Hit soap calls Gaza faithful from evening prayer for a nightly dose of nostalgia

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IT IS the Middle East equivalent of Coronation Street.

With its tales of brave men and dutiful women in a simpler, long-vanished Middle East, a Syrian soap opera has become the latest craze in the Arab world during Ramadan.

Throughout the month, people across the Middle East have irreverently rushed from mosques and flocked to crowded coffee houses each evening to catch the wildly addictive Bab el-Hara, or The Neighbourhood Gate.

The show is so popular that when the leader of Hezbollah gave a televised address last week, many supporters skipped it to watch the soap instead.

During Ramadan, which ends this week, Muslims fast during the day and sit down for an elaborate meal in the evening.

Those ancient traditions have spawned a modern one: the Ramadan soap opera. Arab satellite channels broadcast the programmes each night, trying to hook families who have gathered to break their fast.

In the impoverished, devout Gaza Strip, Muslims have asked preachers to wind up evening worship quickly so they can get home in time for the show.

Imad Qadi, a preacher in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said more worshippers this year were hurrying home to watch the show.

At one upmarket restaurant in east Jerusalem one recent evening, waiters hastily set up a large projector screen minutes before the show began.

Tables of Palestinian men and women, many with coiffed hair and fashionable outfits, faced the flickering screen to watch, hushing children and forcing waiters to duck under the projector as they served beer to Muslims unconcerned with Islam's ban on alcohol.

Last Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech to mark Al-Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, in support of the Palestinians, many of whom enthusiastically support the Shiite cleric who led his guerrillas in a 34-day war against Israel last summer.

But the speech was broadcast at the same time as The Neighbourhood Gate. For many Palestinians, the choice was easy.

"I would prefer Hassan Nasrallah to anybody, but ... I didn't watch because The Neighbourhood Gate was on," said barber Mutasem Nuwara.

Hezbollah's TV station ran two episodes of the show the next day to compensate the loyal supporters who did tune in to watch Nasrallah speak.

In Ramallah, one vendor displayed pictures of the show's actors alongside posters of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. He said he'd sold more than 25 posters of the actors, far more than he'd sold of the late Iraqi dictator or the revered former Palestinian leader.

The show has also sparked a debate on gender roles in the Arab world.

Qadi, the Muslim preacher in Ramallah, said the show's emphasis on traditional values was good for Palestinians, even if leaving prayer early wasn't.

"It's obvious that men are attracted to this series because it reminds them of something they miss, which is an obedient woman," Qadi said.

But Raja Barakat, a 36-year-old Palestinian civil servant, described the women as "silly".

"I see those women as oppressed. They have no opinions," she said.

But some women said they enjoyed watching the show's "real men".

"There's a lot of manliness. I love their courage, and how they take care of each other," said saleswoman Eman Samara.

WHEN TROUSERS WERE BAGGY AND LIPS WERE POUTING

WITH its nostalgic portrayal of the Middle East, The Neighbourhood Gate draws an audience of millions throughout the Arab world - from poverty-stricken Gaza to the opulent cities of the Persian Gulf.

The show follows families in a Damascus neighbourhood between the world wars, when the French ruled Syria and the local population yearned for independence.

The neighbourhood's brawny men wear baggy trousers, as they did at the time, and moustaches.

Syrian beauties with curly hair and pouting lips are cunning, but invariably submit to the will of their husbands and fathers.

Couples fight and mothers-in-law scheme, while a stooge for the ruling regime, disguised as a blind man, spies on everyone.

For many, the entertaining mix of melodrama and nostalgia has proven a stronger draw than the Middle East's two standard preoccupations - religion and politics.

The show's director, Bassam al-Malla, said he intended to create that nostalgia for "a world with values, honour, gallantry... and the revolutionary spirit."

Saleh Abdul Jawad, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, called the show "an escape to the past".

The show's traditional take was reassuring to Palestinians and other Arabs living amid political upheaval and afraid of the future, he said.

"This is yearning for values, for men to be men and women to be women, where roles aren't challenged," he said.

Its makers have promised to create a new special episode of the series for Ramadan next year.