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Soap operas

Bahraini actress Zahra Arafat

The workings of the two forces of cultural construction are convincingly illustrated by Bahraini television drama series. Television soap operas are very popular in Bahrain. Bahrainis first encountered these musalsalat in Egyptian productions that took the Arab world by storm in the early decades of Arab television entertainment. In the 1980s, Gulf countries, beginning with Kuwait, began to produce their own TV dramas, and local Bahraini productions began to appear in the 1990s. The influence of the old soap operas from Cairo is still obvious. The British linguist Clive Holes has examined several boxed sets of Bahraini home-grown series from the 1990s and concluded that ‘This type of musalsal has been cloned directly from a thousand others made in Egypt in the last 30 years and transposed into a Gulf setting, complete with the Louis de Lebanon furniture in the living room and the obligatory Mercedes in the drive’. Like the classical Egyptian musalsalat, their Bahraini rip-offs make no mention of social problems such as unemployment or discrimination.

But the Bahraini soap-opera actors do not speak in the Cairene dialect or in Modern Standard Arabic, the literary lingua franca of the Arab world. Instead, they speak exclusively in the unmistakable dialect of Bahrain’s Sunni tribal Arabs. Even in the nostalgic, quasi-historical series, professedly meant to ‘link subsequent generations to their popular culture, its history, and its customs’, ‘typical’ Bahraini characters who must certainly be Shiite – such as the agriculturalist, an exclusively Shiite occupation – speak a Sunni dialect and wear traditional Sunni dress. Casual observers will probably conclude that Bahrain never was an country divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, where Sunni Arabs and Shiite Baharna lived apart, worked apart, and fostered their own separate identities. In Bahrain’s musalsalat, every ‘real’ Bahraini speaks and dresses like a Sunni Arab, even while performing typically Shiite activities. This way Bahraini television producers – almost exclusively Sunni – help mould the nation’s civic myth.

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