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Drama On Saudi Arabian TV Sparks A Debate About Relationships Between Arabs And Jews

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israel and the Jewish people are sensitive subjects across the Middle East. But a drama on a Saudi TV channel has sparked curiosity and a debate about whether Arab countries are ready to reconcile with Israel. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The show is called "Um Haroun" - "Aaron's Mother."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UM HAROUN")

HAYAT AL-FAHAD: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The main character is an elderly Jewish matriarch in an Arab country in the Persian Gulf back in the '40s and '50s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UM HAROUN")

AL-FAHAD: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She says, "people here used to live like brothers, not divided by religion." Another Jewish villager lights a menorah and says in Hebrew...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UM HAROUN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: ..."We are the Jews of the Gulf."

MBC, a popular Saudi channel has been broadcasting the show across the Middle East. It's for Ramadan, when many Muslims fast during the day and watch TV specials at night. It's generated discussion on media around the region. Here's Saudi commentator Hussein Shobokshi in an interview on Al Arabiya TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL ARABIYA BROADCAST)

HUSSEIN SHOBOKSHI: (Through interpreter) The Arab audience, especially the Gulf audience, is not used to seeing Jewish characters except in evil roles, like a traitor or a spy. Here, the audience see signs of Jewish culture for the first time on Gulf screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UM HAROUN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The village celebrates a wedding. Then word spreads that Israel is established. It's 1948.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: This character shouts, "The Jews have raped Jerusalem." Then a Jew is found dead in the village synagogue.

The main character is played by actress Hayat Al-Fayad, who defended the show in this TV interview on MBC TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF MBC TV BROADCAST)

AL-FAHAD: (Through interpreter) We must inform the new generations - this did exist in the Arab countries.

ESTRIN: Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled persecution in Arab countries after Israel was founded. Today most Arab countries refuse diplomatic ties with Israel until it reconciles with the Palestinians. But it's an open secret that Gulf Arab countries have been deepening their ties with Israel. That's why some Palestinians are boycotting the TV show. They think it's propaganda to promote Arab-Israel relations, leaving the Palestinians behind. Palestinian TV critic Yousef Shayeb (ph).

YOUSEF SHAYEB: A lot of Palestinians on social media, I think they feel that it is - reflects the strategy of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia and Emirates, Bahrain to being closer with Israel and without make a dialogue with Palestinians.

ESTRIN: But there are Arab viewers who enjoy the show. Twenty-six-year-old Zainab Al Salihi (ph) in Iraq says it reminds her of stories her mother tells about when she had Jewish neighbors.

ZAINAB AL SALIHI: In the past, the life was more lovely, more kindly between the Jewish and the Muslims and the Christian.

ESTRIN: She's interested in how Judaism relates to Islam. She follows a cartoon series online called People of the Book, where an Israeli rabbi explains Jewish customs in Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ELHANAN MILLER: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Rabbi Elhanan Miller says his web series has 100,000 viewers in the Middle East. His biggest audience is in Saudi Arabia.

MILLER: I think the best way to normalize relations with Israel in the Arab world is through the perspective or through the lens of Judaism. Judaism and Islam share many traditions, share a basis in faith and in ritual. So I try to demystify Judaism through my project. I try to show them that it's not a secret religion.

ESTRIN: His latest video actually shows scenes from "Um Haroun" series and explains the menorah and the religious symbols viewers across the region are seeing on their televisions.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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