The axing of Ahlam shows the power of Arab reality TV

Those who watch the Middle East's reality television shows wield real power, writes Hala Khalaf

Pep Montserrat / The National
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The leading story on Wednesday night’s episode of ET Bil Arabi – a regional, Arabic version of the US entertainment news show Entertainment Tonight (ET) – was the change in Emirati singer Ahlam’s attitude from arrogant, wronged and entitled to apologetic, chastened and contrite.

The pop diva had crossed the divide from singer to TV star when the first episode of her reality show, The Queen, aired on Dubai TV 10 days ago, only for it to be axed less than 48 hours later in deference to enraged audience feedback surrounding both the format of the show as well as Ahlam’s unabashed arrogance.

Although her first reaction was nonchalance on Twitter and an insistent “of course I’m arrogant” during an interview with the Al Arabiya news channel, Ahlam has since seen the error of her ways and seems desperate to find herself back in the good graces of her “Halloumiyeen” fans – a term coined for Ahlam’s super fans.

Perhaps the reports that she has since had a number of private and public appearances canceled, and been asked to withdraw from the Mother of the Nation Festival celebrations, has something to do with it.

She posted a long apology online, which she then shared extensively on Twitter, using the #iApologise hashtag. She appeared to be 100 per cent on board with the decision to cancel the show and exhibited an uncharacteristic display of humbleness.

Finally, it seems Ahlam has gone too far, and public discourse wonders if she will be able to bounce back from the bad decision of stepping into reality TV.

Wherever it airs in the world, reality television has proven both popular and controversial, garnering huge numbers of viewers, while also drawing attacks for being trivial and tabloid.

In the Arab world, however, reality TV seems to be a key vehicle through which to negotiate a range of social, cultural, political, economic and technological changes.

Reality TV in the Middle East has become a springboard for significant debates about everything from nationalism and the future of citizenship to social norms and the death of cultural traditions.

Take Ahlam’s fiasco as the most recent example. Outraged attacks on her apparent lack of patriotism and a disrespect towards her country and culture had her stressing her love for the UAE extensively in her apology. It certainly wasn’t her first celebrity faux pas; she is notorious for speaking her mind, however outrageously, and for insisting that her arrogance is well-earned.

What is the appeal of these shows – Arab Idol, X Factor Arabia, The Voice Ahla Sawt, Arabs’ Got Talent – prompting millions from conservative societies to remain glued to their televisions? Is it because voting for a favourite contestant on these shows the nearest thing many Arabs have to a democracy?

These voting-based reality shows hold an appeal that is unprecedented on Arab television, garnering far higher ratings than the soap operas that once used to dominate screens.

There is a natural feedback loop between TV viewers and TV executives, now in the age of Twitter more than ever. Those who make the shows listen carefully to viewer feedback, knowing how important their views – blasted across social media – will be to the popularity of the show.

That perhaps explains some of the popularity among viewers, who know that their views will be listened to and taken into account. That is not the case across the majority of the Middle East.

Another difference from western reality TV is political. Certainly the shows’ formats are very similar to their western counterparts, but the cultural difference lies in the participants and the Arab celebrity judges themselves.

Politics, for example, play no role in the western incarnations, but removing politics from the Arab shows means no show exists. Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, was a hit not only because of his singing ability; he was a Palestinian from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and became a symbol of national pride.

King Abdullah of Jordan called for his people to vote for The Voice contestant Nedaa Sharara, a Jordanian, and the first female winner of the show.

Then there’s the judges. Ahlam often voices her opinions on current affairs as a judge on Arab Idol. Tunisian singer Saber Al Rebai, judge on The Voice, applauded the programme’s popularity and said: “Let people get obsessed with this show and sit at home and watch it, better for them than being out there in all this violence and nonsense. Let them sing, better for them than wearing suicide bombs.”

Iraqi superstar Kazem Al Saher, another The Voice judge, has attributed the rising popularity of these reality TV talent shows to the political upheaval and violence in the region, claiming that the shows allow people to escape the misery of their lives, as well as the economic difficulties and ongoing wars, and indulge in a bit of escapism.

There’s an audience out there obsessing over the lives of others, whether they are celebrities or the average person contending with his or her one hour of fame.

And with access to this type of gossip-based, superficial news more readily available than ever thanks to Twitter and Instagram and SnapChat, we’ve become more and more taken with the lives of those far removed from our own, preferring to pass judgement on them and their antics, and what they do or do not represent of our society.

These shows seem to have a more direct impact on Arab public discourse and politics than any other media product.

Television viewers, web surfers and mobile phone users, prodded by reality television, participate in television shows and express their opinions on the tickers of television screens and on fan sites and discussion groups. They are vocal on Twitter and ready to comment on Instagram.

These conversations, that start about celebrity and reality TV, quickly become about a wide range of topics. Reality TV crosses the dialects and countries of the vast Arab world and enables conversations online that don’t often happen face-to-face.

On an earlier season of Arab Idol, an Iraqi Kurdish singer called Parwaz Hussein sang in Kurdish, sparking a wider conversation across social media about Kurdish and Arab identity and the call from Kurds in northern Iraq for their own homeland.

But whether this leads to a significant and sustainable opening at the political level, and whether participation in reality shows leads to long-term civic or political participation that in turn leads to systemic and sustainable changes in Arab governance, remains to be seen.

Still, there’s no doubt that it’s this sort of activity that led to the demise of Ahlam’s The Queen, which simply could not stand up to, nor ignore, the wrath of viewers who did not want to see that particular reality show garner any more additional screen time.

Here’s the unarguable truth, however. Love it or hate it, reality TV in the Middle East is here to stay.

Hala Khalaf is a freelance journalist and music instructor living in Abu Dhabi