Ramadan Television In Libya

When it comes to entertainment, I’m a total snob. I don’t like generic sit-coms with slapstick routines and superhero movies packed with CGI explosions. My choice of entertainment should be smart, witty and take years to produce (*sob* Sherlock*).

This is why Ramadan television in the MENA region is the bane of existence to people like me. There seems to be an unspoken agreement between all MENA producers and directors that programs created for Ramadan viewing should be extra garish, loud and crass. They often take on the guise of hidden camera shows, soap operas and religious sermons.

Before the 2011 revolution, we had the usual line-up of Ramadan drudgery that aired on the limited number of Libyan channels. From the poorly drawn Hajj Hamad to the comedic routine of Salah Labiath, the family would sit together during after-dinner tea and collectively cringe as these Ramadan shows aired on Jamaheria TV. It’s a common Ramadan ritual across Libya, and despite my complaints of the shows, I still think back fondly to those days, the days before Libya was destroyed.

One show that was popular in the region in general was Ahmed Shugairi’s ‘Khawater’ (خواطر). The basic premise of the show was that the host would travel to different countries and highlight the positive aspect in these societies, comparing them to the less-than-idealistic practices in the Middle East. As popular as this show was (earning it 11 seasons), it also garnered a lot of criticism as being self-deprecating and a glorified tourism ad for those countries. However, in Libya, the show’s movement, ‘Ihsan’ inspired a civil society organization of the same name, who strives to improve the habits in our own society.

Khawater also inspired another Libyan expose-style show, ‘Tafa’el Khair’ (تفائل خير). After the revolution, there was an increase in media freedom for Libyans, and a multitude of new platforms to utilize. One of the first groups to take advantage of this freedom is a group of Benghazi youth who, finding their calling in the media field, started the Holm Institute, a media start-up. Every Ramadan, Holm airs their program, ‘Tafa’el Khair’, (translated to Wish for The Best) which aims to highlight important social issues and spark a debate, much in the same way as Khawater. Their newest season will start broadcasting on the Libya channel mid-Ramadan of this year.

Another post-2011 program that has sparked debate – although unintentional – is Dragunov, a Libyan drama. Dragunov is a fictional story of a young man in Gadhafi’s mukhabarat, and the story centers around a tragic love affair set in Libya’s capital, and offers an unfiltered glimpse of life under Gadhafi.

The show, which aired in 2013, was unpopular with many Libyan viewers for a number of reasons. Among them was a perceived ‘bias’ against the Libyan army, and felt that the director put his personal political views in the show. Others complained of choice to cast Tunisians in the part of Libyans, particularly as these characters engaged in behavior seen as “immoral”.

While I may not agree with the political views of the director, I was still a fan of Dragunov for several reasons. Firstly, it was a Libyan-made show, hiring aspiring young Libyan actors and helping them to pursue this field as a career. Anyone and anything that can strengthen Libyan culture is good in my books. In terms of execution and cinematography, Dragunov is well-made, setting a new standard in Libyan cinema.

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Poster for Dragunov, a Libyan Ramadan series

As Libya descends into failure, the quality of Ramadan viewing has gone into deeper decline. Or, perhaps it hasn’t gone into decline, but the general psyche of the people has been affected by the difficulty of day-to-day life. Whatever the reason, Ramadan TV in 2016 has been disappointing and, in some case, outright infuriating.

A show that’s been advertised for before the start of Ramadan is called “Alnazih Nazih” (النازح نازح), a comedy show that features displaced families and their day-to-day lives. I’m very conflicted about how to feel about this show. One the one hand, it’s been lauded for raising awareness on the plight of the displaced in a new format, one that isn’t the usual sappy expose. On the other, displaced people are not exactly comedy fodder. My family has nearly finished our second year of displacement, and there’s really nothing funny about it. If you know any positive outcomes of the show so far, I’d love to hear about it.

There is one program that has achieved near-universal hatred though, a hidden camera show on a relatively new Libyan channel. Host Ashraf “Ra3aiesh” takes on the role of ISIS and creates scenarios to scare unwitting Libyan citizens, making them think they are going to be slaughtered by ISIS, before cheerfully letting them know, “you’re on a hidden camera!”

Hidden camera shows in the MENA are known more for being clumsy and humiliating rather than actually being funny. But Ashraf Ra3aiesh takes this medium to a new level of low. ISIS is very much a real threat in Libya, having murdered, beheaded and tortured countless Libyan citizens. Kidnapping citizens (which in itself is a crime) and pretending to be ISIS can be a traumatizing and scarring experience. Again, it’s not even remotely funny.

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Protesters deface an ad for the TV station broadcasting a much-loathed hidden camera show (Source)

This show has so outraged Libyans that there have been numerous calls to boycott the channel until they pull the show off the air. Banners advertising the channel in Tripoli have been defaced in protest of the show, and it even birthed a hashtag campaign to demand that it be stopped.

