Bab Al-Hara is a popular Syrian TV drama watched by more than a hundred million Arabs. The show is set at the time of French colonisation and has a clear Arab nationalist agenda, weaving the Syrian independence war with the Palestinian struggle against the British occupation. The shabab (young fighters) of the hara (neighbourhood) are constantly shown helping their Palestinian brothers with money, weapons — and even their lives. Likewise, the Palestinian fighters join the locals in defending their neighbourhood against the French.
It was while watching Bab Al-Hara last August in the Muslim month of Ramadan that I came to a realisation: Arab nationalism was being reborn again, resurrected from a grave dug deep by the death of Jamal Abdul Nasser and the devastating losses in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
What makes Bab Al-Hara an interesting case study is not only its Arab pride message but that is has mass appeal across the whole of the Arab world. The show reaches all sections of society, from the rich elite paying $50 for a coffee and hookah in a trendy café, to the poor paying $1 for the same order in a public café, from the university educated to the street vendors, from the young to the old: when Bab Al-Hara is on, everyone watches.
To better understand its popularity we only need to go online and browse the thousands of YouTube videos, blogs, and websites dedicated to the show. There, the combination of youth and Arab pride emerges. This can only mean that the show’s message has struck a chord with Arab youth, that it reflects attitudes on the Arab street. There, we find a yearning for Arab pride, a yearning that has spanned four generations: from the humiliation Arabs endured under the Ottoman Empire, under French and British colonisers, to the Palestinian Question. And then there is my generation, we too have built up frustration. We’ve always known that the Arab leaders are merely puppets for the West and suspected that they will never restore Arab nationalism.
For the sake of historical reference it is important that we look at the roots of the Arab nationalist movement.
We begin with the story of a Christian Arab named Ibrahim al-Yazigi who, in the late 19th century, called for a resurrection of the ancient Arab pride against the Ottoman occupation. Yazigi went on to establish a secret society that later led to Arab revolts and slowly helped shape an Arab nationalist movement. This reached its height when Jamal Abdul Nasser established a union between Egypt and Syria in 1958, a union that lasted only two years only to fall apart spectacularly. This Arab nationalist movement went into rapid decline after the death of Abdul Nasser and in its place emerged totalitarian regimes that were on one hand anti-western in rhetoric and on the other hand dependent on the West for their handouts.
Four decades later, we see these totalitarian regimes in a state of disarray, aging beyond salvation. It’s not just their leaders who show these signs, but more importantly their institutions and methods of control. Add to that with the wide emergence of satellite television with many independent networks competing for audience share — thus generating more consumption of Arabic media and in turn Arabic literature. This new media menu has given rise to an increasingly liberal Arab street which, combined with a burning desire for change, has been slowly eroding the Arab submissive state.
There’s a new generation of youth making new use of a pre-existing infrastructure of activism on the Arab street, taking lessons from the numerous failed attempts to change the system in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thus we are presented with a fertile conditions for revolution — led by a new generation with unprecedented media access, connectivity, and cultural awareness.
Seeing the wild fires of Arab revolt sweep across the Middle East, we can’t help wonder what’s next. While there are still actions on the streets in many Arab countries, there is another telling struggle simmering in Egypt’s corridors of powers — and that is the post-revolt political struggle between the Arab nationalists fighting to build on the recent revolution and the Islamists waiting to hijack the change, and they’re both grappling with the Egyptian military who are trying to keep control and install yet another puppet regime.
This post-revolt struggle in Egypt is telling in that it could indicate many years of instability in the Middle East thanks to post-revolt political struggles. While the outcomes of the waves of revolution on the Arab street aren’t yet clear, it is certain that the clock can’t be turned back.
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