No booze, no bathroom cameras, and absolutely no sex. Welcome to Bahrain's Big Brother house

After working on 24 versions of Big Brother throughout the world, Anuska Ban would be forgiven for thinking that the 25th would not be particularly taxing.

But in the reality TV show's latest incarnation, which had its first eviction last night, Big Brother has gone where it has never gone before: Bahrain, a Muslim country. And Ms Ban, the programme's resident "mother", is feeling the heat in more ways than one.

Asked how Big Brother Middle East differs from the others, she replies: "Do you have half an hour or an hour? It is completely different. You cannot compare it with the European or American or even Latin American style. Everything goes really slow. In most countries we built a house like this in three months. Here, it has taken us more than six months and it is still not ready."

The cultural differences go far deeper. The design of the Big Brother house has been changed out of sensitivity to Muslim beliefs. Beyond the communal kitchen and sitting room - decorated with oriental touches - there are separate living rooms where men and women can be apart from each other. There are separate prayer rooms too, facing Mecca. Security cameras in the bathrooms, dance marathons, and being chained together for days on end have all been dropped.

The compromises are designed to ensure as wide an audience as possible. Big Brother Middle East will be available all over the region - not just the more liberal countries like Lebanon, but also Syria and Saudi Arabia. MBC, the Saudi broadcaster co-producing and transmitting the programme, aims to reach 150 million Arabic-speaking people through free-to-air satellite TV. It is one of 12 channels showing imported western shows in the region. They are redefining cultural boundaries to a degree that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

The show, which has a $100,000 (£54,000) first prize, has provoked a predictable outcry from Islamic fundamentalists in Bahrain, who have a parliamentary majority. Their spokesman, Shaikh Adel Al Maawada, said: "I have never seen Big Brother ... But I think it does not suit our society at all ... The idea is against our religion and our traditions."

Islamists are concerned about unmarried men and women living under one roof, and worse still, by the prospect that a couple will fall in love. Mr Al Maawada said: "If they want to succeed they have to fall in love. What really pulls people to the programme is love and what goes on ... The more they will practise it the more they will succeed. And the more some people will get angry, and other people will be very happy."

Conservatives will have plenty of material to fuel their anger. On the opening night, a week ago, contestants greeted each other by kissing their cheeks. The Saudi representative rushed around the house waving his arms above his headscarf: "I am the only one who has been able to get into the women's quarter. Yes!"

Jameel Fateel, a chef who watched the show, concluded after half an hour: "Programmes like this can create hassle in our society, because it is not prepared for such a concept. We need time to educate a generation to get to know what is going on around us."

But Abdula Hayat, a psychiatrist who has said the contestants will go mad, said: "I will continue to watch." Sameera Rajab, a respected Bahraini commentator, said that watching the show did not mean accepting Western values. "In the last three or four years, with the US and Israeli policy in Palestine ... we have started to get our younger generations back to our culture and our thoughts. They can see through these satellite programmes what is going on."

Mr Rajab said the rise of Western entertainment on TV was a form of cultural imperialism. "It is not just Big Brother. After the US announced their democracy initiative several years ago we see very clearly they have plans for dramatic changes in this part of the world. The media is actually their weapon against us, what they are using to implement their plans."

He may have a point, judging by comments two years ago by Mark McKinnon, now President Bush's chief media adviser. He said: "Entertainment is America's greatest export, and what we want to do is increase that export, and make sure that people see it. Because when people see freedom, if they don't have it, I can guarantee that they will want it."

That may be one explanation for the hundreds of Bahrainis - the women heavily veiled - trekking to the glittering start of Big Brother. Perhaps tonight they will be at home watching the first nominations for eviction. And they may even exercise their ability to choose - and cast their vote on the contestant they like the least.

Madeleine Holt is Newsnight's Culture Correspondent and the only British journalist to enter the Big Brother Middle East house.

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