Every day around the world, millions of people retreat into a world of fantasy and drama when they tune into their favorite soap operas. Also known as telenovelas, these shows offer people an escape from the drudgery of ordinary life by depicting a fantasy world of glamour riches and social intrigue. However, soap operas can also be used to convey important educational and social messages. Nowhere is that more true today, than in the Palestinian territories, where a new soap opera has captivated viewers.
That melody can be heard everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza strip, these days. It is the theme song to "Mazah fi Jad," or "Seriously Joking," in English. The show has captivated viewers in the Palestinian territories and those who watch Palestinian TV in Israel.
Mazah fi Jad is the first privately produced Palestinian drama series to be broadcast on Palestinian television. The series was produced by Bethlehem TV and Search for Common Ground, a non-governmental organization involved in conflict resolution efforts through media programming. Mazah fi Jad is being broadcast on Ma'an TV, an 11-station TV network established in 2002, in the Palestinian territories.
The 13-part series has proved to be hugely popular. It features three families, two Muslim and one Christian, who deal with a variety of social issues that affect their community. Raed Othman, the general director of Ma'an TV, says many Palestinian viewers have come to see themselves in the characters depicted in the series.
"The people [characters] are like us," said Raed Othman. "They dress like us, they speak like us. They are normal Palestinians. They do not have the big vision of the Palestinians, which is all about the occupied territories and the problems we are facing with the occupation. We did not touch this issue. We speak more about social issues and this is why the people like it. They see themselves, their kids and their neighbors in the screen."
Much of the funding for the series comes from the U.S. and British governments. Raed Othman says the show's creators want to raise awareness in the Palestinian community about such issues as options to early marriage, women's rights, corruption and the importance of promoting personal independence and individual rights through participation in elections.
In this episode, a young man confronts his sister about seeing their aunt speak publicly with a man who was not part of their family.
The young woman tells her brother that their aunt has every right to speak to anybody she chooses, especially because she is a municipal council representative and needs to be able to find out what is going on in their community.
The young woman is Neda Farraj, who is from the Deheisha refugee camp in the West Bank. Neda Farraj plays Salma, a young traditional Palestinian woman who has emerged as one of the series favorite characters.
Ma'an TV executives say even though Mazah fi Jad is popular with all ages, their show's messages are targeted at Palestinian young people who make up more than half of the Palestinian population. Neda Farraj who, when she is not acting, studies business at Bethlehem University, says the message of Mazah fi Jad is that people have to solve their problems by working together in their communities.
"The show gives a clear picture of social problems Palestinians face, daily," said Neda Farraj. "It shows relations between Muslims and Christians and the daily simple problems that every normal family faces. It shows that Palestinians face the same problems as anyone else."
Everyone involved in Mazah fi Jad says they are stunned by the show's popularity. Until recently, Neda Farraj was an anonymous student. Now, everywhere she goes, people recognize her and call out to her as Salma, the woman she plays on the series. Raed Othman of Ma'an TV says next year Mazah fi Jad will be expanded from 13 episodes to 30, so that viewers can watch a new episode during every night of Ramadan observances, when television viewing is at its highest. With only 13 episodes this year, Raed Othman says he had to schedule broadcasts of Mazah fi Jad every other night during the month of Ramadan.