Tue, Nov 25, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Looking at the funny -- and not so funny -- side of Islamic law

SAUDI SATIRE Several episodes of a TV series shown just during the month of Ramadan has upset religious conservatives, but has others laughing until they cry


The three women wake to the sound of a burglar rummaging downstairs.

They summon the police, don their veils and flee into the street to wait, but when the officer arrives he refuses to investigate because there is no male present.

"I swear by God I would love to serve you," the officer avows, retreating to his patrol car. "But we cannot enter if your male guardian is not here."

It was just one episode of what might be the most popular television series in Saudi Arabia, but it touched off both sustained outrage and peals of laughter across the kingdom.

The episode raised the hackles of religious conservatives for mocking the Islamic tenets and cultural traditions that they believe Saudi Arabia must maintain at all costs. More liberal Saudis relished the subtle ridicule of the way such tenets jar with modern life.

"This show is a window that people can see us through, and we can show the world how we live," said Fowziyah Abukhalid, a sociologist at King Saud University.

"Some of these issues used to be taboo, so to have someone talk about them and criticize them is very important," Abukhalid said.

That might be considered the view of the educated intelligentsia. The religious take an entirely different stance: "In the name of God, I prohibit acting in or watching such a series," reads one of the fatwas issued by theologians against the show.

Its creators, Nasser al-Qasabi and Abdullah al-Sadham, who got to know each other when studying to become agricultural engineers, have grown accustomed to setting off controversy in the 11 years they have been producing the show, Tash Ma Tash.

The name comes from a children's game and translates roughly as "You either get it or you don't." The two create just 20 episodes a year, all broadcast in prime time during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

But even the creators were taken aback by the uproar over the episode titled Without a Mahram, or male guardian, which was the second to be shown this year.

The 30-minute episode was the subject of group discussions in schools and mosques. About 40 theologians organized a protest march against the Ministry of Information, demanding that the most prominent fatwa banning the show, issued by the government's own council of religious scholars, be carried out.

A few years ago it would have been unthinkable for anyone to challenge such an edict. The show would have died. This year, discussions in Internet chat rooms, which serve as a vivid barometer of public opinion in Saudi Arabia in the absence of free speech, raged back and forth between those damning the show and its avid fans.

"If you read some of this stuff, you might get the impression that we made a sex film inside the Kaaba," said Qasabi, referring to the sacred shrine at Mecca.

"It is only light social criticism, but the reaction makes it seem as if it was against God himself," he said.

Aside from the entanglement with the police, the women in the episode run into all kinds of problems when the husband of one of them is sent to work in France for six months. They cannot enter a video store to rent Cinderella for a young daughter. When the bank card of one is eaten by an ATM, she cannot seek help in the bank because it is a branch for men. Ultimately, the women resort to borrowing the elementary-school son of a neighbor or hauling along a deaf old grandfather just so they can eat in a restaurant.

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