The Joys of Saudi Television
Saudi Arabia has changed a lot in recent years. I remember it was only in 2005 that there was an article in the papers about a man from Qassim who came home to find his wife watching TV. He filed for divorce on the basis that she had been able to see men on TV! Yes, really. The court had to explain to him that under Shariah law seeing a man on TV does not amount to infidelity! (Mind you, having coffee in Starbucks with someone you're not married to, does according to the laws of khulwa.)
I also remember watching a cookery programme on Saudi TV – a series in which the female chef was totally veiled and also wore black gloves (so she probably came from Qassim). It was so weird seeing a black blob hopping around the kitchen! The stove was absolutely filthy - probably afraid of getting her gloves dirty! Just the look of her cookery made you think you'd go down with chronic food poisoning!
Never did I think in those heady days that I would end up as one of KSA2's main English language news anchors. I was driving on the way back from Dubai to Riyadh – a 1000km journey - right in the middle of the Empty Quarter when my mobile phone went (the Saudis believe in being able to use their mobiles anywhere in the Kingdom, even if it is over 200kms to the next settlement). "Bonjour. C'est Monsieur Breeaaaaan Sawlteeer n'est-ce pas?" Well, luckily my schoolboy French came in dead useful and I was able to strike up a happy conversation with this guy who, it turned out, was responsible for making up the rotas on the English language TV station, even though he had learned French rather than English when at school.
It turned out that there were plans for KSA2 to go global, using satellites to beam their must-watch programmes into homes in Europe, America and Australia and someone had woken up to the fact that KSA2's news readers weren't up to much, certainly not on a par with other international broadcasters.
I was the Breeaaaaan Sawlteeer who used to broadcast on the BBC World Service yes? Yes I was. And you have trained announcers yes? Yes said I, forgetting to explain that they had been radio announcers, not TV. Good. Please come to our studios tomorrow morning.
So the next day at the allotted hour I blagged my way through the security apparatus and ended up in an office overlooking the TV Tower which dominated the old town. Show me what your announcers are given to read, I requested and on doing so was in no way surprised that they made such a dog's dinner of the evening news. I spent the next three months training the newsroom on the rudiments of writing a news bulletin, and then started off training the announcers. It wasn't long after that that the inevitable request came for me to put in an appearance in front of the cameras.
Most of the equipment looked like stuff that had been discarded from the BBC over 20 years previously. (Not far out in my assumptions I later learned.) Worst was the autocue pedal which regularly broke down while on air such that the words rushed up off the screen, or even started rolling backwards. Some of the newsroom staff insisted On TYPING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS which meant that many of the stories about American forces were a constant battle when trying to work out whether US meant 'us' or 'U.S.' and even to this day, if you want a good lesson in how NOT to read the news then tune in to KSA2.
I well remember one bulletin when the guy on the control desk was being let loose for the very first time. The 11pm news went OK and I think that’s when he started to get cocky. For the 1am bulletin – a 20 minuter – he missed the out cue of one of the VT inserts and let it play on…and on…and on until unceremoniously chopping it in mid flow. By then all the “timings” were well out. I then introduced a VT from Turkey. Nothing. Just my pretty face on screen.
“Go on” the editor said in my earphone. So I went on to the next story. Wrong! I was chopped mid sentence and the VT is played in. OK. I pick up at the start of the next story again and carry on. 15 mins later as all the timings are well out I get the message over the earphone “Cut all remaining stories.” So I drop the last three and lead in to the headlines.
“That’s all we have time for now, ladies and gentlemen. So to end the news let’s take another look at our top stories …..” and I sit…and wait … and look pretty… and continue to look pretty … and continue to continue to look pretty … and it dawns on me that the guy outside in the control room has no idea what is happening. The editor is obviously not up to much either (I found out later that he had given instructions to the rookie and then walked out of the studio leaving him to fend for himself.) And believe me it’s very lonely sitting on camera smiling at an unseen audience with nothing to say, having no idea what is going on and knowing the world is wondering also what is going on!
