This month, millions of Muslims are following their break-the-fast meals with an evening in front of the TV, watching one of the dozens of mini-series broadcast throughout the Arab world for Ramadan. In recent years, the series have chased after viewers by taking on current events and historical allegory. Bob talks to political science professor As'ad Abu-Khalil about Ramadan's postprandial must-see TV.
BOB GARFIELD: Every year, broadcasters eagerly await those preordained moments when culture and tradition align to create a captive audience for television. For many Americans, it's Thanksgiving and, say football. For many Middle Eastern Muslims, it's Ramadan and mini-series. This months, millions of Muslims around the world are celebrating Ramadan by fasting from sun-up to sun-down, but at dusk they gather with their extended families to break their fasts, and afterwards, in a post prandial haze, to watch one of the dozens of miniseries produced in 30 or so installments just for them. As'ad Abu Khalil is a political science visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley. As'ad, welcome to the show.
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Thank you for inviting me.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with, why Ramadan? There's 330 other TV-viewing days. Why does this stuff get concentrated in the one brief period?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: You have a captive audience, literally. The purpose of these shows are: one) you have during the day people who are fasting and who really want so bad some entertainment to help them pass the day without thinking about food. And this is why commercials tend to shy away from [CHUCKLES] advertising about food and chicken and fries. And the second purpose is and this is when the serious competition begins after breaking their fast, they gather around the TV, help in the digestion, and then the next day it all starts anew.
BOB GARFIELD: You raise an interesting point, because it's not just like there's one mini-series out there at Ramadan, there's a whole mess of these things. How many exactly?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: It is fair to say that an Arab is bombarded with literally tens of new programming on every single day of Ramadan. I mean, the complaint you hear by talking to people, as I did last night to my mother in Beirut, they don't complain about bad programming. They complain about the fact that they just can't keep up. Some good shows sometimes get buried because of the stiff competition.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, these series have been around for decades, literally. They used to come primarily out of Egypt, biggest economy, biggest TV production facilities. Is there a big difference between the historical Ramadan series and the ones we're seeing now?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Yes, there's a big difference. In the late 1960s and early '70s, there were only the state TV and they were very tightly in control of programming. And in the 1990s, with the explosion of the various satellite channels, there is such an intense competition, and everybody is trying to make an imprint. And I think one of the credits should go to the creativity of the various artists, primarily from Syria, who try to go around the narrow parameters of what is allowed, and they try to send a message. It's a very anti conformist, liberal minded message about the status of woman, about social relations and, of course, always about how miserable these Arab governments are.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. You know, it's [LAUGHS] almost like I cannot believe my ears, because you don't ordinarily hear those thoughts expressed in the same sentence as "from Syria," not exactly a crucible of free expression in the Mideast. And yet?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Without a doubt, the Syrians have been playing a very pioneering role in the writing, the production, as well as direction of many of these serials. They have a very simple and yet very successful formula. Unlike the past Egyptian and Lebanese serials, which tended to indulge in the portrayal of the high life, the extravagantly rich, they tend to focus on real people, very much like people in the streets of Cairo, Beirut, or Oman or in Damascus. Unfortunately, this tremendous success is taking place while these people are under such tremendous restrictions. And I even asked two years ago the director of Syrian television what they are doing with all these revenues from the sale of the Syrian serials. He told me that all the money goes to the Central Bank, that they don't give any of the proceeds to share it with Syrian television.
BOB GARFIELD: So there's a number of swirling ironies, I mean, not only that the proceeds from these shows go into the coffers of a very oppressive state, but also that because there isn't a whole lot of outlet for expression in Syria, as I understand it, a lot of very talented people are behind these productions. They're very sophisticated tele literature, huh?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Extremely sophisticated. They make allegories by referring to past historical eras. But the Arab viewer is not naive, and he and she knows [LAUGHS] that they are making references to the governments under which Arabs live and suffer.
BOB GARFIELD: But do they deal with these other kind of looming issues of Arab life, such as terrorism, such as the question of suicide bombings and so forth? Do these ever come up?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: The answer to your question is yes, they do cover these political issues. They don't do it from the same perspective that George W. Bush wants them to cover it, but they cover them. And you find on Egyptian serials, as well as in Syrian serials, there's mocking references to Muslim religious fanatics. And there is now a very famous Saudi comedy show that is being shown during Ramadan called Parshnow [?], and religious fanatics in Saudi Arabia have been up in arms over that show because of the way they mock the fanaticism of many religious fundamentalists in the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, As'ad, thank you so very much.
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: As'ad Abu Khalil is a political science visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley.