Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian
September 7, 2010 - 12:00am

Political rivals Hamas and Fatah are united – in anger. But the bite-sized nightly satirical sketches of Watan ala Watar have become a Ramadan sensation, cheering thousands of Palestinian television viewers through the holy month.

The show has distracted families from the iftar meal that breaks their traditional daily fast, causing them to abandon half-eaten plates of chicken, lamb and rice for 10 minutes of intensive mockery of their political leaders.

Watan ala Watar – the title roughly translates as "country hanging by a thread" – has been broadcast every night since Ramadan began on 11 August.

When the holy month ends this week, so will the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation's top-rated show.

The sketches have controversial themes of politics, corruption, nepotism, religion and morality.

One depicts the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh neglecting political duties for the attentions of a glamorous Lebanese singer visiting Gaza to scatter a little stardust over a population under siege. Another shows officials charged with tackling corruption in the West Bank handing key jobs to relatives. Relentless mockery is made of the western-backed Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad. The credits show a Gazan woman puffing away at a water pipe under her veil in defiance of a Hamas ban.

"We put issues under the spotlight, and when you make people laugh you reach them," says the show's star and scriptwriter, 33-year-old Imad Farajin. "We touch traditionally taboo issues."

Farajin – like his co-stars – has become instantly recognisable on the streets of his home town, Ramallah. Not all the attention has been welcome.

"I feel there is a lot of electricity surrounding me. The programme bothers a lot of people." Criticism reached a peak a couple of weeks ago, he said. "There were a lot of people telling me to stop, that I shouldn't be doing this. Tremendous pressure was exerted on us."

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was approached by critics demanding the show be taken off the air, according to the Watan ala Watar team. But Yasser Abed Rabbo, a veteran Palestinian politician, defended it, says Farajin. "He told the president that we live in a democratic society and that we shouldn't be stopped."

The programme reaches beyond the Palestinian territories, thanks to its appearance on YouTube within an hour of being broadcast, and a Facebook page.

Storylines focusing on Fatah and Hamas politicians are the most sensitive, says Farajin, but other topics have been the subject of internal debate at the PBC.

"There have been discussions about whether to show some episodes, but none have actually been omitted. Sometimes we ourselves feel we have gone too far, especially with religion," he says.

"Ours is a conservative society – there are some sexual taboos we can't touch." Other issues out of bounds, he says, are political prisoners, Palestinian refugees and "martyrs".

Farajin, a Muslim who studied at drama school in Liverpool, is looking forward to taking a break after Ramadan. The current series of Watan ala Watar is the second, but its future is undecided.

Although convinced of the value and necessity of satire and irreverence, Farajin has not lost sight of his underlying beliefs. "We have a right to live free with dignity under a sovereign state," he says.

A lot of Palestinians, he says, are "sick and tired of slogans and procrastination".

After 30 episodes of Watan ala Watar, their leaders should be well aware of that.


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