The Qosbi Show

Foreign Policy In Focus received this response from an executive producer in Hollywood to a proposal we recently submitted.

Dear FPIF:

Thank you for your proposal for a new TV show about “a warm-hearted, middle-class Egyptian family named the Qosbis.” It’s an intriguing idea.

Of course, we were thrilled by Katie Couric’s suggestion of addressing Islamophobia by creating a Muslim version of The Cosby Show. I believe, however, that she had in mind a Muslim-American show, not a drama about an Egyptian family. Like you, we’ve been closely following the events in Egypt. Millions of Americans were glued to their TVs to watch the revolution oust the dictator. But I’m not sure that this fascination with Egypt will endure. People were similarly excited about the fall of Ceausescu, but that didn’t translate into a willingness to watch a sitcom set in Bucharest. Even now, Americans have been drawn away from the events in Egypt to other pressing issues, like the Chris Lee sex scandal and the Grammys.

It’s true, as you point out, that few people would have expected that shows about a family of undertakers or an amiable serial killer would be hits. But however quirky these shows are, they take place in America. Even that Israeli show about a psychiatrist and his patients was repurposed for an American audience, with Gabriel Byrne as the shrink and the East Coast for the location.

Yes, hundreds of millions of people around the world watch House and old episodes of Baywatch. But it’s not a reciprocal relationship. The United States is the celebrity of countries: everyone wants to know what goes on here. Egypt is only enjoying its requisite 15 minutes of fame.

That said, your show has some promising elements. I particularly like the dynamic among the three sons — one in the army, one in the Muslim Brotherhood, and one at the National Bank of Egypt. I like the family crisis over the declaration of martial law. The son working in the bank and his search for the missing billions of dollars that the dictator and his family stole from the nation — that’s certainly promising. Americans love a heist caper. And the romance between the son in the army and the Christian Coptic girl next door — that has some Romeo and Juliet potential.

I’m not sure, however, whether Americans are ready for a character in the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s got some good jokes in the opening episode. But even quasi-liberals like Richard Cohen talk about nightmare scenarios involving the Muslim Brotherhood taking charge. I understand your counterarguments that the Brotherhood is a force for moderation and democracy in Egypt. But the bottom line is: the Brotherhood is not ready for prime time. We’re willing to be out in front of the American public on gay/lesbian issues — The L Word definitely broke new ground — but political Islam’s still a pretty touchy issue.

If we’re going to cover Islam, it has to be our kind of Islam: Golden Arches Islam, American Idol Islam. I know, I know, your Muslim Brotherhood character is totally modern, a software entrepreneur. But to be honest, that kind of Muslim is probably more frightening to the average American viewer. There are good Muslims and there are bad Muslims, and it makes us uncomfortable to mix the two. I ask you: were there ever any gangster rappers on The Cosby Show?

It was a good move to make the father, Mohamed Qosbi, a salesman. That way, as you point out, he can visit different countries in the region experiencing unrest. And the mother’s job as a nurse could provide some good ER tension. But frankly, as characters, they’re a little boring. They talk too much about democracy and human rights. I agree that it’s important to dispel the stereotype that Muslims don’t care about such things. What makes for a good revolution on the news, however, doesn’t make for good television in prime time.

I think ultimately that the problem with your characters is that they’re too…Egyptian. The Cosby Show was about African-Americans, but it rarely talked about race issues. It was a show that white people could watch and not feel guilty or defensive. The characters on your show make references to U.S. military support of the Egyptian dictatorship, to the wars that the United States is fighting in Muslim countries, to all the anti-Islamic sentiment around the world. That doesn’t fall into the “can’t we all just get along” category.

How about this: the Qosbis move to America and settle down in Los Angeles. Fish out of water: now that’s good TV. The parents could keep their jobs. And let’s make the boys a little younger, a little more American. The oldest is in JROTC. The middle boy is a stock market whiz kid. And the youngest, the Muslim Brotherhood type, let’s make him a Scientologist — that’s a religion that fits right into the LA lifestyle.