Eventually after 17 seconds – a lifetime – the headlines are faded in and I can continue to the end of the bulletin. The rookie is mortified and turns to face away from me when I exit the studio. The sound man has a good snigger and the VT guy has already disappeared. I smile and wave a hearty shukran as I walk out and go back upstairs to the newsroom which is deserted except for one of the editors who hasn’t even watched the bulletin as he is busy on MSN Messenger to a girlfriend on the other side of the world.
The next morning I went over to the TV station where, I was told, there was money waiting for me! This is the big moment I had been waiting for for over seven months. To actually get paid! Wow! Saudis, I should explain, hate parting with money, whether it is their own or somebody else's.
Now they have this system whereby you have to search for your name on hundreds of sheets of paper and find a number scribbled next to it. You then go to the cash office in the next corridor, quote the number and ask for your pay. So easy … you’d think.
Mustafa has given me a scruffy piece of paper (given its size, I think he was saving trees) with seven numbers scribbled on it. 867, 395, 410, 310, 775, 543, 109. And I was given instructions to go to the cash office where there would be a pile of money waiting for me. So I went along to the cash office where a scruffy bedou gabbled away in Arabic and shooed me away. What to do?
I went upstairs to the newsroom where the female (morning shift) editors were packing up. One of them offered to accompany me and translate. We went to the cash office. Wrong cash office! They had decided during Ramadhan that TV staff should get paid from a special TV cash office whilst radio and Information Ministry personnel could still get paid from the old cash office. We eventually find the new office back in the TV building.
The cashier bursts out laughing. “You’re not a woman!” he says pointing at me. You’re quite right, I reply. (What else would I have said?) “But now you go to the women’s cash office?” Turns out that someone “upstairs” has decided that keeping me waiting for seven months for my pay is a bit OTT and I should be fast tracked … and the only way to fast track someone is to enter them as a woman as they get paid quicker than men (don’t ask me why!). So I have been made a temporary woman!
I go with Tabasum to the female cash office. Ooops – there is a muttawah [religious police] raid on right at this minute so obviously I can’t go into the cash office. Tabasum goes in instead and comes out five minutes later to tell me that all of these numbers have already been paid out. Obviously the westerner is trying his luck trying to cheat the system but as the cash has been signed for (very sorry, we can’t read the signature!) I must leave empty handed.
Hoards of muttawah (oh, OK, three, but it still feels a lot) shout to Tabasum to cover her face and she turns away pretending not to understand what they are screaming. She takes me to see Mustapha, the newsroom fixer. He takes me to see Khalid, the cash office fixer. He bashes away at his computer and I am returned to male status once more. I am given a new number. Will this get me some money? Oh no. Maybe next week inshallah.
He bashes away on the computer again. Another number is produced. You take this to information ministry cash office and they give you money. Ahh. That’s better. I walk over to the Ministry building. “La la. Mafi hinah!” Back to Khalid. “Did I say Ministry? La la. I meant TV cash”. Back to TV cash office. “You’re not a woman then?” He opens a huge drawer stuffed full of wads of notes and lifts one out. This for you, he says. (A good feeling). And I am now led to believe that the other number that Khalid has given me will reward me with great riches next week (inshallah) – in fact possibly seven months’ worth of riches.
A few days later it was the visit of King Abdullah to the UK. I was on shift when he had his state banquet with Liz & Phil-the-Greek and because it was all happening right up until transmission, my long bulletin at 1am didn’t get the autocue script until seconds before going on air – in fact I was convinced I would have to read the whole thing off paper – but in the end up it came and I ploughed straight on in…with such gems as “the relationship between the Kingdom and the Queendom is..” (I was able to sidestep that little one!) and another: since the historic meeting between HM King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and Sirchil in 1945”. Sirchil? 1945? Ah. Easy (but they don’t ‘alf make it difficult when you’re least expecting it!)
