Big Brother goes to Arabia

The television show ‘Big Brother’, where contestants are kept under lock inside the same house until public voting chooses a winner, was first launched in the UK on Channel 4 in 2001.

In early 2004, the Arab TV channel MBC surprisingly decided to produce their own version, Al-Ra’is (the Boss), in Bahrain. The Arabic version of the Big Brother reality show program started with a prize of $100,000 for the winner.

Twelve housemates from around the Arab world have been under the constant gaze of television cameras. They include Abdul Hakim from Saudi Arabia, Bashara from Lebanon, an actress from Bahrain, a musician from Iraq and a karate teacher from Kuwait.

Of course, the format and logistics of the show demanded some cross cultural modifications so the producers decided to make some changes to the house in order to reflect Arabic customs. For the first time there are segregated sleeping quarters for the male and female contestants. Also, a prayer room has been added, as well as a separate women’s lounge with a mixed-sex communal area. Other than these accommodations, the rules follow the international format of the show.

But these modifications to reflect Arabic customs did not go far enough for some protesters. The program, aired across the Arab world by MBC, raised concerns despite efforts to take into account Muslim sensitivities. After only two airings, MBC decided to cancel the show because of intense media criticism and charges of indecency accompanied by protests on the streets of Bahrain.

What MBC producers failed to see was the cross cultural implications of Al-Ra’is. In fact, targeting an audience consisting of mainly Muslims, Al-Ra’is failed to read the cross cultural signs. The close quarter interaction between men and women was culturally unacceptable to the majority of viewers. Protesters in the conservative Gulf Arab state had said showing unmarried people living together offended Islam.

 “It is normal for males and females to mix, but not to put them together in the same house for a long time,” said 21-year-old student Maryam al-Sayrafi.

 Hundreds of Islamists protested in Bahrain chanting “Stop Sin Brother! No to indecency!”. They accused the show of being “un-Islamic” and immoral.

A woman actually said “This program is a threat to Islam. This is entertainment for animals.”

Even between members of Bahrain’s parliament there were critiques against the show.

 “We are an Islamic country with our own traditions. This program spoils the morals of our sons,” MP Jasim al-Saeedi said.

 MBC decided to suspend the production of the program because it “didn’t want to be the cause of differences of opinion”. “This decision aims to avoid exposing MBC and its programs to accusations that it offends Arab values, customs and morals, because we consider MBC to be first and foremost a channel that belongs to the Arab world,” the popular Saudi-owned channel said in a statement.

 The controversy over Big Brother came as Arab world’s first reality TV experiment, a dating show called Al Hawa Sawa ended. Al Hawa Sawa – which means On Air Together – displayed eight women from across the Arab world before men in a luxury apartment for 24 hours a day. The men could contact the woman of their choice to propose marriage. The show was criticized for being too liberal. It ended when one of the last two contestants said she refused to get married.

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