RAMALLAH: 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 holy month of Ramadan.
Throughout the month, people across the Middle East have irreverently rushed from mosques and flocked to crowded coffeehouses each evening to catch the wildly addictive Bab El-Hara, or The Neighborhood Gate.
The show is so popular that when the leader of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, a hero to many in the Arab world, gave a televised address last Friday, many of his supporters skipped it and 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, a Syrian production, is this year s hit, drawing millions throughout the Arab world – 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.
For many, the entertaining mix of melodrama and nostalgia has proven a stronger draw than the Mideast s two standard preoccupations – religion and politics.
The show s director, Bassam Al-Malla, said he intended to create that nostalgia for a world with values, honor, gallantry…and the revolutionary spirit.
The formula is working.
In the impoverished, devout Gaza Strip, Muslims have asked preachers to quickly wind up evening worship to get home in time for the show.
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 in 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, many with coifed hair and fashionable outfits, 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, many of whom enthusiastically support the Shia cleric who led his guerrillas in a 34-day war against Israel last summer.
But the speech was broadcast at the same time as The Neighborhood Gate. For many Palestinians, the choice was easy.
I would prefer Hassan Nasrallah to anybody, but … I didn t watch because “The Neighborhood Gate was on, said barber Mutasem Nuwara as he watched the show and cut a customer s hair simultaneously in his Ramallah barbershop.
Hezbollah s TV station ran two episodes of the show the next day to compensate the loyal supporters who did tune in to watch Nasrallah speak.
In Ramallah, one vendor displayed pictures of the show s actors alongside posters of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. The beaming vendor said he d sold more than 25 posters of the actors, far more than he d sold of the late Iraqi dictator and the Palestinian leader.
The show has also sparked a debate on gender roles in the Arab world.
Qadi, the Muslim preacher in Ramallah, said the show s emphasis on traditional values was good for Palestinians, even if leaving prayer early wasn t.
It s obvious that men are attracted to this series because it reminds them of something they miss, which is an obedient woman, which is what men want, Qadi said. He has even used some of the show s women in his sermons as examples of how a woman should behave, Qadi said.
But Raja Barakat, a 36-year-old Palestinian civil servant, described the women as silly.
I see those women as oppressed, they have no opinions, she said. Since the show went on the air, Barakat said, men around her lamented the independence of Palestinian women and said they should learn from the show.
Some women said they enjoyed watching the show s real men.
There s a lot of manliness. I love their courage, and how they take care of each other, said Eman Samara, a clothing saleswoman.
In Amman, Jordan, housewife Manal Al-Kashash said she d never missed an episode.
It reflects the old Arab traditions, their hospitality and sense of honor, which we miss nowadays, she said.
Saleh Abdul Jawad, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, called the show an escape to the past. The show s traditional take was reassuring to Palestinians and other Arabs living amid political upheaval and afraid of the future, he said.
This is yearning for values, for men to be men and women to be women, where roles aren t challenged, he said.
The debate over “The Neighborhood Gate will continue: With the show set to end this week, its makers already have vowed to create a new installation of the series for Ramadan next year.
Associated Press correspondents Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Shafika Matar in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this article.