The Truth Behind the Tarboush

A man wearing a Tarboush. The traditional Syrian headware.

Bab El Hara is a Syrian television show that is popular all over the Middle East and Arab speaking communities around the world. The show is set in the old Damascus neighborhood and portrays the traditions and the cultures of the Syrian society at the time of the French Mandate in the late twenties. At that the time, the Syrian people were fighting for independence. It shows the traditional Damascene household which is known for its generosity. It also presents men as being strong and noble individuals who are heads of their households and willing to sacrifice everything for their country. It also presents women as the caring, loving housewives that serve their man and follow their instructions and who become the man themselves at the time of need.

This show has influenced a lot of people all over the world and it became one of the things that defined Syria among non-Syrians who were watching the show. It collected more than 10 million views. This popularity, however, affected how people viewed Syria and the Syrian people. They believed the true portrayals of the show such as the generosity of the Syrian people. However, they also believe the anachronistic and untrue portrayals of Syrian society. Viewers actually thought that all Syrians live in big houses, that men boss and abuse their wives and children, that all women are vulnerable, that all women wear Burqas, and that all women need a man to accompany them out of the house. Another stereotype promoted by the show is that Syrians speak in the same bossy, loud, and annoying tone and that we wear traditional clothes and hold knives on our waist for protection as shown in Bab El Hara. You might think that I am joking or exaggerating. However, I was stereotyped myself because of the show.

A street in the Old Damascus Neighborhoods where the setting of Bab El Hara claims to be.

During my stay in Lebanon, I have met a lot of people who are Lebanese and people from other Arab speaking countries. Every time I meet someone, they start talking to me in a similar tone of Bab El Hara actors which is actually not similar to the actual accent that we have Syria. When people figured out that I am staying here in Lebanon without my family, they asked me where my Mahram is? To those of you who do not know, a Mahram is a man who is supposed to “accompany you” when you go out wherever you go. Even more surprisingly, some people asked me why I am not wearing Hijab or why I am wearing modern clothing (i.e.: Jeans, shirt, jacket) since they believe that Syrians only wear their traditional clothes and that all Syrians belong to the same religion.

These stereotypes about Syrians are not true. They are nothing but a misrepresentation of a very popular Syrian series. Even though it might aim to present good values, Bab El Hara had a more negative impact than a positive one. Syria is a country like all other countries, it has different people from different backgrounds and different religions, who speak with many different accents and have many different traditions. We also have so many greater things that unite us as Syrians and they are all not related to the current drama of Bab El Hara.

The question remains, how can you get to know what Syrian culture is really like?

Well, I have the answer for you. I doubt that there is an area or a country that does not have Syrian inhabitant. So, there is no need to bother yourself searching. All you have to do is to go out of your house and say “Shlonak” in the street and a Syrian person will approach you and tell you all about Syria.

Written by Sara Harba, a current intern from Syria at the WYA Middle East office.