It all began with the Gulf War.
Once upon a time, there were two main topographical features on most any Arab rooftop: a water tank and an antenna. The antenna was generally the size of a five-year-old, shaped like a minaret and filigreed for maximum signal. But when the Saudis neglected to broadcast news of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for three days, they inadvertently launched a media mutiny. Viewers turned away en masse from government broadcasting and looked instead to the pulsing red star of Arabsat.
Thus began the free-for-all of cheap, lightly censored programming blocks that featured real-human-Arab-girl hosts and current events coverage, a social phenomena popularly known as the “pan-Arab satellite revolution.”
Tonight, on HDTV in a borrowed bungalow, I will flip through 352 satellite channels, from Iqra’ to Iraqi Edu, a smorgasbord catering to the tastes of the overheated but underemployed underthirty set, with its vast and variegated appetite for TV shopping channels, quiz shows, and 24-7 surveillance of the Kaaba.
Want to take the pulse of the Arab street? Don’t talk to the cab driver, watch TV.
An English lesson. “Would you mind not sitting here?” I imagine this is a very useful phrase in Baghdad.
A horse called Gorylla leaps into the lead on a red dirt track. Asiatic Boy is close behind. The camera speeds along a rail beside them. They appear to be running on a giant treadmill for horses.
A chicken in a sandstorm.
A four-way split screen. Clockwise from top left: Mecca, Medina, a building on fire, a neon light show on the basketball court inside a school gym.
A man in a leather jacket is listening to a classy Lebanese broad. She is holding a silver tray with Iranian sweets arrayed in pristine rows. She is describing the taste preferences of brides. “Some like saffron, some like rose. Some are more cosmopolitan.”
A lively Japanese woman chats in dubbed Arabic. She wants to sell me a giant teardrop-cut diamond in a white-gold pendant shaped like a musical clef. The woman glows and sparkles, just like the diamond. I am a fan of Asian Business’s special effects.
Television Numerique Terrestre Hotbird
Symbole Rate 27500
Fec 3⁄4 Pol: V
Derek Poundstone is pulling an American Air Force plane. Meet Met-Rx World’s Strongest Man! An excited Arab sports commentator cheers Arild Haugen on from Charleston, West Virginia.
Omani channel. The drinking of coffee… the making of eyes…
Gawking cartoon man lolls his dripping tongue over telephone, while the text announces in Arabic: “Prank your husband! Call now! 590066”
A man in a veil of iridescent silk sits on a balcony and receives a prayer from heaven as Qur’an is sternly recited over his cell. His tiny daughter spies on him.
I catch the end of Reptilicant. The shape-shifting alien looks just like the creature from Creature from the Black Lagoon, down to the visible zipper.
A faux-hawked black man with a four-tone shirt squats rhythmically behind a bush in a garden, singing: “Oh Daddy Daddy Oh Daddio Shadit ya Shadiao!” A child on a Big Wheel inches into the frame; the camera pans up to avoid the blooper. Cut away to women on church steps, flexing their buns. The station is from Chad; I’m sure the butt dance called Degheni came to the Gulf along just such a channel.
Bollywood zoom-out of a girl’s crooked white laugh as she roughly jostles other girls around a picnic blanket. Next, two lovers drink tea from a tea seller. The picnic-blanket girls change into brightly colored saris and start thrashing about wildly. The lovers stare long and hard together at a blade of grass. The tea has been drugged?!
Fulla, the Islamic Barbie, at play in a bristling wheat field! Oh wait — it’s a painting Fulla is painting of herself! Here she is, back in her indoor clothing: a pair of pajamas. She autographs the TV.
Old Egyptian play with Adel Imam in an acidwashed jacket.
The backlit neon blades of a slowly whisking fan whir atmospherically, set against an empty nightclub. Mesmerizing. Suddenly a blonde with amazing fake tits and horrible Russian style takes a turn on the disco floor. A man with a giant camera shoots up into her rack.
A Star Wars screensaver as a James Earl Jones soundalike reads Qu’ran.
Pretty girl in magenta leopard-print chiffon recites a poem in front of a shrub. From the words scrolling over her face, I gather the segment is called, “Celebration of the River.”
Is off the air. The Sphinx glows out of a Photoshop fog.
These are the infomercial channels, selling villas in Iraq and elsewhere. “Call 0096393322023” with a Gregorian chant playing in the background.
