Syrian musalsalat in 2012: failed “tanfis” projects


Picture from “Spotlight 9”, 

Al Jazeera English website has just published my analysis of this year`s 9th season of renowned Syrian drama Buqa’t al-Daw (Spotlight) which aired in 2001 for the first time, breaking taboos as corruption and gender issues. After more than 10 years of broadcast, here is where it got..

Syrian TV drama provides ineffective release valve
Taboo-breaking TV show once seen as harbinger of political reform looks old-fashioned today in light of the uprising.

“Sir, sir! A man just exploded in the city centre!”, a shocked security officer tells his incredulous boss. The scene is featured in episode two, season nine of Buqa’t al-Daw (Spotlight), a Syrian TV drama (musalsal) aired this Ramadan.Buqa’t al-Daw is widely deemed a taboo-breaking drama. In 2001, when it first came out as a media expression of the short-lived political opening after Bashar al-Assad seized power, its satirical sketches touched many sensitive topics related to the country’s politics and society. Issues like corruption, religious extremism, and gender-related problems would migrate from current affairs to be discussed in the satirical sketches of the musalsal in its unique dark-comedy style.

But this new season doesn’t aim at lampooning the al-Qaeda style explosions that, according to Syria TV, are afflicting the country as a result of a foreign conspiracy; neither at mocking people who set themselves on fire in sign of protests against unemployment and lack of dignity in Arab countries, something Arabs have become familiar with after Mohamed Bouazizi’s martyrdom.

“People are simply self-exploding” is the weird conclusion reached by the security officer featured in this second episode of Buqa’t al-Daw season 9. Looking for a solution, the main character goes to visit a sort of mad scientist. “My son,” he tells him, “these days, citizens of the third world have to bear too many pressures… unemployment, poverty, corruption… decades after decades, new generations are simply imploding, that’s why they start to self-explode.” But, the scientist says: “Smart governments have a solution called ‘tanfis’ (letting out air)!”

Every Syrian is familiar with the word tanfis, a safety valve allowing people to vent frustrations and relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action. Tanfis has widely been associated with the practice of allowing free press, dissident art and a culture of defiance to manifest through theatre, music and literature. Many Syrian TV series dealing with taboo issues like Buqa’t al-Daw itself have been labelled as tanfis on citizens, allowing them to breathe – and laugh – within certain permitted margins.

But this season of Buqa’t al-Dawtakes a step further and suggests a better solution rather than dissident art and freedom of expression. “These are old methods of tanfis,” the scientist tells the incredulous security officer. The brand new solution he proposes to adopt is a device that, once plugged into the citizen’s body, will provide him with a sort of relief, letting out all pressures and making him love society again.

The submissive and obsequious citizens featured in this ninth season of Buqa’t al-Daw recall another episode from the same musalsal which was broadcast in 2010, less than a year before the Syrian uprising started. Al-sirr (The Secret) featured Syrian officials explaining representatives of foreign powers how Syria successfully manages its economy through the complicity of its citizens. Since everybody has to bribe to get whatever service, a sort of parallel economy is created, based on a corrupted system perpetrated by each individual. Through comedy and laughter the musalsalreminds Syrian citizens that they are all part of this system and complicit with it. Corruption can be denounced and individuals can be removed, but resisting the system which generates it is useless, since everybody is partly responsible. Every citizen is a gear of this mechanism and contributes to its survival; as the system’s survival is intertwined with each individual’s personal survival.The episode goes on showing how the device has been installed in gas stations and public places so as to prevent citizens from self-exploding. In the last scene of the musalsal, citizens even pay to access the device’s services and get some sort of relief from their daily troubles; lately, they seem to go on happily.

But, after two years, with the unfolding of the uprising and the dramatic changes it brought within Syrian society, the lesson that Buqa’t al-Daw reminds to Syrian citizens that it might not work anymore. In its attempts to stay updated with the current events, Syrian TV drama like Buqa’t al-Daw looks incredibly old-fashioned. In a sketch called Al-sha’b yurid (The people want), probably an attempt to mock the street’s main motto of the 2011 Arab revolutions, themusalsal shows how people only seek minor reforms – like a better street maintenance – which they are not even able to accomplish; the main character dies of an heart attack, too scared by the security services while trying to explain them that he was officially asked by the municipality to write the slogan on the city walls.

In an episode named Eid Wahda (One hand) after another popular slogan of the Arab uprisings, which reminds us people’s unity against regimes, the protagonist seeks to convince others to act all together and stay united; he eventually discovers, in the day of his death, that he has been totally left alone by society.

Portraying society as a disoriented mob, which needs guidance and a progressive leadership to overcome its backwardness, is a common practice in tanwiri (englightned) Syrian TV dramas, many of which have high production values, good acting, compelling plots, and have been successful on a Pan Arab level, too.

