I will admit to watching the Bab al Hara (Alley Gate) series with the same fervor normally reserved for football finals. Moving from one café to another on Jeddah’s al Tahlia Street, I watched this session’s last episode. The young crowd present, dressed in t-shirts and baggy jeans, burst into a warm round of applause at the end of the show which is quite a rare reaction among Saudi viewers.
This second-part sequel to the Syrian television series is, in fact, an undeniable phenomenon; some in Saudi even exchanged Eid ul-Fitr felicitations that were inspired by stories in the series.
But this phenomenon has reached farther and wider than just Saudi alone, many viewers in various Arab states; even Arabs living abroad, regularly tuned in and set their alarm clocks to the show’s airing time.
Perhaps this huge success is what prompted the show’s producers to make a third series for next year. Such was its popularity that even some clerics were involved in this commotion; among them was Sheikh Salah Kuftaro, son of the former late Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro and the Director-General of the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Academy, who publicly acclaimed the show and invited its cast to a Ramadan Iftar held in their honor. Likewise, Kuwaiti Islamist MP Walid al Tabtabai also praised the series.
It is quite clear that the series enjoyed an exceptional success but why?
Before pondering this question, a brief introduction to the series may be useful. The events of the story unfold in a fictitious old Syrian alley called ‘al Dabae’, where the women are concealed behind thick, heavy garments and the men deal with them with extreme caution. The residents of the alley love one another and rush to offer their assistance whenever needed with utmost nobility. The police station, which is affiliated to the French occupation, epitomizes corruption and bribery and is represented through the character of Abu Gawdat and his henchman Nouri.
However, shrouded behind the heavy folds of the women’s world there exists an isolated female community that is replete with momentous events that revolve around the women’s internal wars, which sometimes intersect with, influence, or are impacted by the men’s wars. A case in point is the story of Soad Khanem and Ferial who had an impact on the status of a politician living in the alley, not to mention the unfulfilled dreams of the women vying for the attention of Essam, Motaz, Ibrahim and Khater.
Expanding past the microcosm of the alley, events lead us to the neighboring alley, ‘Abu al Nar’, and the conflicts involved between the two alleys. However, these wars come to an end when things take on a serious turn after Colonel Abu Shehab and some of the youth in the alley are captured by the British forces after rushing out to assist the Palestinians and the Syrian al Ghutah rebels whom the colonel was previously supporting.
The series finale had a happy ending, exactly how the viewer would have envisaged it; divorcée Umm Essam got back with her husband, and every woman who had set her sights on a man ended up marrying him even Abu Shehab and the youth managed to escape. They were saved by Abu Essam, the wise man in the series, who had long been oppressed by the alley’s residents inasmuch as those of Abu al Nar.
The story may seem to be traditional with a recurrent theme prevalent in Syrian television series, especially those by the same director Bassam al Malla. An example is his series ‘al Khawali’ in which actor Bassam al Koussa plays the role of the rebellious Nassar al Oraibi and where the events also take place in a Syrian alley in which the women have the same subservient attitudes.
This large viewership indicates a number of things; suffice it to mention a few: There is a deep-seated sense of defeat, and thus there is a need for symbolic representations of victory. This symbolism was presented in ‘Bab al Hara’ through the colonel’s resolve; with his upturned mustache and his defiance in the face of the occupation’s authority. His character was symbolic of the vanquisher of English and French authorities and the stalwart guardian and protector of the alley.
Another symbol is one of the romantic ideal of unity and the sacrifice for that cause, as epitomized through the self-effacing, altruistic character of Abu Essam. Despite the existence of many other heroic symbols, what remains truly engaging are the male-female dynamics. Along with the women’s subservience to men comes the hero worship of their ‘cousins’, while the men play the role of guardian.
Reading some of the comments made by Arab viewers, one would find that they highlight that same dynamic. Iman Samara, a clothes vendor in Ramallah, believes that women watch the series in search of the true representation of chivalry and manliness. She expressed her admiration for the valor of the characters and their keenness to help one another.
As for Rajaa Barakat, she said that men in the Palestinian territories changed their behavior after watching the series. According to Emad al Qadi, a Palestinian scholar from Ramallah, men were compelled by the series because it reminded them of what they had lost: obedient women. He added that many men had urged their wives to watch the series to emulate the behavior of the women in the show (Asharq Al-Awsat, October 13, 2007).
However; the question remains, was the ‘Orientalist’ aspect of the relationship dynamics between the men and women exaggerated? Was it true? Were women completely absent from public life?
If we read some of the memoirs that date back to this era, such as those of Sheikh Ali al Tantawi, we would find references to the status and attire of the women of the Levant. In fact; it is not too far from what the series depict, however it was less severe. However, this harshness with which the series presented Damascene women was removed from reality and not entirely accurate.
Abbas Nouri, the Syrian actor who played Abu Essam told Asharq Al-Awsat in an interview (5 October 2007) that the series had overlooked the educated women who had played a role in the resistance during this historical era in Syria.
“Women had a presence on a resistance level and a humanitarian one, and this is what ‘Bab al Hara’ failed to portray,” he said. However, he added that events in the series were limited to one alley that had its own unique set of circumstances.
The women’s servile attitudes were likewise attacked by Sheikh Salah Kuftaro who criticized the portrayal of women in a negative light. At the ceremony held in honor of the cast and crew of ‘Bab al Hara’, he said: “I will express my observations in this honorary ceremony to say that every work must have its flaws. There is an overemphasis in stating that women’s opinions were not considered and that they played no role in any issue. We must take heed in the future and be sure to assert that women have played a role and have attained their rights,” he said in an interview with Al-Arabiya. However, he confirmed that women’s dress code in the past was similar to what was featured in the series.
Whether the series actually exaggerated the portrayal of Levantine women from that era or not, it certainly awakened a dormant need among men today who are in search of a subservient, docile woman of little words. However; likewise, today’s women cannot find men with Abu Shehab’s protectiveness and Abu Essam’s ‘tenderness’ inasmuch as they cannot find the walls around the alley to protect it from prying eyes. The same applies to the solidarity among the residents of the alley and the assistance offered by those capable of helping others in need.
The truth is that people’s interaction with the series is more important that the series itself; it is the event and the main story since it is through this interaction that the chaotic discrepancy in social values and the chasm between today’s world and the nostalgia for the past is revealed, especially the economic conditions.
As such, the relationship between man (producer and sustainer) and woman (consumer and dependent) was different and was built upon submission and dependency. However, this gap also applies to other social relationships like those between father and son, neighbors and relatives etc.
All these relationships are entangled in the particularities of the past and the variables of the present, and accordingly, there is a dispute between those who cling to the past despite the changes that have taken place, and those who want to apply a new formula that was born out of these changed conditions. Since that duality remains unresolved, the proposed solution is always “fabrication” rather than “conciliation”, or a hybrid mix of the two.
The nostalgia that is repressed with the hegemony and impact of changes suddenly bursts forth without any hindrances, expressing its yearning for the past and its fear of the adventures of the future with eagerness similar to that of the characters in the series. Everyone; or most all people, refuse to exit through the alley’s gate into the real world!