Just a few seconds before going on air, 26-year-old Cat-Ramsey Fayad scurried to the edge of the stage at Zen TV's sprawling TV studio in Beirut, Lebanon and sank cross-legged before one of the roving cameras on the set of DardaChat. The show, set in a mythical loft somewhere in an Arab city, is Zen's most popular broadcast airing between 6:30 and 8:30, prime time for Arab youth. Fayad, the resident psychology presenter, wiggled in her ripped jeans, white t-shirt and red bandana, and did her best to look cool and composed as she stared into the lens. Within a second she was on air, beamed into countless living rooms around the Middle East, ready to discuss some unlikely subjects. "Today," she began in Arabic, with a hint of an accent, "I want to talk about depression." Once a week, Fayad shows up on DardaChat to discuss viewers' personal dilemmas. A neuropsychologist raised in Canada to a Lebanese father and a Swedish mother, she spent a year improving her Arabic before getting going on the psychology of young Arabs. On this mid-summer day she proceeded to discuss the emails she regularly receives dealing with depression, identity crises, and relationship troubles; the kinds of issues Arabs tend to avoid discussing in private, much less on TV.
For almost two years, Cat and the rest of DardaChat's team of presenters and producers have made it their mission to bring up the issues Arab TV has long avoided. From its multimillion-dollar studio in the hills of Beirut, Zen TV (pronounced "zayne", meaning "Good") has beamed the world of Arab youth into living rooms from Algiers to Jeddah, tackling taboo subjects like sex, the growing generation gap, and emotional conflicts with a host of talk shows, game shows, and dubbed movies.
"Arab kids have two sides to them today-they are at the intersection of modernity and traditional culture," emphasizes Mimi Raad, Zen's Channel Coordinator and one of the architects of the channel. "When kids tune to Zen they see 'This is a kid like me, who understands what I'm going through, and knows the kinds of things I like and what my culture is.'"
It became an unlikely niche in a crowded marketplace. Zen's promise is in appealing to a demographic sector largely forgotten in the Middle East media boom. Close to 60 percent of Arabs today are under 25, thanks to the so-called youth bulge caused by falling infant mortality and high fertility. And as these "Arab Boomers" have come of age, they've begun a culture shift from the shores of Tunisia to the deserts of Jordan as they've rethought long-held assumptions and begun to look for a new direction. Despite their numbers, however, little TV programming actually speaks to the Arab boomers. Many channels have programming that appeals to grade school kids, media watchers note, but few have given much thought to youth in their late teens and twenties facing the greatest challenges.
"Arab youth have been the most neglected segment of Arab society," stresses Adel Iskandar, co-author of Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. "For the longest time, the youth only had Western programming that reflected their interests and aspirations. Nobody wanted to watch any of the Arabic programming."
Zen's producers are betting they can attract those legions of young Arabs with Arabic-language programming that reflects their anxieties and aspirations while respecting their culture and values. Launched in January 2001 by Lebanese satellite broadcaster Future TV, itself majority owned by Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Zen is essentially a mix of MTV and Disney with an Arab bent, straight from its hip content down to its very western-looking presenters. Nonetheless, there is virtually no English spoken on camera, and Arab traditions and values ranging from the importance of family to religious values are the backdrop of all conversation.
"We want to be bold without being vulgar," emphasizes Raad. "We want a smart revolution."
DardaChat is the stalwart of that vision. After Fayad's 15-minute psychology segment, the scene switched to 23-year old Salah Moussalli in the kitchen a few feet away, who unveiled his latest concoction, a pasta dish fit for a dorm room. Baxter Yazbek, the show's 29-year old tech guru, shared his latest discoveries from the Web. Marianne Sargi, the fashion correspondent and lead host that evening, talked about father's day in the Middle East and the importance of her relationship with her father. And a rambunctious sports report by blond and blue-eyed Zaher and his sprightly friend Ghassan delivered highlights of the World Cup and other sporting events, paying close attention to Arab teams.
It may not be the kind of journalism Arabs have grow used to from Al Jazeera, DardaChat's presenters will tell you, but in all the talk of wardrobes and hot new bands is an accurate reflection of the dramatic changes occurring in Arab youth. "These kids are different in so many ways," emphasizes Sargi. "They're simply much more open to different opinions and perspectives from other cultures."
Even more important for some viewers is the chance to watch Arabs tackling their own problems, debating each other and defining who they are. Take Ahmed Waddah from Alexandria, Egypt, who admits to tuning into Zen at least four hours a day. "Zen reflects how I react to what happens in the world, the information I search for, the movies I watch and the music I listen to," says Waddah. "I feel that Zen is about us as Arabs striving to live in this millennium, with mutual concerns."
Others emphasize the sense of belonging. "I was really frustrated about the situation in our region," writes viewer Sami Al-Atig, also from the Gulf. "When watching the program some hope returned to me that such young Arabs exist. I think with people like that we can prevail." Just how many are open to these ideals is up for debate, however. A study conducted by Future TV last October estimated Zen's viewer base at nearly 2.6 million, a quarter of them in Saudi Arabia, a fifth in Jordan, followed by Egypt, the UAE, and Lebanon, respectively. But media critics warn that such numbers can often be inflated to please advertisers.
Indeed, Zen's depiction of young Arabs is far from universally accepted. Raad notes that her email box was flooded with negative comments when the channel was launched, most objecting to the overtly Western styles and mannerisms. "I don't mind having a special channel representing young men and women of the country and even the Arab and Muslim region," notes Fahad Al Mahmood from the United Arab Emirates, "but not in such a negative way. I would love to watch programs made by our young people reflecting the younger generations' real problems and interests." Those problems, Mahmood insists, go far beyond discussion of sex and fashion to titillate audiences. Indeed, the real test for Zen is whether it will be able to reach audiences beyond big cities, where culture is more conservative and far less westernized, says columnist and media critic Daoud Kuttab, who is based in Amman, Jordan. "Zen reflects people who look to the West and America as a model. It's a successful 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue way of reaching a young audience," Kuttab notes. "But we are an oral society and people watch a lot of TV; can this really go into the countryside?"
Zen's denizens admit their target is middle and upper-middle class Arabs, those "who buy Levi's and can travel," as Raad puts it. But, she adds, the producers hope the others will aspire to the same.