Another time I had arrived back in Riyadh again, at a time the OPEC heads of state summit was disrupting traffic and the lives of the populace. The next day, I got home, made myself a lovely plate of mince and onions with macaroni and was just about to sink my gnashers in when the phone went. Saudi TV. “Hello Mr Brain. Keif Halik?” (oh oh they want something!) “Are you in Riyadh?” (they definitely want something) “Would you be available this evening at short notice?” OK. It’s a fair cop. Do they want me to read the 9pm or the 11pm news? It appears that one of their announcers who was due in at 9.30 is now not able to make it. Could I cover for him? (Ah. So it’s the 11pm.) Sure. No problems, say I feeling expansive. Is it both the 11pm and 1am or just the 11pm?
“La, La, you don’t understand, He was going to cover the OPEC summit. Now you can do it yes?” Er, what exactly do you mean “do it”? Do what?
“Oh you just have to introduce the programme, interview the guests, give some background about OPEC. That kind of thing. Mafi mushkillah. We know you can do it”.
Now just a moment there. You want me to present this evening’s analysis programme on OPEC? Yes that’s right. And when does it go out? 9.30pm (it’s now 6.30 pm). But I don’t know anything about this OPEC summit. I have been too busy to see the news today or yesterday. Mafi mushkillah we have a researcher for you. How long is the programme? Only 1 ½ hours! What !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Well against my better judgement I finally agreed and got changed into my glad rags. Pink shirt with a pink spotted blue tie. And though I say it myself I felt quite dapper. (In fact it was even commented on in the studio. “Not everyone could wear that and get away with it!” I was told.)
I managed to drive like a maniac and got to the studios by 7.30. Can I see what your researcher has got together for me? Answer: one page of the Saudi news bulletin. And this has got to fill 1 ½ hours????????? Are you mad? Ah we know you can do it Mr Brain.
I need to do my own research. I’m off to the news room. Oh sorry Mr Brain. The internet is down. But inshallah it will be back up again soon. What????????
So who am I interviewing? We have three guests for you. Yes, but who? They will be good guests. Yes, but who? Inshallah we will find out shortly (it’s now 9.10 and no sign of any guests.)
So I have the prospect of going on air in 20 minutes with no background to the summit and no idea whom I’m interviewing. Mafi mushkillah. We will tell you of course when we know. Don’t you know? Don’t worry Mr Brain. All will happen. Please to go in the studio.
I’m shepherded into the studio. 9.25. No guests. 9.28 no guests. We are told they have left the hotel. Inshallah they will be here soon. Just introduce the programme and we will bring them in when they arrive. Hey! No way! (I know what inshallah means in this place!)
9.30 comes and goes. At 9.40 an American Egyptian walks in. Do you know what is going on? he asks me? Nope. Nor do I. At 9.47 a Lebanese woman walks in. Do you know what is going on she asks us both? Nope. At 9.50 we are on the air. (Hey, what happened to interviewee no 3? He’s sitting in Cairo, I’m told with 10 seconds to go. No idea what his subject of expertise is. Come to that, I haven’t much idea what the other two can talk about either. But now we’re live!
Asalaam aleikum and welcome to a special programme yadda yadda yadda … say I and we’re off. Turns out we also have an ex Oil Minister of Kuwait on the line (kept waiting for 45 minutes as no one tells me he is there) plus there are three inserts from the Saudi Foreign minister and some vox pops etc.
And amazingly it all seemed to go OK. I dug right down into the depths of my memory and regurgitated Sheikh Yamani and the 1973 oil crisis (it helped that I had made a programme on this very subject some 30 years previously!); and remembered the book I’d read on the fall of the Shah in 1979 and was able to B_S my way through the programme. And before I knew it, 70 minutes had passed and I was wrapping up.
The interviewees said how impressed they were, and how well they thought it had gone. The producer who had avoided me at the start (wonder why!) came in to bask in reflected glory. And the biggest compliment came from the female interviewee. Not only was she managing editor of a business magazine in Beirut, but also of an events company in Bahrain. Would I be interested in chairing an international conference for them in the near future? She would eMail me with the details. (She never did.)
Ahhh. Saudi Television. Eat your hearts out BBC/CNN/Fox etc