CAIRO — The Arab world's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" remains popular--while its U.S. prime-time counterpart has been dropped by ABC--and to keep Arab audiences tuning in, the show has added another ingredient to the mix: politics.
One of host George Kordahi's catch phrases is a bit more topical than Regis Philbin's "Is that your final answer?"
"Greetings to our steadfast people in Palestine," he says.
Arabs divided by political rivalries and even language--Arabic dialects can differ greatly--are united by a sense of solidarity with Palestinians in their confrontation with Israel. Arab politicians have exploited the Palestinian cause; playwrights and musicians have written about it. Now a game show has ridden pro-Palestinian sentiment to become one of the most popular programs in the Middle East.
Kordahi, a former journalist who covered the civil war in his native Lebanon, said that he couldn't do a show that ignored serious current events and that the plight of the Palestinians was the issue of the moment.
"I'm sad like every Arab at what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, for their huge sacrifices and the blood of the martyrs, which is reflected on the mood of the show," he said.
In December, Kordahi quizzed three "martyrs' mothers" whose sons or daughters were killed by Israeli troops. They won a total of $100,000 and said they would donate it to charities. (The top prize is 1 million Saudi riyals, or $267,000.)
Produced by the Saudi-owned MBC satellite station, the quiz show debuted across the Arab world a few months after the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. From the start, the television images of Palestinian-Israeli clashes that dominated the news programs of MBC and other satellite stations seemed to set the mood on the show.
Kordahi has become a celebrity. In his late 40s, he is dapper in designer suits and known for establishing an immediate personal connection with his guests because of his warm manner and questions about their families and professions. The "Millionaire" formula pioneered by Britain's Celador Productions has had a similar effect on the careers of other hosts. Philbin went from daytime to prime time and set fashion trends with his monochromatic ties and shirts. In India, movie star Amitabh Bachchan, whose fortunes had faded enough that a bank was threatening to sell off his mansion because of bad debts, got a boost when he began asking "Are you sure?" on his country's version of the program.
In a live two-hour phone-in question-and-answer session on a satellite channel based in Lebanon, a woman called to tell Kordahi: "Your captivating eyes and irresistible smile are the reason for the show's success."
"Me, a sex symbol? Seriously, I know I'm good-looking, but not to the extent of being a Prince Charming," Kordahi told the Associated Press in an interview in the five-star Cairo hotel suite he has made his home since February.
After the game show established his celebrity and his link to the Palestinian cause, Kordahi was recruited to help promote a telethon that collected more than $100 million for the Palestinians in a single day in April.
(Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate in April that some of the $100 million may have gone to elements of the Islamic militant group Hamas. U.S. officials said that the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, whose country staged the telethon, has given assurances that the proceeds were for humanitarian aid groups.)
"I think I unified their [Arabs'] views, feelings and admiration around a certain program," Kordahi said. "I helped Arabs to get to know each other more."
His show promotes pan-Arabism in its questions, asking contestants about politics and sports in the Arab world and about Islamic culture and history. Questions drawn from the Koran and Islamic history are commonplace. Though Kordahi is Christian, he peppers his patter with verses from the Muslim holy book.
"I don't see myself as a Maronite [Christian]. I think of myself as Lebanese," Kordahi said. "I was born feeling that I belong to this Arab Islamic civilization."
Inevitably for anything that has drawn such attention, the show has met with controversy. Last year, a viewer asked Muslim cleric Nasr Farid Wassel, grand mufti of Egypt, whether such a show was allowed by Islam, which bans gambling. Wassel declared it and other high-stakes game shows to be sinful.
But Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, head of the prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and university and more influential than Wassel, disagreed. Tantawi said: "These competitions address a series of useful religious, historical, cultural and scientific questions, and their goal is to spread knowledge among the public."
Two men have became millionaires so far, the first from the United Arab Emirates. The second was Palestinian Mohammed Tanira, who said he drove through the Gaza Strip and Israeli checkpoints to reach the studio in Cairo.
After Tanira's victory, columnist Mahmoud Mouawad wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram: "Palestine won the million."