Palestinian satirical TV show gets unlikely applause from PA
'Homeland on a Thread' satirizes inept Palestinian politicians, police bullies and Muslim extremists.
Palestine TV was once the boring channel that viewers skipped over while searching for entertainment. But this time, the state-run station has picked a winner - an irreverent comedy show that mocks and often bites the hand that feeds it: the Palestinian Authority government.
"Homeland on a Thread" satirizes inept Palestinian politicians, police bullies and Muslim extremists. It's Palestine TV's first ever attempt at political satire, an art form that remains rare in the Arab world where authoritarian regimes abound.
"The 30-minute program's popularity is a sign that audiences are thirsting for more openness, said Manal Awad," one of three comedians featured in the skits broadcast every evening for the duration of the Muslim month of Ramadan.
"The group is trying to break the three red lines of Palestinian society -politics, sex and religion," said Awad. "We want to send a clear message to audiences: we need to say things as they are in reality, not avoid them".
Palestinians have much tragedy to mine for black humor.
In the West Bank, they live under Israeli military occupation, with the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas running most day-to-day affairs. In Gaza, they're confined to a narrow coastal strip by an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade and live under the rule of the Islamic militant Hamas which overran the territory in 2007.
In a recent skit, an actor portraying Abbas chaired his Fatah party's seventh convention - the sixth was just held in August, after two decades of delay.
But in the skit, the seventh convention is 500 years in the future, and the president is actually Abbas the 13th - mocking the tendency of Arab leaders to pass on their jobs to their heirs.
"The president watched it and laughed," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, aide to the real-life Abbas. Abed Rabbo was appointed to head Palestine TV this year and is credited with allowing the satire to go on the air.
Of course, it pays to be careful. TV executives acknowledged they asked Abbas' permission before running the episode.
It was the only skit featuring Abbas. Other Palestinian politicians have also been skewered, including senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
In one episode, a Palestinian negotiator is shown giving his pants to Israeli officials who agree to take down an Israeli military checkpoint in return, the paltry reward for years of peace talks. Erekat is not identified by name, but viewers recognize him when the actor portraying him uses some of Erekat's catch phrases in the dialogue.
In a third segment, a young man tried to take his girlfriend to a quiet place to talk. But the young couple gets caught in a maze of Palestinian checkpoints manned by different branches of the security forces, including police, firefighters and paratroopers. Palestinians don't have paratroopers, let alone an air force, and the scene skewered the Palestinian Authority's many grandly named security branches who often harass residents.
Palestinian media don't use ratings but the show's popularity is demonstrated by its prime-time slot, and the buzz it has created. Palestinians throughout the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem say they watch it with their families.
Families gather after the Iftar, the evening meal that ends the dawn-to-dusk fast of Ramadan, to watch Watan al Watar, or Homeland on a Thread - a title that suggests the Palestinians are barely hanging on.
On a recent evening in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Zaal Abu Ruqti shushed his loudly laughing adult children, watching the show together over a table of coffee, sweets and cigarettes.
That night the show featured a Muslim extremist in Gaza who didn't recognize one of his many wives because she was draped in a black cloak and face veil, a uniform of hardline Muslim women.
"I think the actors are going to get in trouble," said Abu Ruqti's son Firas, 30, echoing the views of other Palestinians.
In the past, the Palestinian Authority has shown little tolerance for criticism, and the Abbas government's bear hug of the comedy show has been surprising. "In Palestine TV's 15 years of operations, politicians routinely rejected requests of station officials to broadcast political satire," said the show's production director, Jaber Khedeir.
Abed Rabbo, the new TV chief, said putting the show on the air signals a new approach. "The program shows the development in speech and press freedom in the Palestinian Authority," he said.
Imad Farrajine, 31, one of the show's writers, said he is given a free hand, noting that Tuesday's episode tackled detentions of political rivals, both by Abbas' forces and Hamas, a particularly sensitive subject.
"We have no red lines. We have a political decision to criticize whatever we want," he said.Gaza analyst Talal Okal said he believes the internationally backed Abbas government's step toward openness may be a cynical move to show residents that it supports free speech, even as it keeps cracking down on dissent.
In July, Palestinian Authority officials closed Al-Jazeera operations for days, because the pan-Arab station aired a claim linking Abbas to the death of his predecessor Yasser Arafat. Palestinian newspapers at times censor themselves and won't run stories that could be seen as too critical of the government.
They are allowing an outlet to show that everything is OK, Okal said of government officials.
Still, any political satire is relatively rare in the Arab world, with Lebanon standing out as the country with perhaps the greatest freedom of expression. In Israel's freewheeling culture, biting satire has long be a staple of TV entertainment.
Farrajine, a stand-up comedian whose material formed the show's script, now hopes to take his material to a bigger audience on an Arab satellite channel.
"I want to make people laugh at their tragedies and try change their situation," he said.