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The Backlash Against Art - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The commotion created over art and entertainment and its objectives has become an annual occurrence that emerges every Ramadan, considered the golden month for television viewing in the Middle East. In this light, Ramadan has become a unique case wherein the difference between the holy month and the rest of the year in terms of the quantity and quality of Television programming is enormous.

Previously during Ramadan, social comedy in the form of short sketches and stand-alone episodes was prevalent, such as Yasser al-Azma’s ‘Maraya’ (Mirrors), the Syrian ‘Buqaat Dawe’ (A Stain of Light), the Saudi ‘Khuz wa Khal’ (Take and Leave) and ‘Tash ma Tash’, even Jordan has its famous duo Sawalha and Yanis. Despite what Iraq is enduring, it airs the series ‘Al-Awalemah’ (Globalization) on the Al-Baghdadiyah channel, which is a comical spoof that mocks the events that are taking place. Such was the flavour of Ramadan for the past thirteen years, but over the past five to seven years, a historical dimension has appeared that initiated a historical fantasy genre led by the Syrian director Najdat Anzour. This involved a lot of dye, copious amounts of kohl, bald heads, smoke and swords in the realms of ‘al-Jawareh’ (Predators) and al-Kawaser. Just as the audience was beginning to tire of these flights of fantasy into the unknown, along came the period of historical ‘fairytales’ to surprise us with the series ‘al-Zeer Salem’, which rallied up feelings of courage and dignity among Arabs viewers. We were ushered into the Andalusian era that evoked feelings of nostalgia with series such as, ‘Saqr Quraish’ (Quraish’s Hawk), ‘Rabee Qurtoba’ and ‘Molouk al-Tawa’if’ (The Kings of the Sects). History opened up like a book from which writers and producers could extract their ideas.

Next came a wave of ‘terrorism’ with all its complexities, a subject that both drama and art have contributed to. Before the series was aired, last year’s ‘al-Hoor al-Ain’ (Beautiful Maidens) was the cause of much controversy that prevented us from actually seeing what the show was all about. When MBC finally broadcast the series, the controversy it created was larger than the show itself. This passed, and here we are in this year’s Ramadan media market where producers, writers, actors and satellite channels vie over proposing new ideas, just as the ancient poets of Uqaz market once did.

There are several series that tackle terrorism this season, from Abu Dhabi’s ‘Do’aa ala Abwab Jahanam’ (Preachers on the Doors of Hell) to ‘al-Marqoon’ (The Apostates), among others. But what really infuriated many Saudis, who are still seething up until now, was not a thirty-episode series, but a single 20-minute episode from the famous Saudi comedy series ‘Tash Ma Tash’. Entitled ‘Terrorism Academy’, the episode was written by Saudi writer Abdullah bin Bjad al-Otaibi, and stars ‘Tash’s’ regular cast, Nasser al-Qasby, Abdullah al-Sadhan and the other actors from the series. The episode adopts a satirical approach, particularly articulated through the character of Fouad al-Tayoob, whom Saudi viewers are familiar with through his various roles in the series.

The episode created controversy and provoked anger by virtue of its ‘audacious’ criticism and exaggerated mockery – and that’s only the ‘reasonable’ side of the critical reception. In fact, there is a hate and defamation campaign on the internet and in some mosques against the ‘Tash’ cast. I was recently told by Saudi friends that in some mosques, Imams are praying for the suffering of the ‘Tash’ team in this world and the hereafter, moreover reintroducing previous fatwas (religious rulings) that were issued against the show. Some people in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are not accustomed to criticism. Art, especially satire, is a form of criticism that Saudis are not familiar with. They feel the matter is one of destruction, prohibition and war, a ‘serious matter’ and an enemy of Islam, and other such grave words. However, that is not the case; one episode will not reverse the situation or threaten virtue.

Anybody with this fear can rest assured. Art, in its visual, audio or written form cannot change the status quo because of the presence of various social mechanisms and historical conditions that are responsible for this task. Art is not one of them, although it has an expressive ability to some extent. For years, Hollywood has been ceaselessly producing, and still produces films against racism whether against blacks or Jews. This doesn’t mean racism has disappeared; it still has its advocates and associations. Art has the ability to warn, stir up controversies and deliver what is between the lines to the public. It brings out what is behind closed doors into the open, which is much healthier and more effective than talking in closed rooms.

