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.


PHD School at Danish Institute in Damascus to focus on musalsalat and entertainment in the Arab media

Since Ramadan has become the “month of musalsalat”, this announcement will probably match with the general “mood”.

The Danish Institute in Damascus, together with Copenhagen University, will be hosting a PHD school entirely dedicated to the “Arab TV fiction and entertainment industries”. The school will be hosted by the Danish Institute in Damascus, a wonderful old Arab house in Old Damascus, from 25 to 30 November 2010. Everybody doing research on musalsalat or any topic related to entertainment is welcome to send a paper proposal. The full announcement can be found on the Danish Institute website or on Copenhagen university website. Deadline for paper proposal submission is 30 September.

The final day will host a seminar entirely dedicated to musalsalat, featuring Syrian and international experts.

Ramadan, the “month of musalsalat”, begins today

Ramadan kareem to everybody in the Muslim word. Today the holy month starts but, as a Syrian director friend of mine once said, this is “the month of musalsalat” for many people.

The National, the UAE online publication, published yesterday the “essential viewing this Ramadan“.  Yahoo!Maktoob has also prepared a tailor made platform for Ramadan which includes a  TV guide to find out which musalsalat are being broadcasted by whom. It might be not so easy to find out what you want to watch during Ramadan, as with more than 500 FTA channels -many of them broadcasting musalsalat of good and very low quality- it`s kind of difficult even to make your personal viewing schedule. I started watching TV extensively yesterday afternoon, when most of the channels were broadcasting overviews of their Ramadan grids. I was surprised to realize how many “Bedouin serials” are about to be broadcasted this year, I could see desert settings and hear much more Khaleji dialect than I remember from last Ramadan season. Dubai TV was a mix of glittering “Hollywood style” stars as Yousra and the Syrian Bassel al Khayat introducing their new musalsalat, plus very basic -and not funny for me..but maybe it`s because the dialect is harder – bedouin musalsalat, kind of “low cost” look. From time to time, the presentation of its Ramadan grid was interrupted to leave air space to English spoken features -like one on “Dubai as the best shopping place for gold”- clearly addressed to potential tourists.

Al Jazeera had a show called “Mata Ramadan?” (When is it Ramadan?) in order to find out when exactly the holy month should kick off.

Today is the official start of the fast together with the musalsalat “grand bouffe”. The afternoon was mostly “colonized” by sheikhs dealing with religious habits, fast, Ramadan enquiries from the audiences. Even MBC was silent on musalsalat side and focused on those “religious” programmes.

The only place where I was able to watch a musalsal this afternoon was Dubai TV, which was broadcasting the latest Syrian actor Bassam Kousa`s Tv drama, where he plays an Arab “Rain man” (do you remember Dustin Hoffman playing the autistic but brilliant main character together with Tom Cruise?). The musalsal is called Wara` as-shams (Behind the sun) and it is produced by well-known Syrian company Aj headed by Hani Arshi (who also appears in the role of consultant for the musalsal). It tells the story of a young and beautiful couple whose life will change since the announcement the child they are expecting is affected by the Down syndrome. From which I could see on the screen today, Bassam Kousa is very far from Dustin Hoffman`s performance in “Rain man”. He over-acts and over-reacts and makes you wonder why if you want to have any success during Ramadan (or even want to be just noticed) you have to tackle sort of “taboo” issues -but the kind of taboos that make your audience cry, like an handicap-. Sounds like the old Hollywood lesson: just perform the role of a marginalized, handicapped, etc and you will get your Oscar home. Despite I love Bassam and the way he acts, I have to say that this first episode of “Behind the sun” did not convince me at all.

Dubai TV is betting on Hatem Ali and Yousra`s works as “main dishes” this Ramadan. Hatem, who I have met in Damascus and chatted about his view on musalsalat industry, has wonderful insights, he is a talented director and a gifted intellectual. I loved his last film work “Al leil at-tawuil” (The long night) produced by Haitham Haqqi which I could only screen in Barcelona at Wocmes congress for the first time last July. I`m not a big fan of his Andalusian or Bedouin works, but I`ll definitely watch “Abuab al ghraim” (the gates of the cloud) tonight at 23 pm KSA which has been taken from Sheikh Al Maktoum`s (the ruler of Dubai) poetry. The Sheikh inspires more than one programme on Ramadan grid,  it seems: just watched “Kawather ramadaniyya” (Ramadan thoughts) which also comes out from his pen.

Even if I have no idea about what the drama will be about, I`ll watch the latest Yousra`s of course, tonight at 00.00 KSA on Dubai. Yousra has been my favourite actress since the time she was acting with Youssef Chahine and, even if she is in a musalsal, for me it`s always the same blood- tempered girl of “Iskandria kaman wa kaman?“.

MBC will broadcast the “must follow” of the season, “Bab al hara 5” and I`m very curious to see it on air, after I have attended the musalsal shootings in Damascus last May. No, of course I won`t tell in this blog if Abu Shehab or Abu Issam are coming back! Also curious to watch “Tash ma tash” in its 17th season, if I can make it to understand the Saudi accent. There are a number of Egyptian musalsalat on MBC that I will have a look at, knowing well that I will give up after a few episodes.

Future TV is broadcasting Najdat Anzour`s “Ma malakat aymanokom” (which I will not dare to translate: too many different translations are appearing on the Net, and the expression comes directly from the holy Quran, the women`s sura) which I have watched a bit in his office during the editing process, founding it beautifully done and extremely interesting. Najdat also has got “Zhakirat al jasad” (Memory of the flesh) on Abu Dhabi TV which is inspired by the life of Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi.

That`s already so much to watch and there`s even more to discover just by zapping with the remote control from channel to channel after the Iftar meal.