Walking through the dark, empty streets of Souk al-Manakhliya in post-iftar Old Damascus, it’s easy for one to get lost. I did — and found myself walking beside a small and somewhat messy corner shop where I stopped for directions. The gray-haired shopkeeper was glued to his mini television, barely visible in the thick mist of smoke generated by his Syria-produced Alhamra cigarette. After a moment’s pause, I could make out the writing on the screen. It revealed the legendary Syrian series “Bab al-Hara” (The Neighborhood’s Gate) that depicts Syria in the 1930s under French colonial rule. He stuttered as he said, “This is season 12. It doesn’t want to finish,” before pointing out the way I should go. On the journey home, I couldn’t help but ponder this program and the sharp memories it evoked.
I was shocked that it was still on TV. I vividly remember being absorbed with earlier seasons that were nostalgic and captured the mood in Syria pre-2011, just before the show went tragically silent. It then reappeared three years later in a watered-down, less-poignant version that was out of sync with the brutality that had afflicted the country, essentially a shallow and somewhat disappointing shell of its former self. To my amazement, the show has now outlived much of the war and continues to roll on tamely, breaking ranks with its earlier narratives that partly inspired rebellion and revolt and continues to misconstrue the history of what Syria was during the mandate era.
While Arabs in the West occupy themselves with Hollywood’s depictions of Arab history and culture, one of the Arab world’s most popular series has arguably done as bad a job — if not worse — in capturing the true spirit of a bygone era in Syria. “Bab al-Hara” became a regional sensation shortly after its first season aired during Ramadan in 2006 and subsequently became the landmark series to watch during the holy month of fasting — when prime TV slots are reserved for creative works from around the region.
Bassam al-Mulla — the late director of the first six seasons — had made the earlier episodes eventful and dramatic, with tense and often hilarious knife fights, loud and long Damascene accents and plenty of arguments. But the neighborhood was depicted as highly rudimentary, whereas the reality of Syria during French rule was that the society was quite advanced. In the show, few places have electricity, transport is mainly by donkeys, and women are seldom seen in public without a full niqab while rarely exercising a definitive social role. Mustachioed characters such as Abu Issam, played by Abbas al-Nouri, a local doctor and barber who was a mainstay in the show, led the way in a vehemently patriarchal world. His sons, the Johnny Depp lookalike Wael Sharaf — an aspiring neighborhood “qabaday” (strongman) — and his eldest and serial polygamist, the clumsy Issam, played by Milad Youssef, wrestled with his constantly bickering three wives, Latfieh, Hoda and Faiza, fighting daily problems and nemeses.
The neighborhood was led by Abu Issam’s brother-in-law, the legendary Abu Shahab, played by Samer al-Masri, who was excluded from acting in the fourth season after a flare-up with al-Mulla for “defaming his character with his irresponsible behavior outside work.” Abu Issam was so popular that his character was killed off — supposedly fighting the British in Palestine — before being brought back from the dead in the sixth season, in which he remarried after divorcing his wife. The plot meanders insignificantly for several seasons until the French finally carpet bomb the area known in the show as “Haret al-Dabea” (the hyena neighborhood) and commit a massacre where most of the cast dies off. Despite this, the show went on, and the producer Muhammad Qaband promised much more drama with a “new neighborhood and the introduction of Lebanese and Jordanian families with the possibility of including an Egyptian family” for 2022, a desperate sign of the failing creativity in the direction of a once-legendary series.
Later seasons were mired in monotonous, dull scripts leading to viewers brutally mocking it. One social media user joked: “If the French knew you had reached season thirteen, they wouldn’t have invaded Syria in the first place.” Another quipped in response to Qaband’s confirmation of another season next year, “Of course, this will not end. The French will come and kiss the hands of directors and writers to stop.”
When it was released, “Bab al-Hara” struck a chord at a moment of peak Arab nationalist sentiment in Syria. Israel’s war on Lebanon was ongoing, and with the 2008 war in Gaza, there was a real sense of uncovering a lost history and promoting unity, though much of it was of course exaggerated or made up for cinematic effect.
Neighborhood infighting was a constant theme. However, they would all pull together when the time came to fight the French or the British, or the local “darak” police force. The producers had consciously meant these scenes as examples of “nakhweh,” which meant chivalry or willingness to help people, an ideal that harks back to how many Arab nationalists saw the struggle with Israel or the United States until the Arab Spring started. Widespread accusations of the show being tone-deaf were justified when it returned in 2014 following a three-year hiatus with a new set, a different cast and a new director without a nod to the present moment, when the country was upended by a brutal war.