Here’s why The Qosbi Show could work in a U.S. locale. I hear from the marketing department that the level of household income of Muslim-Americans is equal to or even a little better than average, and their acquisition of college degrees is twice the national average. Fantastic niche market! Throw in some product placements and you’ll have a viable program.

Of course, it’s always cheaper to do a reality show. I know it’s a stretch, but maybe the cast of Jersey Shore would be willing to go to Egypt. Amazing beaches. Great place to get a tan. You’d have a predictable reduction of political content. But wouldn’t it be cool to throw The Situation into a real situation?

Revolution in Egypt

The situation has certainly evolved rapidly in Egypt. After vowing to hang on until September, Hosni Mubarak abruptly stepped down the next day. The military has declared martial law, dissolved the parliament, and suspended the constitution. It promises a constitutional referendum in two months and elections as soon as six months.

What does the military really have in store for Egypt? “The security services have blood on their hands,” write Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) bloggers Bonnie Bricker and Adil Shamoo in Is Egypt’s New Military Leadership Just Coup d’Etat Light? “With orders from the regime, these forces arbitrarily arrested, kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered its citizens who would dare to oppose the 30-year regime. In contrast, the Egyptian military has little or no blood on their hands directly, but they have used their influence and might to keep the regime in power.”

One group of analysts that might best be able to predict the future trajectory of the Egyptian military is the Pentagon, which has had a long relationship with its counterparts in Egypt. “Mubarak’s newly anointed Vice-President Suleiman is the linchpin of that relationship,” writes FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis in Mubarak’s Defiance, “and it’s likely that his longstanding Pentagon supporters – those who actually arranged to funnel the money, arrange the training of his officers, buy and transport the U.S.-made teargas, the B-16 bombers, the tanks – may know the military’s intention more clearly.”

Some in the U.S. elite would much prefer to see the Egyptian military take charge to prevent a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood turned Egypt into Iran. But the likelihood of Egypt becoming a radical theocracy is slim, argues FPIF columnist Stephen Zunes.

“Virtually all of the largely nonviolent civil insurrections around the world over the past three decades have led to democratic governance and moderate secular leadership,” Zunes writes in Why Egypt Will Not Turn into Another Iran. “There is little reason to suspect Egypt would be different. Such nonviolent revolutions require the building of broad coalitions that help encourage pluralism and compromise, empower ordinary people, and build civil society. This creates not just political change but fundamental social change of the kind that has the will and the means to resist potential encroachments against newfound democratic institutions and individual liberties.”

A key part of the Egyptian revolution was played by women, on the streets and on the Internet. “Although some might write off their efforts as the exception or else aestheticize them beyond any real import, Egyptian women have decided to take back their streets,” writes FPIF contributor Beenish Ahmed in Egyptian Riot Grrls. “They have proven that they are as much a part of the protests as the men who once made them wary to step into public.”

Fiction into Fact

In 1990, Tunisian novelist Mustapha Tlili published Lion Mountain, the story of a town in central Tunisia, oppressed by tyranny and economic deprivation, on the eve of a massacre. Tlili, an FPIF contributor, now has had a chance witness his novel played out in real time by the Tunisian people.

“The revolt in Lion Mountain, led by an old woman and her one-legged Nubian servant, is mercilessly crushed by the tyrant. But the townsfolk go on with their quiet lives after burying their dead,” writes Tlili in Fiction Blossoms into the Jasmine Revolution. “The young men and women of the Jasmine Revolution are the real-life sons and daughters of my fictional characters. Unlike their parents, they refused to endure the daily dread and humiliation at the hands of the regime and its omnipresent political police.”

Finally, as part of our special focus on Islamophobia, I talked with the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London about the situation in the United Kingdom. Among other things, IHRC gives out Islamophobia Awards, one of which went to George W. Bush..

“With our Islamophobia Awards we are using satire to address a serious issue,” says Massoud Shadjareh. “It also gives the Muslim community a chance to be funny. It’s a way to show people we’re not just an angry mob.”

Maybe The Qosbi Show, produced for Muslims by Muslims, is just around the corner after all.