Cabarets have been commonplace throughout the Arab World, especially in cities with a vibrant nightlife, such as Cairo in the 1920s. One of the city’s legends was Mounira al-Mahdiya, a celebrated Egyptian dancer and singer, on whom the character of “Aziza” is roughly based in the much-debated soap opera “Jawket Aziza.” Technically the word “jawka” means “choir” in English, although it was used in reference to all kinds of musical bands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mahdiya began her career in 1906, becoming friends (and sometimes more than friends) with the city’s elite and political class before eventually establishing her own cabaret in the Azbakiya neighborhood of Cairo. She traveled to Damascus to perform first in 1919, and then later again in 1947. So famous was she in Syria that a cigarette brand was released in the 1930s carrying her name and image.

None of Syria’s own cabaret singers have achieved a fraction of her fame, due to the conservative culture of Damascus. As they advanced with age and retired from show business, the Syrian performers sank into oblivion and died without achieving any recognition further than their local clubs and narrow clientele. Like Mahdiya, Aziza of “Jawket Aziza” has her own cabaret, nestled in the cobbled alleys of Old Damascus.

The show’s secular music and scantily clad dancers struck a particularly raw nerve.

For millions of Muslims who fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the show’s secular music and scantily clad dancers struck a particularly raw nerve. One comment on Facebook read “Dancers in Ramadan?” Another viewer wrote, “Fasting ought to purify the soul and detach Muslims from worldly attractions. This show does the exact opposite.”

The show’s scriptwriter Khaldoun Katalan replied to critics, saying that “art cannot be separated from politics.” He defended his work as a reflection of the other side of Damascus, a side that many don’t want to remember or accept.

Earlier Objections

Similarly, last year, pious Muslims condemned the back-to-back broadcast of two Syrian productions “Chicago Street” and “Guardian of Jerusalem.” “Chicago Street” is set in 1950s Damascus, in a small, narrow alley of nightclubs and brothels called “Chicago” –– in reference to the Illinois city, the home of ostensibly “immoral” activities, in contrast to the conservative city of Damascus. Few had heard of “Chicago Street” prior to it premiering on Arabic satellite networks, although the street still stands in central Damascus, a stone’s throw away from the Four Seasons Hotel. It transformed into a string of photography shops after its brothels were shut down in the early 1970s.

“Chicago Street” sparked controversy not only for screening prostitutes during the Holy Month, but for airing for the first time ever in the history of Syrian drama two scenes featuring French kisses.

[The Significance of the Holy Month of Ramadan]

“Guardian of Jerusalem” aroused controversy for very different reasons. A biography of Hilarion Capucci (1922-2017), the Syrian priest of Jerusalem who smuggled arms to Palestinians in the West Bank in 1974, conservative Muslim viewers complained because it aired during the break of their fast at sunset, forcing them to see crosses and churches on their home screen, rather than mosques or anything Islam-related.

Objections to “Jawket Aziza”

This year, conservatives were out in force once more protesting “Jawket Aziza.” The 30-episode drama features a front-line cast led by Palestinian actress Nisreen Tafesh (Aziza) and Salloum Haddad, who previously won the hearts and minds of the Arab World for playing heroes from Muslim history. Haddad’s fans were taken aback by seeing him as an immoral drummer in Aziza’s band.

Aziza ultimately comes across as a poor soul, forced into her profession by society and its economic hardships.

Haddad is not alone in Aziza’s controversial milieu. She is surrounded by a sundry assortment of men, including ordinary residents of the Syrian capital, merchants, politicians, and a French colonial officer with whom she falls in love (played by Syrian actor Khaled al-Keesh).

Although strong, loud, outspoken, and flamboyant, Aziza ultimately comes across as a poor soul, forced into her profession by society and its economic hardships. In one scene, she goes to pray at the site of a holy tombstone, where she is met by a local sheikh who addresses her as “My sister.” She is taken aback by his kindness, having never been addressed in such a respectable manner by a stranger –– let alone a cleric –– who refuses to look her in the eyes because she is not wearing the veil.

She asks him, “Would I still be your sister if I work in dancing and singing?” He replies, “You are my sister in humanity and religion.” Aziza smiles politely and lowers her head in reverence, as if to say that even dancers have humility and manners, when confronted with the right people.

Historical Inaccuracies

Some viewers have also been upset by the sudden appearance of Syrian nationalist Fawzi al-Ghazzi on screen. Ghazzi, author of Syria’s first republican constitution, was murdered by his wife on June 5, 1929. In a scandalous affair that shocked Damascus’ society, it was revealed that Ghazzi was killed by his wife so that she could marry his nephew, with whom she was having an affair. In “Jawket Aziza,” however, the writers claim that it was French intelligence that murdered Ghazzi, rather than his wife, which is historically inaccurate.

Conservatism criticism cannot stop art as a reflection of reality.

Viewers were also annoyed that Ghazzi appeared not for his political virtues or achievements in opposing French occupation, but only through the narrow prism of his murder.

While “Jawkat Aziza’s” potentially untimely airing during Ramadan has caused quite the stir, conservatism criticism cannot stop art as a reflection of reality.