Arab TV Show Dramatizes Lives of Suicide Bombers
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Throughout this Ramadan season, a new television series has been stirring up controversy in the Arab world, challenging the motives for terrorism. For the first time, an Arabic-language drama is looking at the victims of religious extremism and questioning violence. Some conservative Muslim clerics have denounced the series, and the program producer has been threatened on Web sites popular with extremists. But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, the show has been a hit with viewers.
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DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
In Damascus, the traditions of Ramadan are as old as the Koran, Islam's holy book: a month of introspection and prayer, no food or water from sunup to sundown. With the spread of Arab satellite stations, a modern Ramadan tradition has taken off. The best television shows of the year are broadcast for families who gather to eat after the daytime fast, ensuring a maximum viewing audience.
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AMOS: This year blockbuster is "Al-Hoor al-Ain." Roughly translated it means "Maidens with Beautiful Eyes," which refers to a Koranic verse, but also to the belief of Islamist militants that they will be met by 72 virgins in heaven as a reward for what they consider martyrdom operations but others call suicide attacks. Syrian director Najdat Anzour created the program funded by a Saudi-owned channel. He says his inspiration came from real events when militants attacked a housing compound in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Mr. NAJDAT ANZOUR (Director): There was a phone call or whatever between two terrorist guys. One of them--he want to make the explosion in the compound and he is counting: seven, six, five, four, three, two...
AMOS: It is the actual countdown to the blast that killed mostly Arab civilians, including children. Saudi police recorded the telephone exchange, says Anzour.
Mr. ANZOUR: Seven seconds to meet the virgins, six seconds to f--you know, this is the mentality. So I was shocked when I heard this, you know.
AMOS: Anzour's drama intertwined with news footage charts the Islamist militants who carry out the crime and their religious arguments to recruit others, the Saudi police who hunt them and the Arab families devastated by the violence of extremism.
Mr. ANZOUR: I focus on the families, the Arab families that are living in Saudi Arabia as the land of dreams--can make your dream comes true, and this is why the terrorists attack this place exactly because they want to destroy the dreams of the Arabs.
AMOS: While the program highlights suffering in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Habash, a religious leader in Damascus, says it is militants in Iraq who are on the mind of Arab audiences, violent men who have carried out scores of suicide bombings against Iraqi targets.
Mr. MOHAMMED HABASH: Believe me, there is some changing in our understanding, even in the conservative people, because there is no one can accept what happened in Iraq.
AMOS: In Damascus, barber Wasim Saheen(ph) has the television on in his shop. He watches "Al-Hoor al-Ain" while he works.
And so you watch this every night?
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Mr. WASIM SAHEEN (Barber): Yeah, me. Every night--oh, no. OK, every night.
AMOS: The program appeals to Arab audiences, says Marwan Kabalan, who teaches political science and media studies at Damascus University, because it is a message by Arabs for Arabs.
Mr. MARWAN KABALAN (Damascus University): This is our problem, and we have to deal with this problem. When it comes, for example, from the West, everybody will start talk--well, this is an American story and--but when it comes from our television or our actors, it's completely different because it gives the story more credibility.
AMOS: Even director Anzour does not believe his program will change the mind of al-Qaeda militants, but he says it has opened a long overdue discussion.
Mr. ANZOUR: Everywhere in Arab world. I was in Cairo yesterday. This series is number one everywhere in Arab world now. Everybody watching this series.
AMOS: And for those who watch, a written message flashes on the screen before each episode. `Silence toward injustice is another injustice. Forgetting a crime is another crime.' Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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