Growing Up With Egyptian TV


Here, allow me to oscillate between ‘We’ and ‘I’ because even though the experiences described are personal, they are not unique. They are rather standard for people of my generation who grew up in my social setting or in clones of it. Thus it is really more of a collective experience rather than a personal one.

We grew up in Liberal Islam. A version that believes in the supernatural, but remains appreciative of life’s value. One that does not take veils seriously, and sees them more like an age-image accessory for grandmothers. One that integrates playfulness, optimism and earthly ambition into it. And above all, one that does not invade the territory of personal choice.

In liberal, Mediterranean Islam, people could selectively pick whatever suited them from among the inconsistencies of the Koran to produce a version of religion that is tolerant and detached. Liberal Islam was a faint moral backdrop, and a series of cultural ceremonies. It was another serving on tables of Ramadan, a call to prayer interlude between happy audiovisual, and a pretense to wisdom among what I remember to be a more vivid and more diverse cultural or political discourse.

In my memory, nothing abstracted the Islam we grew up in better than Egyptian TV. The best Ramadans came in the summer, for the then the Mediterranean winds were calm enough to allow broadcasts from Cairo to reach us. They had religious programming. Clergymen delivering sermons so sterile that I basically remember nothing of. Groups of people clad in white circling the Kaaba against a backdrop of calls to prayer sung in the sumptuous voice of Sheikh Mohammad Rifaat. But above all, Egyptian TV had programming brimming with joy and imagination, the most noticeable of these being the daily Fawazir.

As a child, my religious ethos was pretty much the product of this context: infused with fantasy, borrowing from music and Manga dubbed into Arabic. On one occasion I had to memorize a passage from the Koran that described paradise. I did memorize it along a theme of disco music, with imagery borrowed from Treasure Island. It was really more like Gigi in Paradisco than a solemn fixation on the after-life. Growing up in liberal Islam did often send me into crises of guilt, but didn’t really suffocate me. I grew up with choice.

Between the 80’s and 00’s things in our region have changed. Between economic malaise, induced tribalism and imported Wahabism, liberal Islam gave way to a more stern, more extreme, and more invasive expression of religion. What seemed liked a benign, harmless entity turned into a tumor making Middle Eastern societies go haywire. What was in the background suddenly became the Alfa and Omega of everything. What was a cultural serving became an existential raison d’être. What permitted choice became the guardian to a massive intellectual gridlock.

And again, there’s Egyptian TV abstracting the religious mood of the era. The two videos below are from a mainstream music channel, and a niche religious channel, respectively. To those who do not understand Arabic, the first one shoves Hijab as an ultimate virtue and a necessity in the consciousness of children. Note minutes [1:11-1:55].

The second one, in its colossal horror, features a child preacher delivering a sermon on the virtues of sacrificing one’s life in martyrdom and in the service of religion, on the premise that earthly life is transitory and worthless. It focuses on the usual trade-off: the highly sensual/sexual rewards to be expected from wives (a.k.a. sexual objects) in the real life (i.e. the after life).  Children learning and adopting Middle Ages speech tactics, with a content so mad it can only belong to the Stone Age. Notice the glimpse of the clergyman/presenter in minute [01:51], and the ugliness of its meaning.

Please allow me to make a clarification. I am not saying that all of our media has fallen into this decadence. In fact, you’ll find most voices criticizing decadence on the other end of the spectrum, whether sexual or other. Media has swollen and segregated, but religion in the Middle Eastern media of the 00’s is what it is on the ground: anything but liberal. I can cite many other examples of horror, but these deserve a post on their own. What I find most troubling is that this content is targeted at children.

We as adults are free to consume whatever media we choose. After all we did grow up in liberal Islam, and we were given the choice of where to situate ourselves on the spectrum of religious belief (or lack of it). What we are not entitled to is indoctrinating our children, or even exposing them to this monstrosity.

We owe almost everything to our childhood. It is our only opportunity as human beings to be what we are meant to be: agile, receptive, creative, destructive, silly, happy. All of our adulthood is nothing but a collection of faint crumbles of these superior capabilities and talents of childhood. We owe our children their right to grow up in imagination, in distant worlds, and in beautiful melodies. We owe them our silence over our own intellectual convictions (religious ones included). We owe them the tools to form their own convictions later on in life. In one word, we owe them CHOICE. Indoctrination of the kind exemplified by the videos, so pervasive unfortunately, is obviously not the ground that fosters choice.

I would like to thank my friend and fellow activist Ghassan Yonis for bringing to my attention the meaning of the Birds of Paradise, which happens to be the literal translation of the name of our region’s foremost religious channel targeted at children (Touyour Al Jannah). Apparently in Islam, souls of (children) martyrs inhabit green birds in paradise ( So basically the channel, free-to-air and included in any cable package, is all about branding death and packaging disregard for life with ‘religious music for the young’?

Amidst this nausea, and while several families in our region have still not blocked Touyour Al Jannah and its clones on their receivers, I shall leave you with one of my very first memories from TV. An intro to Fawazir from Egyptian TV, one of my favorite audiovisual as a child. In my subjective, emotional, nostalgia-driven opinion, it remains among the most beautiful audiovisual ever made.

    • nadiaelawady
    • March 1st, 2010

    Beautiful post. If there is one thing I hope to give my own children it is choice.

    • yomnaelsaeed
    • March 4th, 2010

    Very good post, it really touched me as i deal with people from both “extremes” on a daily basis :S :S and that’s really really annoying!

  1. My dear, it is a lovely nostalgic post! I totally identify with it. Even when I used to pray and read the Koran with my grandmother, i had a feeling of warmth and security… I also remember Anisa Zeina, my religion teacher and how she used to take us on picnics and organize parties for us as children. Ironically, it was with her that I applied makeup on my face for the first time! I was disguised as a clown for a party 🙂

  2. Ok, three comments:

    1. I believe what happened is what should happen; people should know their religion better than just go on with their not-cold-not-hot lives, under the false assumbtion that this is Islam they’re living. I never liked the hypocritical values of “ordinary” society living under the false assumption that this is Islam they’re living. Things should be cleared, very cleared. If I wasn’t a “fundamental” Muslim once, I might never ended up atheist.

    2. On the other hand, freedom of choice should be protected by laws and a secular constitution at all times, no matter what changes happens in society’s believes and social values.

    3. Yes, children should be “handled” more cusiosly. Not protected, no, you can’t protect children, it just never work at this time and age. Instead, expose them to other philosophies and values as well, and that will end up by opening their minds and helping them make their choices as they grow up.

  3. Brilliantly put, and truly inclusive of so many of us who grew up in Tripoli at least in the same period — of Moslem background or not. I didn’t hate Islam back then. My issues were mostly with the Church which I was indoctrinated into at school though my family has always been secular. I still despise the Church, with a stronger passion now that I’m aware of its full destructive influence on human intellect and life in general. Islam has managed to creep up to the top spot among the “Religions I hate” chart though…That’s one thing I was into back in the 80s, music charts of all kinds…I outgrew those a little slower than I did all religion luckily…Proud Atheist for nearly two decades as of 1989, and a born again Anti-theist for at least five years now. I have seen the light!

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