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Arab talk radio host seeks to break taboos

/ Source: NBC News

Every Monday at 3:30 p.m., right after the news update, Suzan Debini takes to the airwaves. Across the Middle East, patient callers sit on hold, waiting to speak their minds on "Bisraha" — her 45-minute call-in show that is broadcast out of Haifa on Israel Radio's Arabic channel.

“Bisraha” means "speaking honestly" in Arabic, and Debini decided it's about time someone finally did.

Her topics -- interfaith marriage, rape, polygamy, honor killings, homosexuality -- are usually taboo in Arab society.

In a region devastated by the deadly conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians that has left at least 3,000 Palestinians and 900 Israelis dead over the past four years, Debini steers clear of discussing religion and politics.

Those issues, she believes, get enough play elsewhere. Her goal is to dig deeper. Her concern is with the problems of the home, the problems between men and women, the social problems that too-often go unspoken.

Debini described her radio call-in program as "the only place an Arab person can say what he wants without feeling shy and embarrassed." 

Broad reach of radio
Israel Radio is the country’s largest national radio station. And while it's subsidized by the government, the broadcaster says there is no interference in program content.

Because the station lacks the funds for official ratings counts, there is no way to determine exactly how many people are listening to "Bisraha." But based on the letters Debini receives and the inundation of phone calls, she estimates that the numbers are in the tens of thousands. 

The show can be heard on the radio and on the Internet, and “Bisraha” listeners hail from across the Middle East, from Israel and the Palestinian territories, to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. 

The anonymous medium of radio affords many in the Middle East an opportunity to discuss issues that few are willing to discuss publicly, especially in countries where Arabs are not afforded the same opportunities to speak freely as they are in Israel. 

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 20 percent of the country’s 6.2 million citizens are Arab; of those, 82 percent are Muslim, 9 percent are Christian and 9 percent are Druze.

They have representation in the parliament, vote and pay taxes, but often do not serve in the Israeli Army and many claim they have “second-hand citizenship” in the Jewish-dominated state.

Pushing taboo issues
Debini herself is a 42-year-old Christian Arab who spent two years living in California and saw how "people there tell you anything that bothers them.”

In her view, it's so different in the Middle East where "no one talks unless you go to them and ask -- and push."  So, push she did.

Before beginning the radio show last March, Debini enrolled in a six-month class on sexual abuse. It proved invaluable.

One of the first calls she received was from an 18-year-old girl who had been raped by her brother since she was 12. Her mother, father, and sister all live in the same house, but no one was aware of the abuse going on. 

Last Monday, Debini tackled the controversial issue of interfaith marriage. She received a call from a mixed-faith couple: Essam, a Christian and Sasa, a Muslim. They dated for 10 years and described "the war between them and society."

Essam, 37, and Sasa, 35, now have two children. They never talk about religion at home, and when their children get older, Essam and Sasa said they can choose whatever religion they want.  

Listener response 
Most of the feedback from callers has favorable, at least from those that are listeners and respond to the program. Salma, a caller and the mother of two, responded to the broadcast about interfaith marriage by saying that whether it's Jews, Muslims, or Christians, "people are people: if it is love, then religion is not what matters."

Not everyone agreed. "What about the children," yelled one older male caller. "In 10 years we will not have our religion."   

According to Debini, when she began broadcasting the program people would call saying that "it's not yet the time to discuss these subjects."

Zaher, a Muslim and father of two, admitted, "At first the men didn't know how to take it. I have heard people in the past calling Suzan names....Now the attitude is different. The same people who cursed her in the past now listen to her show. They hear things from the world of the women, or things which people don't talk about which they have never heard before."

"Even religious Muslims call and speak their mind. They don't always agree with what is being said - but call up to voice their opinions instead of boycotting the show or ignoring it," explained Shadi, another listener.

Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer in Arab studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel, records “Bisraha” and plays it for his students. "Suzan," he said, "really faces traditions and old concepts of Arab society by talking about them and showing how negative they are."

Kedar described a program from a month ago. The topic: whether a man is allowed to rape his wife? "Talking about this is something unheard of in Arab societies, because it's so widespread.  A man can do whatever he wants to do with his wife, whenever... so it's not even a question." 

During the discussion many men called in, speaking positively about the practice of rape.  According to Kedar, Debini gave them "a real boxing on the air."

Radio reflects different cultures rubbing shoulders
In many ways the radio program represents one small example of barriers slowly being broken down between two conflicting cultures that live as uncomfortable neighbors. In cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Lod, Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews often live and work side by side, which creates a unique dynamic.

"When an Arab-Muslim-traditional society lives in close proximity to the Jewish-Western-Liberal society, many Arabs adopt concepts, styles and ways of behavior from the Israelis," explained Kedar. "This causes tension between the old generation who still keeps the tradition and the new generation who is more likely to adopt changes, styles and concepts from the environment." 

The letters and phone calls Debini receives underscore this rift. "Here, the old people blame Israel because they want to keep things the same," she explained. On the other hand, "the young people see how the Israeli society is living and they try to do like them. They are looking for their freedom." 

From the phone calls and letters she receives, Suzan is optimistic about the future.  Living in Nazareth with her husband and four sons, Suzan walks the streets like a celebrity. "Everyone knows me," she said. "People even call me at home and want to tell me their problems." 

She's enjoying this new-found fame, mostly because it means that her project is working. She is hoping “Bisraha” will prove a catalyst for change, "When you start talking about your problems that means you can solve them."