Cairo In a region rife with infighting, of wide gulfs between wealthy and peasant, between regimes that are secular and Islamic, the Arab World has found a small pocket of Pan Arabism:
Everyone, it seems, loves "Man Sayarbah el-Million?" the Middle East Broadcast Corp.'s culturally sensitive version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
"This is the only thing we all get together to watch," says Mohammed Noor, 55, owner of the Rubaya Al Hayama water-pipe parlor, where the show was airing at midnight recently on a main street in Cairo's Zamalek section.
The set is a carbon copy of Regis Philbin's stateside version. But the first clue that this is no ordinary export of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is the contestant from Saudi Arabia. She's swaddled from head-to-toe in black, and you can see only her eyes peering through slits in her conservative costume.
All the guests speak Arabic, of course. And the show draws contestants from 22 countries a key distinction at this time of insecurity in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings in Washington and New York.
The program was cranked up to full volume in Noor's salon. While men sipped sweet hot milk drinks and smoked tobacco concoctions, some shouted out guesses at the Egyptian Television broadcast of the show, delayed by an uncut taped interview with Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher on the bin Laden crisis.
Noor, a Nubian who was watching the show while counting the day's receipts, says he is a big fan because you get to learn things from George Kordahi, the suave Lebanese host who Noor says is "even more popular than the president," Hosni Mubarak.
In fact, he says, recalling Kordahi's celebrity status during a recent visit to Cairo for MBC's Tenth Anniversary Party, "they treat him like a president" wherever he goes.
To be sure, 10 years of regional news broadcasts on Egyptian and Saudi satellite programs, and more recently on Qatar's feisty Al Jazeera station, means that far-flung corners of the Arab World sometimes watch the same programming.
MBC, with an estimated 20 million viewers, airs "Man Sayarbah el-Million?" on Tuesday and Sunday nights. But satellite programming is available only to the wealthy or privileged in many parts of the Middle East.
So Egyptian, Lebanese and other local stations, have bought rebroadcast rights to tremendous response, with Paris-based MBC producer Salwa Soueid estimating that about 80 percent of Arabs see it on one station or another.
Its success is especially noteworthy at this time of unease over the U.S.-led air strikes on Afghanistan, as Arab leaders and the West are warily watching the street to see if it embraces Osama bin Laden's anti-Western vitriol.
Some religious figures at first grumbled over the show, describing it as gambling, which is decidedly un-Islamic and "haram", or forbidden. Then Sheik Sayed Tantawi, chief of Egypt's Al Azhar Mosque, and Sunni Islam's highest authority, intervened to declare it good clean fun, so far silencing the debate.
More than a game
Years ago, during the height of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's appeal to unity in anti-Western secular Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism meant that radios across the regions tuned to Cairo once a week for a concert by Um Qalsoom, the adored Egyptian entertainer whose songs of loss entranced the same disparate assortment of Arabs.
But Nasser and Um Qalsoom died after the devastating losses of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Gulf grew rich and regional wars erupted, notably the 1991 U.S.-led alliance against Iraq, which divided the region.
So, today they rally around a game show that was invented in Britain and filmed in Paris under a U.S. franchise that, like McDonald's fries, has made it ubiquitous the world over.
In January, it moves to new studios being built in Cairo, where production and hotel costs are cheaper in the country that fancies itself the historical heart of the Arab World.
The 1 million Saudi "rial" cash prize, the equivalent of about $330,000, is unimaginable riches for most in Middle East. Here in Egypt, 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The concept of an Arab World game show only became possible in the 1990s, he says, when Egypt and then Saudi Arabia began regional satellite broadcasts.
"It has made the public learn about things, about life through this show," says Amin. "Not just how tall is a pyramid and the height of the Eiffel Tower but also about culture, history."