The Opposite Direction, a talk show known in Arabic as Al-Itijah el- Mu’akis, airs on Aljazeera News Channel, since its inception in 1996. It is perhaps the most popular Arab TV show on television today, viewed weekly by millions of Arabic speakers around the world.
Hosted by Faisal Al kassem, 42 years old Syrian, the show usually brings in guests to debate an issue on Arab current affairs.
The emergence of the Opposite Direction and Aljazeera in general has widened the space of debate in the Arab world by providing an outlet to various opinions and views to be debated and contested freely without censorship.
The show tends to take on taboo issues that were off limits to most Arabs in public let alone on television. Topics such as corruption, democracy, torture and polygamy were among the few taboo subjects the show has aired.
The show, however, is usually raucous and intense. Guests tend to trade insults and engage in heated exchange. Guests abruptly cut each others off, talk over each other while viewers are left to sort out who said what amid this shouting match.
The premise of the show, it seems, is to be a forum for Arab intellectuals and ordinary Arabs who participate via email and faxes and telephone to express their views and direct their emotions and anger on their enemies. Real or imagined
The show, henceforth, functions as an outlet, a ventilation system of sort that helps cool off the Arab subjects’ anger against their governments, without actually analyzing or discussing the problems themselves or the means to address them.
Al Kassem usually starts off his show with provocative promos and slogans that hype up the viewers to watch him and his guests whip the Arab leaders for their corruption, and crimes against their own subjects.
In one of his most recent shows, the title was “The One Leader, dictators and their dictatorial rule in the Arab World, and why the Arab peoples tend to cry over their dead leaders and despise them at the same time”
Typical of the Opposite Direction, this issue is so broad and so fluffy that debating it on the show’s usual format is virtually impossible.
The show’s huge popularity stems from its condemnatory tone and the animated and daring insults hurled on Arab leaders-and that it provides a rare forum for ordinary people to get revenge on their tormentors. At least in words.
The absence of reasoned debate and intellectual discussion on the show makes it more like a boxing match with Al Kassem as the referee who in addition to this role act as a provocateur in order to milk more intensity and excitement
Though an able, well meaning, and intelligent journalist, Al Kassem does not lead a discussion of the subject at hand, but rather spend most of his time trying to hold off his guests from reaching to each other’s throat, or pleading with his guests, who normally speak with a speed and intensity of a runaway train, to allow him a minute or two to say a few words or call for a commercial break.
But Al Kassem likes this atmosphere, his proclivity to the emotive use of language charges up his guests and excites his viewers thus making the show entertaining, albeit without much intellectual content.
In his last show about the Arab leaders being so" unique in history", Al Kasem throws in big names such as Thomas Carlyle the Scottish historian who favored despotism and reviled democratic rule. Also mentioned were Marx and Napoleon, but no one was interested in debating Carlyle’s thought, including Al Kassem himself. Moreover, Al Kassem did not pose questions to his guests to comment on his own insertion of intellectuals relevant to the subject of the show, or on the difference, advantages, and disadvantages between democratic systems practiced in much of the world today and authoritarian rule practiced in the Arab world.
Interviewed in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Al Kassem explained his rambunctious show as a normal outcome of freedom deficit in the Arab world, “what do you expect when someone is holding his hand over your mouth for years and suddenly removes it” said Al Kassem “you go wild” he added
Describing Arabs as going “wild” is inaccurate and more or less demeaning, especially when referring to Arab viewers, the very people Al Kassem s trying to enlighten.
Still, the show is ground breaking and pioneering by Arab media standards.
Al Kassem, however, can still utilize his knowledge and experience to transform his show into an institution and a vehicle to promote reasoned debate, diversity of opinion and civility in ushering change and democratic reform in the Arab world.