“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Perhaps Charles Dickens said it best when he eloquently wrote The Tale of Two Cities in 1859, foreseeing a world that would find these words just as relevant as they were nearly two hundred years ago.
Such is the feeling that envelopes every Muslim when Ramzan approaches. It is a time of reflection, compassion and prayer. Even the worst of us tries to find the best in ourselves when we set out on a journey to correct the wrongs that have been committed the past year.
It is a peaceful time; streets are blissfully empty during iftar, with the exception of the few travellers who stop at various junctions to quickly join the free iftar being distributed by good Samaritans. The poor find some refuge in knowing that they might find some charity this month. The goodness of the final days brings people closer to their homes and mosques and then finally, Eid is the perfect ending to an otherwise perfect month that is spent in the care of others.
At least that is what the true essence of Ramzan really is. In reality, Ramzan has started to mean something very different in today’s troubling times. It’s a time for consumerism, as is obvious from the way the entertainment, fashion and food industries start operating in these 30 odd days. There is a race to make more money, and in the case of our media industry, there is a race to get more ratings as well.
Ramzan transmissions boil down to this at the end of the day. To some TV channels, what matters more is that their TV show is being watched more than others and for that, producers and celebrities are willing to do literally anything. Actresses will don dupattas for a pious look, TV show hosts will make uncles and aunties dance on stage in order to win a free motorcycle or a free phone; others will promise to give away airplanes – the list goes on.
As the month comes to a close this year, Instep wonders whether this commercial rat race exists just in Pakistan or affects the rest of the Muslim world as well. So we investigated Muslim regions around the world to gather a sense of what the rest of the Muslim world is up to in terms of Ramzan content.
Turns out that Ramzan is a very profitable month for Muslim countries all over the world, including the likes of Lebanon, UAE, Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia amongst others. According to a research on media by the Northwestern University in Qatar, advertising rates are nearly doubled in Ramzan and TV networks such as the MBC are inundated with new TV productions, designed especially for the holy month.
Egyptian publication Cairo Scene published a list of 38 TV serials to watch out for this year, some of which were specifically made for the month of Ramzan. The interesting point to note here is that not all shows are religious in nature. In fact, most of them are ordinary drama serials that actually have nothing to do with Islam or the month of Ramzan.
For instance, one show called Alahom Any Sa’em (May God Bless My Fasting) is about a conman who is married to more than one woman. Another TV show, ‘Asham Eblees (The Devil’s Wish) is about a doctor who has memory loss after an accident. Wad’ Amny (Security Situation) is about a man who works in a bureaucratic sector of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, where he ends up getting tangled in a bribery scandal that reveals shocking facts about the illegal trade of Egyptian artifacts. It’s clear that Egyptian TV doesn’t change the type of content shown on television; they simply increase their production in Ramzan.
A unique element of Ramzan television in another corner of the world made us realize that every Muslim region has a culture of its own when it comes to television. For instance, Pakistani TV revolves around the game show culture. In much the same way, North African TV loves to produce celebrity prank shows in Ramzan.
One would wonder the connection between the two; what does Ramzan have to do with prank shows? Nevertheless, countries like Algeria love fooling famous people in the holy month of Ramzan. According to the BBC, a recent TV show in Algeria received fierce criticism for pranking a renowned communist novelist into believing that he had been arrested for ‘atheism and espionage’. Titled We Got You, the show was suspended after receiving a wave of protests from across the country.
This isn’t the first or last incident that involves terrifying pranks. In 2013, notorious Egyptian TV prankster Ramez Galal fooled celebrities into believing that the bus they were travelling on had been intercepted by militants. Unsurprisingly, Galal has been sued various times. This year, Galal ‘pranked’ Shah Rukh Khan as well by driving the star’s car into a quicksand but we later learned that King Khan was in on it too.
Thankfully, there are some TV networks that produce slightly relevant content. In the UAE, shows such as Ramadan Kareem were aired this year. Ramadan Kareem follows the story and struggles of an Egyptian family during the holy month and focuses on brothers Ramadan and Kareem, as well as their neighbourhood and community. Kan Fi Kol Zaman is a social commentary about the current state of the Arab world as well as a journey to understand a little bit of the region’s history.
The most noteworthy TV production that has been specially designed for the month of Ramzan is called Black Crows and it airs on MBC, which is broadcast in a number of Muslim countries. This show stands out for a number of reasons.
“We believe that this is an epidemic, this is a disease that we have to muster the courage to address and fight,” Ali Jaber, Director of Television at the MBC Group, told the New York Times in a bid to explain why the show was centered on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS). The show aims to reveal the true teachings of Islam by shedding light on all the incorrect information about Islam that is being passed around by the terrorist organization. Instead of creating an easygoing, entertaining comedy for families, which is the norm for Arab television during Ramzan, MBC decided to show what life is really like under the influence of ISIS and what it means for many Muslims living under their rule.
Doing so couldn’t have been easy because the producers and actors of the show have received multiple threats from ISIS, leading to an increase in security in MBC’s offices around the world. Also, Mr. Jaber himself believed that the show would suffer financially as sponsors would hesitate to advertise their products on such a controversial show.
In conclusion, it’s best to reflect on what Pakistanis watched on TV this year. We saw an inundation of celebrity hosts take over our TV screens; Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar were joined by Noman Ejaz and Bushra Ansari on GEO TV; Ahsan Khan hosted a Ramzan transmission alongside Juggan Kazim and Muniba Mazari on PTV.
Then we saw the ugly face of Ramzan television as well. Amir Liaqat promised to give away an airplane. Sahir Lodhi lost his cool, forcing a woman to stop her poem midway as the host attempted to ‘correct’ her attitude towards founder of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Fahad Mustafa’s list of ‘gifts’ also increased this Ramzan, so did the list of strange activities people are willing to do in order to get them.
However, we also saw Shaista Lodhi host a transmission on A-Plus that tried to do something different this year. Ittehad Ramzan attempted to create unity between Muslims of different countries by sending 30 Pakistani celebrities, such as Ali Kazmi, Zhalay Sarhadi, Ali Azmat and many others, to 30 different Muslim countries, such as Oman, Azerbaijan, Kenya, Malaysia. The idea was to find things that are in common between different Muslim countries in how they celebrate Ramzan. For instance, through the show, we learned that in Oman, people like to open their fasts in mosques where hundreds of people get together on a daily basis.
Pakistan is in the process of finding it’s own identity in terms of Ramzan content for television and that can be seen with the way producers keep experimenting with new celebrities and new concepts year after year. That said, we do hope that TV channels and producers will take content beyond game shows and focus on contemporary, educational, diverse and creative content (which does not include having four aalims preach their understanding of religion to the audience) that will encourage people to think and reflect on the actual meaning of Ramzan rather than play games that fuel consumerism to new heights. Here’s hoping for new dimensions to Ramzan in 2018.
This article was first published in Instep on Sunday, June 25th, 2017.