The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Two quick TV stories

As anyone who has lived in the Arab world during Ramadan knows, this is the time of the year when new TV series come out and families crowd around their TV set from sunset to the late evening, watching the latest on offer from Egypt, the Gulf and elsewhere. In Egypt, for instance, the big hit show so far is Abbas Al Abiad fil Youm Al Aswad (literally, Abbas the White in Dark Days), a story of mistaken identities in the context of the Gulf War (the 1991 one), which is quite good from what I've seen so far.

But the big TV event came before Ramadan, on the eve of the Taba bombings, when Egyptian TV viewers found their 10 national channels bereft of news about the bombings and continuing normal programming even as Al Jazeera provided continuous coverage of events. Tarek Atia -- who, as well as writing for Al Ahram Weekly, runs one of the first blog-like Egyptian sites, -- reported on what happened on the small screen:

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Hossam El- Garahi, a stock exchange analyst. Having learned of the incident from the satellite channel, Al-Arabiya, El-Garahi kept flipping back to Egyptian TV, determined to find out more about what was going on in Taba. "All the channels had the regular stuff going on -- a play here, a video clip there -- it was like this thing wasn't happening in Egypt."

Millions of other people couldn't believe their eyes as they watched their TV screens late Thursday night. It wasn't just the horrific images emerging from Taba that astounded them, but the seeming oblivion to those events being demonstrated by their local channels.

On channel 1, a play continued without interruption. On channel 2, a video clip. Channel 3 was airing an interview, as was channel 4, and so on.

Finally, said a flustered and angry El-Garahi, a news ticker appeared that indicated that an explosion, which might have been caused by a gas leak, had occurred in Taba. "That useless ticker remained unchanged for the next several hours," he said.

Viewers hungry for information relied more on channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya (or CNN, as in El-Garahi's case) that were basically blanketing their coverage with news from Taba, albeit with an annoying lack of new details. In fact, most of that first coverage was basically a continuous reel of an Israeli ambulance leaving the scene, and a wounded blond woman on a stretcher.

The other interesting story about TV comes from Jordan, with state TV there pulling a new serial about Afghanistan after threats from Islamists that they would take revenge if it showed the Taliban in a bad light. The same show has also apparently been pulled from Qatar, where it was produced.