When Bashar al-Assad seized power, in 2001, this enlightening process pushed by progressive media was accompanied by the promise of political reforms made by a young, seemingly reform-minded new leader. But in 2012, after 17 months of bloody crackdown on Syrian society’s demands to get genuine political reforms and not only taboo-breaking TV drama, it is very unlikely that tanwiri musalsalat like Buqa’t al-Daw will succeed even in making Syrians laugh by reminding them that every citizen is a partner in the (failed) political system.

Syrians and the “surplus” of Syrian drama

Ramadan started few days ago, and this is a very different one this year. Over the past years I`ve tried to report as much as I could about the most interesting TV drama productions in the Region and to discuss important issues related to musalsalat industry in the Arab world (financing, advertising etc). But this year is different. And even for professional media analysts it`s still very hard to watch Ramadan musalsalat without thinking of the events unfolding in the Region, particularly in Syria.

These days Ramadan is celebrated all across the world and Damascus, the hub of Syrian TV fiction production -and my second home, too-, is witnessing clashes in the streets, bombing, shelling.

While watching the Syrian musalsalat production for 2012 -which I will try to review in a later post-  I can`t help going back with my memory to an episode of comedic musalsal Buqa`t al-Daw (Spotlight), the famous Syrian TV drama which sprouted from the very brief opening of the Damascus Spring 2000-2001. Everybody, at the time, had strong hopes that the country would go under serious reforms, both economic and political. The Damascus Spring was soon over but the musalsal went on, for many seasons (it has now reached its 9th).

The episode I would like to tell you about is called Al-sirr (The secret) and was part of Spotlight`s season 7 (aired two years ago, in 2010, before the uprising started). 

A meeting is held between Syrian officials and representatives of foreign countries from the five continents in order to exchange experiences in managing a country`s economy. The foreigners are very interested to learn how Syria can manage its economy so well. Syrian officials are keen on explaining their secret which lies in the “excess value”, “surplus” (qyma za`da). A scene features a citizen who has to submit documents to a public official. The official cost of this operation is 50 Syrian Pound but the citizen pays 950 Syrian Pound in excess (qyma za`da), in order to have the public employee speeding up his documentation.

In the following scene a mazot seller meets up with a citizen shivering for the cold. The mazot is sold above its real price, so the excess value which was paid in the former scene has been re-gained. This is the shared chain (silsila mushtaraka) that lies at the basis of economic circulation in Syria. Syrian officials that are featured in the musalsal proudly explain that this “secret” (the title of the musalsal episode is al sirr, the secret) finally secures economic balance, as everybody pays the qyma za`da in order to get services, while the state pays nothing.

The musalsal concludes that the production of state economy (intaj al iqtisaad al-dawla) is based on what the citizens produce (intaj al muwatin): this process triggers a virtuous circle where the citizen, even if only paid 200 dollars monthly, will make profit at someone else`s expenses, and the latter will do the same, until the chain will be complete. Within this informal economy a citizen can earn even 10 times more his official salary, without being a burden for the state.

Through comedy and laughter, the musalsal reminds citizens that they are all part of the system and complicit with it. Corruption can be denounced and individuals can be removed, but resisting the system that generates that corruption is useless, since everybody is part of it. Every citizen is a gear of this mechanism and contributes to its survival; as the system`s survival is intertwined with personal survival.

This is how Syrian citizens have been constantly reminded, as audiences of tanwiri (enlightened) inspired media content like Spotlight and many other Syrian “neo-realist” musalsalat, to be culpable of perpetrating the social diseases that afflict Syrian society. 

How different it is to watch al sirr right now, in 2012..

Syrian people have become aware that denouncing corruption was a trick perpetrated by the system itself, helped by seemingly progressive media content. Let`s not forget that the production company who has been producing Spotlight for 9 years, Syrian Art Production International, is owned by Mohamed Hamsho, former Syrian MP and involved in different business deals with the Assad`s family.

Encouraging laughter over social and political problems was a way to relief Syrian citizens but also to remind them that any form of resistance was impossible, as they were complicit with the corrupted system and its rotten mechanisms. If there is an already accomplished result of the 2011 Syrian uprising, it is that Syrians have clearly refused these accusations to be a gear of the corrupted system. They have refused to be assimilated to it as its natural component. They have said no to corruption as a  part of their daily lives and their society`s life.  

Syrians won`t be laughing again.

Polemics over Palestinian musalsal criticizing Palestinian Authority

from Palestinian news agency Ma`an: 

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — A Ramadan TV series that became notorious for its criticism of Palestinian Authority officials has been discontinued on the PA-run Palestine TV, Attorney General Ahmad Al-Mughni said Tuesday evening.

