Dubai: How many brains does the silkworm have? "Eleven," Siham Ebrahim replies with confidence.
Siham shot into popularity across the Arab world by winning Dh250,000 in the Arabic version of the game show, Who wants to be a Millionaire, on the pan-Arab satellite channel MBC.
Umm Ra'afat, as the 52-year-old Palestinian mother of 12 is popularly known, is a treasure trove of general information and has an elephantine memory. In fact she makes a living from her participation in general knowledge-based game shows.
She takes part in many game shows on the radio, TV and newspaper quizzes in the UAE and other Arab countries. The money she earns from the shows adds to the household income and helps her give good eduction to her children.
"Even if I can't leave my children anything, I would have left them educated, which is the best thing," says Siham.
"People know that I was a straight A student at school. But my family's condition, which is also a big family, stopped me from pursuing my higher education after high school. It remains a dream that I want to fulfil through my children."
Today, three of Siham's four boys have graduated in engineering. Four girls obtained diplomas in finance. The rest are still in school.
"At the beginning, it was a hobby," Siham recalls. "But when the money started coming, I began looking at it as a source of income that would enable me to help my husband financially."
Siham began appearing in popular television game shows by late 2000. She could have won a half-a-million-dirham prize had she answered the question, "When did Alaska join the United States of America?"
"But 1867 was not among the options," Siham recalls. So she preferred to withdraw.
For her, recalling the years is a challenge compared to names of people or historical incidents. Through the past years, many contestants have added her name to their list of "friends" they stuck for reply during live shows. The calls come even from countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Siham never hesitates in helping them.
Only a few weeks ago she was called for help by an Emirati contestant. "Umm Ra'afat," the Emirati participant replied when asked in the game show which "friend" would he like to call. "Oh, people are still calling Siham Ebrahim?" the prominent TV presenter George Qardahi wondered.
Umm Ra'afat has been living in the UAE since 1984, four years after her marriage in Gaza, her place of birth.
Her husband opened a car garage at Musafah near Abu Dhabi with a partner after he was laid off three years ago. Siham's journey with game shows had started with the famous Q&A programme presented by the television presenter and noted educationist, the late Sharif Al Alami on Abu Dhabi TV.
She recalls she had kept nagging Al Alami in vain to choose her from the audience to answer a question. While she kept "helping" participants with the right answers, she got the attention of one of the members at the panel in charge of forming the questions, she says.
One day during the break, a panel member asked Siham, "Why don't you participate?"
"Ask Mr Al Alami why he is not choosing me," she replied. "I am willing to challenge him that I can correctly answer any question from his 20 books. If I make a mistake, I am willing to pay him double the amount of money he is offering to winners for each question."
Al Alami accepted the challenge. After several days of gruelling questions on general information, Siham won Dh2,000 — the highest offered prize then.
Siham has herself compiled four books of questions and answers after the episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, a programme she says she wishes to take part in again. Her books are being sold in many countries in the region.
Her first book included 7,500 questions and answers. Then she added 2,500 questions more, and another 2,500 later. Her recent book is titled 18,888 questions and answers.
Umm Ra'afat's home library has nearly 1,000 books on general information, as well as many encyclopaedia, she says.
"Some times, when I watch those game shows, I tell myself how far we have come from reading. Our level of general knowledge has become very low," Siham believes.
Many well-educated participants, including university professors, simply crash out. Interestingly, some ordinary people, merchants or administrators have become big winners. "The media has a role to play," she says. They should increase production of general knowledge-based game shows and encourage people to benefit from their knowledge.
"Schools should encourage students from early stages to start reading books, offering various incentives, including field trips and token presents. The child should be encouraged to read. Children are like sponge, you can change them as you wish. But you can't ask someone in high school, who is not used to reading books to start reading," she says.
"My children don't like to read general books. They spend their free time with their computer, or video games or the internet. They look at their books as something imposed on them, that they can get rid of later."
Reflecting the sentiments of many parents across the Arab region that the education system needs changes and upgrading, Siham said she still depends on what she herself studied, in teaching her children, though nearly 34 years have passed since she left school.
"Thank God, I still depend on the information stored in the back of my memory. Some times, "daily pressures of my life make me sometimes drift away from what I am reading."
- 1,000 books in Siham's home library
- 7,500 questions included in her first book
- 34 years have passed since Siham left school
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