While the civil war rages in Syria, the Old City of Damascus with its enticing courtyard houses and familiar Damascene characters remain popular in the Arab world. The Syrian TV series Bab Al-Harah (Neighborhood Gate) was one such Ramadan offering this year, but was less innovative or daring than The President’s Shadow, which I discussed in the previous post. After nine seasons, it continues to tread familiar ground that appeals to its hardcore fans around the Arab world. The scenes in the alleys remain as popular as the affected Damascene accent, exaggerated machismo of men, and the overbearing piousness of women.
Since it first aired in 2006, Bab al-Harah quickly became one of the biggest hits inside and outside of Syria although it was not the first to depict life in the historic neighborhood before the country gained its full independence in 1946. It remains one of Syria’s few exports during the ongoing war. It airs on the Saudi-owned channel MBC that also retains exclusive rights for the series. In some ways, the success of the series represents the contradictions in the war in Syria. The conflict is destroying the very fabric of society that is idealized and celebrated in the series. While other cities in Syria lost their historic quarters in the fighting, a fabricated neighborhood in the Old City of Damascus during an imagined period loosely set during the French mandate remains popular with audiences.
Watching Bab al-Harah fueled my annoyance with how my field site has been brutalized. It is filmed almost entirely in a studio built outside of Damascus and in an area that remains under the control of the regime. Other series were filmed in the Old City, but because of the popularity of the genre a studio was built to facilitate the production process. The old city of the studio is loosely based on the neighborhoods that supposedly remained intact from the late Ottoman period to the French mandate. The timeframe of late 1800s to mid-1900s remains popular with TV series producers as this period does not raise suspicion among government censors for implicit political commentary on the present.
The plot of Bab al-Harah is not the strongest or the most credible and the series is riddled with inaccuracy and anachronism. However, and for some reason all this does not detract from its popularity. Starting with the title, the show rejects any attempt at historical accuracy but fabricates the Mandate period from one series to the next. Neighborhoods were not isolated or insular. The neighborhood gate depicted in the show did exist but began to disappear as the city changed and by the time of the French mandate was gone. Historical inaccuracies aside, the most glaring fault of the series are the caricatures of the Damascene with exaggerated mannerism and inflated sense of honor, mostly when it comes to the men protecting the virtue of the women mainly by swearing on their moustache. One of the male leads would swear through his handle bar mustache at the most trivial matters, something that would drive any wife crazy except for the one he had in the series. She was most insipid and in most of her scenes sniveling and wringing her hands unsure of what to do because her husband and master spent most of the series in a French prison.
In an inane plotline, he is carted off to jail because he refuses to reveal where he buried some ancient treasure that was entrusted to his care and that the French were desperate to acquire. He wasn’t even sure what he hid or its value, other than it was an important Syrian artifact. In prison, he withstands torture, and he is accused of murder and sentenced in a mock trial to be hanged. The French build the scaffold in the middle of the neighborhood. This does not make sense because the French historically did their hanging in Marjeh Square outside the Old City. The neighborhood rallies behind the son and even the women show up taking off their face veils in defiance, though of what it is not clear. The French did not care if they revealed their faces or not but it seemed showing their faces was the most daring act women of Damascus could do in this series when they were not sniveling. And then, someone sets the scaffold on fire, and the hero is not hanged but instead goes back to prison which means he will be back for season 10.
But this also means more work for his attorney, Sitt Julia. She is one of the good patriots eager to help the people of the neighborhood in dealing with the French. She is also the only “modern” educated Syrian woman in the series. Her appearance was very distracting from the beginning due to some confusion in the wardrobe department. She wears western clothes to reflect her modernity but the dresses look more like the turn of the century than the mid-1900s when the series supposedly takes place. Her hair is a geisha wig meets Darth Vader’s helmet. But unlike the other good women of the show that included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the neighborhood, she is her own boss. The other good women in the series are lost without their men folk but the bad women of the neighborhood are not. They had something to do whether it was seducing or torturing men and seemed to enjoy what they did because they did not snivel while doing it.
I understand why so many Damascenes hate the series. It degrades their history, cheapens their heritage, and exaggerates their mannerisms. It mocks the very identity it claims to celebrate and the worst grievance, it remains very popular and in its ninth season with more perhaps to come. Many have pointed out the faults in the earlier series, but to no avail. Some might sense conspiracy and a cruel attempt to destroy Damascus that has pretty much survived the war with these popular series. However, I think it has to do with another sinister motivation, profit.
There is no incentive to produce quality TV because what they make now sells and sells well. The popularity of this series and others like it is one of the many forces driving gentrification in the Old City. A restaurant called Bab al-Harah opened shortly after the first season aired where it recreated the old city of the TV show in the Old City. The actual Old City was not good enough for the series. This is the real tragedy, a tasteless imitation of the historic neighborhood replacing the real one. Now this is something for the women to snivel about.
Faedah M. Totah is associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Cite as: Totah, Faedah M. 2017. “Bab Al-Harah.” Anthropology News website, October 20. doi: 10.1111/AN.649