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French Version

Killing Mattab, Palestine\'s first soap opera

Matabb, Palestine\'s first soap opera, highlights the trials and tribulations of everyday life and touches on a number of taboo issues. The original plan was to broadcast the serial\'s ten episodes, which were produced by the Goethe Institute in Ramallah, at the start of Ramadan. But at the last minute the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) decided otherwise.

The intention was to model Matabb on other successful soap operas like the Turkish serial Noor, which ran until the end of August and raised a number of taboo issues in Muslim society, bringing them right into viewers\' living rooms.

Every day, millions of fans in Morocco, Syria, and Saudi Arabia tuned in to find out what was happening in the lives of Noor and her family. Despite the fact that the popular radical Islamist organization Hamas cautioned people against watching the serial because it was offensive to \"religion, values, and tradition\", Palestinians crowded in front of their television sets every day to watch Noor.

Surely if these television audiences were ready to ignore religious dogma and were open for critical content in this way, they would welcome similar, homegrown projects?

\"Serious and important issues can be addressed through the media of entertainment,\" said Fabienne Bessonn of the European Commission, which together with the Goethe Institute and the GTZ (the German Association for Technical Co-operation) provided €170,000 for the production of Matabb, the first Palestinian soap opera.

When compared with the cost of established serials like the German soap opera Lindenstraße (on which Matabb was modelled), this sum is a drop in the ocean. Practical ingenuity, self-sacrifice, and dedication were needed in order to make up for the lack of funds.

Postponement, but not the end of the line

This makes it all the more galling that the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) decided, at short notice, not to broadcast the serial. It had originally planned to broadcast the ten episodes of Matabb via satellite around the world from September 1 to 10 – prime-time Ramadan television.

This is a wonderful slot because families generally sit down together to watch television after Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast after sunset, for some light entertainment while digesting their heavy meals. Television channels can demand premium prices for advertising slots on such evenings.

Giving its reasons for the provisional discontinuation of Matabb, PCB said that it wanted to be absolutely sure that the serial contained \"no scenes that might be considered offensive to one or other party.\"

A committee examined all ten episodes and concluded that some scenes would have to be changed. One scene involved a Palestinian giving flowers to Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint; another involved a Palestinian dreaming about committing a suicide bomb attack.

Jehia Barakat, head of programming at PBC, emphasised that \"this is not censorship\".

He was, however, quick to emphasize that this was not the end of the line: the serial will be broadcast by Maan TV, a terrestrial channel in Palestine. Moreover, Matabb may be broadcast via satellite at a later date, as soon as the changes stipulated by PBC have been made.

A fine line

Everyone involved in the production knew from the word go that they were walking a fine line, especially because the serial sought to address controversial issues that are generally swept under the carpet.

\"We only ever talk about the occupation and checkpoints,\" said Shaden Zamamiri, one of the leading actors in the production, during an interview with a German news program. \"We never talk about personal problems. That\'s a no-go area.\"

It was exactly this social gray area that Matabb sought to bring out into the open on Palestinian television screens.

Farid Majari, director of the Goethe Institute in Ramallah, and also producer and script writer for the soap opera, lists \"making decisions about your love life, talking about domestic violence, women\'s professional advancement, and the sharing of domestic chores within families\" as some of the controversial issues tackled by Matabb.

Majari originally considered including an honour killing and a homosexual in the serial. However, he eventually decided against both ideas; it would have been taking things too far. After all, liberality has not been a feature of life in Palestine for a long time now. Although some in the West might call this \"self-censorship\", Majari is actually doing no more than script writers the world over. Whether in France, Germany, or America, all script writers seek to write the kind of television fare that viewers want to see and avoid negative provocation at all costs.

Dull, not diverting

But Matabb is not about pure entertainment. It is a kind of Trojan horse: the contents of its belly need to be transported from A to B. However, the first episodes show that the makers of the serial carried this principle a little too far.

The plot centres on a number of people working for an NGO by the name of \"Initiative for the Promotion of Art, Culture, and the Development of Palestine\". For Palestinians, who encounter countless non-governmental organisations on a daily basis, this in itself is grounds for hilarity. Unfortunately, with the exception of this, the rest of the first episodes are dull and weighed down by serious, heavy content. Instead of offering the viewer entertainment and fun, Matabb highlights an endless stream of problems, most of which are dealt with in an incredibly clichéd way, and drives home messages in an unsubtle manner.

It is hard to imagine Palestinians, whose lives under Israeli occupation are hard enough as it is, wanting to watch such an educational programme in their spare time, especially during Ramadan, when a bit like viewers in the West in the run-up to Christmas people want harmony, however artificial it may be. Despite the good will and dedication channelled into this production, Matabb lacks the humour that is needed to make people think and laugh about themselves.

Beirut,09 26 2008
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