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Pan-Arab 'Big Brother' production stopped due to Islamist protests in Bahrain


By Wade Paulsen, 03/01/2004 

One week was all the longer that "Western lifestyles" and Islamist values could co-exist in the progressive Arab country of Bahrain. "Western lifestyles" as reflected in the worldwide reality-TV phenomenon Big Brother, that is.

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After just over one week of broadcasts, the initial pan-Arab version of Big Brother was suspended and probably canceled on March 1, in the face of protests led by the Bahraini Islamist parties.

As we reported back in September, Endemol, the owner of the Big Brother concept, had decided to capitalize on its Big Brother Africa blockbuster by producing a pan-Arab version of Big Brother, called Al-Ra'is (meaning "The Boss" in English). According to the BBC, the 12 contestants entered the Big Brother house, which was located in a specially-constructed house in the Amwaj Island resort in Bahrain (outside of Bahrain's second-largest island city, Muharraq), and then began daily broadcasting on Friday, February 20.

Similar to the structure of Big Brother Africa, the contestants represented a nationaistic cross-section of Arabia, including people from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Oman and Jordan plus an Arabic-speaking Somali, competing for a $100,000 first prize. To conform to Arab sensibilities, the house featured separate sleeping quarters for men and women, a prayer room, and a separate women's lounge -- although there was also a mixed-sex communal area.

Nevertheless, the show featured individuals who did not conform to the narrow traditions of Islam that prevail in many regions of "Arabia." For example, in the first show, only one of the six women wore the restrictive black robe (abaya) that dominates women's public dress in the conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia. As a result, Bahrain's Islamist parties began very public demostrations against the show's continued broadcast from their country.

The Gulf News reports that representatives of the Islamist parties immediately denounced the show as "immoral and un-Islamic," contending that the women wore "scandalous clothes" and that the very idea of Al-Ra'is, with its "free mingling of the sexes," was "alien to our culture." According to a follow-up article in the Gulf News, about 1,000 protesters gathered near the Amwaj Island resort on Friday to protest the continued broadcasting of "Sin Brother."

Although Bahrain, ruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has long been among the most tolerant Arab countries, over half the members of the new Parliament, initiated by the king in 2002, belong to Islamist parties ... and on March 1, their wish to stop the show was granted by the show's local licencee, the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), a Saudi Arabian company headquartered in Dubai, although perhaps under Bahraini government pressure.

An independent member of the Bahraini Parliament stated last week that production of Al-Ra'is in Bahrain was supposed to bring in about $53 million (U.S.) to the local economy. However, the hostility of the religious leaders and the potential for mob violence outweighed the economic benefits, and the Bahraini Ministry of Information apparently asked MDC to cancel the show. MDC's public statement merely stated that the decision to cancel further broadcasts was reached "in tandem with the Bahraini information ministry," according to AFP.

In its public statement, as reported by Reuters, MDC left open the possibility of re-launching the show from one of the "many [locations] where [Al-Ra'is] could be produced" and that it was "looking at possible schedules." However, the BBC reported that a spokeswoman for MDC said that the show was unlikely to resume ... ever. The BBC's unnamed source appears to be consistent with a quote from an unnamed Endemol spokeswoman to the U.K. paper The Independent, stating that the show's production team was "in shock. More than two billion people have watched this format and it is the first time we have been forced to send the housemates home." (Some may speculate that the unnamed spokeswoman was featured by The Independent in this story about the show's start-up two days ago).

Even though the show has ended, the possibility for religious violence over it apparently remains real. Both an article in the Bahraini "Gulf Daily News" reporting on charges of harassment against MDC personnel in Bahrain and a second article reporting on praise for the cancellation have been removed from the paper's online Web site, although the abstracts remain in a Google search:

MBC staff 'harassed'
Gulf Daily News, Bahrain
Several MBC employees involved with Big Brother in Bahrain were victims of harassment and indecent insults, sources told our sister paper Akhbar Al Khaleej. ...


Producers praised as reality TV show axed
Gulf Daily News, Bahrain
By REBECCA TORR. The suspension of reality television show Big Brother
was welcomed by many in Bahrain last night. The announcement ...


In fact, the only article remaining on the Gulf Daily News Website concerning the show is this one, which reports on the impending first boot on Al-Ra'is ... an event that will apparently never happen.

Compared to the Al-Ra'is furor, the Janet Jackson-Super Bowl escapade in the U.S. seems like a mere kerfuffle. However, we refuse to comment on the irony of watching American religious conservatives and the Islamists line up on the same side of an issue.

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