In time for Ramadan, Iraqi TV drama returns after 7 years

The arts are coming to life again in Baghdad, bringing with it a touch of hope and comfort as the country works to rebuild after 16 years of war. (AP)
Updated 05 May 2019
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In time for Ramadan, Iraqi TV drama returns after 7 years

  • Two of Iraq’s leading actors have returned to take part in “The Hotel,” a Ramadan drama
  • It is the first Ramadan drama to be produced in Iraq since 2012

BAGHDAD: Every evening at the Muntada Al-Masrah theater on Baghdad’s Rashid street, the cast and crew of the first TV drama filmed in Iraq in seven years take their places among the rooms and courtyard of this 19th-century building and shoot new scenes of their highly-anticipated series.
The arts are coming to life again in Baghdad, bringing with it a touch of hope and comfort as the country works to rebuild after 16 years of war.
And after two decades abroad, two of Iraq’s leading actors have returned to take part in “The Hotel,” the twenty-episode drama set to air during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“The Iraqi people are parched for drama,” said Hassan Hosni, a drama star of the 1990s, who returned from Saudi Arabia to direct “The Hotel,” a show about the seedy underbelly of Baghdad and its entanglement with human trafficking.
It is the first Ramadan drama to be produced in Iraq since 2012, according to the cast and crew, and it heralds a return of an essential TV genre to the country.
Across the Muslim world and throughout the month of Ramadan, when the faithful fast from dawn until sunset and stay up late to digest their evening meals, viewers are treated to TV dramas that touch on romance, war, tyranny and other issues of the day.
For years, Iraqis have been watching dramas from other nations, such as “Bab Al-Hara,” the blockbuster Syrian series set during the 1930s independence movement from France.
With “The Hotel,” Iraqis will have a home-grown series to watch for the first time in years, amid the longest stretch of stability Baghdad has experienced since the 2003 US invasion.
“We were all waiting for this moment — writers, directors and actors — with total impatience,” said Hosni.
“I felt it in the streets, when we were scouting for locations,” said Hosni. Locals, shocked to see him back in their city, approached the star to ask about the series.
“The joy was clear in their eyes, expressions and words,” he said.
Once the capital of the Islamic world, Baghdad is a city that proudly displays its affection for drama and poetry, boasting monuments that show scenes from Arabian Nights and avenues named after renowned poets such as the boastful Mutanabbi of the 10th century and his bibulous predecessor, Abu Nawas.
It has held on to this pride through the contemporary era, even as the coups and wars of the 20th century, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the grip of UN sanctions drove writers, actors and producers out of the country.
Mahmoud Abu Al-Abbas, the star of “The Hotel” and a famous thespian in his own right, went into exile in 1997 after he performed a solo play that spoke about harassment by the country’s notorious security services. In Saddam Hussein’s era, it crossed a red line.
“I was interrogated for two days and then advised by the minister of culture to leave Iraq immediately,” he said.
The 2003 US invasion dealt another blow to the arts. The ensuing war tore Baghdad apart, as car bombs tore through the city daily, and fighting turned Rashid Street, once a center of culture and heritage, into a valley of fear and destruction.
A sputtering revival earlier this decade came to a halt, first as money for the arts dried up, then as insecurity gripped the country again with the 2014 Daesh group insurgency.
After Iraq declared victory over IS in December 2017, the atmosphere inside the capital began to change. The blast walls that protected against car bombs were lifted, and locals started staying out late again, patronizing cafes, malls, galleries, and theaters, where performances change from week to week.
Abu Al-Abbas stayed in the United Arab Emirates for 20 years. But he kept acting, writing and directing plays, and he wrote more than a dozen books on his craft.
In 2017, he returned to his hometown of Basra, the commercial capital of southern Iraq and the hub for its oil, where he founded a theater troupe of young, under-employed local men and taught them a play they went on to perform in other southern cities.
But it wasn’t until screenwriter Hamid Al-Maliki called with the script for “The Hotel” that he agreed to return to the screen.
“Violent drama takes a period of contemplation on the part of the writer so that he can give us a ‘dose’ of work that can treat our situation,” said Abu Al-Abbas.
Al-Maliki accepted that “The Hotel’s” transgressive material — including prostitution, human trafficking and the organ trade — would shock viewers, but said it was the responsibility of TV drama to start a conversation.
“It’s a current matter for Iraq,” he said. “It’s a message to the youth to beware of the trap of human trafficking, and it’s a message to the Iraqi state to care for the innocent and the poor who are the victims of the trade.”
And Al-Maliki said it was vital for the arts to confront the ideologies that have fueled extremism.
“Culture alone is what will be victorious over Daesh thinking,” he said, using the Arabic term for the Daesh group.
“Culture is life, and Daesh is death. So we must face death with life. We must face Daesh with culture,” he continued.
Hosni, the star-turned-director, left Iraq in 1996, looking to escape the pressure of the UN sanctions levied against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait earlier in the decade.
But he never felt far from Iraq, as he continued to work with other diaspora Iraqis in drama in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“It was a separation in body, but not in mind or soul,” he said.
He was finally coaxed back by Al-Maliki this year.
The return of the TV drama, Hosni said, is reassuring.
“It’s a time for the Iraqi family to sit together at home, with their relatives and neighbors.”