Even though the show is based in a past long before current events, it would not have been unusual for a soap opera to make at least some implicit reference to current events. For example, it could have introduced protests against social conditions, corruption, oppression, the French occupiers or, perhaps even more profoundly, infighting among brothers and neighbors.
The idealized version of Syrian history and the idea of unity against the occupier became highly blurred in the series after 2011, when the initial identity of the show became an issue of controversy amid the earthquake that was the Syrian uprising. The show’s most prominent reference point was the flag used under the French mandate of 1932 with a horizontal triband of green, white and black, with three red stars in the center, as opposed to the official state Syrian flag of red, white and black, with two green stars at the center. The Syrian opposition took up the earlier mandate flag in 2012 and used it as a political symbol against the Syrian government. When this became a clear trend, the mandate flag was removed entirely from filming and taken out of any scenes from “Bab al-Hara.”
Furthermore, the prominent leader of the local French police in the show was a character named “Abo Jowdat,” a greedy and corrupt official. The actor behind the role, the late Zuhair Ramadan (who died in real life last year after the 11th season), had a long-term role in the series but was also the head of the Damascus artist’s guild, a powerful position in Syria and one that gave him much sway over the industry. The series has been accused of shifting their themes to appease the Syrian government. I spoke to Cidra Hafez, a long-term fan of the program, who said, “We could relate to the earlier seasons as it was something new; it was a sign of resistance against the French and at a time of Arab problems in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza, and made you proud of having that kind of history told to you. But it never developed. It stayed the same way, and when the war started in Syria and the rebellion happened, it stopped for years and then returned, but in a way that was for the government and in line with their policies, and almost all the cast had left.”
For a Ramadan show, its first seasons were highly successful, and the season two finale alone was watched in real-time by over 50 million viewers around the Arab world with its headline slot on the Saudi satellite TV network MBC. It gained massive popularity in Syria and the Arab world, where the viral YouTube clips are a testament to the tens of millions of loyal viewers. Not satisfied with an astonishing 342 episodes — one of the longest-running TV series in the history of the Middle East — “Bab al-Hara” was renewed for a 13th season to air next Ramadan. Since its release in 2006, it has been a trendsetter in pioneering a yearly supply of poorly made French and Ottoman occupation period dramas that have typified the cheap copycat nature of Syrian television since the show’s inception; its success was an example all Syrian dramas have tried to follow since, and none have achieved.
It became so popular that it was used as a parody; for example, Iraqi comedians made a full-length video depicting a “Bab al-Hara”-style coronavirus parody where they dressed up in traditional Syrian “Bab al-Hara”-type clothes, donned enormous mustaches and tried to mimic the Syrian accent while discussing the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
But for a program initially billed as “the social life of a Syrian neighborhood in the 1930s under French colonialism,” it gets much wrong about life in Damascus at that time. Even regarding the transport links and mobility, where donkeys and horses are the mainstay forms of transport and only for the wealthy, it completely ignores the tramway in Damascus in that period. Business owner Youssef Mutran was the first to explore building a tramway in 1889. The tramway was established and operated by the Belgian Tanweer and Traction Company in 1907, at least 20 years before the show was set. It even covered the countryside of Douma and Harasta in Eastern Ghouta.
The Beirut-Damascus railroad had long been in service; it was inaugurated on Aug. 3, 1895, making it the first railroad to operate in the Levant, with a 91-mile line crossing over two mountain ranges. Life for Damascenes was not just about silly squabbles and meeting in the coffee shop for tea or at the communal baths or barbershop. According to Syrian writer Sami Moubayed in his mammoth work, “The Makers of Modern Syria: The Rise and Fall of Syrian Democracy 1918-1958,” Damascus had a significantly different feel in the 1930s. “Damascenes were fond of spending long summer evenings on their flowered balconies, sipping tea and eating fresh fruit from the orchards of Ghouta. The city had faded elegance but was still a source of pride to the locals. Police officers in white and navy-blue suits directed traffic with cardboard signs of green and red. Gas stations were few and far between, but a colorful variety of brand new Desotos, Cadillacs, Fords, and Chryslers could be found all over the city. Some were convertibles with expensive leather upholstery, driven by cigar-chomping men wearing western suits, silver cufflinks and crimson fezzes.”
