The release of new television shows has become a modern Ramadan tradition in the Arab world, uniting Arabic-speaking communities as they watch shows simultaneously in a shared annual experience that transcends borders. However, the reactions to these shows can at times be quite divisive. This year is no exception.
After the first day of fasting is over, most families gather around to see what satellite channels have to offer them by way of entertainment. Every year, big production and advertising budgets have led to a plethora of shows being released on day one of Ramadan.
This year, Nasser Al Qasabi, the most famous of Saudi Arabia's television stars, is back with a show titled Makhraj 7 on MBC. It reflects upon modern-day changes in Saudi Arabia; everything from women entering the public sector in full force to the impacts of video-gaming is tackled through Al Qasabi's character Dokhi, a government bureaucrat, and his family. Couched in humour, serious issues are tackled with nuance and empathy.
Episode three was aired on Sunday night, tackling an issue that stirs emotions not only in Saudi Arabia but across the Arab world: Israel’s occupation of Palestine and interactions with Israelis. A taboo subject for decades, the last few years have witnessed increasing questions around Arabs’ relations with Israelis, especially as the geopolitics of the region shift.
While Egypt and Jordan have signed official peace treaties with Israel, most other Arab countries continue with the policy of boycotting the State of Israel as the most effective tool in fighting its illegal occupation of Palestine. However, some of those walls are falling.
In Makhraj 7, all starts with Dokhi discovering that his son, Ziyad, no older than ten years old, has befriended an Israeli through an online game. Dokhi is both angered by this friendship and confused by how young strangers could communicate online. As Dokhi vows to ban Ziyad from this interaction, he realises that he doesn't actually know how to go about doing that.
Furthermore, in his conversations with other members of the family about this “disaster”, as he calls it, he encounters a variety of views, undermining the notion that all Saudis have one viewpoint on Israel. While Dokhi’s wife is uninterested in its implications, his brother is concerned that authorities could deem the friendship as “treason”. Meanwhile, Dokhi’s young and idealistic daughter Hadeel decides to boycott her brother until he “ceases all relations with the enemy”.
Perhaps the most telling reaction is that of a young Saudi delivery man. The beginnings of a love story emerge between him and Hadeel, as the latter looks for excuses to order items from his store in order to see him at the gate of her home.
In last Sunday’s episode, Hadeel asks the delivery man his opinion on “the most important of causes”, implying the movement against Israel, though he responds “which one”?
While Dokhi’s daughter is shocked that he would not prioritise the Palestinian cause, the young man responds that his own priority is to make sure that he can find meaningful employment and meet the challenges of everyday life. “Then I can relieve the entire Arab world of my issues, rather than sitting with no work except to talk about so-called causes”.
The most controversial view is that of Dokhi’s father-in-law, Jabir. He claims there is no issue with Israel, musing that he could find great business opportunities there.
The real enemy, he claims, is “those who take us for granted”. When asked by Dokhi who he is referring to, Jabir says it is those Palestinians who criticise Saudi Arabia and have never been grateful for its decades-long support for them. Jabir then engages in a long monologue filled with biases and inaccuracies, a scene which in the last twenty-four hours been clipped and reposted on a number of social media accounts declaring it as “evidence” of Saudi positions towards Israel.
But in truth, the episode is nothing of the sort. Posting this small clip alone, without any context or understanding of the complex ideas presented in the 40-minute-long show, leads to even greater confusion in the Arab world. The reality is that Jabir is cast as a troublesome figure – a corrupt man who takes any opportunity to further his own personal benefit with no regard for the welfare of anyone else, including his own grandchildren. Furthermore, Dokhi’s response to Jabir is a very powerful one, emphasising the moral imperative to reject the Israeli occupation and insisting that the Palestinian cause is both just and important, even if you disagree with some Palestinian leaders.
The episode’s script is bold and well-crafted, addressing head-on the misconceptions and grievances some feel in the Arab world. Rather than watching it in its entirety and debating the very emotive issues it raises, some of the online response has been narrow-minded, ignorant and lacking in nuance. This is an approach the Palestinians have long suffered from, and from which the Israeli occupation has only benefited.
In this modern era, people often react to a headline, or to a 30-second clip from a five-minute scene, rarely reading the whole article or watching the whole show to actually learn more or understand the argument. Instead, technology and the ease of spreading text, photo and video mean that biases are reinforced. But shows like Makhraj 7 are important because they allow us to discuss subjects that are often deemed taboo.
The episode ends with each of the cast sticking to his or her own view, either unable or, because of selfish pragmatism, unwilling to change deeply held beliefs. The ability to tackle issues with nuance is often lost, but in Makhraj 7 it is found. Meanwhile, Ziyad's brief interaction with his Israeli friend ends when he completes that level of the video game and simply moves on, none the wiser.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National