The Magazine

When a Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss

From the October 18, 2004 issue: Reality TV comes to the Arab world.

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By MATT LABASH
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SIX MONTHS AGO, in the Kingdom of Bahrain, an interesting television experiment, broadcast throughout the Middle East, came and went without much fanfare. Reality TV, in the form of Big Brother Middle East, made its debut, was embraced by viewers, then in just over a week was shown the door by a radical Islamist minority. Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of promises, or Panglossian utterances if you're skeptically inclined, about what we occidentals will bring to the region. Democracy's missionaries, forever in search of receptive agents of change in the Middle East, are in the habit of directing their message to people's better angels, with whom only a small minority are acquainted. They might, however, do better to contemplate people's baser natures, with which most of us tend to be on a first-name basis. The "pursuit of happiness" or the "blessings of liberty" might seem like enigmatic abstractions. But everyone can get their head around the unalienable right to watch bad TV. Or almost everyone. Which is what brings us to Bahrain.

A former British protectorate, Bahrain is generally considered a liberalized Arab nation. This, of course, is like being called the prettiest girl on the Bulgarian shot put team. The king appoints all the ministers and judges. The parliament is there to balance his power, or would be, if he didn't appoint half of them too. While the Khalifa ruling family has made some head-fakes toward enlightenment, such as letting women run for office and recently emptying the jails of political prisoners after torturing them for a few decades, it's difficult to practice democratic politics in Bahrain, since political parties are banned, and criticizing Islam or the king can earn you a fine or a prison sentence.

Still, Bahrain is "liberalized" by the Arab world's low standards, since it's a place where the unelected regime provides the right to quality shopping, to getting a drink, or to securing the services of a prostitute (technically illegal, but readily available down on aptly named "Exhibition Road," in case you're making travel plans). It's good enough for the U.S. Navy to make Bahrain home to the Fifth Fleet. And it's why, on weekends, the 16-mile-long King Fahd Causeway sees Saudis on holiday beating it over the bridge to escape their own homeland's fanatical religious strictures. With Bahrain prohibiting picture-taking in their bars and hotels, as even uptight Wahhabists need to let down their kaffiyehs now and then, tourists would do well to remember a simple maxim: Bahrain--it's not a good place to practice democracy, it is a good place to practice hypocrisy.

This being the climate, Bahrain seemed the ideal setting for the enterprising Big Brother producers. It's all slightly redolent of Christopher Buckley's new comic novel Florence of Arabia, in which State Department do-goodnik Florence Farfaletti sets about emancipating Arab women by launching a satellite channel in the fictional emirate of Matar ("pronounced, for reasons unclear, 'Mutter'"), where burkha-clad talk-show denizens make subversive happy talk:

"My next guest--not that I can see her--are you there Farah?"

"Over here, Azad!"

"God be praised. Now, Farah, I understand you have actually driven a car? . . . Did you hit anything?"

"Just some mukfelleen religious police who were chasing me. So I backed up and ran them over again."

The real-life difference is that Big Brother Middle East was in no way overtly political, nor did Americans have a thing to do with it. The venture was a coproduction of Endemol, the Dutch company that has brought its Big Brother franchise to 26 countries throughout the world, and the Middle Eastern Broadcasting Centre (MBC). Headquartered in Dubai, MBC is the region's leading pan-Arab news channel. MBC 2, which aired Big Brother, is MBC's satellite entertainment channel, offering 150 million viewers in the Middle East such Islamic staples as Oprah, the Bernie Mac Show, and America's Funniest Home Videos. While MBC had had ratings success with its repurposed American shows, the Big Brother project represented a bolder probing of what the market could withstand.

Anuska Ban, the Endemol executive director of Big Brother, or as she's affectionately known around their Netherlands offices "The Big Brother Mother," says Bahrain seemed a natural fit. It didn't hurt, she says, that their contact person in Bahrain, the information minister, "was a big fan of Big Brother--[he] knew all the British versions." Likewise, she says, it was natural that MBC approached Endemol, since their owner "was also addicted to Big Brother." MBC's owner is Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, who in an odd twist is the brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, overseer of one of the region's most censorious regimes.