Women in musalsalat: “Bab al hara 5” and “Abuab al ghraim”

This morning I jumped into this Emirates 24/7 article on Bab al hara 5 which states: “Syrian drama popular despite abuse of women”.

This is not the first time I`ve heard heavy critical statements on the way Bab al hara serial portrays women and their role in the society. The directors and many of the actors have tried many times -in public occasions- to “adjust” this belief. I met once Kamal al Murra, one of the writer of the musalsal, and, when asked  this question (he must be tired of people asking why women are portrayed so badly) he answered very frankly that Bab al hara was not aiming at portraying the whole Syrian society. It was the story of just one little neighbourhood (hara) in Old Damascus and, despite the “hara” was an imagined one (iftiradiya) the social behaviour, the values and the lifestyle portrayed in it were exactly like in many others “harat sha`abiya ” at the time. He was referring to a low-class “hara” where you couldn`t expect to see elite behaviours or lifestyles, such as educated or “liberated” women.

In Bab al hara 5 episode broadcasted yesterday, the main topic was Hisam -the eldest son of the so madly popular Abu Hisam- desperately looking for a third wife. Hisam is already married twice but, as he points out: “I`ll have the first two wives taking care of the house and the children. I want to enjoy life with the third one”. In another scene  his sister Bouran goes to visit their mother – that very same Souad who was divorced by the honourable Abu Hisam for having dared to express a different opinion from his- and asks her to mediate with her husband who wants their teenager daughter to get married. When Bouran tries to make him understand that she is “still playing”, he gets mad and screams that they are not supposed to pay forever in order to raise their daughter. In another episode, we see Bouran`s male son who goes to school -the “kuttab”- whereas his little sister stays home with mum and learn how to be a perfect housewife.

I don`t know in how many episodes -basically, every time somebody gets pregnant- all the men “order” their women to “deliver a boy”. Ironically enough, should this wish come true, al “hara” would be a male-only neighbourhood not able to reproduce itself without recurring to the “ghrarib” (the foreigner).

Almost at the same time  slot Bab al hara 5 is broadcasted on MBC, its Pan Arab competitor Dubai TV broadcasts “Abuab al ghraim” (the doors of the cloud) directed by Syrian Hatem Ali. Despite the directors and many actors in the cast are Syrians, the spoken language of the musalsal is a very delicate kind of old fashioned Gulf dialect. The story is in fact inspired by  Dubai ruler Sheikh al Maktoum`s poetry and set during the time when British occupation forced the local bedouin population to migrate.

The difference between “Abuab al ghraim”`s bedouins and “Bab al hara”`s urban population is enormous, particularly when it comes to women. Bedouin women are proud, fierce and bold. Their  are very feminine but their attitude can be  confrontational vis-a`-vis their men.

Watching this “bedouin drama” made me think to that”hara” in Damascus, the “oldest urban settlement in the world”, as all the Damascenes like to remind each foreigner.

The past is never “the Past” and everything we tell about “those times” is the result of a precise choice -being it intentional or unintentional- that we are making “right now”.

Precisely for this reason, the “hara” of the oldest city in the world can be much less “urban” than a bedouin camp.

Interestingly enough, both of them are “made in Syria”.

Me with some “Bab al hara” women at Bab al hara 5 shootings, May 2010, Damascus.


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Najdat Anzour`s new TV drama to set Ramadan 2010 on fire

A very hot and dry summer afternoon in Damascus. The kind of weather which pushes you to be indolent. But in this tiny Maliki apartment there is even more activity that usual. Two workstations in parallel are editing ما ملكت أيمانكم” (“Whatever you possess”) and ذاكرة الجسد” (“Memory in the flesh”), the latest TV drama  works by Syrian director Najdat Anzour.

I`ve been knowning Najdat for some years now and I`ve always admired his dedication and passion, whatever kind of work he does. This can`t be more true this time when he is working on such different contexts and stories. “Memory in the flesh” is inspired by the novel of Algerian writer Ahlam Musteghranemi, one of the more appreciated Arab writer of the last century, and  a very unconventional female personality. This 30 episodes TV drama is been produced by Abu Dhabi TV channel with 25% participation of Egyptian Media City, a miracle that only somebody like Najdat could orchestrate. It is very rare indeed to see Egyptian capital producing something that is shot by a Syrian -this has happened previously, as in the case of the Syrian Hatem Ali`s “King Farouk”, but the final result was rather a “made in Egypt”-.

