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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Post-Ramadan Life

The 30 days many were dreading have once again ended. Ramadan is done and Eid has rushed past (due to some poorly timed decisions and books, I managed to sleep through most of the festivities).

For the first time in a while, I woke up at 9 am. Voluntarily. It’s not like I haven’t seen the sun or anything lately. But with exams and projects at the beginning of Ramadan, and utter boredom by the end, my sleep cycle has taken a severe beating.

But post-Ramadan life doesn’t just smoothly transition back to pre-Ramadan life. There’s the confusion of timing, when things no longer take place at night. The momentary shock of accidentally eating something during the day, until you realize you aren’t actually fasting. And, somehow, an empty feeling.

If you’re like my family, you’ll probably be fasting the ‘six white days’ (ستة ايام البيض). They’re not mandatory, but you get some extra good points on your record with God. It also helps the transition, if you’re the kind of person who pines for Ramadan when it’s over.

I’m not sure if this happens to many people, but during the transition, I’m hungry all the time. It’s not a rumbling-stomach kind of hungry, but this unconscious need to put food in my mouth. It’s irritating because if I’m not constantly vigilant, I’ll just blissfully gain weight as I eat everything in sight.

It’s been a depressing Ramadan in Benghazi, and an even more depressing Eid. A young journalist was assassinated on the second day of Eid. His assassination is similar to that of political activist Abdulsalam Al-Mismari, being shot after Friday prayers.

I flew off the handle yesterday on Twitter, so I’m all ranted out. There’s nothing really left to say. There’s this all-consuming veil of sadness and misery cast over the country, and even the few optimists left admit that there’s not much left to do.

But there’s still the chance of a revival of spirit. The school year will start in September and there’s a few social activities being planned. For me, it means going back to the social vacuum that is architecture school.

Three semesters left! And I got an A+ on my airport design last semester. They usually say the pain of all the work is gone when you see the fruit of your labour, but no. I still remember the sleepless nights staring at my laptop for hours on end, the stress of trying to make the design work and the sheer size of the project itself. If I could go back, I’d definitely try managing my time better (but I say this every semester).

I think, for the first time ever, I’m sick of politics. Just fed up. I can’t even approach an issue now without being overwhelmed with the apprehension of how many ignorant comments there will be, how many baseless claims will be made, the pointless arguing and pseudo-debates where you call a person an asshole in a more eloquent manner.

There was a time when I truly enjoyed it. But lately it just seems like all the mainstream news is contrived and dumbed down, looking to stir emotions and create schisms rather than any real objective reporting. And people, like the lemmings they are, take the bait and jump into arguments they’ll never win. The topics have become too insignificant, bland, boring. Does it mean anything if Richard Dawkins likes mocking Muslims on Twitter? Is it imperative that they boycott the Sochi Olympics? Does the plight of women who want to breastfeed in public without a blanket, the resignation of an Australian politician who believes Islam is a country, or the views of Tawakul Karman on Egypt, merit conversation?

Maybe it’s just me, and I’ve found the tedious repetition of what is essentially the same argument pointless. Isn’t there a quote about how arguing with a fool makes you also a fool, or something of that nature? Either I’m wising up or going senile at the ripe old age of 22.

 

Ramadan Habits

It’s that time of year again, when Muslims around the world put aside their differences, pull out their Qurans, and join hands in unity and harmony for a month of pious religious observance.

Well, in an ideal world, anyways.

Ramadan is by no means the rosy, flawless time when we all act accordingly and do our Islamic duty. While the proverbial devil may be locked up, human nature is still alive and kicking, and old habits die hard.

But like all things marred by humanity, Ramadan also brings out the best in people. Enemies reconcile, language is less hostile and people put aside old differences.

I always see Ramadan as a mixture of Christmas and New Years. People make their solemn resolutions at the beginning of the month (I won’t backbite, I will read more Quran, etc.), there are nightly festivities when family and friends gather together over hearty meals, and all this culminates in the three days of Eid, when we celebrate a month’s hard work well done.

Except, hard work may be an over statement. There are certain habits picked up by Muslims in general which tend to undermine the objectives of Ramadan. What we occasionally fail to see as Muslims is the logic or benefit behind certain practices in Islam, and instead treat it as dogma. What this eventually leads to is people trying to find loopholes around certain prohibitions or recommendations, which is utterly pointless because Islam is about intention, and not technicalities.

Some Ramadan habits that should be kicked are:

Switching your daily routine 180 degrees: Staying up until dawn while continuously eating, and then hitting the hay until sundown the next day, defeats the point of fasting. You’re supposed to feel what it’s like for the less fortunate, and it’s healthy to spend a month with a lighter stomach. Sleeping all day and eating all night is a cheat, one of the loopholes I mentioned earlier.

Compulsive grocery shopping: I’m not sure if this one is exclusive to Libya, but there’s this hurried, frantic shopping rush that happens a week or so before Ramadan, as though the stores will close for the coming month (they won’t). Also, you know how they say you shouldn’t shop while hungry? Multiple that by 30 days and you get an idea of the needless, excessive spending done by Libyans.

Exclusive religiosity: Now, I’m treading on thin ice here, because only God can judge the actions of others. But some use Ramadan as the one month of the year to practice their religion; girls don headscarves, people who don’t pray will do so and the vices practiced are put on hold – until the month is over, whereby they resume their regular lifestyle. Again, it’s entirely up to the individual on how they practice, but it’s saddening to see Ramadan as used as an undo button for the other eleven months of the year.

There are other bad habits that should be kicked, but these are the ones that come to mind and are, to me, the most irksome.

In general, Ramadan can be a feel-good month characterized by a more conscious, spiritual sense of awareness, a time to reconnect with others, a chance to better yourself, and a sort of pause in the hectic rush of the year to reflect on life. 

Remember to stay hydrated, avoid over-eating, help those less fortunate than you, and have a safe and happy Ramadan.