Story and photo by Gina-Maria Garcia
Up north, a little more than a mile away from the Syrian border in a desert-like place called the Badia, a traditional Muslim family gathers at an aunt’s house on their holiest day, Friday, to watch television. Adults and children are all curled up on the couches, munching on almonds, marshmallows and gummy bears – a popular Jordanian treat – but the mother sets hers aside and goes into the next room to pray.
They’ve gathered here to watch Arab’s Got Talent – the mega-hit akin to its American counterpart – a wide-ranging talent show that showcases the skills of people across the region on a weekly judged program that will result in a cash prize of 100,000 Jordanian dinar, or about $141,000.
“When Arab’s Got Talent show begins, we eat this for snacks,” says Taqwa Aloun, a 22-year-old accounting student at All-albayit University located in the northeastern city of Mafraq. She can’t help but laugh with a mouth full of half-chewed snacks at a contestant wearing pajamas and cracking jokes. “He’s funny,” she said of the comedian, one of seven acts that night vying for a chance to advance.
The Got Talent franchise, created by English television producer and entrepreneur Simon Cowell, has been replicated in 39 different countries around the globe. The Arab series, modeled after America’s Got Talent, launched in 2006, reaches 22 countries in the Middle East. After massive viewer success in its first season from January 2011, Arab’s Got Talent – which is filmed in Beirut and airs on MBC, a Saudi-owned broadcaster – is currently in its second season.
And while it’s the current favorite among Arabs who will set aside other commitments including work to sit down and watch, it is only the latest in a string of Western-inspired television formats to come here. Others before it include Arab versions of Pop Idol, The X Factor and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
“Foreign television has a constant appetite for American shows,” said Sam Wiseman, Los Angeles-based executive producer of the American program “The Sing-Off,” which aired from 2009 to 2011 on NBC. He’s currently preparing the show for a Chinese audience, set to debut later this year. To Wiseman, the popularity of Arab’s Got Talent in Jordan and the region is not a surprise because pop-culture phenomena like these work across the globe for a good reason: They unify people. “I think that popular culture in general can bring people together internationally,” he said.
Christopher Sayegh, 17, an Arab’s Got Talent contestant who made it past the try-out episodes and will be on the semi-finals show in late June, can attest to that. He’s a pianist who specializes in mashing a number of disparate sounds and songs – Beethoven, Bruno Mars, something Arabic – into one piece.
“The big reason people watch the show together is because they hope that the contestants from their country will win,” said Sayegh. “Although this is kind of sad, it shows how much people are filled with honor for their own country.”
The general consensus among experts about shows of this popularity is that, perhaps more so than even in the States, people in war-torn and resource-strained territories desperately need an escape.
“The Arab people like this kind of program because they like to see something new – more than the politics, more than the fighting. The media should not only be news,” says Tayseer Abuarja, head of the journalism and media department at Amman-based Petra University. “Entertainment…is very important in our life and we need that. We like to know what’s going on in Algeria and Syria, but also these talents.”
Sarah Jackson, who has been teaching at Northeastern University since 2011 and specializes in media communications, said there are many theories that scholars suggest to explain why popular western past times play so well in the east.
The most dominant is that scholars would suggest there’s something called “cultural imperialism” at work, which means the west is aggressively trying to dominate the east by imposing and therefore normalizing its own culture upon the people. “In a modern era,” Jackson said, “a lot of borders have been broken down because of television. Even though national borders still exist, [they] don’t matter anymore. Corporations can reach people in different countries.”
At the end of the day, though, locals don’t seem to care about imperialism or corporate profits or the politics of two peoples a world apart. Wherever they are, what they enjoy is the chance to sit together, around their televisions – along with millions like them – and share in the same experience.
“There is no difference at all,” said Lara Nassif, a Beirut-based producer of the Arab version of Got Talent. “It’s the only show that talks to the youth people and the family at the same time.”
Naela Ibdah, a 20-year-old English translation student at Petra University, is one of the youth she’s talking about.
“Most of the time, we gather with family. Sometimes with friends,” said Ibdah on campus as she hung around with her friends. She prefers Arab’s Got Talent to Arab Idol because she and her friends like to talk and laugh about contestants. “The next day we’ll be commenting and reading what people say on Facebook.”
Back at the Badia in the Bedouin home, Aloun’s youngest sister Zain grabs the remote and raises the volume on the television set all the way. There were six people in the room chattering, and she wanted to hear the contestant whose talent was to count, in seconds, the number of words spoken to him in a random phrase. The judge read a few sentences from a prepared statement, and the contestant nailed the answer: 189 words.
Zain Aloun is elated. “He’s my favorite,” squealed the 12-year-old with pride. “He’s from Jordan!”