Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Few Heresies in Honor of the Ramadan Season!

Ramadan. The most hedonistic time of the Muslim year. So, hedonistic, in fact, it might as well be called the Muslim Christmas or Hanukah. Indeed, human nature, when given the chance, tends to bastardize all rituals and observances meant to celebrate our loftier desires and yearnings. So be it. I really don’t have much problem with this particular human contradiction. I much rather the heterogeneity of individualized bastardization than the homogeneity of collective ritualistic observance.

But, and judging from the few made-for-Ramadan TV series that we can catch on cable (being unable to install a satellite dish in our apartment and follow the Ramadan scene more closely), this heterogeneity is rapidly becoming superficial, and is under serious threat of diminishing to the point of insignificance.

Year after year, TV series, especially Egyptian ones, become more and more infused with so much male chauvinist and traditional religious values that one has to seriously wonder if a systematic effort is not actually involved here. For while many complain with regard to the increasing explicitness of pop videos, in reality, pop videos can inspire more guilt in the soul of at a teenager who has been raised all his life on traditional values than they can inspire rebellion against said values. And now, we have TV series that increasingly consecrate traditional values, serving a purpose that is diametrically opposite to the one that was entrusted onto them by the secular Arab regimes in Egypt and Syria in particular, with many of the same actors and script writers, not to mention political leaders, still involved.

And while, this observation might hold more true with regard to Egyptian series than Syrian ones, which continue to betray some pronounced secular sympathies, the gap between the two artistic communities is rapidly closing, as is the gap between religious and nationalist currents in the country and the region. Being an Arab is becoming more and more synonymous with being a Muslim even in Christian Arab minds. As such, you either rebel against both, or you end up embracing both. No, this does not meant that Christians are converting to Islam, or that they will convert to Islam, people are never that mechanical in their reaction to things.

But many Christians are becoming as conservative and anti-secular, if not anti-western, as Muslims in the region, a fact evidenced by their current tendency to turn towards their religious leaders for inspiration and guidance rather than their political ones. Those Christians who cannot accept this state of affairs are emigrating in increasingly large numbers.

As to how this plays out in the artistic community, it is indeed quite interesting, and somewhat painful, to see how, in the hope of postponing the inevitable or softening the blow, or out of complete ignorance of what is actually at stake (which is more often the case, especially with regard to younger stars), Christian actors are choosing to praise the very values that will soon prove quite inimical to their basic rights as citizens. It is equally interesting and saddening to see how the same actors who have championed the more secular values at one point now seem to be advocating the more traditional and religious ones, perhaps by way of preparing themselves for the encounter with their maker.

Virtue has no secular side to it these days. Virtue is purely Islamic. The “father knows best” attitude of earlier shows, after all, we have always been a male chauvinist culture, is now being defended on Islamic grounds. In other words, father knows best, because he is following the word of God, Who, of course, Knows Best. Rebellion against the authority of the father is now more sacrilegious than it has ever been. Modern values of individualism and free expression are condemned as a priori wrong and evil. No argument in this regard takes place, the plot presupposes that they are wrong and, more importantly perhaps, that people know and accept that they are wrong. Indeed, plots are constructed in such a way that leaves the viewer no choice but to agree with the conclusion.

Women in these series, especially when independent and not so enthralled with their motherly duties, or with the “fact” that a woman’s calling is to be a “good” mother above all, are invariably portrayed as sluts.

No. These series are not some Islamic versions of Hollywood Christmas classics. Nor are they a celebration of traditional family values. They are a rejection of and a systematic attempt at demonizing modern values. Hollywood classics, for all their simplifications and occasional pitfalls, are quite humanist in nature, rather than purely Christian. There is no humanism involved here, but a missionary zeal that is no longer constrained to the religious channels.

No. contemporary Arab pop culture is not a liberating influence, but an instrument of mobilization that now not the only the nationalist regimes but also the religious currents are using to reject modernity and western influence.