LEBANON: Online serial ‘Shankaboot’ brings Arabic drama into the new millenium

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A beautiful girl with a checkered past and the poor delivery boy who loves her – it could be any soap opera on one of hundreds of Arabic channels, but it’s not. ‘Shankaboot’ is a digital experiment in storytelling made for the Web, and its success could usher in a new genre of serial drama in the Arab world.

‘In the first 10 episodes, we are introducing lovely, interesting characters that young people can identify with,’ producer Katia Saleh told The Times. ‘Down the line, [we’ll] introduce other topics that would appeal to Arab youth and are not brought up in the mainstream media, something appropriate for the Web.’


‘Shankaboot,’ which was shot in Beirut and produced by Saleh’s Batoota Films in association with the BBC World Service and with the support of local organizations, bills itself as the first online Arabic drama in the tradition of lonelygirl15 and KateModern, but with a distinctively local flavor.

Viewers who are familiar with traditional over-the-top Arabic soaps will immediately be struck by the naturalistic tone of the new series, a trend that could be credited to the introduction of dubbed Turkish serials a few years ago. (That is not to say that the path to love is clear of all manner of absurd and unlikely obstacles, but at least the makeup isn’t quite so terrifying.)

‘Shankaboot’ takes the naturalism a step farther, using hand-held cameras and quick cuts to convey the jostling vitality of the city.

The first three episodes, which average about five minutes each, are already available on the Shankaboot homepage, which also features games and short spinoff clips with a bumbling electrician called Waheed El Booz, played by comedian Hisham Jaber. Saleh said the website will soon open its chat forum where fans will be able to vote on and suggest plot changes, which the writers will then use to create future episodes.

‘It’s an interactive project. You don’t just watch it, it’s a whole interactive culture we are trying to create,’ Saleh said.

This democratic approach could do very well among the show’s target audience of young Arabs between 15 and 24 whose creative and political contributions to society are largely ignored or suppressed.

Shankaboot is a well-timed venture; Arabic is the fastest growing language online, with the number of Arabic-speaking users expected to reach 82 million over the next three years, most of them young and active in social media.

But as more young minds migrate online, the censors are not far behind. In January, Jordan extended its traditional media censorship laws to include the Internet, and intelligence apparatuses in a number of countries are cracking down on online content.

Saleh said that so far, Lebanese authorities have not given them a problem and have even allowed the crew to film a scene inside a police station.

‘There are limits on TV and cinema, especially in the Arab world, there are a lot of topics that are censored,’ said Saleh. ‘Our aim is to break those barriers in an online series.’

--Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: Episode one of Shankaboot, the first online Arabic drama. Credit: Shankaboot via YouTube

Screenshot: Shankaboot’s star, Sleiman, a delivery boy. Credit: Meris Lutz