WASEET AL KHAL
SMS ticker tape rolls all over the screen in different directions, spewing sense and nonsense, shout-outs and status updates. “Addictedto Gum” meets “Hamoooooooooooooud.”
A computer-generated desertscape and road. We could be in Arizona, but the rearview has the Saudi Flag rippling in its reflection. The thunder rolls and the clouds flow forth in time-lapse. No other explanation.
Creepy blue-eyed chubby in a little Princess Jasmine outfit sings through a rain of animated letters and names. Sana, Rasha, Nur, Huda. She wears a matching shower cap over her hijab with a jewel glued to the center of it. The dot on a falling question mark turns into a globe.
In a mosque, an Egyptian sheik with two Zebibas on his forehead speaks to a crowd from inside a glowing green Oz-inspired Qibla. He sits in a swiveling, leather-backed business chair. He is delivering his sermon from behind an executive desk. He sips from a mug with a pharmaceutical company’s name on it. “Let us recite together.”
A nature special on wolves, and they’re doing it! Missionary style — who knew? This rough, snarly mating is by far the raciest thing I will see on these 352 channels.
Kathem el Saher’s tragic bride bows beneath the frothy waves in his oversize white tuxedo shirt. She patters around in the surf holding a soggy piece of sheet music. Kathem rises up from under the camera to reach for an invisible falsetto note. Cue farty saxophone.
A segment on “Pilgrims vs. H1N1,” Abdulla Imar al Kuwaiti is a Mecca tour operator with a thoroughly fluffy Amish beard. He says, “Once swine flu is over, more people will come forward to live their dreams.”
PS: twenty percent of the UAE’s population is diabetic.
“Nothing can take me from the game, and you can’t take it away from me.” An elderly Japanese woman named Teruko Yoshida plays first base for the Osaka Silver Sisters. “I’ve asked my children to bury me in my baseball uniform.”
A man with a grey pompadour and large plastic bifocals is gibbering about the glory of nature. He speaks of sunsets and swans. We fade to a fantasy world of rippling trees and streams and countryside that looks nothing like anywhere in Iraq. Little girls in karate outfits fight a man in black.
Graphics showing types of accidents. Frontal collisions, rear-ending, rollovers, jack-knifes, T-bones. A wet-faced baby fusses in the back seat, the reenactment actress gives it a Kleenex. The baby seems satisfied.
Couple in bed, watching TV, drinking tea in their matching Velform sauna belts. The wife is also wearing a bikini. She gets up to make a cocktail and removes her sauna belt to reveal a set of well-toned and dewy lady-abs. Then, before-and-after shots of a guy. He looks exactly the same, though he appears to have had his stomach waxed. “Call 02221…”
A bald broadcaster on location someplace is repeatedly interrupted by a fresh-faced interloper.
This channel and many more feature quizzes for 100,000 USD. “What fruit is three letters long and the first letter is the same as the last?” I know the answer! Actually, there are two: Toot (raspberry) and Khookh (peach). The hostess, framed by SMS and phone numbers, takes a call. “Khookh!” he says. “Sorry,” she says, “the answer is ‘Toot.’”
Another quiz show, another hostess. There is music. She claps along silently, sometimes lipsynching. Is she bored, too? “Come on,” she says, “play with me, you guys!” Most of the phone calls come from just one guy in Saudi, Khaled, asking her out. This is live TV. It’s 5:14 AM.
If there was a warning about disturbing material, I came in late. Cellphone video of a Land Cruiser half devoured by a mighty flood of brown water. There is a whole family in the car. The driver’s side is almost totally submerged in the water and the car is in danger of being swept away. The driver honks frantically, one long helpless horn blowing over the roar of water. Men in thobes scuttle around anxiously on dry land, helpless. Finally one of the onlookers lunges at the passenger side door, and a woman in full niqab and abaya leaps out onto him. She falls on the man and they both lose their footing, disappearing under the car. Without the woman’s weight in the vehicle, the whole SUV flips over; everyone on the bank screams. Then, suddenly, the Land Cruiser is gone, swallowed up in the middle of the opaque water. Is the driver dead? Have I just watched a snuff film? With upbeat MIDI adventure music playing the whole time?
As befits a religious channel, the footage is followed by a stern message: “Remember to pray, because your place on this earth is temporary.”
I get the message and turn off the television.