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ARAB WORLD: Ramadan soaps get lukewarm treatment from critics

September 21, 2009 |  7:27 am

The Eid al Fitr holiday, which began Sunday for most Muslims and marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, also spells the end of another important season: that of the Ramadan soap opera.

Ramadan soaps have become fiercely competitive over the years, drawing huge audiences and advertising revenue for networks. Syrian historical and social dramas tend to dominate, followed by Egyptian and, to a much lesser extent, Lebanese, Jordanian and Persian Gulf serials.

Shows such as the smash hit "Bab Al-Hara," a Syrian historical drama set in old Damascus during the French Mandate (the early 1923-43), present a romanticized version of a supposedly simpler time when men were men, women were women, and Arabs were united in the face of colonialism.

But critics say the soaps are a form of cheap entertainment that undermines the spirit of Ramadan by promoting consumerism instead of charity. Moreover, the pressure to produce series that are attractive to viewers yet inoffensive enough to be bought by multiple networks, which are often owned by royal or political interests, results in story lines that are more frivolous than thought-provoking.

"There is no media that is totally independent, and this leads to recycling ideas, copying. ... They run out of ideas because they are only allowed to talk about certain things," media critic, journalist and blogger Iqbal Tamimi told The Times. "The drama is boring, and people know it."

Tamimi, who is of Palestinian origin but currently based in the United Kingdom, has spent 17 years covering culture and politics for a number of Arabic television and print outlets, including major satellite stations such as Al Arabiya and MBC.

She went on to say that, although Syrian dramas in particular are known for tackling controversial issues like corruption, the emphasis on period pieces is also a means of distracting people and deflecting criticism from the current government.

Maher Mansour, writing for the Lebanese daily As-Safir (Arabic link), said that although Syrian dramas remained popular, they failed to achieve the same "mass consensus" as in previous years; he did not provide ratings figures.

Mansour blamed the decline in quality on repetitiveness. Not only did most of the 27 Syrian serials this year address the same topics, Mansour said, but the actors were also the same, with some stars performing in up to seven different shows.

"The repetition of actors would not have been a problem if it had been accompanied by different tools of expression, but the issue has gone beyond the problem of the same faces so that even the characters they portray in different shows match up," he wrote.

Tamimi added, however, that the Internet now allowed viewers to share their uncensored opinions while many culture critics in traditional, state-controlled media were prevented from doing so.

"The viewers are really making the lives of the producers a living hell," she said. "If they don't like it, they can just go online and write about how bad it is."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video:  The intro sequence to the hugely popular "Bab Al-Hara," which is set in Damascus' old city during the French Mandate era. Credit: YouTube