Reality TV In The Arab World

Henry Jenkins has a two part interview (one, two) with Marwan Kraidy, author of Reality Television and Arab Politics. Jenkins asks:

As you note, many of these reality show formats come from the west but get localized in the Arab context. Can you describe this localization process? To what degree is their western origins central to their political impact?

Kraiday answers:

The localization process underpins the book's main argument that the Arab reality television controversies are best understood as a social laboratory where various versions of modernity are tested. The formats' western origins were never directly important. In the early years of Arab reality television, 2003 and 2004, critics leveled the charge that the reality television wave was another episode in a western cultural conquest trying to impose an alien reality on Arabs and Muslims.

Localization occurred in several ways.

One was a gradual take over by conservative forces. Consider the case of Algeria, where state television initially aired the Lebanese Star Academy. After opposition from Islamists, the Algerian president himself is said to have ordered it off the air, replacing it with a locally-made, ostensibly more conservative version. One season later, and the same slot was filled by a Qoranic recitation show, reality style--nominees, fan mobilization, viewer voting.

Two poetry reality shows epitomize another, and to me far more interesting, process of localization. Poetry enjoys a status in Arab culture that it is to my knowledge not accorded anywhere else in the world. Since pre-Islamic times, poetry is at once art form, political platform and entertainment. Numerous Arab television channels today have talk-shows dedicated to poetry, and poets show up on all kinds of talk-shows for women, youth, etc. A well-known poet in the Arab world is treated like a rock star. So here comes Abu Dhabi Television, supported by state financing, with the brilliant idea of launching poetry competitions, reality television style. The two shows, one dedicated to Arab poetry at large, the other focused on Gulf poetry, were major hits. Followers of your blog may have read recently the story of Hissa Helal, the Saudi woman who reached the finale of one of these shows, with a poem (in the semi-final) that attacked the reactionary clerics in her country, a gutsy move that was made partly possible by the venue--a public, popular poetry competition.

(Hat tip: Jesse Walker)