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Ramadan TV gently pushes Saudi boundaries

In Saudi Arabia, gentle social satire about Saudi life is permissible and even welcome during Ramadan, a festive season that also serves as a sweeps month.
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/ Source: The New York Times

Women are driving in Saudi Arabia.

Not on the streets. That would be illegal. But on a recent episode of “Hush Hush,” a new comedy on Saudi state television, a lilac sedan comes to a halt and a woman climbs out of the driver’s seat. A group of goofy, lascivious men (three stooges in red-checked kaffiyehs) try to pick her up by offering to repair the car. From beneath a black hijab and opaque abaya, glints of the woman’s contempt show through. “Who says my car broke down?” she says coolly. “I’m waiting for my friend.” A matching Barbie-pink car pulls up and two women glide away, leaving the Saudi dolts deflated and agog.

It’s a fantasy, of course, a comic trial balloon. “Hush Hush” was created for Ramadan, the Muslim holiday season that ended this weekend, and the state-sanctioned sketch makes the case for female drivers in a jokey way that heartens modern-minded viewers without provoking traditional ones. The woman is never shown actually driving; the camera cuts away before she grasps the wheel. It’s the kind of ellipsis that American television once used for homosexuality; you didn’t actually see it but you knew it was there.

Even on state television gentle social satire about Saudi life is permissible and also welcome during Ramadan, a monthlong religious celebration when people pray, fast all day and then feast throughout the night. It’s a festive season that also serves as a sweeps month: TV ratings peak because people stay home and watch with their families, avoiding foreign shows to focus on Arab television. Especially in Saudi Arabia, which has the highest advertising rates in the Middle East, Ramadan prompts an avalanche of new dramas, comedies, talk shows and game shows. Because people are fasting during the day and obsessed with food, there are also lots of cooking shows, including “Saudi Chefs,” which stars two young, quirky alumni of “Top Chef Middle East.”

Ramadan is also when Saudis talk, blog and tweet about what they are watching, and it’s a broader and spicier array of shows than outsiders might imagine.

TV viewing habits unshackled
Taboos and a vigilant religious police force control public behavior but they don’t shackle viewing habits nearly as much. Through satellite dishes and the Internet, Saudis have access to the wide and wanton world: racy Turkish soap operas, violent action movies, sexy Moroccan pop singers and episodes of “Gossip Girl” and “CSI.” Their own programming tests the fault line between modernity and tradition; in a rigidly controlled country television is the arena in which small rebellions can be staged and festering tensions addressed.

No show has sparked more debate — and threats — than “Omar,” a sweeping 31-episode drama about the life of the seventh-century Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and a founding father of the Islamic empire. “Omar” is Saudi television’s most ambitious project, a $30 million, cast-of-thousands Koranic epic in the style of the 1965 classic “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Only in this case it’s the first time this oft-told story has been dramatized for television.

In Saudi Arabia, as in much of the Islamic world, it is considered a sin to depict a likeness of Muhammad, and until now, at least, it was unthinkable to show the face of a sahabi, an original confidant.

The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, who is blind, gave a sermon instructing followers not to watch “Omar.” Others were even more virulently opposed. The producers took fanatics’ threats seriously. The series was made jointly by the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab commercial network MBC and Qatar television, less to share the costs than to spread the blame. MBC gathered a panel of respected Koranic scholars to review the script and added airport-level security to its Dubai headquarters. Omar is such a sacrosanct figure that his voice on the series is dubbed by a Jordanian actor with a deep voice and refined Arabic, and the actor who portrays him has a contract that prevents him from playing any other screen roles for five years — this to prevent the face of Omar from popping up anytime soon as a drunken womanizer on a Lebanese soap opera.

The series offers teachings, intrigue and lavish battle scenes that bring special effects in the style of “The Matrix” to sword fights and camel charges. But especially now that the Arab Spring has stretched into a long, hot summer of insurrection, it is the subliminal message that resounds most. Younger, reform-minded viewers interpret the story of Omar as a parable for their own struggles — Omar brings the prophet’s words on monotheism, tolerance and social justice to backward tribes who stubbornly cling to old values. On Twitter women say that the slaves’ desire for freedom on the series is like those of women today.

Not pushing too hard
The Internet has emboldened online malcontents on both sides, but television, especially at Ramadan, is where society measures itself.

The government, which controls state television and holds commercial television on a tether, does most of the talking.

The chairman of MBC has ties to the royal family, and several princes own media companies. In one way or another, all the major broadcasters in the region rely on the Saudi market and pay obeisance to local standards of modesty and political discourse. Even on YouTube, Saudis who live within the system don’t push too hard. The young writers who produce a mock newscast on a YouTube comedy show, “On the Fly,” check their material about ministers with their offices ahead of time, and they don’t make jokes about the royal family.

But they do tweak religious figures, a little. Ahmad Fathaldin, a performer and writer for “On the Fly,” made the jump to television this season, on, of all places, Al Resala, a religious channel of the Rotana Group, a conglomerate mostly owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation also has a slice.)

There, Mr. Fathaldin is the host of “The A Tweet,” a live talk show that uses Twitter to interact with viewers. (In Saudi Arabia even the most traditional imams use social media.) Mr. Fathaldin put it this way: “I try to make clerics say funny stuff.”

Royals are covered even more obliquely.

