Where can you watch acrobats, b-boys, ventriloquists, traditional yola dancers and speed painters all in the same night? Yep, you’ve guessed it: on new TV talent show Arabs’ Got Talent. The first series began in January and has already claimed the spot as the most popular talent show in the Arab world. In contrast to the version in the West, which only focuses on one nation at a time, Arabs’ Got Talent is hugely diverse, holding initial auditions in more than 13 countries, including Syria and Morocco, totalling 1,500 contestants with weird and wonderful skills.

It’s not just the contestants that are multicultural, either; the broadcast team are from all over Arabia. Producer Lara Nassif hails from Lebanon, as does singer and judge Najwa Karam (one of the best-selling artists in the region). The other judges include news anchor Amr Adeeb from Egypt, and Dubai-based Ali Jaber, the dean and professor in communications at American University.

‘It’s very similar to the international format,’ says producer Nassif. ‘I also think it’s richer in content because it covers an entire region. Each country brings a new talent to the show, reflecting the different cultures of every Arabic country.’

Not only is there an element of national pride when showcasing these skills, the prizes aren’t bad either. The winner gets a contract with Sony international, a Chevrolet Camaro car and Dhs489,000. ‘If I won, my entire life would change,’ says opera singer and hopeful contestant Joseph Dahdah from Lebanon. ‘When judge Amr Adeeb asked me to sing the verse again during my audition, I was ecstatic. I think more people have started to appreciate opera music now, and my goal is to reach a wider audience.’ Dahdah has even been recognised since appearing on the show. ‘I went to a birthday party recently, and everybody recognised me and greeted me like it was my birthday.’

The Got Talent franchise, a concept created by British talent show king Simon Cowell (who appeared as a judge in the original UK and US series), now includes more than 32 shows around the world. Judge Jaber admits he’s never done anything like this before; though he’s had 20 years of experience putting people in front of cameras, he says the judging process has been hugely fun, yet challenging. A lot of the acts on Arabs’ Got Talent follow a similar format, explains Jaber. ‘We’ve seen a lot of hip hop and rap acts, which reveals a lot about what’s happening on the streets of Arabia,’ he explains. ‘Most contestants seem to lean towards singing, probably because all the other talent shows concentrate on singing, but the [Arabs’ Got Talent] format has exposed an underground of beautiful art, redefining the talent show.’

Of course, part of the entertainment value comes from the bizarre and talentless contestants. ‘We had a goofy grandmother dancer with a wardrobe malfunction, and a few people who are confused about the definition of “talent”,’ explains Jaber. The sheer variety of talents on show has made the judges’ task harder, especially considering the subjective nature of art. ‘I particularly like the acts that are creative and different,’ says Nassif. ‘For example, an Omani contestant showed some unique skills in sand drawing, and that captured the judges’ interest.’

‘I have no talent myself whatsoever,’ says Jaber. ‘All of us take the seats of the audience at home – if we like it, we’ll vote for it; if we don’t, we won’t. I’ve always been exposed to different talents, so I’m known for being firm. I believe we have a responsibility to set an example to the rest of the world and show what Arabs are capable of.’ Yet Jaber is adamant he’s not the Simon Cowell of the Arab world. ‘I don’t see a lot of similarities between us,’ he says. ‘Being firm is not being obnoxious – the Arab culture does not accept being impolite. I try to be firm, but I have certain boundaries.’

While the show has become hugely popular with an Arabic-speaking audience, the region also has a large number of English speakers and programme executives are considering adding subtitles. Also in the pipeline for 2011, a new incarnation of the Got Talent franchise will give all nations a chance to compete on a world scale. World’s Got Talent will see 25 winners from shows across the globe battle it out to win a million-dollar prize purse. The mega-series is rumoured to be presented by America’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan, and the six judges, instead of three, will include Sharon Osbourne, Dannii Minogue, Brian McFadden and, of course, Simon Cowell. Let’s hope a few talented Arab contestants can do the region proud.
Arabs’ Got Talent screens on Fridays at 9pm on MBC4. For more information, see www.mbc.net/arabsgottalent.

Our top contestants
Hala Turk
Bahrain Age: 7
Talent: Singing

Shaemaa Al Megherey
Oman (lives in UAE)
Age: 16
Talent: Sand drawing

Salama Crew
Age: 27
Talent: Dancing

Age: 10
Talent: Poetry
What’s wrong with the name?
Apparently, quite a lot. Blogs and social networking sites have gone berserk with people up in arms at the incorrect use of an apostrophe in the Arabs’ Got Talent name. ‘Someone please remove the apostrophe from Arabs’ Got Talent,’ says one disgruntled viewer on Facebook. ‘In Britain’s Got Talent, the apostrophe plus s is short for Britain “has” got talent – that’s because Britain is singular,’ says another angry customer on the MBC website.‘But “Arabs” is plural, so you can’t follow it with “has”.’ Let’s put the matter to bed: grammatically speaking, it should be Arabia’s Got Talent or Arabs Have Got Talent. Phew, glad we cleared that up – now let’s get on with enjoying the show.