Polygamist TV Show Sparks Debate

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Hajj Metwalli has three wives and is considering a fourth. He's happy, his wives consider themselves lucky, and the soap opera about their fictional lives has set off a debate across the Arab world about polygamy, Islam and love.

The daily drama, ``The Family of Hajj Metwalli,'' was the most watched program on Egyptian television and drew wide audiences on at least 12 other Arab channels during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a stage for splashy TV shows.

Islam allows men to take up to four wives on the condition that he treat each equally. But critics argue that being fair to four women is impossible outside Metwalli's charmed and fictional life.

Those who consider the show fantasy find it amusing. Many women are angry, while some men envy Metwalli.

Yehia Khalil, an Egyptian jazz musician, is no fan. He didn't like the idea of Metwalli's lifestyle dominating the small screen during Ramadan, when families are glued to their TV sets more than the rest of the year.

``We don't need this backward idea that money buys everything, including women. There was no mention of love in those marriages,'' Khalil said.

Mustafa Moharam, the series' script writer, said he was happy he had succeeded in getting people talking.

``I wanted to throw a stone in stagnant waters, I meant to push people to think and discuss relations between husbands and wives and the controversial issue of polygamy,'' Moharam said.

He added he wanted to encourage marriage, as he believes that the number of single people from both sexes is alarming.

``Unmarried women suffer much more than the first, the second or even the third wife,'' Moharam said.

His Metwalli is a rich fabrics merchant in his late 50s. The wives dance at each others' weddings and live in harmony in the same building - albeit in separate luxury apartments Metwalli visits according to a strict schedule.

``I'm very upset because this series is forging religious consciousness, deforming the value of marriage, and humiliating women by presenting them as objects and slaves,'' said Zeinab Radwan, who teaches religion at Cairo University.

``Are we promoting the culture of the harem at the beginning of the 21st century? What is this backwardness?'' wrote leftist journalist Farida Al-Naqash.

Nowadays, polygamy is uncommon in Arab and Islamic countries. It is legal in countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but banned in Tunisia and Turkey.

In Egypt, a country of more than 67 million people, ``The Family of Hajj Metwalli'' is interrupted with government ads encouraging birth control and promoting the idea that girls are equal to boys.

Maraam Yehia Barqawi, a 35-year-old Jordanian homemaker, said she enjoys watching the series as a well-produced drama, but hopes it doesn't encourage men to marry again and again.

``I would kill my husband if he ever thinks of marrying another woman,'' she said.

Not all women agree.

Nahida Abdu-Salam, a single Iraqi government employee, 30, said that ``Metwalli treats his wives fairly and kindly. He is able to meet all the financial needs of his women and children. I think no woman should ask more than this.''

Film critic Tarek El-Shenawi doesn't like the series, but said, ``No doubt every man has a part of Hajj Metwalli in him, even if he doesn't reveal it.''