CAIRO, Egypt — Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer, but it is also a time for overindulgence. Once the fast is broken each day, many sip tea and feast on syrupy sweets while lazing in front of the TV.
That is why the holiest month in the Muslim calendar is akin to the sweeps weeks in the United States — and why satellite and local channels spend the year producing their most compelling TV serials to fiercely compete for what are essentially captive evening viewers.
And in these turbulent times, Ramadan television programming has found a mother lode of material in the biggest issue of day: Islamic militancy.
An example is "Tash Ma Tash," a wildly popular Saudi TV series that is deploying satire to poke fun at the fundamentalists.
Staff on the show have received death threats for what some consider brazen impertinence; meanwhile, senior sheikhs issued a religious edict which deemed it was sinful to watch "Tash MaTash" after an episode skewered religious judges for working only three hours a day. Another episode was heavily criticized by clerics and others when it ridiculed the practice of requiring women to be accompanied by a male relative or a husband when dining out.
“Terror Academy Awards”
Judging from their episode this week mocking so-called terror academies, they won’t win any new fans in the militant world this year either.
In Wednesday night's installment, a man was shown going to a police station in search of his missing nephew, only to be told that the youth had joined a terror organization. The uncle leaves shocked and tearful.
The scene then shifts to a fundamentalist academy where gullible young men are being trained. The nephew is shown learning how to disguise himself in women's robes and adapt feminine mannerisms, despite a burgeoning mustache.
Later, he chats with a peer who says he has used a suicide belt nine times — and reassures the gullible nephew that he didn't feel much pain when it exploded.
The scene then shifts to a graduation ceremony where bearded and robed militants are shown chanting "God is Great" as they take their seats. Meanwhile, a chorus of white robed men draped in ammunition belts and brandishing rifles take the stage while chanting that religion will protect them.
A smiling, long-haired blond beauty in a gauzy evening gown was MC-ing the event. "We won her in an attack," explained the chief militant to his scandalized colleague.
Squirming in their seats
The blonde then declares that it was time to announce the nominees for the "Terror Academy Awards" and invites viewers to vote for their favorite terrorist by email and text message as three contestants are shown nervously taking their seats.
She introduces the first contestant and shows a video clip of him cleaning a gun in a roomful of weapons. "He is an expert with all kinds of weapons, and is really good at slitting infidels' throats," she enthuses. The audience claps politely.
The next contestant is a pro at disguise, she explains, as she shows a clip of a mustached man demurely smiling in an auburn wig and a woman's black robe.
The third contestant, shown serving tea, is a master of logistics.
As the three men squirm in their seats, votes are tallied. Runner-ups rush to hug the winner.
Finally, a grizzled leader takes the stage to present the grand prize, an explosive-filled suicide belt, which he drapes over the shoulders of the winner. The victor, overcome with pride and emotion, yanks the cord and a blast fills the screen.
Not going away
Even before Ramadan began, contributors to pro-al-Qaida Web sites anticipated were already grumbling about irreverent Ramadan serials.
Recognizing the huge viewership of "Tash Ma Tash," a contributor to a militant site bemoaned the effectiveness of the show. "This episode of 'Tash Ma Tash' turned everything upside down," he wrote.
Charlene Gubash is an NBC News Producer based in Cairo, Egypt.