By 1920, 70,000 Syrian homes had electricity, and Damascus in the 1930s was a sophisticated, cultured city filled to the brim with activism, journalism, modern roads and laws. It was remembered by its residents as a gem of a capital and highly political too. Women had substantial political participation. In the show, the strongmen often fight with opposing neighborhood leaders in dramatic knife bouts where honor dictates blood must be drawn or severe injury inflicted. However, “Bab al-Hara” does not show you any of the cinemas in Damascus at that time or the “Zaeem” — more often than not the most learned, intellectual man in the area — reading a daily periodical or attending a concert or play at the theater.
Another popular series released in Ramadan 2020 called “Aziza’s Choir” offers a wider perspective into life in Damascus around the 1920s. In it, actor Nisreen Tafesh portrays Aziza Khokha, a dancer who charmed the hearts and minds of the Levant in the 1930s and is known as the “Queen of Theater,” which is completely lost in “Bab al-Hara,” depicting an entirely different city. The show about Aziza’s life was made after deep historical research about that period and the way of life of many ordinary Syrians back then, where streets and neighborhoods such as al-Shaghour, al-Barani, Badawi Street and al-Borghal Alley were all far more colorful and modern than people perceived.
The veteran Syrian actor Hossam Tahsin Bek, who also has a role in “Aziza’s Choir,” has described how the world of the show is part of our history, whether the viewer likes it or not.
“Aziza’s Choir is historically correct and based on scientific references,” he said publicly. “The work deals with a historical and artistic era that passed through Syria and is accurate when depicting the era of the ‘30s by its nature, people and artistic concepts. As for the extent of people’s acceptance of scenes that include dancing and parades, when you talk about history, you must tell it to the letter, regardless of whether the viewer accepted it or not.”
Some have accused “Aziza’s Choir” of over-glorifying improper behavior by showing working girls in a more open light than some are used to during Ramadan. The criticism focused on audacity, especially the character of the show’s leading artist Aziza, who often wears revealing clothes. This led the writer of the series, Khaldoun Qatlan, to respond, “Poor is that nation whose lustful instincts are stirred by a woman’s waist.”
“Bab al-Hara” depicts women in a demeaning way, where they are obedient to men, much like glorified servants, while the male breadwinner goes out into the streets. These attitudes are typified by the lack of working women in the first few seasons and the ramifications faced by Abu Issam’s daughter Jamila, who spoke with the baker’s son at the doorstep and was then beaten brutally in the show. Both are examples of the attitude that women, according to “Bab al-Hara,” were submissive housewives in a profoundly patriarchal era. Yet Syrian women were far more sophisticated and driven, playing roles in real life that those in “Bab al-Hara” could only dream of.
Naziq al-Abid was a Syrian activist during that period who gained the title “Joan of Arc of the Arabs” by Western newspapers for her role as a revolutionary. She not only founded the country’s first women’s organization and an affiliated publication, Noor al-Fayha (Light of Damascus) but also led a significant delegation of Syrian women to the American King-Crane Commission, where she unveiled her face in front of the commission and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in an effort to promote a more liberal, secular Syria. Remarkably, she took part in the battle of Maysaloun against the French occupation and had the time to establish the Syrian Red Crescent in the same year while being named an honorary general of the Syrian army.
Another name barely mentioned by “Bab al-Hara” is Mary Ajami, a Damascene journalist who founded the first journal in the Arab world calling for the emancipation of women. Aside from regularly publishing in Naziq al-Abid’s Noor al-Fayha throughout the 1920s, a good 10 years before the series was set, she also lectured on women’s rights and co-founded the Shami Women’s Club, which incidentally gave free English lessons, poetry and religious studies to those willing to learn. In the show, women are nowhere near a school; the neighborhood doesn’t even have a school. Yet staggeringly, in 1928, it was estimated that female enrollment in schools in the countries of Syria and Lebanon was nearly 55,000 out of a total population of over 2 million.
Despite being a big hit with viewing figures in the tens of millions for the first five seasons, the themes that run through “Bab al-Hara” and the historical portrayals are fundamentally flawed. The nationalism concept behind it is deeply misrepresented, in the sense that it portrayed rebellion against the French and British while removing any sense of sophistication from Syrians. The history was a fantasy compared with real-life Damascus and Damascenes during the mandate period, when Syrians were well ahead of their time. It also failed to capture the influential role of women in Syrian society, even politically, which was far more advanced than the show conveyed.
And what’s worse, it set the example for Syrian drama over the past 16 years and promoted incorrect and weak period dramas on the back of one show’s success. In reality, Syria’s history is far deeper and nuanced with enough content to drive forward the country’s television industry.