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01 February 2005

Arab American TV Show Wins Popularity in Mideast, U.S.

"Downstairs Cafe" explores Arab and Arab American issues

By Nidal M. Ibrahim
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- Leila Ahmouda, a 21-year-old Arab American, says she is their "biggest fan." Ryma Lakehal, from Algeria, says she "doesn't miss any episode." Ahmad Hussam, a 25-year-old Iraqi, writes from Baghdad that he loves the show and thinks it's a "very great program."

Such have been the early returns on "Downstairs Cafe," a new talk show by the Arab Radio & Television (ART) satellite network, which broadcasts to Arab audiences in the Middle East, Europe, North America and South America. Taped in Washington, D.C., "Downstairs Café" explores Arab and Arab American issues in a forum they have never been able to achieve before in the mainstream American media.

"I would say the overarching purpose really is to provide Arabs in America with an idea of what different Arabs are achieving throughout the country," says Sarab Al-Jijakli, a senior associate with a New York-based marketing firm and a member of the Network of Arab American Professionals (NAAP), a trade association that serves as the core audience and participants of the show. "It pulls in people from many different places and so many different types of Arabs watch the show. It provides a context for the broader movement, bringing together the bodies of different generations of Arabs and Arab Americans."

The show has struck a chord with its intended younger audience, say producer Diana Calenti and executive producer Milad Bessada, longtime programmers with ART who recognized the need to reach out to the growing Arab American community. E-mails and other testimonials have created such a buzz around the show -- both in the United States and abroad -- that producers now plan to subtitle the English-language program in Arabic.

"It's really terrific," Calenti says. "We're getting e-mails from people who watch the program from all over the world ... and they are all echoing the same thing: Thank goodness there's a show that is showing what young Arab Americans" think and feel.

Indeed, several e-mails from the Middle East indicate that the show is helping to improve the image of Arab Americans in the region. For instance, Ahmad Hussam in Baghdad, wrote that in the past he thought that Arab Americans "don't care about the people who live in the Arab countries." But, he added, "when I saw this program, I changed my mind because I found that you share our problems."

Al-Jijakli says he's been aware of this perception, and has made a conscious effort as host to counter it.

"The greatest thing about the show is that we can push forward the idea of a greater Arab message," he says. "It highlights the fact that the people here have not forgotten the people back home. We are still one people, no matter how divided by geography."

The show tackles political, cultural and business issues. Among topics covered have been the business opportunities open to Arab Americans in the U.S. as well as the work of Arab American artists and how it's infused by Arab culture. One of the most controversial shows included guests from the U.S. Homeland Security Department, who engaged in a lively discussion on civil rights with a member of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the regular cast of the show.

Styled in a coffee house format, the show features invited guests sitting in a relaxed atmosphere sipping coffee and tackling the issues of the day. There are two main hosts, Al-Jijakli, of NAAP's New York chapter, and Lana Ghandour, of NAAP's Washington, D.C. chapter.

Executive producer Bessada says the success of the show validates an emerging strategy within the ART network to develop shows by Arab Americans for Arab Americans. Beamed into approximately 120,000 homes across the United States by the Dish Network, ART is one of a growing number of offerings targeting the Arab American community. Most of these channels broadcast Middle Eastern programs, but a few are starting to branch out in an effort to strike a deeper chord with the roughly 3.5 million Arab Americans.

Calenti points specifically to NAAP members' political and cultural awareness, their varied background -- representing a wide mix of Arab countries -- as well as their activism as making them ideally suited for the forum she was trying to create.

While those qualities were clearly present in the NAAP group, there also were some ingredients that were missing - especially during the early tapings.

"The interesting thing is that none of us are TV personalities," Al-Jijakli says. "We are organizers, activists and people dedicated to the empowerment of our community.... The biggest challenge overall has been switching hats and thinking like a TV personality."

After an initial trial run of 13 episodes, the show was recently picked up for a full 23-week run - a year's worth of programming when re-runs are taken into account.