What Reality Television Tells Us About the Arab World: An Interview with Marwan Kraidy (Part One)

Reality television is often depicted as the trivialization or tabloidization of American culture. I can't tell you how many people I know have told me with a sneer that more Americans voted in the most recent American Idol than voted in the last presidential election. It turns out to be a myth -- since people can vote as many times as they want for American Idol, there's no way to translate the number of votes cast into the number of people participating, and my bet is that if we could have voted for the candidate of our choice on speed dial in the last election, the numbers there would have looked much more impressive. Yet, the comment suggests the ways that reality television is often depicted as a distraction for democratic citizenship. This is one of many reasons I was so interested in Marwan Kraidy's new book, Reality Television and Reality Politics, published earlier this year, which argues that reality television has been a key vehicle through which the Arab world has been negotiating a range of social, cultural, political, economic, and technological changes and has become a springboard for significant debates about nationalism and the future of citizenship. The books offers vivid case studies over how the international formats of reality television -- especially those around Big Brother and Pop Idol -- have become the vehicles through which the Arab public has worked through contradictions surrounding modernity. Kraidy sees these formats not simply as another symptom of western cultural imperialism, but through the localization process, as ways that the Arab world takes measure of its own cultural practices and political traditions. These formats, and localized responses to them, force certain issues into the forefront of the popular imagination, but they also suggest a much more diverse set of worldviews at place in Middle Eastern culture than typically emerge in western representations of this region.

In this interview, Kraidy talks through some of the insights one gains into Arab cultural politics by looking at how the reality television genre is being absorbed into their broadcast practices and by looking at both the content and responses to these programs. What follows will challenge your preconceptions about both reality television and the Arab world.

Your book opens with a quotation from Fatima Mernissi: "Reality and the representation of reality are always far apart. But the gap between the two reaches a breaking point when a society experiences a deep crisis in which individuals don't have enough time to formulate discourses to explain to themselves what they are doing." What does this passage suggest about the place of reality television in the contemporary Arab world?

Reality television crystallized a festering Arab malaise exacerbated by the Iraq War, Abu Ghrayb, the Danish Cartoons, the plight of the Palestinians, and an existential crisis whose scope is truly all-encompassing--ideological, social, political, economic, religious, etc. Clearly, reality television did not trigger all the above on its own, but the intense controversy it created, because it was public, transnational, and involved many sectors of society, gave many Arabs a language and a platform to voice their anger, fears and aspirations. Reality television's claim to represent the real fomented the polemic by compelling many social groups to advance multiple Arab realities. Some said: "This (young men and women living together for four months and competing for viewers' text-messaged votes) is not our reality. It is a reality imposed by the West." This prompted other Arabs to say: "In fact, some aspects of our reality are much more similar to the social interactions we see on reality shows than the reality that you--conservatives speaking in the name of religion--are in fact trying to impose on all of us."

Reality television has been deeply political in many parts of the world. HBO recently ran a documentary about Afghan Star. Aswin Punathambekar has been writing lately about the politics around Pop Idol in India. John Hartley has described how a star search program in China became immersed in democracy movements there. Yet most American critics see reality as a distraction from "real politics." Do you have any thoughts about why the U.S. response has been relatively apolitical when compared with the kinds of examples you discuss in your book?

Part of the answer may be that the ethos of reality television--cutthroat individualism, conspicuous self-improvement, ostentatious meritocracy-- reflect, in exaggerated form, what are broadly perceived to be elements of the U.S. ethos. Many writers about reality television in the US-UK nexus argued that these ideolects underpin the growth of self-governing citizens under neoliberalism. This is true to a large extent in the US and the UK where the state has ceded many aspects of social life to the private sector. But this issue is not as salient in many parts of the world, where some of the most heated debates are about what we could call basic liberal values--individual autonomy, equal gender relations, representative government, etc. This difference became manifest in a symposium about the global politics of reality television that I-along with Katherine Sender--organized at Penn last year. Aswin Punathambekar made a comment then that summarizes my thoughts on this: "neoliberalism is not distributed equally around the world."

As to the belief that entertainment and popular culture is apolitical, it seems to me it is a faith-based argument, whose proponents cling to in the face of overwhelming evidence presented by researchers in the humanities and social sciences. This is true globally, even if local manifestations of it are dissimilar. So John Stewart is political in the US context in different ways than Star Academy is in Saudi Arabia.

We can look at this from another venture, which is the contested project of modernity. Clearly, what it means to be modern is vigorously contested in the Arab world, a fraught debate animated by memories of colonialism, contemporary geopolitics, and internal social transformations alike. So when something as popular and polemical as reality television enters the scene, it provides a concrete pivot where old ideological battles are waged one more time about Arab-Western relations, gender issues, cultural authenticity, religion in public life, etc. This does not mean that modernity is not contested in the US, as the Tea Party movement (and other peculiarities of American society and politics) suggests. However, it seems to me that these debates are more heated in the Arab world because of the relatively limited avenues of participation and contestation in public life.

You suggest that the discourse around reality programs in the Arab world informed "street politics" and "chamber politics." Can you share some examples of each and reflect a bit on what connections exist between them in the Arab context?

The 2005 street demonstrations in central Beirut featured vivid reminders of the implications of reality television for street politics. Fan activities metamorphosed into political activism: like reality television fans, young demonstrators used mobile phones to mobilize and offer real time tactical information that they exploited ruthlessly. Hence the story of a group of demonstrators locating one of the army checkpoint--surrounding downtown Beirut to prevent popular rallies from coalescing there--whose commanding officer was sympathetic to the demonstrators' cause. A mobile phone blast informed hundreds of activists who converged at that checkpoint and were able to gather in the city center.

Lahoud Nominee.jpg

In the book I also show a picture of a demonstrator carrying a hand-made sign proclaiming "Lahoud, Nominee, Vote 1559." The young man brandishing the sign nominated Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president allied with Syria and reviled by the demonstrators, to be voted off the show/island/politics. 1559 refers to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for, among other things, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Reality television was clearly involved in Arab "street politics."

In Kuwait, a small country known for a robust press and feisty legislative debates that regularly force politicians in the executive branch to resign, reality television animated "chamber politics" for several years. Contemporary Kuwaiti politics pit a powerful Salafi-Islamist parliamentary block against liberal groups including merchant families, professionals, and women's groups. When Lebanese reality shows grabbed ratings and headlines in the country, and when a concert promoter--a woman--wanted to bring Superstar finalists to Kuwait for a concert, Islamists "grilled" the sitting Minister of Information in parliament--who when not in the government teaches mass communication at Kuwait University--forcing him to resign. But they could not control the debate, and several prominent Kuwaiti feminists and liberals attacked the Islamists in op-eds and letters to the editor, as a poll in the liberal daily al-Qabas demonstrated reality television's vast popularity in the country.

Reality television has been at the center of the exchange of formats around the world. 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?

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.

Hissa Helal, Saudi Poet who challenged harshly conservative clerics in her country on a poetry-themed reality show on Abu Dhabi TV, 2010

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.

Marwan M. Kraidy is Associate Professor of Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Recent books include Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Arab Television Industries (British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Previously he published Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives (Routledge, 2003, co-edited with Patrik Murphy) and Hybridity, or, The Cultural Logic of Globalization (Temple University Press, 2005, single-authored). The Politics of Reality Television: Global Perspectives (Routledge, 2010, co-edited with Katherine Sender) is in press. His current book projects are Global Media Studies (co-authored with Toby Miller, under contract with Polity), and Music Videos and Arab Public Life.