Friday, April 20, 2007

Sabah El Kair Iraq: Good Morning Iraq

The news this week out of Baghdad is relentlessly grim. The NY Times reports that a suicide bomber killed 10 people today, following the 171 who died in the capital in the deadliest day since the American-led security plan for the city took effect two months ago.

Amid the smoke and the pain and the horror, one has to wonder: will there ever be a dawn to this long nightmare of failed policies and vengeful killing?

A smaller, little-thought about light does shine each morning throughout the Middle East: the light from the television set. The Museum of Television & Radio is offering a media exhibit that looks at the programming coming through those sets, in order to give visitors an idea of what the people in that region are watching themselves.

(For full disclosure, I helped to create this exhibit with the curator, David Bushman.)

The impact of the 1980s global satellite revolution on the Middle East (in the 1990s) has been profound. Today there are over 300 channels in the region, some still state run, others private, commercial enterprises. There are no Nielsen equivalents for the region, and there are several organizations only now trying to compile statistics on percentages of population with televisions, and how many per family.

But those facts and figures don’t speak to the programming, which is what is on display.

The exhibit offers live satellite feeds (via Dish Satellite Service) of The Israeli Network—a service that presents select programming from Israel’s leading television networks; and Al Arabiya—a 24 hour Arabic news channel based in Dubai Media City. One monitor changes channels weekly, showcasing MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center, Dubai), LBC (Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation) along with New TV and Future TV, ESC-1 and Nile Drama (Egypt), Abu Dhabi TV, and others. Al Jazeera English is being shown through a live Internet feed.

The live satellite feeds are fascinating to watch, because non-Arabic/Hebrew/Farsi speakers can only react to the images and the music. The visual semiotics of genres hold: the anchors in the news studio, the ticker at the bottom; flat, stilted scenes of soap operas; bright colorful sets of music programs—it’s all familiar. I was watching some sort of teenage talk show program on MBC, when all of a sudden I heard the theme from Indiana Jones. Little shocks of recognition make you smile.

Besides the live feeds, there are 2 compilation tapes by guest curator Jamal Dajani, the director of Middle East programming for Link TV. He had programs taped in the Middle East that are not available on satellite services.

One of the most poignant is Sabah El Kair Iraq—an Iraqi morning show from Al Iraqiya. The clip in the compilation is a segment on wedding rings. Here’s some of the transcript from the cohosts:

“The ring is worn on the left ring finger because the ancients thought that this finger is connected to the vein that goes from the left palm to the heart. In the Roman tradition, the male would give his financee a ring from the steel that he places at the tip of his sword. The tradition developed, and the steel ring was replaced by gold and silver.

“My beloved ones, on the topic of rings, if you read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, you would see the deep attachment of Bassanio to the ring of his lover, Portia.”

The cohosts talk more about the history of wedding rings, then it goes to the segment reporter in the field, who is at a jewelry shop, talking to a groom and the shop owner.

It’s basic morning-show fare, yet I was surprised by the Shakepeare reference. Not because I think the Iraqi people are somehow outside of the knowledge and appreciation of towering figures of world literature, but because the perspective that more often comes through our own media is the extremists’ hatred and rejection of everything about the West.

And that’s why this window to what the Arab and Israeli world is watching is so important.

There is more information about the exhibit here.

There are also panel discussion events connected with it. Two have already happened (which I’ll post on when the web videos are available); two are still to come. A discussion about Al Jazeera on May 3, and about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and media on June 7. Info about those are here.

Cross-posted at newcritics.