- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

BEIRUT — Reality TV has burst upon the Arab world, drawing huge audiences but firing up conservative outrage over the spectacle of young men and women flirting, hugging and dancing under one roof.

Young people from Iraq and Syria to Egypt, Kuwait and Yemen love these variations on “Big Brother” and “American Idol.” Some religious scholars and politicians say they are sacrilegious.

Things got so heated this week that Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Corp. bowed to pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and the Bahrain Information Ministry and said it will suspend “Al-Rayes,” its version of “Big Brother,” less than two weeks into the show.

“Al-Rayes” featured 12 contestants living in a villa on Amwaj, a small island in the Gulf state of Bahrain. Each week one person was to be evicted from the house, with the last remaining tenant winning $100,000.

The critics weren’t assuaged by the fact that male and female contestants slept in separate quarters and had prayer rooms.

The first reality show in the Arab world was introduced in December by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. In “Star Academy,” 16 Arabs share a house north of Beirut and can be viewed 24 hours a day on a satellite channel as they cook, eat, sleep (in sexually segregated quarters) and attend sports, singing, music and dance classes.

Each week, viewers vote out one of two participants. The winner will be crowned April 2 and get a recording contract.

“Star Academy,” based on a French show of the same name, has been so popular that Lebanese restaurant owners complain business is off on Friday evenings when its weekly prime-time segment airs. Parents worry about children skipping homework to watch the show.

“It is exciting living with a group of boys and girls in one place, enjoying themselves, which makes us feel that we can enjoy our lives,” says Hiam Ramal, 24, a university employee in conservative Egypt.

The show gives young people in a divided and turbulent region a rare opportunity to get to know each other better. But it also has stirred rare levels of rage.

The dean of Kuwait’s Islamic Law College, Muhammad al-Tabtabi, has denounced the “shamelessness” and “decadence” of “Star Academy” and called on Muslims to boycott it.

Muhammad al-Ohaideb, writing in the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh, calls it a “whorehouse” and a platform for “cheap and immoral behavior.”

Web sites opposed to “Star Academy” have sprung up on the Internet. “I am stunned by the corruption and blind imitation [of the West] on the program,” read a message on a Web site, signed Samir al-Houlouli from Bahrain.

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