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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 March, 2004, 20:14 GMT
Arab Big Brother meets Orwellian end
By Julia Wheeler
BBC correspondent in Dubai

Contestants of Arabian Big Brother
The fear of sexually-charged antics created alarm among critics

Big Brother Bahrain-style has turned out a little more Orwellian than anticipated.

And, controversially, not in the house.

The decision of the MBC television programme to withdraw the programme being broadcast from Amwaj Island came after protests against the Arabian version of the popular reality television show.

Demonstrators in the kingdom numbered between 200 and 1,000 people, depending on which side you talk to.

Twenty years on from 1984 and the state steps in.

But what is all the fuss about?

Did Big Brother really offend Arab cultural and religious sensitivities, or was it more a question of a small minority flexing its traditionalist muscles and playing on cultural fears?

Cultural personalities

The programme had all been pretty tame.

The fear of the sexually charged antics and nudity that created such a loyal following for other programmes is a potent source of alarm and dread for many in the region
In the house, the talk has been of how different Arab nationalities view one another and about learning each other's dialects for better understanding.

The Egyptian housemate, Amal, is a beautician.

She had been sharing hair and make-up tips with the other women.

After around 10 days, some of the personalities were beginning to shine through.

The Omani woman, Ala'a, who was the only one wearing traditional Arabic clothing and a head dress, came across as likeable, clever and perceptive.

Bashara, the man from Lebanon, was a bit of a fashion victim - with his 20 pairs of trousers and host of bright shirts - but he was helpful and enjoyed pitching in with the cooking.

'Sticking point'

Nevertheless, the cracks were starting to show through, too.

Big Brother Africa contestants
Africa's Big Brother programme was praised for bridging cultural differences
The Bahraini actress, Shatha, was upset because the other women in the bedroom were chatting and laughing late into the night and she could not sleep.

Some of the women did not co-operate in the joint task set for the group, which meant plenty of negative gossip.

Ala'a was disgruntled with the Iraqi-Egyptian woman, Ashagan, poking fun at the Saudi-Somali, Abdullah.

Ashagan's defence was that she was fond of him.

And that is the sticking point. Where does friendly fondness end and something more begin?

After all, these are 12 young people living in close quarters for 24 hours a day for up to three months.

MBC, the company behind the programme, has stressed how it adapted the house to reflect cultural mores.

There were separate sleeping quarters for men and women, a prayer room and the call to prayer or "azan" was made in the house.

'Antics' fear

But that was not enough for the critics. They saw trouble ahead.

Europe: Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Hungary
Americas: US, Brazil and Argentina
Asia-Pacific: Australia
Africa: South Africa
Middle East: Bahrain
There had only been faint innuendo, but the body language of "interest" had started.

The female housemates were bolder than the males; many of the men seemed a little overwhelmed by their situation and more than a little shy.

Nothing controversial had happened so far, but "so far" is key.

Many of the other Big Brother programmes around the world have only become interesting after the first few weeks and this is what the critics of the Arabic version were anticipating.

It is the perception of the Big Brother brand around the world that was worrying them, rather than anything that actually happened in the Bahrain house.

The fear of the sexually charged antics and nudity that created such a loyal following for other programmes is a potent source of alarm and dread for many in the region.


There was a positive response among the programme's audience.

When Bashara, Shatha, Ashagan and Najwa (from Syria) were nominated for eviction, MBC received around 17,000 calls in the first 12 hours alone.

Advertisers were keen to take advantage of the show's following, seeing the potential as it neared its climax.

MBC certainly has not ruled out continuing the programme with the same housemates and is considering moving it to another existing Big Brother house outside the Middle East.

Among many ordinary Arabs, there is a feeling of disappointment and in some cases, despair.

They feel upset that, in the current international climate, a programme which had the potential to show that young Arabs are just like young people from anywhere else in the world was shelved under political and religious pressure.

Others say that at least one more taboo has been broken in the traditional - and at times stifling - atmosphere of the Arab world.

Their hope is that the next time reality television comes to the region, the result will be a little less real.

The BBC's Richard Forrest
"It was due to run for the next couple of months"

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