Al-Mughni told Ma’an that the decision had been made to stop broadcasts of Watan Ala Watar [Homeland on a String] after Tuesday’s episode because “it is full of mistakes, is meaningless and is a waste of time for people to watch.”

The serial, aired during the holy month of Ramadan when broadcasters compete for captive audiences with soap operas and special series, had been praised the year earlier as an emblem of PA’s ability to tolerate self-criticism.

Al-Mughni said Tuesday that the series is “harmful to Palestinian society.”
“It mocks leaders terribly, and has a poor scenario,” he said, adding that episodes had crossed “red lines.”

“There are people and personalities that can’t be imitated in any way,” the Attorney General said.

The series had targeted the beleaguered Palestinian Authority health ministry, public sector workers union head Bassam Zakarneh and teachers union in recent weeks, and officials are reported to have complained to the Attorney General about the send-up.

Palestine TV is operated by the Palestine Broadcast Cooperation, and supervised by the Ramallah-based Ministry of Information.

Watan Ala Watar gained a huge following for its uncompromising look at themes of politics, corruption, nepotism, religion and morality.


Women in musalsalat: “Bab al hara 5” and “Abuab al ghraim”

This morning I jumped into this Emirates 24/7 article on Bab al hara 5 which states: “Syrian drama popular despite abuse of women”.

This is not the first time I`ve heard heavy critical statements on the way Bab al hara serial portrays women and their role in the society. The directors and many of the actors have tried many times -in public occasions- to “adjust” this belief. I met once Kamal al Murra, one of the writer of the musalsal, and, when asked  this question (he must be tired of people asking why women are portrayed so badly) he answered very frankly that Bab al hara was not aiming at portraying the whole Syrian society. It was the story of just one little neighbourhood (hara) in Old Damascus and, despite the “hara” was an imagined one (iftiradiya) the social behaviour, the values and the lifestyle portrayed in it were exactly like in many others “harat sha`abiya ” at the time. He was referring to a low-class “hara” where you couldn`t expect to see elite behaviours or lifestyles, such as educated or “liberated” women.

In Bab al hara 5 episode broadcasted yesterday, the main topic was Hisam -the eldest son of the so madly popular Abu Hisam- desperately looking for a third wife. Hisam is already married twice but, as he points out: “I`ll have the first two wives taking care of the house and the children. I want to enjoy life with the third one”. In another scene  his sister Bouran goes to visit their mother – that very same Souad who was divorced by the honourable Abu Hisam for having dared to express a different opinion from his- and asks her to mediate with her husband who wants their teenager daughter to get married. When Bouran tries to make him understand that she is “still playing”, he gets mad and screams that they are not supposed to pay forever in order to raise their daughter. In another episode, we see Bouran`s male son who goes to school -the “kuttab”- whereas his little sister stays home with mum and learn how to be a perfect housewife.

I don`t know in how many episodes -basically, every time somebody gets pregnant- all the men “order” their women to “deliver a boy”. Ironically enough, should this wish come true, al “hara” would be a male-only neighbourhood not able to reproduce itself without recurring to the “ghrarib” (the foreigner).

Almost at the same time  slot Bab al hara 5 is broadcasted on MBC, its Pan Arab competitor Dubai TV broadcasts “Abuab al ghraim” (the doors of the cloud) directed by Syrian Hatem Ali. Despite the directors and many actors in the cast are Syrians, the spoken language of the musalsal is a very delicate kind of old fashioned Gulf dialect. The story is in fact inspired by  Dubai ruler Sheikh al Maktoum`s poetry and set during the time when British occupation forced the local bedouin population to migrate.

The difference between “Abuab al ghraim”`s bedouins and “Bab al hara”`s urban population is enormous, particularly when it comes to women. Bedouin women are proud, fierce and bold. Their  are very feminine but their attitude can be  confrontational vis-a`-vis their men.

Watching this “bedouin drama” made me think to that”hara” in Damascus, the “oldest urban settlement in the world”, as all the Damascenes like to remind each foreigner.

The past is never “the Past” and everything we tell about “those times” is the result of a precise choice -being it intentional or unintentional- that we are making “right now”.

Precisely for this reason, the “hara” of the oldest city in the world can be much less “urban” than a bedouin camp.

Interestingly enough, both of them are “made in Syria”.

Me with some “Bab al hara” women at Bab al hara 5 shootings, May 2010, Damascus.

Ramadan, the “month of musalsalat”, begins today

Ramadan kareem to everybody in the Muslim word. Today the holy month starts but, as a Syrian director friend of mine once said, this is “the month of musalsalat” for many people.

