Wed, Mar 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Arab `Big Brother' battles mores and stroppy contestants

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It seemed the ideal formula for reality TV: Blind Date meets Big Brother.

Take eight young Arab women, and put them together in a house.

Then whittle them down until one wins a husband approved by viewers, an expenses-paid wedding, and a home in which, hopefully, the couple live happily ever after.

The show's spin on arranged marriages gripped or enraged satellite viewers throughout the Middle East for the last three months.

On Monday, the show ended as controversially as it began.

One finalist, Aicha Gerbas, 21, locked herself in a bedroom until she could be flown home to Algeria.

"Believe me, I do not want to get married," she told the TV camera.

"They will know the reason when I get out -- I'm going to talk," she said.

"This is completely inappropriate behavior," a voiceover remarked.

Earlier, Aicha's would-be husband, Hossam from Egypt, almost failed to get into Lebanon, where the show was filmed, when airport authorities refused him a tourist visa.

Other contestants walked out complaining of boredom or jealousy.

Hawa Sawa -- "On air, together" -- was condemned by some critics as too liberal, though others said it honored the tradition of limited contact before marriage.

A code issued by the producers insisted on behavior "in line with the moral laws and culture of the Gulf region."

The women were forbidden midriff shirts or blouses, spaghetti straps, halters, strapless or backless clothing, shorts or divided skirts.

"No underwear, including bra straps and boxer shorts, may show," the code stipulated.

Also banned from the program were "clothes or tattoos that show profanity, violence, sexually suggestive phrases or pictures, alcohol, tobacco, drugs or adverts."

All this purity did nothing to dampen Internet speculation that some women were smoking off-camera.

"Hey -- they are human. We all have our demons," one online commentator wrote.

"I feel sorry and sad for these ladies. They are living a hypocritical lifestyle," the commentator said.

No one imagines the Arab world's first taste of reality TV will be its last.

A version of Big Brother in Bahrain -- six unmarried men and women living in the same villa -- infuriated conservatives who denounced it as indecent, even though the villa had segregated sleeping quarters and a prayer room.

On Monday the MBC satellite channel said it was halting the show but hoped to re-launch somewhere other than Bahrain.

The dean of Islamic studies at Kuwait University, meanwhile, has issued a fatwa against an Arab version of Star Academy for undermining Islam and imitating the immoral West.

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