“Fat Cats of the Desert,” a gaudy nighttime soap on a more daring channel on the Rotana network, is in its fourth season, and it portrays rich Saudis as decadent, hard-drinking, free-spending sybarites. The series opens with a disclaimer that says any resemblance to real people is a coincidence, which helps convince many viewers that the desert fat cats are stand-ins for certain members of the royal family.

“Even a very rich family can’t have someone killed in Germany,” Aisha al-Mohawis, 62, a connoisseur of the show, explained. As she spoke in her parlor here, her 2 ½-year-old granddaughter sat at her side, engrossed by “Dora the Explorer” on her iPad.

Change, many Saudis say, is inevitable because market forces will oblige the powers that be to adapt to a huge population under 25 and a growing middle class educated abroad and steeped in Western values. Television feeds the restlessness. Government officials say even the state channel must compete with commercial channels. “We have to show life’s reality,” one Saudi government official said. “Otherwise people won’t watch.”

Cognitive dissonance
Women live in a constant swirl of contradiction, segregated behind abayas, in single-sex schools and even in no-men-allowed communities: Modon, the Saudi Industrial Property Authority, announced this month that it was developing an all-female industrial park in Hofuf.

But in their living rooms, Saudi women can watch high-heeled female homicide detectives handcuffing male suspects, surgeons falling in love with emergency room doctors, even single women driving themselves home from dates in convertibles, uncovered hair blowing in the breeze.

Some women in Riyadh say they are used to the cognitive dissonance. Yet increasingly, Ramadan shows echo their discontent — and fantasies. One popular new series on Abu Dhabi TV is called “Man, the Toy of a Woman.” A PG-rated “Sex and the City,” “The Girls’ Room” created a stir merely by depicting Saudi single women being saucy. (Only non-Saudi actresses play the key roles.)

And that’s why some conservative Saudis have ensured that their most traditional viewers can choose to see almost nothing: Al Majd is a privately owned religious network so strict that it doesn’t show women on any of its numerous channels. Many television sets come with a chip that can be set to block all the less pious networks.

During Ramadan most commercial programmers in the Arab world avoid subplots and costumes that are too risqué for prime time with family. But Al Majd uses the holiday to spice things up.

Every year Al Majd sponsors a Ramadan quiz show devoted to traffic safety. Contestants call in to “Every Day a Car,” and if they answer safety questions correctly, they can win a new Kia. Women may compete and they may even win the grand prize. They just can’t drive it.

“They can register the cars under their own names,” says the show’s host, Khalid Hazmi. “But they must let their fathers or brothers drive them.”

Sometimes public opinion abroad can coerce changes in Saudi policy, most notably during the London Olympics this summer, when the International Olympic Committee refused to allow any teams that did not include female athletes. Saudi Arabia, where sports for girls are forbidden in public schools, fought but then relented, grudgingly sending two women: an 800-meter runner who wore a scarf and long pants and finished last, and a judo contestant who lasted for about a minute in the opening round of competition.

Spectators in London gave them ovations. Saudi television and newspapers all but ignored them; on their big days the state channel mostly showed older men in white robes and headdresses on a couch, discussing Ramadan.

Saudi Arabia can seem willfully backward, but it was one of the first countries in the Middle East to have television; in the 1950s the oil giant Aramco brought “I Love Lucy” and “Bonanza” to its employees. King Faisal, in a rush to modernize his realm, created Saudi state television in the 1960s, and that bold step is widely believed to have led to his assassination in 1975. One of his nephews was a fanatic who led an attack on a television station and was killed in the ensuing police raid. Another nephew later shot King Faisal at close range, apparently to avenge his brother’s death.

Until recently, foreign programs dominated; now Saudis are making their own shows. OSN, a pan-Arab pay-television network that is partly Saudi-owned and based in Dubai, offers “House” and “Two and a Half Men,” as well as “The Sultan’s Harem,” a Turkish series about the life and many loves of the 16th-century Ottoman emperor Sultan Suleiman. (It’s “The Tudors” of the Middle East.)

Like other pay channels, though, OSN has to come up with original programming that is singular enough to tempt customers to pay for it. This year OSN offered a second season of what it calls the first Saudi musical, “Hindistani,” a show that by aiming to be provocative highlights society’s lingering inhibitions.

A Saudi spice merchant mopes at home as his wife, cloaked in a black abaya, goes to visit her aunt. He is worried about infidelity, and in his market stall he falls asleep. Instantly, he finds himself, Walter Mitty style, in a Bollywood fantasy world where he and his wife, both in bright shades of hot pink and yellow and green, dance and sing as they discuss their jealousy and their love — in joyful, uninhibited Arabic. “Hindistani,” filmed in India, is a lot more outré than it sounds: strict Saudi tradition bans dancing and bright colors in public as well as modern music.

Khulud Abu-Homos, the head of programming at OSN, said the Saudi actor who plays the lead worried in rehearsal about how his family and fans would react. For perhaps obvious reasons, the producers did not find a Saudi actress to play the heroine. OSN hired an Iraqi actress instead.

On-demand television is one of the more obvious symbols of Western prosperity and consumer ease. During Ramadan it is marketed to Saudis as a way of preserving tradition.

Ms. Abu-Homos said that advertising this year stressed a key advantage of on-demand TV. “Viewers don’t have to give up their lives,” she said. “They can press ‘pause’ and go to the mosque.”

This article, "Ramadan TV Gently Pushes Saudi Boundaries," first appeared in The New York Times.