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By Barry Rubin
Why does a soap opera become a huge success in the Arab world? According to the Guardian the Syrian television program “Bab al-Hara” (The Neighborhood Gate) has set “the Arab World Agog” and is watched by millions. Generally, the article explains the phenomenon by saying that it is great entertainment and the hero is, “A hearthrob who looks like Johnny Depp.”

But there’s another dimension the story misses, which tells us a great deal about Arab society and politics today. Here’s how an expert who watched the show explains it:

“These dramas give Syrians a “breathing space,” time off from the stress of living in that squalid dictatorship. They’re a safety valve. When Syrians are watching these shows when they see they substitute in their minds the Syrian regime and its army for the French soldiers portrayed. The white French mandate uniforms become olive green; the French tricolor becomes the Syrian eagle.

“Take this scene for example, 2.34 minutes into this clip:

“The [French] officer goes into the fruit store and tells his men to take what they want.
He asks the owner for bananas but its clear the soldiers don’t intend to pay for anything. The owner protests that the officer already owes him money from things he takes whenever he visits. The officer then says he will come back every day and take whatever he pleases or he will close down the shop.

“The Syrian audience thinks about how it’s treated by its own authorities today, and government officials know this. The show is their reward for toeing the line.
“That’s the thing with Syria, and countries like it, you have to look beyond the surface in everything. Nothing is as it seems and what appears to be the simple, obvious explanation is always wrong and has to be discarded.”

I’d add this: the job of the analyst, scholar, or journalist is to take their experience and special knowledge of the specific reality of foreign countries and convey this accurately to their audience.

Their job is not—as many people seem to think or act these days—simply to convey what is said (including the most ludicrous claims and propaganda) or to rework this material to fit their ideological preconceptions. The bad outcome happens in three ways:

  • Passing on things stated by people who know they are lies as if they are truth or the deepest beliefs of the speaker.
  • Acting as if people in foreign societies are precisely like the one transmitting the information, that is clones of their audience.
  • Telling their audience what the transmitter thinks is “good for them to know” in their own battle against what they purport to be racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or policies they don’t like of their own governments.

One should also always explain the difference between free societies, where criticism is permitted and then used to make improvements, and dictatorships, where only government-approved sentiments are allowed.

Why, the network executive asked George Castanza on “Seinfeld,” should anyone watch the show you are proposing.

Because, George answers, it’s on television.

“Not yet,” the executive answers.

In the Arabic-speaking countries today, that “not yet” is a gate where decisions are highly politicized.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org 

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