TV Holiday Specials, Middle East-style
Jul 23, 2013 | Or Avi Guy
When watching holiday specials on TV, even cold-hearted cynics often find it hard not to get swept away by the wholesome feel-good and uplifting messages about the importance of family and friends and the meaning of the “holiday spirit” – saccharine and sentimental as these messages might be. In recent years across the Arab and Muslim world, TV holiday specials have gained popularity, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
Unfortunately, the messages of some of these programs are less about the holiday spirit, and more about hateful incitement. The new series, “Khaybar”, airing this year is a prime example. A “prime time” example, even.
The miniseries was created by Egyptian screenwriter Yusri al-Gindi Qatari producer Hashem Al-Sayed, and Jordanian director Muhammad Aziziya. It has a star studded cast of famous Arab actors. It is being aired in Dubai, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Qatar and the UAE. It is truly a combined regional effort, encompassing pretty much the entire Middle East.
The show is supposed to be an historical doco-drama, one of those epics productions like “Rome”, “The Borgias” or “The Tudors.” It takes place at Medina in the time of Prophet Mohammad, and it has many sub-plots woven together to depict different relationships between Muslims, the Arab tribes and the Jewish residents of Medina and Khaybar. The ending is not very surprising- the Jews are expelled from Medina.
The miniseries itself is named after a famous battle which took place in 628-9 CE, when the followers of Mohammad defeated a Jewish tribe in Khaybar, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children. Apparently, this is the show creators’ idea of a happy ending.
Even before airing, the show generated a great deal of hype in the Arab world; the media claimed that the show “focuses on the social, economic, and religious lives of the Jews, including their politics, their plots, and the way they managed and controlled the [Aws and Khazraj Arab] tribes” and portrays “the [Jews’] hostility and hatred towards others, along with their treacherous nature, their repeated betrayals, and their despicable racism.”
Some reports were openly tinged with antisemitism. For example, the Egyptian daily Al-Fajr‘s June 20, 2013 report on the wrapping up of filming was titled “The Treachery Of The Jews Ends Next Sunday.”
It sounded suspicious, and the suspicions proved fully founded. The Jewish characters in the show are greedy, evil, conniving, and treacherous in general. They are definitely not “the good guys”, unless they reject and disown their own community and family. Oh – and they are noticeably less physically attractive. The negative depiction of Jews, Jewish society and values in the show have been much debated in the blogosphere, but what is interesting to note is the absolute flood of racist, antisemitic and hateful comments made by the show’s creators and cast, without even attempting to hide behind the excuse of “artistic freedom” or “dramatisation” of historical sources (for full quotes see MEMRI report and this blog by the Elder of Ziyon).
Most vocal was the show’s screenwriter, Yusri al-Gindi. In an interview with al-Jazeera website he stated that:
“The Jews are the Jews. They still act according to their nature, despite the passing generations. They corrupt any society in which they live, and therefore no regime can protect them with any contract or agreement. The crisis in the Arab world offers the best proof of this, and this is where the show gets its current relevance…The Jews are hostile to any attempt at growth or renewal by other elements. They opposed the first Islamic state, and today they oppose the [Arab and Islamic] nation’s return to its culture and glory. Every time they settle in a certain country, they make the same plots against it and use the same methods. It happened in Babylon, Rome, Imperial Russia, and Hitler’s Germany. Later, the West banished them to the Arab region, where they continue to serve it [the West] to this day.”
In another interview, this time with the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, al-Gindi said:
“… What I did that is new [here] is that [I made] the Jews themselves the main protagonists, [and they reflect] Jewish society, which is within itself based on deception, fraud, and hunting [down] the mistakes of others. Therefore, I strove to reveal their traits, their ideas, their methods, and their deviousness, as well as the [deeply] rooted hostility between them and the Arabs since the days of Moses, peace be upon him…”
Moreover, this is hardly al-Gindi’s first offence – he admitted that his previous works, “The Wandering Jew” and “Oh, Jerusalem,” were also labeled antisemitic, which he of course denies:
“The striking thing is that during my research I noticed that from the days of Moses, the prophet of Allah, to now, the Zionist entity has not changed its method. They rose up against Moses, peace be upon him, and distorted the Torah. The Talmud became the dominant book because the Jewish sages benefited from it, since they do not desire peace on earth. This has been their custom for 3,000 years, and to this day…”
It is not exactly hard to imagine why anyone find his views and works hateful.
Al-Gindi denies that the series is anti-Jewish, but his explanation is not particularity convincing. He argues that rather than attacking Judaism, the show simply depicts “Jewish attributes” and how these attributes are destructive in any society in which they live ,as they only spread animosity and are not trustworthy. See, perfectly understandable – no problem with Judaism, only with the “attributes” of every single Jewish person in the past few millennia. And of course, because no anti-Jewish tirade would be complete without a hint of conspiracy theory, he went on to blame “the Zionist movement” for malicious involvement in the “Arab Spring” in Egypt (at the time, prior to the recent military-led overthrow of the government, he argued that Israel and the US were conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destroy Egypt. One could only wonder how he might spin recent development to make Israel the bad guy again) and for their detrimental contribution to the political problems plaguing many countries in the Middle East.
