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Arab world has its own type of 'View'

With the culture at large as its foil, the infighting is missing from 'Kalam Nawaem.'

July 31, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

"Kalam Nawaem" is what they call "The View" on Arab TV. It translates to "Sweet Talk," and it doesn't refer to Barbara, Joy or soon-to-be Whoopi, but Rania, Muna, Fawzia and Farah.

"Dishing Democracy," a documentary on the women of "Kalam Nawaem" airing tonight at 9 on PBS, presents them as cultural attach├ęs between the old Arab world and the new.

If the gals get into catfights, on-screen or off, "Dishing Democracy" doesn't show it. Rosie O'Donnell and her narcissism were a ratings boon to "The View," taking on political enemies within (co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck) and celebrity enemies without (Donald Trump).

But the women of "Kalam Nawaem," which airs on the Dubai-based Arab satellite network MBC, don't appear to chafe against one another because they've got the culture at large as a counter-veiling force. The show's engine is wrapped in its evident social taboos, as four women in the Muslim world discussing such topics as homosexuality and masturbation.

That's the dish in "Dishing Democracy." The women are Palestinian, Egyptian, Saudi and Lebanese -- and they've apparently gained popularity (to go along with the hate mail) since launching in 2002. An executive with MBC, which also owns the all-news channel Al Arabiya, says "Kalam Nawaem," which is produced in Beirut and Cairo, is typically a top 10 show.

"Our first topic is about a man who died from a heart attack after hearing the verdict of a judge in the holy city of Mecca," is how Fawzia Salama kicks off one show, in which the subject is women marrying without gaining their father's permission.

Salama is the Barbara Walters mother figure here; the other three exude glamour girlhood, although Muna Abu Sulayman wears a hijab. Divorced, and a doctoral candidate in Arab American literature, Sulayman is seen shopping for her TV wardrobe in a sparkling Riyadh mall, some women in full burkas moving past. Co-host Farah Bseiso, meanwhile, brought cameras into the hospital when she was having her baby.

All of this, it would seem, is part of a larger feminist movement sped along by media, the women greeted by male fans in public and groomed by male handlers backstage.

"Gentle, gentle does it in the Arab world," Salama, a former journalist, cautions of whatever reforms the show might engender. The veiled Sulayman says that Muslim feminism puts the family ahead of the individual.

In that sense, the women of "Kalam Nawaem" don't come off as heroic, exactly, but certainly self-possessed, as opposed to possessed of show business guile. Et tu, "The View?"

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