On “Bab al hara”… and the culture of Arab journalism

DDR wa rijal al hara, picture courtesy of Hikmet Daoud


Actually I didn`t want to write about this topic now, since there are much more important things happening in the world (particularly in the Arab world, see Gaza and #Flotilla issue), but some people made me think that I should anyway write down some remarks about the following issue.

So I was lucky enough, thanks to director Mo`min al Malla and his team, to follow some shootings of “Bab al hara 5” which are being held at Qaryia Shamyia, a “fake” Damascus that has been rebuilt out of the (real) chaotic and messy Damascus – a place where you basically can enjoy “Sham without Sham”, the beauty of its souqs, houses, squares, without having to bear with the noise, the dirtiness, the traffic, and all the “disadvantages” of a real big capital-. A  “sanitized” version of the Syrian capital that has been built for the sake of tourists and grown bigger and bigger after the increasing success of  “Bab al hara” (its headquarters studios are there).

“Bab al hara 5“`s shootings were a great experience from many points of view, both from sociological to strictly “TV production” perspective. It was extremely important for my PhD research and also for the great people I was able to meet there, actors, crew, and particularly Hikmet Daoud (the guy who designed all the costumes and created the “Bab al hara” look). More on my  PhD thesis, inshallah..and actually I will present a paper on “Bab al Hara” at WOCMES conference next July which then I will publish here, too.

What I want to talk about now is the article that was published on MBC.net few days ago. The journalist  interviewed me during the shootings and was very kind to me. Of course, misunderstandings happen all over the world, and usually the person who is interviewed is never happy to read his/her words once published cause he/she fells betrayed by the journalist.

I don`t feel this intentionally betrayed but I just want to underline some points that can look a bit “naif” on my side in the Arabic text (and it can be cultural or even language misunderstanding).

First of all, I`d like to point out that I didn`t get to “Bab al hara” because of the many articles I`ve read on Italian press as the MBC article says!

I`ve been studying Arab media for the past 10 years and more, I do read Arabic press, travel extensively around the Arab world, and for somebody who has studied the structure of Panarab media for a decade and published academic books about Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera. Media e societa` arabe nel nuovo millennio, Bruno Mondadori publisher,Milano, 2005), MBC, Orbit and ART (Media Oriente, edizioni Seam, Roma, 2000) it`s kind of natural at some point to start studying the content of media.

TV fiction (musalsalat) is an important part of this content, and I`ve been studying them (not only “Bab al hara” but the whole phenomena of Syrian drama) for a while now. Western press -not Italian!- mostly UK and US based has paid some attention of course to “Bab al hara” as a sociological phenomena. And in fact, what I was trying to convey to the journalist -and also to the crew of “Bab al hara“- is that myself as a Western researcher I`m interested to the financial, sociological (and linguistic) aspects of the drama, not to its characters or what did “fulan” or if Abu Shab is coming back or not:)

As for the specific of its linguistic aspects, I`ve been talking a lot about this issue particularly with Ustaz Wafiq al Zaiim who performs “Abu Hatem’. He is very much into “drama shamyia” and the use of Syrian dialect into musalsalat (next week we are hosting his conference on this very topic at the Danish Institute in Damascus). He recognizes that the dialect used by “Bab al hara” is a “standardized” one, who should be made understandable by everybody (and, I add this, particularly since its main audience is in the Gulf countries). We have been discussing a lot about the use of words like “3aghid”, etc. and its implications, linguistically and culturally speaking, and I`m grateful to him for his insights.

What the article doesn`t specify is why -as I said- most of the audience of “Bab al hara” -and the audience which counts- is in the Gulf, and not in Syria. In Old Damascus, where I do live, I`ve  never ever found anybody who agrees with the version of “damascenity” that is promoted by “Bab al hara”. Not even a shop owner of Old Damascus -and I`m not talking about press or university professors, elite i3ani- agrees that lifestyle in Old Damascus has ever been as the one “Bab al hara” advertises. Different people I`ve spoken with in the Old City of Damascus -people who don`t know each other- quote as the best representation of Old Damascus the one done by an almost unknown musalsal called “Al hsrum al shami”. This musalsal shows a very different Old Damascus, an “hara” which is quite far from the “hara” depicted by “Bab al hara” and its values of unity, solidarity, etc. Some people would quote “Ayyam shamyia” , by “Bab al hara” creator , director Bassam al Malla (the “architect” of drama shamyia`s success). But I would guess -just guess, nobody has numbers in his hands, as we all know that Arab TV studies do lack independent audience data so far- that the majority of “Bab al hara” audience is in the Gulf, and it is the Gulf to be so attracted by this “sanitized” and nostalgic vision of the past, much more than the Damascene or Syrian people.

Having said that -and having again pointed out that my PhD is on the Syrian drama industry, and not only on “Bab al hara” which, by the way, is a very interesting “industry case”-, I think there are many good sociological and media related reasons to study “Bab al hara” and not to “snob” it, as many wrongly do. It is certainly a media phenomena that deserves to be analysed in-depth. Anyway, I have to remark that among Syrian journalists this “objective” and sociological approach is still far to be accepted, as they are still caught in the “it is art -or not art” problem which I think we European have passed through many years ago, and “put into archives” after the 68th cultural revolution and its relation between the alleged “low-pop culture” vs the alleged “high culture”.

But the most important remark I`d like to make in respect to this article is that I don`t think “Bab al hara” represents a “barrier” to the culture of globalization, or something that fiercely opposes to it. On the contrary, “Bab al hara” is the prototype of globalization and of how it has penetrated so deeply in the entire world -including the Arab world- with its consumption values (media consumption being probably of the strongest among those values).

“Bab al hara” is a consumption spectacle made for media audiences in the very era of globalization. In my view, the typology of “return to the past” and “its golden values” of vicinity, proximity, solidarity, etc. is a creation that suits perfectly in the era of globalization and global consumption rather than a quest for “authenticity” and “non-contradictory culture”. We all know that every period has got conflict and contradictions, but the Past is always much charmer than the future, cause it cannot come back and it is always depicted with “nostalgia” and idealized, the same as “Bab al hara” does -and Qariya Shamyia does , too, emptying the “real” Sham from its mess and contradictions of present time-.

Unfortunately -and that`s another misunderstanding in the article- Old Damascus is starting to become similar to “Bab al hara” and Qariya Shamyia, i.e. “sanitized”‘. More and more restaurants and hotels are appearing for the sake and consumption of tourists and TV audiences that come to Syria to see the “real” Bab al hara. So the “real” Old Damascus is starting day by day to look little by little like the “Old Damascus done for TV”. But I guess that this,too, is a typical phenomena of globalization and its consumption patterns.

These are just some thoughts, and a blog is not the right place where to start an academic discussion. For the moment, I`d just like to thank the people of “Bab al hara” for making this “participant observation” possible. And next time I`ll do an interview I`ll remember to ask for the final text before publishing just to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

What actually has surprised me the most is not even this misunderstanding on MBC, but the fact that immediately after I saw the same article published on many different websites (Discover Syria, Damas Post, etc) with my name and the same picture taken by my friend Daoud, with just a quick remind of the “m b c net” website from where it was taken, but without any link and copying exactly most of the content of the MBC article without quotation…but I guess this is part of the problem I`ve already underlined in the previous post about “copy and paste culture” so much widespread in the Arab world…

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One thought on “On “Bab al hara”… and the culture of Arab journalism

  1. bab el 7ara iz da BEST suryian show ever!!! 😀
    i love mo3tz….<3

    iv been wachin it ever since i wz (6)

    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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