into a more liberal and transparent government. Last month, Mr. Fayyad laid out a vision for the reform of public institutions and economic development aimed at laying the groundwork for statehood by 2011.

Yasser Abed Raboo, a peace ­negotiator who heads the Palestinian Broadcast Company, says he wants to overhaul the television and radio station along the more independent public broadcast model of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

"They have free rein. Nobody is excluded, alive or dead," says Mr. Abed Raboo. "We are seeking a healthy society where everything is open."

Still, the transition is a gradual one. Abed Raboo says the show should reflect "good taste" and shouldn't try to prove "how liberal" it can be. "We are part of a market, not outside the market."

While the airing of the show is "refreshing," the shock value of the criticism is only tepid, says Mohaned el-Hamid, a culture critic at the Al Ayyam newspaper. "It's not harmful to the regime. It's reflecting what people already think. The satire is saying what people cannot say, and that's important."

Stuck and seeking alternatives

Abed Raboo wants to make the show, currently being watched after iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan, a weekly staple. Though some are skeptical, Palestinians say the show is one of the most talked-about programs on the state-run television.

"If we continue to criticize Hamas, they will be more extreme," worries Abu Kamal Bashi, a Ramallah shopkeeper.

Back at the studio, as the crew prepares to move to a new location for a shot, director Raed Hilu draws a link between the comedy and the tragedy of the Palestinian people's seeming political stagnation.

"We are laughing at our pain, which is a very sad state," he says. "We are trying to motivate people to look for alternatives because we are stuck."

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