The National, the UAE online publication, published yesterday the “essential viewing this Ramadan“.  Yahoo!Maktoob has also prepared a tailor made platform for Ramadan which includes a  TV guide to find out which musalsalat are being broadcasted by whom. It might be not so easy to find out what you want to watch during Ramadan, as with more than 500 FTA channels -many of them broadcasting musalsalat of good and very low quality- it`s kind of difficult even to make your personal viewing schedule. I started watching TV extensively yesterday afternoon, when most of the channels were broadcasting overviews of their Ramadan grids. I was surprised to realize how many “Bedouin serials” are about to be broadcasted this year, I could see desert settings and hear much more Khaleji dialect than I remember from last Ramadan season. Dubai TV was a mix of glittering “Hollywood style” stars as Yousra and the Syrian Bassel al Khayat introducing their new musalsalat, plus very basic -and not funny for me..but maybe it`s because the dialect is harder – bedouin musalsalat, kind of “low cost” look. From time to time, the presentation of its Ramadan grid was interrupted to leave air space to English spoken features -like one on “Dubai as the best shopping place for gold”- clearly addressed to potential tourists.

Al Jazeera had a show called “Mata Ramadan?” (When is it Ramadan?) in order to find out when exactly the holy month should kick off.

Today is the official start of the fast together with the musalsalat “grand bouffe”. The afternoon was mostly “colonized” by sheikhs dealing with religious habits, fast, Ramadan enquiries from the audiences. Even MBC was silent on musalsalat side and focused on those “religious” programmes.

The only place where I was able to watch a musalsal this afternoon was Dubai TV, which was broadcasting the latest Syrian actor Bassam Kousa`s Tv drama, where he plays an Arab “Rain man” (do you remember Dustin Hoffman playing the autistic but brilliant main character together with Tom Cruise?). The musalsal is called Wara` as-shams (Behind the sun) and it is produced by well-known Syrian company Aj headed by Hani Arshi (who also appears in the role of consultant for the musalsal). It tells the story of a young and beautiful couple whose life will change since the announcement the child they are expecting is affected by the Down syndrome. From which I could see on the screen today, Bassam Kousa is very far from Dustin Hoffman`s performance in “Rain man”. He over-acts and over-reacts and makes you wonder why if you want to have any success during Ramadan (or even want to be just noticed) you have to tackle sort of “taboo” issues -but the kind of taboos that make your audience cry, like an handicap-. Sounds like the old Hollywood lesson: just perform the role of a marginalized, handicapped, etc and you will get your Oscar home. Despite I love Bassam and the way he acts, I have to say that this first episode of “Behind the sun” did not convince me at all.

Dubai TV is betting on Hatem Ali and Yousra`s works as “main dishes” this Ramadan. Hatem, who I have met in Damascus and chatted about his view on musalsalat industry, has wonderful insights, he is a talented director and a gifted intellectual. I loved his last film work “Al leil at-tawuil” (The long night) produced by Haitham Haqqi which I could only screen in Barcelona at Wocmes congress for the first time last July. I`m not a big fan of his Andalusian or Bedouin works, but I`ll definitely watch “Abuab al ghraim” (the gates of the cloud) tonight at 23 pm KSA which has been taken from Sheikh Al Maktoum`s (the ruler of Dubai) poetry. The Sheikh inspires more than one programme on Ramadan grid,  it seems: just watched “Kawather ramadaniyya” (Ramadan thoughts) which also comes out from his pen.

Even if I have no idea about what the drama will be about, I`ll watch the latest Yousra`s of course, tonight at 00.00 KSA on Dubai. Yousra has been my favourite actress since the time she was acting with Youssef Chahine and, even if she is in a musalsal, for me it`s always the same blood- tempered girl of “Iskandria kaman wa kaman?“.

MBC will broadcast the “must follow” of the season, “Bab al hara 5” and I`m very curious to see it on air, after I have attended the musalsal shootings in Damascus last May. No, of course I won`t tell in this blog if Abu Shehab or Abu Issam are coming back! Also curious to watch “Tash ma tash” in its 17th season, if I can make it to understand the Saudi accent. There are a number of Egyptian musalsalat on MBC that I will have a look at, knowing well that I will give up after a few episodes.

Future TV is broadcasting Najdat Anzour`s “Ma malakat aymanokom” (which I will not dare to translate: too many different translations are appearing on the Net, and the expression comes directly from the holy Quran, the women`s sura) which I have watched a bit in his office during the editing process, founding it beautifully done and extremely interesting. Najdat also has got “Zhakirat al jasad” (Memory of the flesh) on Abu Dhabi TV which is inspired by the life of Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi.

That`s already so much to watch and there`s even more to discover just by zapping with the remote control from channel to channel after the Iftar meal.