Yet, even among this rather depressing line-up of shows, occasionally a small spark of decency emerges. There’s a program that airs on Libya Channel “Ma Tafhem Shay” (ما تفهم شي). This show takes on a popular Ramadan format; a troupe of people goes around the city handing out prizes to citizens if they can answer a question correctly. This particular show does so with much fanfare, a band that plays traditional Libyan music and a person decked out in a yellow tuxedo dancing along. Like other Ramadan shows, it is too garish for my tastes.

But in today’s episode, they forgo the fanfare as they visit a Tawergha refugee camp. Instead, solemn music plays as they sit and talk with Tawerghan IDPs, and hand out aid as “prizes” to the families in the camp. Occasionally, the band will start playing music to the delight of the families.

It was a huge departure from the usual tomfoolery of the show. Aside from giving aid to the IDPs, the show gave a much needed look at the state of the Tawergha IDP camps, and earning praise and admiration from many Libyans nationwide.

For better or worse, Libyan television will always be a part of our Ramadan routine, in all its cringe-worthy glory. As more youth take part in media production, I think we’ll see an improvement in our entertainment. But until those days come, I hope the current media moguls will take more heed of what people enjoy (such as highlighting social issues in a tasteful way) and what they hate (no more hidden camera shows, PLEASE).

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And Now, The News

If your driving skills have yet to scare the general public, then at least once in your life you’ve had to a write a ‘bio’ somewhere on the internet. An easy enough task, but also a daunting one. You want people similar to yourself to discover you, but you don’t want to distill the very essence of your being and splash it across the internet.

So you probably do what many others have done, type out a few of your interests and the labels you identify with, and let them speak for themselves. (I actually forgot what I wrote in my bio on this blog, and I’m too afraid to check for fear that I’m just another sheep)

The phrases that people use to describe themselves reveal much more about the person than I think they intended. If you’re a “freelance blogger and self-published author on (insert political stance here)” I’m going to assume you sit at home most of the time with your laptop perched atop your slowly expanding gut, probably eating Cheetos. (No disrespect to Cheetos). If you mention the name of the sports team that you love in your bio, you’re basically telling the world that you have no redeemable interests and are a major bore. And I don’t think I need to describe the type of people who’s existence is defined by what fandom they belong to.

But there is one phrase that I find confusing. “News and Media Junkie”. What does that mean?

The use of a rather questionable noun like “junkie” to denote what is supposedly a high-brow activity is itself not new on the internet. It’s the 21st century, and “taking back” those oppressive terms that intend to shame those who revolt against society’s definition of morality is all the rage. (Okay, I’ll stop now)

So before the internet, did news junkies exist? Were they the people who watched a lot of evening news channels and discussed current events? No, I’m pretty sure we called those people ‘adults’. (hahaha, okay, now I’ll stop)

Okay, how about media junkie? Were they the people who read those trashy celebrity magazines? Come to think of it, what’s the difference between news and media?

In a nutshell, news is the thing. Media is the way to spread the thing. Fun fact: Media is the plural of medium. Which makes the term media-junkie even more perplexing.

Unless of course, and here we reach the crux of my rambling, they refer to social media, and the consumption of whatever their media feed regurgitates. A news/media junkie is someone who reads the news that appears in social media. A person who uses the term “news/media junkie” to describe themselves is that guy/gal that’s always starting flame wars in the comment section of articles, providing hours of entertainment for people like me.

(And who am I? I am the invisible fly on the wall, the spectator that does not bring attention to my presence. I am the comments junkie)

The intended aim of this post was to question the quality of news we’re exposed to online. Okay, so not everyone’s interested in the complex and confusing political issues that plague the Middle East (pfft, losers). Some people enjoy heart-warming stories of cats being rescued from trees and the success of the local charity drive, hurray for humanity and the good of man-kind!

But of course, cats don’t always get stuck in trees, and the charity drive doesn’t always succeed. So in the absence of feel-good stories, we search for the least mind-straining entertainment to while away our empty hours. Back before the internet, different media was targeted for different segments. If you liked celebrity gossip, you’d head for the magazine rack near the cashier. If you liked depressing news headlines, you’d pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

But the internet has more or less killed the press. Why would I pay for a magazine when I can get my news for free online? (ignoring the fact that I’m technically paying for my internet connection) And so news outlets have become jack-of-all-trades, providing serious news stories next to an article about 6 Things You Didn’t Know About Dunkin’ Donuts (they offer flavour swirls for their coffee!), to reel in as many viewers as possible.

