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ramadan.. time for tales on tv

Nada Almutawa
10/09/2008 12:00 AM


Time for tall tales on television

Sep 4th 2008 | CAIRO
From The Economist print edition

The Muslim month of fasting allows for ever-juicier television fare at night


IN RAMADAN’s past, pious Muslims in the big cities of the Middle East waited, in the hush before sunset, for the sound of a cannon shot, followed by the cry of “Allahu Akbar!” from a nearby mosque, to break their day-long fast. Now, during the month-long fasting period, families tune instead to their televisions. As the broadcast call to prayer declares the start of another night of furious eating and alcohol-free drinking, so it heralds a visual feast.

Satellite television has taken off in the region like nowhere else. In wealthy Gulf states, some 95% of households own digital receivers; even in poorer countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, the satellite penetration rate now tops 75%. Not surprisingly, the number of free-to-air channels available on Arab satellites has grown sixfold in the past five years, to more than 300. Those willing to pay subscription fees or to have a clever technician break encoded blockers can tune in to dozens more.

The sated lassitude that overtakes fasters after their sunset meal, the long hours of darkness and the fact that many sleep during daytime to reduce the rigours of the fast combine to make the 30 days of Ramadan, which started this year on September 1st, prime viewing time. The month takes up as much as half the annual production budgets of some networks and generates a similar proportion of advertising revenue. Competition for airtime in the season has grown fiercer. With its 80-year-old cinema industry, skilled crews and big studios, Egypt has long dominated the airwaves. But upstart producers in Syria and Dubai, among other places, are catching up.

This year’s diversity of Ramadan fare is more bewildering than ever. Armchair zappers can flick between some 25 fresh drama serials, a batch of new sitcoms, a score of religious Ramadan specials, celebrity chat-fests and reality shows, each with daily episodes stretching across the fasting month. The biggest, in terms of budget and audience, are the costume dramas. Current programmes are set in everything from 8th-century Baghdad, to rural Syria under French domination, Cairo in the 1940s, Bedouin camps in the Arabian desert and a modern, fictional oil-rich republic called Chripstan. Some tackle contemporary issues by way of allegory, featuring wicked sultans and malingering imperialists. Others, such as an Egyptian drama about a journalist whose search for her kidnapped boy unveils trafficking in child labour, and another about a crooked cabinet minister, address them head on.

This year competition to lure audiences is coming from another quarter. In a garish real-life drama, a billionaire Egyptian property mogul, Hisham Talaat Mustafa, has been charged with hiring a hit man to kill a willowy Lebanese starlet, Suzanne Tamim, who was found in July, in a posh flat in Dubai, with her throat slit. Police say the chief of security at a hotel owned by Mr Mustafa has confessed to taking $2m to kill her. A diverting tragedy, certainly. But the spotlight it casts on the region’s rich and famous is small comfort to ordinary fasting citizens, who this Ramadan are scrimping to pay record prices for food as a burst of inflation sweeps the region.