Arab audiences anxiously awaiting the 10th season of Bab Al Hara were in for a big surprise this Ramadan. The popular Syrian soap opera was not filmed, although entertainment websites had reported that two back-to-back seasons were to be shot in 2018.
Set in colonial Damascus, the show tells the story of an imaginary neighbourhood in the Old City, struggling with its daily tribulations, while several of its men are engaged in resistance against the French occupation.
What started out as a local two-part series in 2006 has snowballed into one of the most successful works in the history of Arabic television, with audiences in North Africa, the Arab Gulf, and throughout the Middle East, with particular popularity among the Arab Diaspora. Historians of Damascus were critical of the work, saying that it gives an inaccurate picture of Damascus in the 1930s, over-playing the male-dominated society.
Producers have shot back that Bab Al Hara is in no way a historical epic, and nobody should treat it as such, for it is only set in Damascus, but all its events and characters are fictional.
“For sure, Bab Al Hara has had an exceptional presence, on more than one level,” said the show’s leading star, Abbas Al Nouri, who plays the character of Abu Issam, a Damascene barber turned notable.
Speaking to Gulf News tabloid!, he explained, “Its absence has left a real vacuum that we all need to think about. Bab Al Hara means a lot to me, on a personal level, and I remain in a position to defend this project and to demand a greater role in all of its details and events, considering myself a partner, although some benefited from my absence in previous seasons. Bab Al Hara undoubtedly opened the door for other Syrian drama projects, and yet all similar attempts failed to copy it. With time, Bab Al Hara brushed everybody aside by simply being there.”
In recent years, Bab Al Hara was marred with controversy, which might explain why it was taken off-air this year, with promises by its producers that it will be returning in 2019. The work’s director and co-producer Bassam Malla has entered into a legal battle with Mohammad Qabanad, a producer and parliamentarian from Aleppo, and Marwan Kawouk, scriptwriter for the first two seasons, who claims the right to all fictional characters in the work. A settlement was reached where Malla and MBC Group would produce seasons eight and nine, while Qabanad would produce 10 and 11. That settlement is presently in jeopardy, with many leading stars claiming that they would not work with Qabanad. MBC would have a hard time airing his work, after he appeared in a recent video in the Damascus countryside, cursing Saudi Arabia. None of those involved in the legal dispute were available for comment when approached by Gulf News tabloid, requesting “a week” to speak about the subject.
Murhaf Deeb, a drama critic, told Gulf News tabloid! that the work was a big employer in Syria, and that its absence will be missed more so by its staff, than its wide audience. “The real artistic value of Bab Al Hara was in its first three seasons. From season four, it transformed into a commercial project only, with unprecedented success. Importantly, during the last seven years of work, Bab Al Hara was filmed in Damascus, which meant good pay for hundreds of artists and technicians — certainly higher than anything offered by local production companies. Each season meant good income for at least a handful of people, 4-6 months of the year. The big names can easily find alternatives in other Arab productions, in the UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, or Egypt. The real loss — from no Bab Al Hara this year — is for the many families who lived off the work, in one way or another, relying on it, and sometimes only on it, for their daily income.”
When airing on MBC in previous years, young people would gather in cafes throughout the Arab world, awaiting the swashbuckling storyline of Bab Al Hara, which was always filled with fist-fights and acts of chivalry. The name itself became a brand, with restaurants, coffee shops, board games and chewing gum, all named after it. In addition to Nouri, the show has billed with leading Syrian stars like Bassam Koussa, Kousai Khouly, Sulaf Fawakhirji, and Muna Wassif.