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.”