Arab Tradition Makes a Comeback - on TV

Prayers are cut short and the streets empty for Syrian blockbuster

Viewers held their breaths. The suspense was at its height. Uninvited guests had come to the fictional Syrian neighborhood of Al-Daba. The people from Abu Nar, angry about one of their neighbor's humiliation, had come to take revenge, and Al-Daba had to mount a defense. Leaders from both neighborhoods took up their respective places at the front, verbally sparring on issues of honor, hospitality and territorial violations. The outcome was not in doubt.

The audience was spellbound. Baka al-Garbiyeh, near Hadera, was silent. In the village, at least three giant screens serve coffeehouse customers. In other Israeli Arab communities, there are reports of a "voluntary curfew."

The head of Al-Daba draws his dagger from his sash in a dramatic motion, marking the beginning of the battle. The robed men, who instantly turn from placid townsmen into the defenders of their quarter's lost honor, attack each other. The fight ends with a few injuries, and the attackers withdraw. The police keep their distance.

With mediocre acting, no special effects and a shoestring budget, the producers of "Bab al-Hara" achieved their goal. Viewers did not stop talking about the fight for 24 hours, until the next episode.

"Bab al-Hara" (gates of the neighborhood), is airing on MBC, Middle East Broadcasting Center, every evening during the month of Ramadan, after the iftar meal to break the fast. Tens of millions of viewers reportedly watch every episode, fascinated by the glimpse into life in Syria during the 1920s and 1930s.

In Israel, the craze crosses generations, communities and religions. In the Galilee, some businesses have changed their name to Al-Daba. Children use the series as an excuse for not doing homework, The imams are asked to shorten services so that worshipers can make it home in time for the 8 P.M. broadcast. Besides Muslims, viewers include Christians, Druze and even Jews from Arab countries.

"Bab al-Hara" is so popular that much of the series is available online. The popular Israeli Arab Web sites and post episodes for downloading immediately after their broadcast on MBC.

The show's producer, Bassam al-Mulla, was interviewed by the Nazareth station Radio Shams. "Like every Arab citizen, I feel great frustration over the collapse of our values. So when we return to the past we attempt to shed new light on the wonderful values of that time," Mulla said.

Nur Qadan, 28, of Baka al-Garbiyeh, goes to Nargilat al-Sultan every evening to watch the show. He says he prefers this to going out outside the town, and says it keeps him from "doing something stupid" during the holy month. "The series speaks to me," Qadan says. "It deals with Arab tradition, with family honor, with parental authority, with neighborhood life. We'd very much like to live like that, but today no one even knows the neighbor across the street. Today, when my father asks me to get him something, I tell him to get it himself, not like in the old days," he says.

The series counts women and children among its fans. A few women in the Mawasi family say that the series is nostalgic, and reminds them of what life in Baka al-Garbiyeh used to be. Inaq Mawasi wrote an article about it. "Our culture, especially that of Arabs in Israel, has changed a great deal. We no longer have the culture we used to have and sometimes we feel the foreign influences. The series returns us to our culture," Mawasi says.

Many scenes from the series have become topics of discussion, such as when Abu Issam, one of the main characters, reprimanded his wife for arguing with the neighbors and asked her to be polite and restrained. He said it was all because of her family, and because her brother had become the head of the neighborhood. She responded by telling him, "Fasharta," (roughly, "You'd kill to be like them"), and he, in turn, divorced her on the spot.

"The truth is that there are things that are hard to put into practice today. Now, a husband and wife are partners in everything," Mawasi said. "Even in the series, the husband could have hit her, he could have gone to sleep in another room, there are alternatives to divorce." Nevertheless, she says, the series gives her a sense of connection to the Arab world that is very difficult to realize within Israel's borders.