As Saudi Arabia gears up for K-pop’s Super Junior we ask ‘what’s the draw?’

Updated 26 June 2019
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As Saudi Arabia gears up for K-pop’s Super Junior we ask ‘what’s the draw?’

  • K-pop favorites Super Junior will hit the stage in Jeddah in July
  • This catchy pop genre has seen several false starts

JEDDAH: It is just weeks to go before one of K-pop’s best-known groups, “Super Junior”, take to the stage in Jeddah, adding them to an ever-increasing hall of fame as the Kingdom continues on its wave of modernization.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans of K-pop were seen as the odd ones out, but now they represent an increasingly large group of devotees across the globe.

K-pop music, a versatile genre of music, accompanied by an explosion of bright colors, flashy choreographed dancing and catchy beats, has fans as young as 10 captivated.

But what has made this once widely mocked genre turn from a freak show into one of the world’s most successful styles of pop music and why is it so popular in the Kingdom? Arab News spoke to fans to find out.

Local online shops and social media accounts in Saudi Arabia are slowly increasing merchandise of Korean goods including clothing, fan art, band merchandise and much more. 

Even Saudis living abroad in Korea have got involved and are pushing the K-pop message through their social media accounts, drawing in younger recruits to this increasingly popular phenomenon.

College student Yasmin Noor, 19, who has been a fan for four years said: “I got into K-pop when I was 15. When I stumbled across Choi Siwon from “Super Junior” on the internet, I wanted to know more about him. After that I wanted to know about Korea and their culture.”

How K-pop's global interest grew

Boy – and girl - bands are not a new phenomenon, K-pop is riding the crest of a rather big tried and tested wave.

But while most of the groups that preceded this genre are from western countries and sing in English, K-pop bands have largely stayed loyal to their roots, singing in their native tongue – although not always.

Even the United State’s Rolling Stone magazine joined the debate surrounding the genre’s growing popularity around the world, suggesting that interest in Korean pop music first began in 2012 with Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” but he was seen as an amusing gimmick.

Then there was a series of highly polished girl groups that hit the stage, including “Wonder Girls” and “Girls Generation,” who came backed with vast productions and massive budgets which promptly flopped, failing to capture the imagination of the essential US audience.

But why did they fail? Rolling Stone suggested it might be these groups simply “tried too hard.”

Super Junior backstage at their concert 'Super Show' (Photo Courtesy: Social media)

Now K-pop has dared to cross the boundaries and, with groups like BTS, started to encompass Western styles, while maintaining its Korean origins, delivering a more upbeat, feel good positive style that is starting to capture the attention of the US.

It didn’t matter that groups were singing in Korean, when the sound had something that sounded reassuringly similar but was uncharacteristically uplifting.

And it’s not just the US where K-pop is proving a vast success, it seems the Gulf region loves it too.

Social media was always going to help

Saudi-based life coach and HR officer, Nora Alrifai, 27, said: “The appeal for me was how some songs moved my heartstrings even though I didn’t understand anything they were saying.”

And her fascination with Korea didn’t stop there, she said the country’s local TV dramas have also been a serious draw as her love of Korean media continues to grow.

K-pop’s recent success around the world has caught many by surprise, but the brand’s normalization into such a competitive market could be, in part, due to collaborations with western acts.

But Alrifai believes social media has played a big part.

“Due to the globalization and the excessive use of social media, the world is becoming a global village and everyone has access now to other cultures and their art,” she said.

Rowaida Fuad, the chef behind Sakura Topia, a restaurant that serves authentic Korean and Japanese food said she was initially a K-Pop fan: “I got into K-Pop when I was in university in 2005. At that time it was becoming famous among students who had internet access.”

One of the biggest online K-pop communities “Soompi,” which started in 1998, boasts a user base of 22 million and still growing, with the vast majority being from around the globe and not Korean.

And there’s evidence, Rolling Stone suggested, that its millions of users are spending hours translating lyrics and analyzing the videos which accompany to catchy tracks.

Yasmin Noor recalled how she first discovered the colorful world of K-pop, she said; “What made me like them was definitely their dancing skills and the most impressive of all was the production value that goes into their music videos.”

“Super Junior” will perform in Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Season on July 12, and fans are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the tickets, a first of its kind in the Kingdom that will surely not be the last.