Needless to say, yet none the less disappointing, Human Rights organisations and the mainstream media have largely ignored this most recent case of prime time incitement – at least in comparison with the numerous reports and widespread commentary on the ugly anti-Muslim YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims” just last year. This is despite an organised effort and a Change.org petition specifically about Khaybar addressed to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, authored by well-known blogger Elder of Ziyon. Why is the silence disappointing? Because Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement in 2003 condemning anti-Semitism as a violation of human rights:
“Recognizing anti-Semitism as a serious human rights violation, we also recognize our own responsibility to take on this issue as part of our work. It should not be left to Jewish groups alone to highlight this issue and to appeal to the international community to address it. We are firmly committed to joining their ongoing efforts and to helping to bring problems of anti Semitism into the overall human rights discourse.”
So where is their “firm commitment” now? Or as the Elder of Ziyon wrote:
“Can Khaybar – a slick film production whose entire purpose is to demonize Jews as a people – be seen as anything other than hate speech? Do human rights organizations think that Hollywood-style production shields a film from the fact that its entire purpose is to promote hate?”
Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen in a piece on the Huffington Post also highlighted the human rights relevance of Khaybar:
“The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights defines ethno-religious baiting as a crime against humanity: “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” (article 20). Human rights groups need to speak out. This is not trivial TV entertainment. It amounts to nothing short of the psychological preparation for a potential genocide. It must be recognized and addressed.
This crude and offensive incitement defies journalistic and media standards observed elsewhere. It harms Jews, but also it undermines the standing of Muslims and the image of Islam.”
Khaybar is only the latest in a long lists of such “festive” Ramadan specials in the last decade, which aired all over the Middle East, and their origins are varied – Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and so on. Nor is it the only one aired this holiday season. The main theme of Khayber is also replicated in an antisemitic animated TV show for children, also set in historical Medina in the days of the Prophet.
The cartoon show is aired on Palestinian Authority TV is titled “Raids of the Prophet” and it is focused on one of the main Jewish tribes in Medina at the time – the Qaynuqa tribe, as they conspire with the devil, no more no less.
Here are some selected excerpts:
“Another member of Qaynuqa‘: We, the Jews of the Qaynuqa’ tribe, are now on a par with the Muslims, after we used to have the power and the final say in Al-Madina.
Older member of Qaynuqa’: But we will not let them sit back and enjoy that. We will show them what the Jews of Bani Qaynuqa’ are made of.
Devil jumping up: How can they enjoy it while I’m around? I am responsible for them.
Devil’s helper: You are responsible for your followers only, but you have no authority over those who are God-fearing.”
Devil: I know that, you idiot, but I have followers, whose hearts are filled with animosity, hatred, and envy towards Muhammad and his companions. This, in itself, can accomplish a lot.
Qaynuqa’ member: The Aws and Khazraj tribes are having laughs together, after their enmity used to fill the land from east to west.
Another member of Qaynuqa’: Muhammad brought harmony to their hearts, and what you see is the outcome. My heart rages with fire whenever I see Muslims who love one another. Utility means power and success in everything. We will not allow this.
Muslim: The Jews of the Qaynuqa’ tribe did not honor their pact with us. They persisted in their evil until it turned against them.”
It looks like the same Palestinian Authority, which has tried to erase the Jewish history of Jerusalem via acts of crude historical revisionism, is now more than happy to highlight the ancient links between the Jewish people and the Middle East, but only as long as it serves to incite hatred towards them.
Other Ramadan TV specials deal with different issues and aspects of life in the Arab world, and some take on more progressive messaging, flushing out controversial social and political issues and even critically engage with them. One such controversial theme this year has been child marriage – teen even pre-teen girls being married off by their families, usually to much older men.
A Saudi network featured a drama aeries, called “the Minors”, in which the main character is a nine-year-old child bride. The drama takes place in rural Egypt and directly deals with some of the negative consequences of such early marriages, their detrimental physical and psychological effects on the young girls, still children themselves, as well as the socio-economic settings in which they take place.
In several Arab and Muslim countries there is a fierce debate over the issue, and legal measures to limit and regulate the problematic phenomenon are being discussed and implemented even by highly conservative regimes, such as the Saudi monarchy (where there are efforts to allow legal marriage only from the age of 16, unless special permission is granted by the court to allow marriages at an earlier age). This issue was also highlighted recently by Nada Al-Ahdals, an 11-year old Yemeni girl who became an internet sensation after explaining online why she had run away from her family and an arranged marriage to a much older man.
TV viewers reportedly have responded to the show and an online debate developed. Clearly the creators of the show succeeded in what they set out to do in that case – creating better awareness on a sensitive issue within their own communities.