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In the Newsroom

January 22, 2009
Watching Oprah in a Syrian refugee camp

Kristen Gillespie produced Oprah brings taboo topics to Middle East and Women in Jordan head to work as economy sours. She is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work has been featured on NPR, The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation Magazine. Kristen lives in Jordan and speaks Arabic.

Riem. Photo: Kristen Gillespie

Oprah. Photo: Alan Light

A while back, I was asking my friend Riem about some sort of political development in the Arab world, and she told me she had given up not only on politics but had stopped what was a steady diet of Al Jazeera.

“Now I watch Oprah,” she announced.

Hearing a 35-year-old Palestinian living in a refugee camp in Syria — a closed, paranoid police state where I lived for nearly two years — enthusing about Oprah was jarring. Such is the reach of satellite television in the Arab world. Saddam Hussein used to ban satellite dishes, and Saudi Arabia still does, but even the most authoritarian of Arab states can’t stop the public from connecting with the outside world.

In a region where people overwhelmingly disapprove of American policy toward the Arab world, Oprah has quietly emerged as a better cultural ambassador than any public diplomacy effort in recent memory. As the months passed, I heard more from fans of Oprah. They are women representing a spectrum of class and religious orientation — conservative women, veiled women, liberal women and even women who don’t speak much English but read the Arabic subtitles.

Mazen Hayek, the marketing director for MBC4, the channel that airs “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in the Middle East, says the enormous positive feedback the station receives speaks for itself: “The best reward [is] hearing people tell you, we learn more from the Oprah show than from our schools, our universities. So the effect of Oprah on people’s lives is very positive.”

Riem inspired this story, but could not be a part of it because as a Palestinian without a passport, she is not allowed to travel to Jordan. She is still watching Oprah, even after struggling to reconcile her desire to live a modern life with her family’s expectation that she live a traditional one. Having been written off by relatives as too old to find a decent husband, Riem took matters into her own hands. She met and will soon be engaged to a younger man who admires and respects her, and looks forward to having it all.

– Kristen Gillespie

For more on talk shows and women in Arab media, see PBS Wide Angle’s “Dishing Democracy.”




[…] She lives in Jordan and even speaks Arabic. I found this article on the website World Focus: I like Kristen’s writing because she actually has connections that go with the story. For […]


Yes, Oprah is intelligent, aware and thoughtful. Some of her shows are more appealing than others, but she is truly a world away from most silly TV shows that we export.


I’m not an Oprah fan but if she helps break barriers and opens up discussion then good for her. More power to her. (And congrats to Riem!)

Aside: I agree with Jeff H. I would be deeply embarrassed if they showed Rock of Love as being representative of American culture. Please beam in PBS and other quality television to show that at least some of us Americans really are civilized!


This is great! Now if only the USA could be equally enlightened and put some arab shows on the air.


I don’t worry so much about Oprah being seen on TV by the Arab world but if they’re getting lots of American TV it means they might also be getting a lot of really stupid reality shows, and I am concerned that they get the impression that these shows represent mainstream American thought.
Is there some way that something like PBS could be beamed to them so they don’t think we’re all a bunch of hysterical, abusive, bulimic airheads?
I am embarrassed to know that our worst side is being shown, because I’m already embarrassed that this stuff is on our own airwaves as it is anyway.


Thanks for posting this. Oprah is a great humanitarian and bridge to the Middle East.


Great story !


I’m an online journalism student at Ohio University. I’m doing a project for my foreign correspondence class and would really like to contact Kristen about her work. Thank you. – Michael
mh176607 at ohio dot com


[…] Read her blog post about her reporting experience here – Watching Oprah in a Syrian refugee camp. […]


I enjoy your work. Thanks!

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