Najdat Anzour`s new TV drama to set Ramadan 2010 on fire

A very hot and dry summer afternoon in Damascus. The kind of weather which pushes you to be indolent. But in this tiny Maliki apartment there is even more activity that usual. Two workstations in parallel are editing ما ملكت أيمانكم” (“Whatever you possess”) and ذاكرة الجسد” (“Memory in the flesh”), the latest TV drama  works by Syrian director Najdat Anzour.

I`ve been knowning Najdat for some years now and I`ve always admired his dedication and passion, whatever kind of work he does. This can`t be more true this time when he is working on such different contexts and stories. “Memory in the flesh” is inspired by the novel of Algerian writer Ahlam Musteghranemi, one of the more appreciated Arab writer of the last century, and  a very unconventional female personality. This 30 episodes TV drama is been produced by Abu Dhabi TV channel with 25% participation of Egyptian Media City, a miracle that only somebody like Najdat could orchestrate. It is very rare indeed to see Egyptian capital producing something that is shot by a Syrian -this has happened previously, as in the case of the Syrian Hatem Ali`s “King Farouk”, but the final result was rather a “made in Egypt”-.

Anzour is working with Syrian (like Syrian star Jamal Suleiman), Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian actors to create what could be described as a “Panarab” TV fiction production, something that tackles regional interests and issues, as the Algerian liberation war, the Lebanese civil war, etc. And, of course, there is a lot of beautiful literature taken from Musteghranemi`s work. Dialogues are in classical Arabic, as Algerian dialect is still not widely understood at a regional level as much as Egyptian or Syrian.

While he is still shooting “Memory in the flesh” between France, Lebanon, UK and Algeria, Anzour is at the final editing stage of “Whatever you posses” (the meaning of ا ملكت أيمانكم” being wider than this, as it is a Quranic expression coming from the “Sura of the Women” that has got a lot of religious nuances). This musalsal, which is also due to be launched during next Ramadan, is in a way at the opposite end of “Memory in the flesh”. Whereas the latter comes from a piece of literature, is set in the past, speaks Classical and addresses Panarab issues, “Whatever you possess” is a social drama very much set in a contemporary Damascus and spoken in Syrian dialect. It deals with issues like relation between men and women, sex, religion, corruption, poverty and extreme richness, all elements that are embedded together in contemporary Syrian daily life. Najdat and his “monteur” show me two finished episodes and I can`t prevent myself from thinking that this is going to set next Ramadan on fire.

Contemporary Damascus is shown with all its contradictions without any filter: one of the most ancient urban settlement in the history of humanity,and at the same time a tiny village where rural values of tradition and its preservation still seem to prevail over modern urban values.

This contrast is visible in everything from the locations to the characters, with a particular emphasis on females. Rich “enfants gates” that spend their time on the border of a swimming pool in their rich father`s villa, talking about make up and coiffeur, whispering on their fancy mobiles and elaborating on the latest fashion magazine coming from the West – and young educated girls that are pushed to sell their bodies to pay for their parents` health treatments-. The middle class is astonishingly absent from this picture -as it is, in reality, fading away from Syrian society class composition-. Middle class is shrinking everywhere in the entire world, as a result of the globalisation process that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer: but in Syria this process dramatically involves all the values that middle class traditionally brings to society, its dedication to education and hard work, its belief in self-initiative and self-making, its urban background. The females protagonists of “Whatever you possess” -Leila, Alia and Nadine- represent three prototypes well alive in contemporary Syrian society. Their complicated relations with men are mostly based on exploitation, submission, dependence, inequality, frustration and on a unbalanced exercise of power. To this respect, every social class seems to be the same -no differences between the rich and poor, the shrinking middle class being even more desperate as more conscious of the process that is leading to its own disappearance-.

Whatever you possess” is made up of luxury villas and poor suburbs, smoky bars full of belly dancers and Qoranic schools, women dressed in “total black” and kinky “femme fatales” going from one party to another. It shows a society which is totally permeated with liberalization and globalization but hasn’t developed its “anti corps” , being only able  to read this process in financial terms (i.e. being empowered to buy the latest luxury car or mobile) but not in cultural ones.

I remember Najdat showing the promo of “Whatever you possess” to a Danish non Arabic speaking audience in Copenhagen. The results was amazing, as people could understand -through the powerful visual language – the story he wants to tell, maybe much more universal than as it looks at a first glance.

During the past few years, Najdat Anzour has smartly dedicated his career at “universal” issues that are of Westerners` and Arabs` common concerns, I.e. terrorism, relations between religions, issues like the Danish cartoon controversy. I`ve always found this very interesting but I have to say that I`m happy to see “Whatever you possess” focusing on Syrian society, debating about it, pointing out at its problems. Being more local he has probably become more universal, and even more understandable by us Westerners, even the non Arabic speakers, as those folks in Copenhagen. There is a lot of criticism in Syria in respect to this kind of “Syrian neorealism” featuring all the problems and the contradictions of the Syrian society on Regional TV screens, moreover during the holy month of Ramadan. People say those fictions don`t offer any solution for social change, just portray the bad side of a society. However, I think that through TV works as the latest Anzour`s, people could at least become conscious of some issues and realize they do exist, instead of using TV just as a way to escape in an imagery past that existed once or probably never existed.

