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October 20, 2007

Desperate Housewives

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , , , — admin @ 11:00 pm

You know, there’s all sorts of things that i would never do in the US that a combination of boredom and isolation have driven me to do here. Riding bikes with a bunch of petroleum industry dudes is one. Another is watching Desperate Housewives. I was a bit resistant to the idea of getting a television, but it was cheap and i thought it might be kind of interesting to watch local television. We didn’t get cable or satellite or anything, unlike most people in Cairo with any money to spend.

Satellite Dishes

This is a photo i took from the rooftop restaurant of a crappy hotel in our neighborhood. There are actually relatively few dishes on the roofs in this picture, probably because the apartments here are bigger than elsewhere, so there are fewer units. We had to search around for a while before we could find just regular old rabbit-ear antennae. Most places you would think that would sell them only had cable boxes and satellite controllers. When we finally found an antenna to hook up, we discovered we could get about 10 channels, most of them poorly. One channel that came in relatively well, however, has a fair amount of English-language programming, news and entertainment both. Normally i would be hesitant to make that distinction, but the news here is anything but entertaining. Egyptian programming has some pretty flashy graphics, but apparently, sound engineering isn’t sexy enough for people to want to train in it. The sound is uniformly bad, usually overmodulated. Ads and different programs are not at the same level, and not in the deliberate way that US television makes ads louder. This makes it difficult to understand, even when they speak perfect American English. On top of that, they tend to speak in a monotone drone, so even when the subject is interesting (which is unfortunately seldom—usually insipid discussions about economics and structural adjustment), it is hard to maintain focus.

But, then there’s Desperate Housewives. They are re-airing episodes from years ago, subtitled and censored. It took us a while to figure out when it actually starts, and eventually nailed it down to around 8:20pm, though i don’t think that’s exact. We were a bit surprised at how good it was, and it was interesting to see the clumsy ways they would edit the material and what they would censor. Not knowing arabic well enough to be able to follow the subtitles, it was hard to tell what was being cleaned up in the arabic, but we did notice that some of the seamier statements just weren’t translated at all. There was very little that was cut out of the video. One nice thing about it was that there was only one commercial for the entire episode. And it was always the same commercial: a Pepsi ad. We got hooked by it to the extent that we were upset when it got preempted by soccer (the Africa Cup is going on right now). It was even more upsetting when it got preempted for the whole month of Ramadan. Every channel puts out at least one special Ramadan serial every year, and often several. People will go home every afternoon to break the fast at sunset with their families and spend the evening watching these serials that last through the month of Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr, the three-day holiday which follows it. These serials are apparently a big deal and film and television careers are made through them. Both Adrienne and i began to become quite busy around the start of Ramadan, so we didn’t watch any of them.

In any case, we had to wonder why it is that they were showing Desperate Housewives, of all things. Like practically everything in Egypt, this channel, i believe, is controlled by the Mubarak gov’t. Much ado is made of the privatization of various industries, but in quite a few cases, public-sector (“government-owned” would be more exact) banks end up owning majority stakes in many of these companies due to a lack of international investment. So, the gov’t continues to reap the profits from these operations while decision-making control of them is further insulated from the public by yet another layer of bureaucracy in a government that is already one of the least transparent in the world (of course, this sort of examination of economics and structural adjustment would not be found on the news/analysis programing).

So, yes, why Desperate Housewives? It is, after all, a fairly moralistic tale, particularly moralistic vis-a-vis American culture. Perhaps it functions in a similar way as when Ahmedinejad (which, i recently discovered when reading arabic news is actually two names: Ahmedi Nijad) claims that Iran does not have a “problem” with homosexuality as the US does. It is as if Mubarak is telling his subjects, “We don’t have these problems of greed and adultery and criminality and general disregard for others as they do in the United States, do we boys and girls.” Just a theory (don’t you love that phrase: “just a theory”; as if that makes one immune from serious critique because it wasn’t a serious proclamation anyway).


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