Out to Arab Youth
By Hassan M. Fattah
Just a few seconds before
going on air, 26-year-old Cat-Ramsey Fayad scurried to the edge of the stage at
Zen TV's sprawling TV studio in Beirut, Lebanon and sank cross-legged before one
of the roving cameras on the set of DardaChat. The show, set in a mythical loft
somewhere in an Arab city, is Zen's most popular broadcast airing between 6:30
and 8:30, prime time for Arab youth. Fayad, the resident psychology presenter,
wiggled in her ripped jeans, white t-shirt and red bandana, and did her best to
look cool and composed as she stared into the lens. Within a second she was on
air, beamed into countless living rooms around the Middle East, ready to discuss
some unlikely subjects. "Today," she began in Arabic, with a hint of an accent,
"I want to talk about depression." Once a week, Fayad shows up on DardaChat to
discuss viewers' personal dilemmas. A neuropsychologist raised in Canada to a
Lebanese father and a Swedish mother, she spent a year improving her Arabic before
getting going on the psychology of young Arabs. On this mid-summer day she proceeded
to discuss the emails she regularly receives dealing with depression, identity
crises, and relationship troubles; the kinds of issues Arabs tend to avoid discussing
in private, much less on TV.
For almost two years,
Cat and the rest of DardaChat's team of presenters and producers have made it
their mission to bring up the issues Arab TV has long avoided. From its multimillion-dollar
studio in the hills of Beirut, Zen TV (pronounced "zayne", meaning "Good") has
beamed the world of Arab youth into living rooms from Algiers to Jeddah, tackling
taboo subjects like sex, the growing generation gap, and emotional conflicts with
a host of talk shows, game shows, and dubbed movies.
"Arab kids have two sides
to them today-they are at the intersection of modernity and traditional culture,"
emphasizes Mimi Raad, Zen's Channel Coordinator and one of the architects of the
channel. "When kids tune to Zen they see 'This is a kid like me, who understands
what I'm going through, and knows the kinds of things I like and what my culture
It became an unlikely
niche in a crowded marketplace. Zen's promise is in appealing to a demographic
sector largely forgotten in the Middle East media boom. Close to 60 percent of
Arabs today are under 25, thanks to the so-called youth bulge caused by falling
infant mortality and high fertility. And as these "Arab Boomers" have come of
age, they've begun a culture shift from the shores of Tunisia to the deserts of
Jordan as they've rethought long-held assumptions and begun to look for a new
direction. Despite their numbers, however, little TV programming actually speaks
to the Arab boomers. Many channels have programming that appeals to grade school
kids, media watchers note, but few have given much thought to youth in their late
teens and twenties facing the greatest challenges.
"Arab youth have been
the most neglected segment of Arab society," stresses Adel Iskandar, co-author
of Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed
the Middle East. "For the longest time, the youth only had Western programming
that reflected their interests and aspirations. Nobody wanted to watch any of
the Arabic programming."
Zen's producers are betting
they can attract those legions of young Arabs with Arabic-language programming
that reflects their anxieties and aspirations while respecting their culture and
values. Launched in January 2001 by Lebanese satellite broadcaster Future TV,
itself majority owned by Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Zen is essentially
a mix of MTV and Disney with an Arab bent, straight from its hip content down
to its very western-looking presenters. Nonetheless, there is virtually no English
spoken on camera, and Arab traditions and values ranging from the importance of
family to religious values are the backdrop of all conversation.
"We want to be bold without
being vulgar," emphasizes Raad. "We want a smart revolution."
DardaChat is the stalwart
of that vision. After Fayad's 15-minute psychology segment, the scene switched
to 23-year old Salah Moussalli in the kitchen a few feet away, who unveiled his
latest concoction, a pasta dish fit for a dorm room. Baxter Yazbek, the show's
29-year old tech guru, shared his latest discoveries from the Web. Marianne Sargi,
the fashion correspondent and lead host that evening, talked about father's day
in the Middle East and the importance of her relationship with her father. And
a rambunctious sports report by blond and blue-eyed Zaher and his sprightly friend
Ghassan delivered highlights of the World Cup and other sporting events, paying
close attention to Arab teams.
It may not be the kind
of journalism Arabs have grow used to from Al Jazeera, DardaChat's presenters
will tell you, but in all the talk of wardrobes and hot new bands is an accurate
reflection of the dramatic changes occurring in Arab youth. "These kids are different
in so many ways," emphasizes Sargi. "They're simply much more open to different
opinions and perspectives from other cultures."
Even more important for
some viewers is the chance to watch Arabs tackling their own problems, debating
each other and defining who they are. Take Ahmed Waddah from Alexandria, Egypt,
who admits to tuning into Zen at least four hours a day. "Zen reflects how I react
to what happens in the world, the information I search for, the movies I watch
and the music I listen to," says Waddah. "I feel that Zen is about us as Arabs
striving to live in this millennium, with mutual concerns."
Others emphasize the sense
of belonging. "I was really frustrated about the situation in our region," writes
viewer Sami Al-Atig, also from the Gulf. "When watching the program some hope
returned to me that such young Arabs exist. I think with people like that we can
prevail." Just how many are open to these ideals is up for debate, however. A
study conducted by Future TV last October estimated Zen's viewer base at nearly
2.6 million, a quarter of them in Saudi Arabia, a fifth in Jordan, followed by
Egypt, the UAE, and Lebanon, respectively. But media critics warn that such numbers
can often be inflated to please advertisers.
Indeed, Zen's depiction
of young Arabs is far from universally accepted. Raad notes that her email box
was flooded with negative comments when the channel was launched, most objecting
to the overtly Western styles and mannerisms. "I don't mind having a special channel
representing young men and women of the country and even the Arab and Muslim region,"
notes Fahad Al Mahmood from the United Arab Emirates, "but not in such a negative
way. I would love to watch programs made by our young people reflecting the younger
generations' real problems and interests." Those problems, Mahmood insists, go
far beyond discussion of sex and fashion to titillate audiences. Indeed, the real
test for Zen is whether it will be able to reach audiences beyond big cities,
where culture is more conservative and far less westernized, says columnist and
media critic Daoud Kuttab, who is based in Amman, Jordan. "Zen reflects people
who look to the West and America as a model. It's a successful 5th Avenue, Madison
Avenue way of reaching a young audience," Kuttab notes. "But we are an oral society
and people watch a lot of TV…can this really go into the countryside?"
Zen's denizens admit their
target is middle and upper-middle class Arabs, those "who buy Levi's and can travel,"
as Raad puts it. But, she adds, the producers hope the others will aspire to the
Hassan M. Fattah is a
freelance reporter based in New York who covers media and technology and their
effects on cultures. He is a regular contributor to the Economist, Red Herring,
American Demographics, and others. A version of this article originally appeared
in The Columbia Journalism Review.