“Whatever you possess” by N. Anzour, 2010

pictures from

Berlusconi’s “musalsal” aired on Tunisian Nessma TV

I have to thank my friend @rafik to have distracted me from the tons of Syrian musalsalat I was passionately watching during this first week of Holy Ramadan. Thanks to him I watched today for the first time in my life an Italian musalsal aired on an Arab TV channel. The leading character was “Mr President” (that’s how they called him sometime: wait shabbab, he is the Prime Minister, not the President..yet!) Silvio Berlusconi.

Last 23 august, Berlusconi was visiting Tunisia to meet President Ben Ali and his friend and business partner Tarek Ben Ammar, with whom he coproduced Baaria, the latest Giuseppe Tornatore‘s movie to premiere at Venice Film Festival.

After a tour to the set of the movie, Berlusconi went for an exclusive interview to “Ness Nessma”, the flagship talk show programme of the new born Nessma TV, the Tunisian TV channel aimed at North African audiences. The channel is a partnership between Ben Ammar, the Karoui brother (that produced many successful shows, including the Maghrebi version of Star Academy) and Berlusconi himself.

Forthy minutes of an exclusive interview, the first time ever a Prime Minister of an EU country goes live to address  the North African audiences and to wish the TV the best of success.  However, Berlusconi is not new to use the broadcast media to address his fellow citizens -or “target audiences”- and he is not new to go live on his own TV stations to deliver public speeches. What is really new -stunning news- is that this time Berlusconi is doing this with Arabs. After Spain and France, this is the first time ever he goes to invest money abroad to set a TV operation. The news is even bigger since he is doing this with the Arab world, a target that he never cared so much about in the past.

The Arab world is strategic for Mr Berlusconi: he is about to visit Lybia on the 30th of august, while President Gheddafi was in Italy few months ago. His relation with Tunisian President Ben Ali has always been  in a good shape – in his interview, he calles him “a true friend, whom I met at Bettino Craxi’s time when I was not in politics (..) and a real democrat”- and his commercial ties with Ben Ammar are longtime, back to 25 years ago – “we have in common a long term friendship and the passion for the “other half of the sky”, i.e. women”, says in the interview, which can be viewed on Nessma TV website.

Speaking about Lybia, when the host of the show reminds that he was the first European leader to officially apologize for colonialism, something that UK or France never did, he corrects him: “I did not apologize, I asked in front of Lybian Parliament to be apologized for having oppressed free people like the Lybians are, which is something that we shall not accept or repeat in the future”. Applauses from the audience.

The host, Fawez Ben Tmessek, asked him about Italy and its immigration policy, probably referring to the latest agreements between Berlusconi and Gheddafi on this issue.  He answered that “we should condemn the criminal organisations that take advantages of people, and we have to fight them!whereas we should encourage the wish of finding better job opportunities within legality..this is the policy of my government”.

Then, speaking about the financial crisis, he says that “the government will never leave anybody alone not even during the crisis..that’s what we did in Italy..nobody will loose his job without having help and compensations”.

The Italian government gives  to whom looses his job 80% of his former salary, plus everything a family can need not to enter misery”.  “That’s what I told my European colleagues, I was the first to say that we should help banks to recover, and not make the mistake Americans made by leaving Lehman Brothers’ to bankruptcy”.

Then he is asked about Obama: “We are lucky to have such a the beginning we had some doubts, due to his scarce political experience, 4 or 5 years I believe, and at a local level”. “But when we saw him live, we had to change our mind since he says very intelligent things and he has a positive attitude towards the future”.. “Then he knows what irony is..Despite I am number one in this field!”.

If there is something bloody true in this interview is this last sentence.

He tells a joke about himself, mocking himself for being “the most intelligent man in the world”, he plays with the female host of the show by asking her phone number, and when she asks him the million dollar question:

“why…why..why…have you sold Kaka?”

he answers:  “oh, did we sell Kaka??!!”.

This is irony, indeed. But when it comes to other people asking questions he is not really happy about, he can’t be so ironic I am afraid.

Today he sued Repubblica, one of the leading Italian newspapers, for having published the famous “10 questions” addressed to him. Those questions relate to his alleged relation with Noemi Letizia and the escort D’Addario, and at a general level to his peculiar way to mix sex, money and private affairs with the state politics.

