CGNews - Bethlehem - Drugs, espionage, mixed marriages and domestic violence -- all artfully woven into messages of peace -- will be beamed into Palestinian homes this Ramadan in a rare local television soap opera. Scripted, acted, directed and produced by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and funded by the British government to promote Middle East peace, the 20-episode extravaganza "Shu Fi Ma Fi" ("What's Up?") started last weekend.
Broadcast into Palestinian living rooms across the territories twice nightly, six days a week during the holy fasting month, its project managers praise what they herald as revolutionary Palestinian programming.
Produced for a mere $220,000, or $11,000 per episode, the set and stunts may look cheap and shoddy to Western eyes spoiled by lavish U.S. productions, but the low-budget soap opera is a milestone for local television.
"This is the best Palestinian drama. I'm happy and pleased. I think [Palestinian viewers] will be very, very happy. This is a comedy. We don't want to make Palestinians' lives any worse", says producer Raed Othman.
Billed as a family comedy, the action takes place at a university, shifting from the girls' dormitory to the boys' and then to a cafeteria as the main players brush with love and disaster, make mistakes and learn the virtue of tolerance.
John Bell, Middle East director of Search for Common Ground, says "Shu Fi Ma Fi" will be revolutionary in helping Palestinians think about things from more than one perspective, for example mixed marriage and the stalled "road map" peace plan.
"Our goal is to reach out to the Palestinians with messages of tolerance and resolving conflict -- the shows bring these issues into daily lives", he says.
Last year Othman produced the first local soap opera, "Mazih Fi Jad" ("Joking Seriously"), but agrees that the new soap marks a distinct and ambitious improvement.
"We touched on red lines, such as marriage between different religions. Not even the media speaks about this", he says, describing the head of the university in the soap as "the president we dream of."
Filmed between mid-June and mid-August in a Bethlehem house turned into a makeshift studio, the Ramadan treat runs to 20 episodes rather than last year's 13. Each episode is 40 minutes, double the length of last year's program.
Kitted out like any Western luvvie in beige linen trousers, his curls already turning salt-and-pepper grey at 35, actor Nicola Zreineh enthuses about his part as a student from a refugee camp determined to make life better for his parents.
"In Palestine, opportunities for working in TV and film production are very rare, so it was a very good opportunity", he says.
The rarity of locally made television drama exposes the lack of basic amenities that actors in the West, even in Egypt, take for granted.
There are no Palestinian studios and no drama school. Zreineh was trained by different European directors at workshops and learned the rest treading the boards on the theatre circuit for the past 10 years.
Admitting "disappointment" at the initial reaction from journalists to the trailer -- "you can't judge 20 episodes from 10 minutes" -- he was confident the greater Palestinian public would be more receptive.
"Normal Palestinians will be happy to see a Palestinian production taking place in Palestine", he explains. "Here we are raised on political issues only and in this soap opera we are talking more about social aspects of Palestinian society."
Zreineh, who earned $750 a month during filming, is now waiting for fame and adulation to roll in. "There is not so much exposure when you work in theatre and last year after the first one, when you walk in the streets everyone points at you", he grins.
At 26, the only other cinematic credit to director Rifat Adi's name is a 10-minute film made in Cairo. Faced with the tight budget, he complains about having to forego luxuries such as a real car chase to keep the soap on track.
"We don't have drama in Palestine. I wanted to make this project to offer Palestinian children and all the Palestinian people dreams", he sighs.
Othman, general director of the Ma'an network that produced "Shu Fi Ma Fi", says the purpose was to make people aware of their actions and open debate, as well as bring street culture to the screen as in the United States.
Putting battles with the tiny budget firmly in the past, Othman now hopes he can turn the soap into an Arab money spinner. "I hope we can market it outside Palestine. We are a little bit late for Ramadan but we have started to contact the Arab satellite stations and Qatar is interested", he says.
* Jennie Matthew is a journalist for Agence France, covering the Middle East region. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.