- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

BETHLEHEM, West Bank

Drugs, espionage, intermarriage and domestic violence, artfully woven with messages of peace, will be beamed into Palestinian homes this Ramadan in a rare local television soap opera.

Scripted, acted, directed and produced by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and funded by the British government to promote peace in the Middle East, the 20-episode extravaganza, “Shu Fi Ma Fi” (“What’s Up?”), starts this weekend.

It will be broadcast into Palestinian living rooms across the territories twice nightly six days a week during the holy fasting month. Its project managers praise it as revolutionary Palestinian programming.

Produced for a mere $220,000, or $11,000 per episode, it may look cheap and shoddy to those spoiled by lavish U.S. productions, but the low-budget soap opera is a milestone for local television.

“This is the best Palestinian drama. I’m happy and pleased. I think [Palestinian viewers] will be very, very happy,” says producer Raed Othman.

The program, billed as a family comedy, takes place at a university, shifting from the girls’ dorm to the boys’ dorm to a cafeteria as the main players brush with love and disaster, make mistakes and learn the virtue of tolerance.

John Bell, Middle Eastern director of Search for Common Ground, says “Shu Fi Ma Fi” will be revolutionary in helping Palestinians think about things — mixed marriage and the stalled road-map peace plan, for example — from more than one perspective.

Last year, Mr. Othman produced the first local soap opera, “Mazih Fi Jad” (“Joking Seriously”), but he agrees the new soap marks a distinct and ambitious improvement.

Filmed between mid-June and mid-August in a Bethlehem house turned into a makeshift studio, the Ramadan treat runs to 20 episodes of 40 minutes each.

Ramadan this year is expected to begin on Sunday, depending on sightings of the crescent moon, and Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking and having sexual relations from dawn to dusk throughout the holy month.

Dressed like any Western actor in beige linen trousers, his tight curls already slightly greying at 35, actor Nicola Zreineh enthuses about his part as a student from a refugee camp determined to make life better for his parents.

“In Palestine, opportunities for working in TV and film production are rare, so it was a very good opportunity,” he says.

The rarity of locally made television drama exposes the lack of basic amenities that actors in the West, even in Egypt, take for granted.

There are no Palestinian studios and no drama schools. Mr. Zreineh was trained by different European directors at workshops and learned the rest treading the boards on the theater circuit for the past 10 years.

Admitting “disappointment” at the initial reaction from journalists to the trailer — “you can’t judge 20 episodes from 10 minutes” — he says he is confident the greater Palestinian public will be more receptive.

“Normal Palestinians will be happy to see a Palestinian production taking place in Palestine,” he says. “Here we are raised on political issues only, and in this soap opera, we are talking more about social aspects of Palestinian society.”

Mr. Zreineh, who earned $750 a month during filming, is waiting for fame and adulation to roll in.

“There is not so much exposure when you work in theater, and last year, after the first one, when you walk in the streets everyone points at you,” he says with a grin.

At 26, director Rifat Adi has only one other cinematic credit to his name — a 10-minute film made in Cairo. He complains about having to forgo luxuries such as a real car chase to keep the soap on track.

“We don’t have drama in Palestine. I wanted to make this project to offer Palestinian children and all the Palestinian people dreams,” he sighs.

Mr. Othman, general director of the Maan network, which produced “Shu Fi Ma Fi,” says the purpose was to make people aware of their actions and open debate and also to bring street culture to the screen as in the United States.

Putting battles with the tiny budget firmly in the past, Mr. Othman says he hopes he can turn the soap into an Arab moneymaker.

“I hope we can market it outside Palestine,” he says. “We are a little bit late for Ramadan, but we have started to contact the Arab satellite stations, and Qatar is interested.”

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