He couldnt be so ironic with Repubblica as he was with the Arab audiences.

But the real danger, for Italians as for Arabs, does not lie in this irony or missed irony, and not even in his sex scandals he is not questioned about by Nessma (can you imagine asking this question in front of Arab families in the middle of Ramadan?!). The real danger is not in what he hides or states ironically: on the contrary, it lies in what he states very clearly, like the following sentence to salute the new born Tunisian TV (well, his own TV):

“A new born TV is always a miracle. Nowadays nothing can influence people like TV..the press is so far away from doing it”.

(then why being so bothered by Repubblica!)

The host of the show:  “We believe in the “moderate” Arab world, there is no other private Arab Tv station to be born from a partnership with an European country. We did it, and we did with the emperor of private TV in Europe“.

Do you believe that Nessma TV can change Maghreb just as you changed Italy?”.

Well, Mr President, that’s the question I am really scared for.

Are Tunisians and North Africans going to try the “tele-democracy”, just as we Italians did during the past decades?

Well, then, mabrouk.

However, Berlusconi is not the only one who has in mind a “moderate” channel for Arabs in North-African countries (an audience of 90 millions people, plus 6 millions in France and 2 millions in Italy). Other big players -as his former business partner Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, who controls Rotana network- has also got some brand new ideas for the Sub-Region soon to be seen on screens.

An eye on the Mossad:Najdat Anzour’s last provocation for Ramadan 2009

Ramadan is about to start, so it is the TV battle that every year surrounds Muslisms’ holy month.

One of the most promising (in terms of raising polemics) musalsal this year will be Najdat Anzour‘s ” Rigal Al Hasm(Decisive Men). Anzour is not new to provocation, having directed many controversial musalsalat on hot topics such as  Al Hur al ayn” (Virgins of Paradise) – on Islamic terrorism and suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia – or “Saqf al alam” (The roof of the world) – on the Arab anger after Danish Jyllands Posten had published Prophet Mohammad’s cartoons-.

But this year musalsal -which is going to be aired by Abu Dhabi TV during the soon to be started month of Ramadan – deals with a real “hot potato”: the Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, and Syrian-Israeli relations during the 1967 war, particularly after the occupation of the Golan heights.

The musalsal focuses on the story of a Syrian man -played by Syrian star Bassel Al Khayat– who seeks revenge for his  family that was killed in the bombardments of Golan. He goes then to Europe where he is able to infiltrate the Mossad with the help of the Israeli female agent Mirage. The story therefore moves to Israel where Bassel is quickly integrated into the Mossad and its interior conflicts and corruption. He starts a relation with Mirage, then with another Israeli female agent, played by Miss Lebanon Nadine, always keeping in his mind his family and his girlfriend left in Syria waiting for him. The plot is somehow interesting but the most interesting part is how Anzour has filmed the musalsal.

Last April, when I was in Syria, I got the chance to be invited to the shootings taking place in Syrian coastal town of Tartous.  The way Najdat and his Jordanian costume designer Hala have recreated the ’68 atmosphere in the West Bank is somehow interesting. They show an intense nightlife, bars and clubs full of music, beautiful women dressed as all the Europeans used to dress during the 68 revolution, an “easy going” and pretty libertine lifestyle. The setting is a kind of “pop” as you can see from the pictures here below.




Another very interesting part is how he worked on the linguistic part. Having decided to shoot some parts in Hebrew, there was a “linguistic coach” on the set to train actors with the right Hebrew pronunciation (he is a Syrian who has spent a number of years in an Israeli prison). Then, as usual in Anzour’s sets, there were a lot of foreigners -mostly British people- that he invited to Syria to bring technical equiments -like the “truth machine” to shoot the scene when Bassel is questioned by the Mossad about his real identity- and also to play some “cameo” roles.

Being asked about the choice of the topic, Najdat states that he wanted to focus more on the “human side” of the story, rather than on the political one.  He insists he wanted to show the corruption and the intrigues that are hidden under what is considered one of the most powerful intelligence service in the world.

Only the screen could tell us what the result will be, and how “Rigal Al Hasm” will tackle the complicate Arab-Israeli issue. But something is for sure: this year the Mossad will have a face for the Arab audience, which is also the beautiful face of Miss Lebanon. They will see human relations -even if based on lies and double cross- developing between Syrians and Israelis, they will hear Hebrew on their Ramadan TV screen (altough this is not new, having the Syrians done many other musalsalat on the Arab-Israeli issue with some original dialogues in Hebrew).

This is for sure enough to have -at least- some major newspapers and talk shows talking about the musalsal.

“Rigal Al Hasm“, produced by businessman Hany Mokhlef (for a big amount of cash: rumors say between 2.5 and 5 million dollars), will be broadcasted on Abu Dhabi TV and many other Arab channels.


