Jerry Springer-style television programme purports to tap into part of the local culture of intervening in the private affairs of neighbours.
Moroccan TV shows reveals details of family life
AIN SEBAA, MOROCCO // After eight years of estrangement, Ahmed Selami and his wife, Milouda Chinguetta, decided to meet again in the unlikeliest of places: on national television. Mrs Chinguetta, 30, was 13 when she married Mr Selami, 36, a labourer in the dusty town of Chichaoua, in central Morocco. Eventually she fled with their four children, accusing Mr Selami of beating her. Now she wants a divorce, and he wants access to the children. That requires expert mediation.
So one Sunday, the pair faced off on Al Khayt Al Abyad, a new chat-show that has given a modern twist to old customs and taken Morocco by storm. Its name refers to a Moroccan saying that a peacemaker binds adversaries together with a white thread - "al khayt al abyad". "It's part of our traditions that when people observe their neighbours in conflict, they intervene," said Nassima el Hor, the show's host. "We want viewers to learn from the experiences of others how to forgive and apologise."
Every week, warring parties - couples, families, rival villages - sit down with Ms el Hor to hash out their difficulties for a national audience. Accusations are levelled, tears are shed and sometimes peace is attained. Since launching in March, Al Khayt Al Abyad has become a top draw for 2M, the state-owned television company that produces it, and the show's hotline gets up to 600 calls a day, said Ms el Hor.
The show's creators aim to tap into what they consider an increasing openness in Moroccan society. "It isn't normally part of Arab culture to air your problems in public," said Abdelali Rachami, who created the show with Ms el Hor and now directs it. "This is the first television show in Morocco where people do that." While similar foreign programmes such as America's The Jerry Springer Show offer titillation and fist-fights, Mr Rachami and Ms el Hor take a gentler approach, treading lightly over sensitive topics and occasionally pausing filming to allow heated arguments to cool down.
"Moroccans are learning to talk about their problems in front of others," Mr Rachami said. "We're trying to tailor our show to Moroccan sensibilities." For that, it helps to be Ms el Hor, a well-known television personality who has hosted a series of chat-shows since joining 2M at its launch in 1989. With her familiar rosy cheeks and motherly air, "people trust Nassima and find her easy to talk to", Mr Rachami said.
Even the glare of television cameras can help, said Aboubakr Harakat, a psychologist from Casablanca who appears regularly on Al Khayt Al Abyad. "People know that the world is watching, so they feel more pressure to resolve their problems." The pressure was on Mr Selami and Mrs Chinguetta on Sunday at the 2M studios in Ain Sebaa, an industrial suburb of Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital. Cameras swooped around the futuristic white stage, several of the couple's friends and relatives were invited to speak, and short videos of their lives in Chichaoua were shown on monitors.
"Do you think your husband can change?" Ms el Hor asked Mrs Chinguetta from across a coffee table. Mrs Chinguetta was doubtful of that. She sat tensely in a patterned gown and headscarf. What she was sure of was that she wanted a divorce. Next, Mr Salemi appeared, a wiry man with silvering hair and tired eyes. "I haven't stopped thinking about my children," he said. "I want them living alongside me."
However, he admitted to having beaten his wife. The couple moved to a sofa, where Ms el Hor and Dr Harakat joined them for group discussion. "You don't respect those close to you," snapped Mrs Chinguetta to her husband. "I'm afraid for our daughters." "Shame on you for talking like that." Mr Selami's voice rose in indignation. A final video was played, showing the joyful reunion of an old man with his children - a separate piece of reportage intended as food for thought for Mrs Chinguetta and Mr Selami. She watched silently while he brushed tears from his eyes.
"Milouda's independence is important to her, and she isn't ready yet to trust Ahmed," Dr Harakat said. He and Ms el Hor suggested that the couple proceed slowly to build dialogue. Mr Selami and Mrs Chinguetta shook hands stiffly, and the cameras were switched off. "In situations like this, we can't really advise a couple to get back together immediately," said Ms el Hor afterwards. "But we did urge them to be on good terms for their children's sake."
The filming complete, Mrs Chinguetta, Mr Selami and their party were whisked away to a nearby luxury hotel. The studio audience filed down a corridor and out into the gentle sunshine of a summer evening. "Even when the guests don't reconcile, you learn about some of the problems that can arise in life," said Fatiha, 31, a receptionist from Casablanca who watches Al Khayt Al Abyad every week. "I'd even go on TV with my own troubles if I thought it would help solve them."