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

CNN  — 

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.

“It’s democracy in action,” said Khalil, the Qatar professor. “In some countries, votes don’t count in real life. But on reality shows, they do. Call it a negative or positive, we’ve seen richer nations trying to outvote poorer ones.”

Nations outvoting each other

That appears to have happened on the Arab remake of “American Idol.” Several seasons ago, a Jordanian girl made the finals. She was competing against two young men – one from Syria, the other from Lebanon. When cameras panned the audience in the final episodes, fans were frantically waving their nations’ flags. Patriotic messages appeared on a live ticker during the show. The singing competition had become about international rivalries, some critics wrote.

As the finale approached, King Abdullah of Jordan asked everyone in the nation to text their vote for the Jordanian, and, Khalil said, he promised that the government would pick up the tab. The girl won, and she was welcomed home as a hero.

“You could consider the good in that situation – a young person, a girl, is revered in her country,” Khalil said. “The bad is this possibility that reality shows could foster resentment and anger among nations.”

It wasn’t the first controversy for the show. Shortly after producers announced the name of the series, they launched a region-wide campaign to assure viewers that “Idol” shouldn’t be understood as “idolatry,” Khalil said, and therefore wasn’t in conflict with the Quran.

“Big Brother’s” big upset

Dodging religious sensitivities is just part of the reality show game, said Leila Mroueh, a producer who cut her teeth in the industry on Bahrain’s 2003 version of “Big Brother.”

“Al-Ra’is” (“The Boss”) put 12 housemates – six men and six women – in a house in the Amwaj Islands in Bahrain. “We had a Christian who was observing Lent and cooking the same thing for many days,” Mroueh recalled. “Another cast member didn’t understand what that meant. So they had a discussion – a talk that would never happen normally outside of this show. It was a simple moment but the kind of magic we were going for.”

The show’s creators tried to avoid upsetting their conservative audience. They separated the men and women, installed a prayer room and had a daily call to prayer. But it wasn’t enough. Throngs of protesters hit the streets, angrily denouncing the show. Some opponents said the show was part of an American strategy to take over the Middle East by infiltrating the hearts and minds of Arab youths.

“Al-Ra’is” was canceled after just a few episodes.

Reality invents new image

The experience was so dejecting, Mroueh left the television industry for a few years. She returned when she heard about a new show that was about to start shooting in Qatar called “Stars of Science.” The show was backed by the private, nonprofit Qatar Foundation. It seemed that “Stars of Science” could serve some social good in the region, Mroueh said.

The show pits 16 young innovators, from Tunisia to Kuwait, against each other to create inventions that have to do with technology, design and engineering. The winner and other top finishers share $600,000 in cash prizes and get a shot at a commercial launch of their products. Contestants also get the priceless satisfaction of showing that despite reports about young Arabs leaving the region for tech opportunities elsewhere, there are plenty of them who are capable of competing in the global tech market and want to innovate at home.

Featured inventions include multitasking robots, touch-sensitive plastic stickers that turn any surface into a digital interface and a wearable heart monitor that can predict a heart attack. SOS, as it’s popularly known, is currently producing its fourth season which is expected to air in September.

Wahiba Chair, whose family is Algerian, starred on the first season in 2008. She won by designing a phone application – before apps were common – geared toward the health-conscious. Her app allows users to scan bar codes on foods and get a response on their phone indicating whether the food is a good or bad choice, according to the user’s programmed health profile.

“There’s no other opportunity that has shown me more about myself than the show,” she said. “At first, I wondered if people would be interested in watching a bunch of geeks in a lab. But I was immediately humbled by the amount of talent on the show, and we were all determined to do our best work.

“It was like suddenly, we had permission to innovate according to our passion by people who actually wanted to hear about our ideas.”

Chair said she became friends with another contestant, a woman from Bahrain. They’re still close.

“If we had judged each other on our backgrounds, we wouldn’t be an obvious pair,” she said. “But we came to know each other as people, as friends, as women. To me, there’s nothing more meaningful and real than that.”