x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

End of an era? I just remember being misled by Oprah

Oprah Winfrey is off the air, and our columnist, still harbouring bitter memories of an unfair portrayal of Saudi life on Oprah's show in 2005, won't miss the popular broadcaster a bit.

As the final episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show aired last night on MBC4, I was watching but did not shed a tear. As the closing credits rolled, I breathed a sigh of relief. Good riddance, I say.

It was in 2005, while I was attending King Fahd's funeral in Riyadh, when a high level official from the Saudi ministry of information approached me for an explanation as to why I had painted Saudi Arabia in such a negative light. I knew exactly what he was talking about and I knew I was in trouble.

I had known it from the moment that episode of the Oprah show hadaired. I had been misled by an American television institution.

It was in 2004 when Dana Brooks, a producer with the show, called asking me to interview Rania al Baz, who had been savagely beaten by her husband and left for dead in front of a Jeddah hospital. The beautiful Saudi television presenter was barely alive when a doctor found her in the car park breathing shallowly with 13 facial fractures, bleeding from her eyes, nose, ears and mouth.

At the time, I was working for an English-language Saudi newspaper, and was granted an interview with Rania. It was her first since the incident. The story made headlines throughout the region, sparking outrage at what happened to her and shedding light on the plight of abused Saudi women.

Nonetheless, she was heavily criticised in the Arabic press for going public with the beating that almost ended her life. As a result, she soon stopped giving interviews.

Over the next few months as she recuperated, Rania and I kept in touch and soon became friends.

In November of 2004, when the Oprah show called me, Rania was hesitant and worried that her story would be used to paint Saudi Arabia in a negative light.

"Oprah is the most respected name in American television," I told Rania. "She is known the world over for her open, fair and balanced view on different subjects. Judging from what I have seen on her show, I feel confident that if you can trust anyone in American television, it is Oprah. I will discuss your concerns with her producer."

Ms Brooks assured me in no uncertain terms that the episode would not paint Saudi Arabia, as a whole, negatively. Rania's story was to be included in an episode about battered women around the world, I was told, aimed at encouraging them to come forward and seek help.

I naively believed her and in turn convinced Rania to do the interview. During the 64-minute interview, Rania went to great pains to communicate very clearly, at every opportunity, that wife-beating was certainly not socially acceptable in Saudi Arabia and definitely did not represent the country or Islam.

With that, I mailed the tapes off to Chicago.

In July of 2005, the episode aired on MBC4. It began with Aishwarya Rai, and then moved on to Iceland, its glaciers and hot springs. The Icelandic talk show host Svanhilder Valsdottir discussed social customs while offering Oprah Icelandic delicacies such as rotten shark meat and sour lamb testicles. Oprah then began talking about Belgium's fried potatoes and chocolates with another woman, before going to commercials.

After the break, a photograph of Rania - swollen, bloodied and bruised - suddenly flashed across the screen. Just three minutes of the interview followed and Oprah explained what had happened to Rania, following it with the usual unfair and uninformed diatribe that American audiences love to hear about how miserable Saudi women are and how free and happy American women are.

Oprah ended the segment with "Thank God we live in America".

The Rania segment seemed bizarrely out of place for this episode that showed how great it was for women around the world. I knew that I was in serious trouble and felt that Rania had once again been victimised. She was severely criticised in the Saudi press for several days after the show aired.

The next month I was told by the ministry of information that the segment had done great harm to Saudi Arabia's reputation. "You are banned from working with the foreign media," that official told me at King Fahd's funeral. I had just lost my freelancing job. No explanation or apology ever came from the Oprah show and Rania never spoke to me again.

And so as the world has watched dewy-eyed as Oprah performed her last show, I will remember her for all the wrong reasons.

 

ealghalib@thenational.ae