We know that everyone in Saudi Arabia, each with his own view, discusses terrorism and its outlook, the summer camp problem, school curriculums and extremist fatwas against women. In fact, there are some Sheikhs and scholars who condemn those who fear criticizing this extremist mentality, and yet they opt for the safer road by avoiding discrediting or criticizing others especially through the internet, which does not pay any respect or give any privacy and endlessly interferes in people’s lives. All the controversies and sensitivities that arise when dealing with creative works causes one to question: have we really become this narrow-minded? Criticism is the greatest service that one can offer to another whether an individual or a group, as it identifies defects in order to remedy them instead of drugging oneself with illusions of good health and safety until it grows and festers beyond cure.

Yet the strange thing is that this dread and narrow-mindedness is not confined to those who support fundamentalism, it has also grown among some intellectuals, and even countries. This is expected of the latter, but to have an intellectual monitor a film or a novel on the pretext that the work trespasses historical taboos or certain postulations (whose postulations?!)… that is what is bizarre. That is also what surprised me when I read the statement attributed to the so-called ‘Abbasid families’, both in and outside of Saudi Arabia, in which they denounced the series ‘Amin wa Mamon’ which is currently being aired on MBC. They objected to the series claiming that it defames the image of Harun Al-Rashid and supports the story of Jaafar Bin Yahya Barmaki’s marriage to Harun Al Rashid’s sister, Abbasa, which they believe is a historical lie. But all these are well-known debates. Surprisingly though, one of the people who signed the statement was Dr. Yahya Junaid, Secretary General of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, which is a prominent established centre in Saudi Arabia that has provided researchers with excellent services. Dr. Yahya himself is an established and educated researcher. Amazingly, not only had he signed the statement, but also adopted its stance claiming that the descendents of the Abbasids are taking a stand for their ancestors. Are such words plausible from a scientist and a researcher?!

However, if the Abbasid period is a taboo area that should be addressed with special conditions on television, then why would we even be surprised that series such as ‘Asad al-Jazeera’ (The Lion of the Island) was banned from being aired in Ramadan despite the fact that it is based on the biography of the contemporary founder of Kuwait, Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, or Mubarak the Great as he was known. The series was supposed to cover the period between 1896 and 1915, an eventful one for Kuwait internally, but equally significant for Iraq, and Iran through Sheikh Khazal, in addition to tackling the beginning of King Abdulaziz’s reign. Moreover, there was a state of unrest and conflict in the Arabian Peninsula and on its borders, which would have been presented with all the characters and events entailed. These characters were not invented; they exist in history regardless of the opinions of any bias parties that seek to enforce their own view on how to perceive them. But the series was banned because of objections raised by some people in Kuwait who believe that presenting these events, or that which is related to their ancestors, is unacceptable due to the way that the series would portray them. That stopped the series from airing and we do not know what its fate will be despite it being – as I’ve heard – the first extensive dramatic representation for this era in the history of the Arabian Peninsula and in the Gulf’s modern history. I say this without concern as to what the series will conclude. I might be against some of it or even all of it. It is not about supporting what this series or film or novel presents, this is all tangential and disagreement is as natural as agreement. The idea lies in the principle of creative freedom, as well as discussing issues to which we are hypersensitive, especially concerning history. Can we not offer various explanations for a single historical incident, let alone a whole historical era such as the Abbasid period, or a historical age such as that of Mubarak al-Sabah? Why is that not allowed?

In my opinion, publicizing something is the only way to rectify mistakes. A creative work or art form should have the ability to correct itself, as was the case with the film ‘Alexander the Macedonian’, which was only just shown recently. It was subject to criticism from historians because of its historical inaccuracies but it was not banned.

Place history under the spotlight with all its faces and interpretations because if it is not illuminated, scholars will not be able see it, neither will the historians or the audience. It will not disappear anyway, but instead will end up in dark corners to be recited by ‘politicized narrators’. Under these circumstances, the historical novel will have hyperbolically grown to the point where its narrators feel that they are the protectors of ‘the true story’ and the hidden secret. There are many examples of books that have been approved, despite the fact that they contain nothing but nonsensical data and historical factual errors. But we only found that out because these books were disclosed to the public and were subject to their discerning examination.

Regardless, if we continue to be terrified of any historical, social or political criticism, with this degree of panic and still consult endless data and muftis, then it is an indicator of weakness not strength, and a sign of fragility not power. The powerful are the ones who accept criticism and keep searching for answers in order to see the complete picture, and the complete picture is the real one. The truth will always be the source of power.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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