BROOKE GLADSTONE: As I mentioned, this week begins the month of Ramadan, when Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset, and then they feast, not just on food but also on entertainment. As families gather ‘round the TV, the networks showcase their most crowd-pleasing shows. Among them, running now for 17 seasons, exclusively during the month of Ramadan, is the hugely popular Tash Ma Tash, which translates loosely as No Big Deal.
[TASH MA TASH MUSIC UP AND UNDER] It’s a sitcom that attacks social issues with a sharp edge, so sharp, in fact, that over the years its actors have received death threats. Rumor has it that Tash Ma Tash will again inspire both laughter and fury this Ramadan. Hussein Shobokshi is host of the weekly public affairs program Al Takreer, which airs on Al-Arabiya, based in Dubai. He says the show has taken on many taboo topics.
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: Tash Ma Tash has dealt with education reform, women’s rights, intertribal marriage, religious extremism, the relationship with the other, be it with the Western or among Saudis themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you tell me about a particular episode that sparked both controversy and dialogue among viewers and in the regional media?
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: Yeah, there was a particular episode about education reform that has been taking place in the Saudi schooling system. There is a school of thought that says if you learn sports or art, you’re truly wasting your time because you should only concentrate on books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was that the episode that inspired death threats?
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: That was one of them because some people interpreted this as being an extreme criticism of some of the religious figures that have been involved in setting up the curriculums that exist in the Saudi schooling system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about the episode that used the American TV western Bonanza as a kind of template.
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: Yeah, a fantastic role reversal where they had Saudis dressed up in cowboy attire, set in a typical Dodge City. At the time, there was a lot of talk about the clash of civilizations. And you would see Saudis talking in a Western lingo with Saudi values, so you would say, wait a minute, that does fit. What’s the big deal? Why can't we accept them and why can't they accept us? It was that kind of a take home value.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand that even though the season hasn't begun, to generate some buzz, Tash Ma Tash has released a couple of episodes onto the Internet, and one of them involves a kind of turnabout is fair play. Obviously, Muslim men can take more than one wife, but in this episode a Muslim woman takes more than one husband?
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: This, uh, show is loosely based on an article written by a Saudi writer. She was saying, what if women were allowed to marry more than one man at a time, if roles were reversed, let's see what kind of rights would we have as women and what kind of protection would we get from society. And that episode that was leaked and became the topic of the town starts off with a shocking statement from the husband, who talks to his friend and says, guess what, my wife married another guy today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] In the Middle East, can a show like Tash Ma Tash actually have an impact on society?
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: Absolutely. It has created a lot of debate in the Saudi Parliament. We've got forums discussing the episodes on the Net all the time. It has created a lot of healthy debate, and I think to a great degree it has given policymakers some encouragement about creating certain policies in education and social reform as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hussein Shobokshi is host of the weekly public affairs program Al Takreer, which airs on the Arabic-language news channel Al-Arabiya.
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by by The Whitefield Brothers