Reality shows revolutionize Arab TV

Story highlights

  • Arab reality TV is bridging gaps between genders, sects and nations, experts say
  • Votes may not always count in some Arab nations, but votes on reality shows do
  • Demographic for shows reflects faces of young people behind Arab Spring
  • Iraqi reality show changed young woman's life; Qatar science show defies stats
This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped to find out what happens when Sunnis and Shias, Christians and Jews, boys and girls, 20-somethings from across the Arab world, stop hating each other and learn how to get along.
That might be the opening for an Arab version of "The Real World." The MTV show, which debuted in 1992, was considered a groundbreaking social experiment. Its creators bet that if young people from vastly different backgrounds lived together, they would eventually -- through fits and fights and hugs -- find common ground. And by watching, the show's audience might, too.
While reality programming now dominates Western entertainment, "The Real World" remains a pioneering blueprint for a burgeoning reality show market in the Middle East and North Africa. Thanks to the region's proliferation of satellite television and its embrace of social media, more and more reality shows are appearing on air.
Some shows, like "Arab Idol," are imitations of Western franchises. Other productions are unique to Arab culture. "Million's Poet," for example, is a kind of "Def Poetry Jam" meets "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" where young people compete for cash to see who is the most talented poet performing traditional Arabic verse. In its first season, the show reportedly got higher ratings than the United Arab Emirates' national sport, soccer.
"Reality shows in the Arab world are a very big deal because they're showing real people are worthy of star attention that maybe only a political or religious leader might get," said Joe Khalil, a visiting assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University in Qatar. "Reality has nothing to do with a state-controlled message."
Khalil says the reality show audience is the same demographic represented in the Arab Spring uprisings.
"This is a demographic that has long been ignored, and reality show producers want that market," he said. "The shows are trying to say to this young and vibrant group who wants to learn, wants to be entertained: 'This is you. This is your culture. These are your values and your decisions. Make them count.' "
Reality as WMD?
Khalil has chronicled Arab reality television since the early 2000s when the reality revolution was stoked by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.'s airing of a beauty pageant in real time.
"'Miss Lebanon' allowed viewers to watch nonfamous people -- and women, which was controversial -- say whatever they wanted without obvious prompt," he said. "It was light entertainment, but it was a totally new way to approach television."
Reality shows have come a long way since then. Nearly all have tried to push boundaries involving religion, gender, politics and war. Many are hybrids of Western shows and Arab culture and current affairs. For example, an Iraqi version of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" reportedly rebuilt houses destroyed during the war. "Green Light," produced in Dubai, aimed to highlight Islamic values by featuring young Arabs attempting to do good deeds with no money and a limited amount of time.
Another show, seemingly styled after America's "The Bachelorette," is considered the first reality show drama in the Arab world. It was especially controversial because it featured women making their own decisions about marriage rather than accepting arranged marriage. "Ala al-Hawa Sawa," loosely translated as "Us on the Air," showed women living together in a villa and meeting young men who dropped by to speak with them, Khalil said. The show ended when one of the final contestants shocked the audience by refusing to get married.
The fact that some reality shows even manage to stay on the air for more than one season -- sometimes more than a few episodes -- is a feat. The genre has powerful critics. Influential Islamist leaders have denounced reality shows for poisoning the purity of Islam by mixing genders, allowing young people to speak ahead of their elders and other perceived violations of religious code. Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, has reportedly called the shows "weapons of mass destruction that kill values and virtue."
The real Iraq
Hussam Hadi has a good laugh when he thinks about reality shows as WMD. The 34-year-old Iraqi worked in children's television before the Iraq war, a conflict that upended his life. He moved to Jordan briefly and returned to Iraq only to be kidnapped, he said. When he was freed, he left Iraq again and moved to Jordan to work for Spacetoon, a free-to-air animated series and channel in the Middle East.
But Hadi was again drawn back to Iraq when he heard about a show called "Salam Shabab." Translated as "Peace Youth," the reality series is filmed in Kurdistan and stars teenagers from across Iraq, many from families who belong to warring sects. The show requires that boys and girls work together on competing teams to tackle increasingly harder physical and academic challenges. Winners get trophies and video cameras, and they become "Peace Ambassadors" with a chance to speak and meet with Iraqi parliament members.
Created by Iraqis with financial backing from Americans, the show debuted in 2010.
Hadi has two young sons who live in Jordan. Being part of the show has helped him focus on being a better, more engaged father, he said.
"I watch the teenagers on "Salam," and I know how they've been forced to grow up fast, to deal with terrible things that we should shield children from," Hadi said. "For the girls, it is especially hard because they are taught not to have faith in themselves simply because they're girls. To watch them -- this whole generation, really -- trust their future again is beyond anything I would want to accomplish working in television."
Mishmish, a 21-year-old from Baghdad, starred on "Salam" in her late teens when a community leader encouraged her to participate. The war was in full swing, and she hesitated. It was difficult to imagine anything outside the daily violence.
"Now I have better ideas in my head than that time. I feel happier," she said.
The experience also gave her the confidence to work with men.
"I didn't know how to act around boys back then," she said. "But we're all friends now, and I don't really think very much about whether someone is a boy or a girl. I just think they're human."
Mishmish still lives in Iraq. At her request, her last name has been omitted to protect her security. She sees a less violent future for her country and is taking classes at an art academy while working a part-time job in media. She and all her friends love reality shows. They love watching shows that allow viewers to text their votes to determine winners.