Syrian Soap Opera Captivates Arab World

The Associated Press
Friday, October 12, 2007; 7:51 AM

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- With its tales of brave men and dutiful women in a simpler, long-vanished Middle East, a Syrian soap opera has become the latest rage in the Arab world during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Throughout the month, people across the Middle East have rushed from mosques and flocked to coffeehouses each evening to catch "Bab el-Hara," or "The Neighborhood Gate." When the popular leader of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah gave a televised address last Friday, many of his supporters watched the soap instead.

During Ramadan, which ends this week, Muslims fast during the day and sit down for an elaborate meal in the evening. Those ancient traditions have spawned a modern one: the Ramadan soap opera. Arab satellite channels broadcast the programs each night, trying to hook families who have gathered to break their fast.

"The Neighborhood Gate" is this year's hit, drawing millions of viewers _ from poverty-stricken Gaza to the opulent cities of the Persian Gulf _ with its nostalgic portrayal of the Middle East.

The show follows families in a Damascus neighborhood between the world wars, when the French ruled Syria and the local population chafed under foreign control and yearned for independence.

The neighborhood's brawny men wear baggy pants, in keeping with the time, and sport manly mustaches. Syrian beauties with curly hair and pouting lips are cunning, but invariably submit to the will of their husbands and fathers. Couples fight and mothers-in-law scheme, while a stooge for the ruling regime, disguised as a blind man, spies on everyone else.

The show debuted last Ramadan and won a loyal following. But this year it morphed into a full-fledged craze, easily dwarfing its closest competitor, "King Farouk," a dramatization of the life of the Egyptian monarch deposed in 1952.

The director of "The Neighborhood Gate," Bassam al-Malla, said he intended to create nostalgia for "a world with values, honor, gallantry...and the revolutionary spirit."

The formula is working so well that for many it has proven a stronger draw than the Mideast's two standard preoccupations _ religion and politics.

Imad Qadi, a preacher in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said more worshippers this year were hurrying home to watch the show instead of undertaking a lengthy evening prayer traditionally performed during Ramadan.

At one upscale restaurant in east Jerusalem, waiters hastily set up a large projector screen minutes before the show began one recent evening. Tables of Palestinian men and women faced the flickering screen to watch, hushing children and forcing waiters to duck under the projector as they served beer to Muslims unconcerned with Islam's ban on alcohol.

Last Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech to mark Al-Quds Day, or Jerusalem day, in support of the Palestinians. But the speech was broadcast at the same time as "The Neighborhood Gate." For many Palestinians, the choice was easy.

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