The problem as I see it is that the line between news and social media is beginning to blur. The other day I read about a mother who’s fitness program outraged people. It turned out that the whole story was that she got some negative comments and feedback on FACEBOOK.

Facebook drama is not newsworthy. Neither is a Twitter fire-storm. I don’t want to have to churn through article after list-based article to find genuinely interesting news. What’s more worrisome is that I find myself absent-mindedly clicking on these links, because they are worded in a moderately intriguing way. And there’s so many of them. Articles that explain why the internet is making us dumber. Articles detailing why the internet is making us smarter. I feel like my brain is beginning to melt under all the yellow journalism and opinions-disguised-as-facts-disguised-as-articles, all emanating from my laptop screen in that blue-tinged glow. Close the multiple tabs you have open right now and save yourself!

But of course you didn’t. You’re probably browsing Buzzfeed after clicking on the hyperlink in the last paragraph. Which means it’s too late. Just relax, and settle into that information-high. It’s not like there’s anything else you could be doing.

America the Controversial

I’ve been itching to write for a while, but looking for an interesting topic during Ramadan is a fruitless venture. Aside from the firecrackers and fireworks going off continuously, Benghazi has entered into the sleepy, semi-hibernating existence that is the hallmark of the Ramadan season.

But one country that never seems to stop is the good ol’ US of A. With its diverse population and a flame-stoking media, controversy abounds like there’s no tomorrow.

And it’s been a pretty eventful month thus far. It’s almost impossible these days to switch onto CNN or Fox News and not find the nation fuming over some incident (to be fair, Fox’s indignant overtones are practically it’s trademark).

Lately, the topic of discussion has been race. First there was Paula Deen, who’s wide-eyed confusion at the anger over her latent racism seems to indicate that  the South is indeed a different world altogether. One could say that growing up in that type of environment inevitably makes discrimination accepted as a social norm.

But that kind of defense is bullshit, for two reasons. One, America has gone a long way in terms of awareness over the ills of racism. To say you don’t understand the angry reaction over your ‘plantation style’ wedding, complete with white-jacket slaves, means you’ve either been isolated from society for the past 60+ years (Paula Deen certainly hasn’t) or else you just don’t care if it’s wrong. Two, racists know exactly what they’re doing.

Take this counter-example, a Cheerios commercial that’s been the spotlight for another controversy. The video apparently received an inordinate amount of vitriol, anger and disgust in the comments section (and for Youtube, that’s saying something) that they had to stop the comments altogether.

If you didn’t grow up in the center of a race firestorm, you probably wouldn’t see anything out of place. The controversy was over the fact that it featured an interracial couple. For those whom race plays a central role in life, it’s the first thing they noticed.

Now, interracial marriage is not very common. People inherently prefer to group with those similar to them, whether based on race, class status, religion, etc. It’s part of human nature. Deviating from the norm can produce some raised eyebrows, sure, but to express outright anger and shock is a reaction that comes from a different mindset, especially in this day of multiculturalism and globalization. When a person discriminates against someone solely based on skin colour, they are doing so consciously. Just as some notice others’ outfits or age at first glace, racists acutely pay attention to race.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying here. There are numerous factors in play, including history, culture and so on. I had read ‘The Help’ a couple months ago, which was about black maids in the South during the 1960’s and the struggles they faced. One thing that struck me was how recent the events were. Despite decades of civil rights movements, racism is still a big deal in America, a fact that comes a shock to many who are disillusioned with the country as a land of freedom of acceptance.

This brings me to the biggest hot button currently dominated the air waves, the Trayvon Martin case. It’s a tragic case not unlike those that happen daily in America, a boy wrongfully killed by a man who should not be in possession of a gun.

If Malcolm Gladwell had analyzed the story, he probably would have found the factors that made it ‘stick’ and turn it into national sensation. Racial violence is not uncommon in America, but this particular story resonated with the public. I’ve made mention before to the ‘martyr effect’ theory on this blog, how one figure represents the hundreds of nameless people subjected to the same injustice and becomes the banner around which they rally.

But the media played a huge role in how this story was perceived. They exploited the raw emotion and sensitivities of the nation, and turned the story into a race issue. Before the details had even emerged, racial buzzwords were being thrown around in different news mediums to attract an angry, but huge, audience.

That’s not to say the issue didn’t involve race, but not to the extent the media would like you to believe, in my opinion. The problem is, the people who have taken it to heart and hold it up as the shining example of whatever cause they advocate, are not easy to debate with. Any evidence contesting their belief is dismissed or ignored. This goes for both sides of the issue.

And so, can we say that the media is a big factor in stoking the fires of racism in the US? To me, at least, it’s certainly accountable. There are countless other causes and reasons for one of the most controversial issues in this troubled nation.

I don’t want to draw this post out any longer, but at least I’ve satiated the writing bugs for the time being.