Is religion a tv genre?

It seems that Algerian state run tv ENTV will open to a new Ramadan tailored tv genre: the Islamic reality show. Knights of the Quran is the new reality style tv programme but under a religious flavour. This time the participants -males and females- are competing in Quranic recitation rather than in pop songs. Quranic recitation is not new to tv screens expecially during Ramadan, but what sounds new is the format, which owes a lot to the reality show genre. Audiences can contribute from their homes to choose the best Quranic reader and the show also features competitors tours in religious locations across the Arab region, like the Al Qarawiin mosque in Fez, Morocco, the Al Zeituna mosque in Tunisia and the Al Azhar mosque in Egypt.  See the original article

on The National UAE to read the Arab media analyst Marwan Krady commenting on this.

While Algeria tv is investing in religious reality show, neighbouring Tunisia launches the first Tunisian religious channel, Hannibal Elferdaws (Hannibal Paradise). Investor is the local businessman Larbi Nasra, who founded Tunisia’s first private TV channel Hannibal in 2005. If for someone this is an attempt to teach young people a “moderate” version of Islam in order to discourage militant political Islamic groups, for others it’s just a sign that times have dramatically changed since former Tunisian president Bourghiba drunk an orange juice in the middle of Ramadan on tv declaring that “a modern nation cannot afford to stop for a month every year”.

Arab tv battle for the next Ramadan 2008 hit begins today

Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins today (mabrouk to the Muslims all over the world). As every year, this is not only a time devoted to praying and fastening, but also a crowded battle field for Arab tv channels. Arab broadcasters invest a great amount of their annual budgets in producing tv shows especially tailored for this season which is the richest even in terms of ads spending. Every tv genre is touched by the “Ramadan effect”. Mtv Arabia, the latest born music channel in the Middle East, has promised to refrain from playing music video clips during the holy month, replacing this pretty secular tv genre with cultural news programmes and some reality shows believed to be more appropriate, like “Hogan Knows Best” which follows wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan in his lesser-known roles as husband and father.

Also mobile offers are influenced by the starting of Ramadan. Du, the UAE integrated telco service provider launched in 2007, has just announced a bunch of new services tailored for the holy month. To test customers’ knowledge of Ramadan, Du launches a Sms challenge which will give free credit to the winners.  Customers can also subscribe to “hadeeth of the day”, a free service which sends to mobile screens Prophet Mohammed’s say for each day of the holy month. But there is also room for pay-per-view content: Du, in cooperation with MBC, one of the most watched Arab broadcasters, will offer ad hoc designed “mobisodes” of the tv drama “Rabeh wa Douktora” for the first time. Islamic tailored content, produced by religious channel Al Majd, will also be available on Du subscription Tv package.

But Ramadan tv hottest potato will be musalsalat as usual. After the huge success across the Arab region of the Turkish soap operas “Nour” and “Years of lost” dubbed into Syrian dialect, everybody is waiting for the next big thing. Meanwhile there are some “evergreen” of Arab tv to be back again: as Syrian drama “Bab al hara”, inspired by nostalgia for life of Old Damascus, already a huge success all across the Arab world.

As usual, Ramadan musalsalat are accompanied by huge polemics and “pros and cons” supporters inside and outside the Arab world. There is a big debate running every year over the topics of the musalsalat. Arab tv drama has been devoting itself in breaking lots of cultural and social taboos by tackling issues like polygamy, divorce, rape, even the struggle of a transexual, and politics of course. During the past few years lots of Ramadan “hot potatoes” have been prevented from broadcasting, like “Tariq ila Kabul”, a Qatari tv production dealing with the history of Afghanistan from the struggle against former Soviet Union till US occupation after 9/11.

This Ramadan 2008 lots of polemics have already been raised for ERTU, Egyptian public tv, preventing the broadcasting of “Nasser”, a musalsal based on life of the father of Panarabism and former Egyptian president directed by Syrian Bassel Al Khateeb. No explanation has been given yet for the decision, but many Egyptian government opposition papers, like Al Wafd, have already expressed their criticism for the government seems to allow series like last year big success “Malek Farouk” (directed by Syrian Hatem Ali) while doesn’t keep the same behaviour when it comes to a chapter of Egyptian history that the ruling party at power wants to forget.

In Ramadan tv hot race there is also a room for newcomers: many expectations have been put on “Matabb”, the first locally produced Palestinian drama believed to show daily life under occupation which should be on air by tonight.

While in Lebanon, still the less conservative and more “osé” country in Arab tv panorama, Al Lubnania – a new born channel- announces a tv grid made up by cosmetic surgery programmes, like liposuction and facelifts. A typical “Lebanese (and provocative) way” to be added to this Ramadan tv offer for all audiences flavours.