Anzour is working with Syrian (like Syrian star Jamal Suleiman), Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian actors to create what could be described as a “Panarab” TV fiction production, something that tackles regional interests and issues, as the Algerian liberation war, the Lebanese civil war, etc. And, of course, there is a lot of beautiful literature taken from Musteghranemi`s work. Dialogues are in classical Arabic, as Algerian dialect is still not widely understood at a regional level as much as Egyptian or Syrian.

While he is still shooting “Memory in the flesh” between France, Lebanon, UK and Algeria, Anzour is at the final editing stage of “Whatever you posses” (the meaning of ا ملكت أيمانكم” being wider than this, as it is a Quranic expression coming from the “Sura of the Women” that has got a lot of religious nuances). This musalsal, which is also due to be launched during next Ramadan, is in a way at the opposite end of “Memory in the flesh”. Whereas the latter comes from a piece of literature, is set in the past, speaks Classical and addresses Panarab issues, “Whatever you possess” is a social drama very much set in a contemporary Damascus and spoken in Syrian dialect. It deals with issues like relation between men and women, sex, religion, corruption, poverty and extreme richness, all elements that are embedded together in contemporary Syrian daily life. Najdat and his “monteur” show me two finished episodes and I can`t prevent myself from thinking that this is going to set next Ramadan on fire.


Contemporary Damascus is shown with all its contradictions without any filter: one of the most ancient urban settlement in the history of humanity,and at the same time a tiny village where rural values of tradition and its preservation still seem to prevail over modern urban values.

This contrast is visible in everything from the locations to the characters, with a particular emphasis on females. Rich “enfants gates” that spend their time on the border of a swimming pool in their rich father`s villa, talking about make up and coiffeur, whispering on their fancy mobiles and elaborating on the latest fashion magazine coming from the West – and young educated girls that are pushed to sell their bodies to pay for their parents` health treatments-. The middle class is astonishingly absent from this picture -as it is, in reality, fading away from Syrian society class composition-. Middle class is shrinking everywhere in the entire world, as a result of the globalisation process that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer: but in Syria this process dramatically involves all the values that middle class traditionally brings to society, its dedication to education and hard work, its belief in self-initiative and self-making, its urban background. The females protagonists of “Whatever you possess” -Leila, Alia and Nadine- represent three prototypes well alive in contemporary Syrian society. Their complicated relations with men are mostly based on exploitation, submission, dependence, inequality, frustration and on a unbalanced exercise of power. To this respect, every social class seems to be the same -no differences between the rich and poor, the shrinking middle class being even more desperate as more conscious of the process that is leading to its own disappearance-.

Whatever you possess” is made up of luxury villas and poor suburbs, smoky bars full of belly dancers and Qoranic schools, women dressed in “total black” and kinky “femme fatales” going from one party to another. It shows a society which is totally permeated with liberalization and globalization but hasn’t developed its “anti corps” , being only able  to read this process in financial terms (i.e. being empowered to buy the latest luxury car or mobile) but not in cultural ones.

I remember Najdat showing the promo of “Whatever you possess” to a Danish non Arabic speaking audience in Copenhagen. The results was amazing, as people could understand -through the powerful visual language – the story he wants to tell, maybe much more universal than as it looks at a first glance.

During the past few years, Najdat Anzour has smartly dedicated his career at “universal” issues that are of Westerners` and Arabs` common concerns, I.e. terrorism, relations between religions, issues like the Danish cartoon controversy. I`ve always found this very interesting but I have to say that I`m happy to see “Whatever you possess” focusing on Syrian society, debating about it, pointing out at its problems. Being more local he has probably become more universal, and even more understandable by us Westerners, even the non Arabic speakers, as those folks in Copenhagen. There is a lot of criticism in Syria in respect to this kind of “Syrian neorealism” featuring all the problems and the contradictions of the Syrian society on Regional TV screens, moreover during the holy month of Ramadan. People say those fictions don`t offer any solution for social change, just portray the bad side of a society. However, I think that through TV works as the latest Anzour`s, people could at least become conscious of some issues and realize they do exist, instead of using TV just as a way to escape in an imagery past that existed once or probably never existed.

“Whatever you possess” by N. Anzour, 2010

pictures from http://www.libyanyouths.com/vb/t27507.html