Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In New TV Characters, Palestinians See Their Own ; First-Ever Local Soap Opera Captivates Palestinians as They Break Their Ramadan Fast

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In New TV Characters, Palestinians See Their Own ; First-Ever Local Soap Opera Captivates Palestinians as They Break Their Ramadan Fast

Article excerpt

Fast is out. Television is on. All the members of the Abu Tarboush family, Hanan and Ahmed and six of their seven children, gather around to watch "Shufi Mafi" - Palestinian slang that roughly translates to "What's Up?"

Tonight's episode: Love in the Internet age. Two characters who can't stand each other "meet" anonymously on a online chat site, fall in love, and agree to marry without having met - yet.

"How can she marry him without even seeing him?" Hanan snickers while Ahmed fiddles with the antenna to try to get better reception.

Many people are getting the wildly popular episodes of "Shufi Mafi," the first-ever prime-time Palestinian soap opera, on satellite channels. But others, like the Abu Tarboush family, haven't been able to afford a satellite dish and are instead getting the series through local television, where the picture doesn't always come through clearly.

But a picture of Palestinian society, however, does. The makers of the show, running weekday evenings during the Islamic month of Ramadan that began Sept. 23, first conducted focus groups among Palestinian university students to get a broader perspective of what is really on young people's minds.

"We found that there are a lot of things other than political issues that are affecting the students," says Raed Othman, the chief executive officer of the Maan Network, which produced the show with the help of a grant from the Search for Common Ground, a US-based organization that fosters conflict resolution.

Most of the episodes take a comical approach to important issues, ranging from drug abuse to strained family relationships. One segment deals with the hot-button issue of dating and intermarriage between Christians and Muslims.

Politics are in the air, naturally, but are rarely center stage. References to guns and checkpoints are rare. In the one episode that deals with the road map - a US plan to address the Israeli- Palestinian conflict - most of the characters acknowledge that they don't really know what the road map represents.

Since the setting is a university campus, featuring students and staff alike, the school dean weighs in on ethical dilemmas toward the end of each episode. The result feels like "Father Knows Best" meets "Seinfeld." This is part Palestinian morality play, part entertainment.

The concept, after all, is a Ramadan institution, as traditional as the katayif - a sweet stuffed pastry - Hanan has put on the table. For years, Arab channels have featured special melodramas and sit-coms to be played each evening after iftar, the festive breakfast meal people eat at sundown.

But those Ramadan serials have typically been Egyptian or Syrian, the leading producers of soaps during the holy month. This year Egypt has produced some 50 TV series for the month and Syria followed with 45 productions.

Previously, says the director of "Shufi Mafi," almost all portrayals of Palestinian life have been directed by foreigners. …

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