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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Ramadan TV feast enthrals Arabs
By Sebastian Usher
BBC World media correspondent

A scene from the Syrian Ramadan television show Hur al-Ayn (Maidens of Paradise)
Syrian TV dramas are being shown throughout the Middle East
An apartment block in flames, a mother screaming for her children, charred bodies rushed away in ambulances while the hunt for the killers results in fugitives in long Arab robes and headdress surrendering somewhere in the desert.

Images ripped from the latest bulletin - this is the nightmare that hangs over so many cities in the world now.

But this is not the news - it's the opening credits of a Syrian TV drama currently being shown across the Arab world.

Hur al-Ayn (Maidens of Paradise) is set in Saudi Arabia and shows the impact of the wave of Islamist terror attacks there not on Westerners but on expatriate Arabs and on Saudis themselves.

It is perhaps the most incendiary of the dramas that are being presented this Ramadan as part of the now traditional feast of TV, that is become one of the essential sights and sounds of Islam's holiest month.

TV bursts into life

When night falls across the Muslim world and the daily fast of Ramadan ends, the lights come on in the markets as shops and restaurants and cafes open, heaving with special delicacies.

The omnipresent TV - forever muttering in the corner in living rooms from Beirut to Marrakech - also bursts into new life.

President Bashar al-Assad takes a personal interest - seeing it as a way of opening up the country

Music, comedy and drama with the biggest stars in the Arab world streams out far into the night.

Ramadan is the biggest time of year for Arab television as the multitude of old and new stations that have sprung up in the past few years compete for the attention of tens of millions of Arab families brought together for the month-long celebrations.

More than 100 TV series are produced specially for Ramadan.

Each is divided into episodes to run every night of the month. That is at least 30 hours per series.

Most have been coming off the conveyor belt from the Egyptian TV industry for years.

Syrian challenge

But ask students at the American University in Beirut or middle-aged men smoking narguileh in the elegant cafes in the downtown area now overshadowed by the huge mosque being built in the name of assassinated Rafik Hariri - and some will say the Egyptians have had their day.

The stars are getting old, the plots and themes stale and the studio-bound style has long lost its thrill.

A scene from the Syrian Ramadan television show Hur al-Ayn (Maidens of Paradise)
Hur al-Ayn addresses the phenomenon of terrorism

Perhaps surprisingly, considering the tortured relationship between their countries, many will point to Syria as providing fresher, more gripping TV drama and sharper comedy and even satire than the Egyptians.

That may seem strange. Syria hardly stands out as a beacon of freedom of expression in the Arab world.

But in his office in an upmarket street in Damascus close to several ministries, Mazen Rifka, the general manager of Al Sham, one of the more than 100 private TV production companies in Syria, smiles urbanely and tells me that things have changed.

President Bashar al-Assad takes a personal interest, he says - seeing it as a way of opening up the country.

Drugs, HIV/Aids, women's place in Arab society - these are all dealt with in this year's programmes.

Letting of steam

Back in Beirut, one of his company's main clients has a slightly different take on this.

On an empty soundstage in a hangar on a steep hill looking down on Hariri's mosque, Tarek Antresi - an executive for Future TV, the dynamic TV station owned by the assassinated ex-prime minister - tells me the Syrians can be robust in their criticism of official incompetence or corruption - but it is always painted in general terms with no direct reference to anyone actually in power.

The Road to Kabul, about the war in Afghanistan, got pulled off air last Ramadan after protests from both the Americans and Islamic militants

As several people in Beirut are happy to explain, perhaps the regime sees it as a way of allowing people to let off a bit of steam without going too far.

In any case, Mr Antresi is keen to point out, his station - the front of which is half-shrouded in a billowing poster of Hariri and whose onscreen logo shows a countdown of each day since his death - is still showing Syrian shows this Ramadan, even though there's widespread suspicion in Beirut of Syrian involvement in his death.

Despite their differences, people in Lebanon and Syria can share in the lavish, spectacular recreations of the glories of the Islamic past that Syria has made its own in recent years.

Controversial topics

With big budgets, fresh faces and drawing on every inch of the country's dramatic landscape, Syrian TV companies have produced a string of historical extravaganzas for Ramadan - including the stories of the 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, the medieval Mamluk dynasty and the sect of the Assassins - seen by some as the first suicide terrorists.

Some of this is escapism, some of it propaganda - and then there have been series attacking Zionism.

One of them drew on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery - also used by the Nazis - the Twelve Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Showing it helped get the Hezbollah-backed satellite station, al-Manar, banned in much of Europe and the US.

Another series, The Road to Kabul, about the war in Afghanistan, got pulled off air last Ramadan - after protests from both the Americans and Islamic militants.

So, the depiction of Arab victims and perpetrators of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia this Ramadan on TV is not revolutionary.

But the fact that it is being shown at all in peak time at Ramadan - and on a Saudi-owned station at that - indicates a move from widespread denial in much of the Arab world to a very public recognition of just how hard the problem hits home.


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