Watching Star Wars in Damascus

Watching Star Wars in Damascus
Blog: As the worldwide premiere of the long-awaited sequel for the Star Wars saga arrives, Karim Traboulsi examines what the film could mean for a Middle East audience.
3 min read
17 Dec, 2015
The villains of the Star Wars saga are reminiscent of many an Arab tyrant [Getty]
As in all capitals and major cities in the Middle East and beyond, Star Wars: the Force Awakens will be showing in Damascus.

Despite the occasional deadly mortar round and car bomb, the Syrian capital, firmly under the control of the Assad regime, has been spared from the kind of fighting that has ravaged the rest of the country.

To some observers, the fact that life has gone on, almost as normal, is sometimes surreal. But to others, it is a testament to the endurance of the Damascenes.

The three-decade-old space saga has often mirrored real-life events.

In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, the last instalment in the dreaded prequels trilogy, the collapse of democracy in the empire drew many parallels with the actions of the Bush administration at the time of release.

In truth, the conflict in the original Star Wars universe is not far removed from Syria's Real Wars.

A "rebel alliance" fights for democracy and freedom against a tyrannical emperor and his powerful security apparatus.

Religious undertones and overtones also come into play in the galactic civil war.

And many a conspiracy are hatched by a dizzying assortment of factions, all at once.

Luckily for fans of Star Wars in Syria, it seems these themes will have escaped the Syrian regime's censors, who probably (wrongly) dismiss the sci-fi genre as third-rate cheesy entertainment that has no ability to convey serious themes.

In other war-ravaged Arab cities - and there are plenty that have fared a lot worse than Damascus - it is unlikely people will have the luxury to watch the film in cinemas.

'Space Arabs'

But in the rest of the Middle East, there is much excitement about the latest instalment.

In Lebanon, unofficial exhibitions and screenings of the previous films have been organised by fan clubs ahead of the premiere.

Star Wars has dominated Arabs' social media newsfeeds, from Jordan to Egypt and the Gulf.

But Star Wars and sci-fi in general remains less in the mainstream in the Arab world, where nerds are yet to have their revenge.

Many Arabs have missed the original saga, but aggressive marketing by the makers of the new Star Wars film, including in Arabic - a first - is likely to expand the fan base of the franchise.

Also recall here that many of the Star Wars films were partially filmed in Arab countries, including Tunisia and the UAE.

An aside here: Another sci-fi masterpiece, Frank Herbert's Dune, is almost entirely inspired by Arab culture, and some have even nicknamed the Bedouin-like Fremen on the eponymous planet the "Space Arabs".

Yet Dune, an Academy Award-nominated "cult classic" remains almost completely unknown to Arab audiences.

Sadly, one senses less interest among Arab women in the films, and in sci-fi in general, than among male cinema-goers.

Indeed, the geek subculture in the Middle East remains very much male-dominated.

This is bound to change, however, as more and more women pursue degrees and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths fields - the link between the two being almost self-evident.

It is true that science fiction can be silly and even plainly unscientific. And it is true that films like Star Wars are, perhaps first and foremost, formidable profit vessels.

But the genre has long since come of age.

From tackling real-world issues and offering hope to the underdogs of the world, including the Arab world, to unleashing imaginations and inspiring interest in science, sci-fi films such as Star Wars should resonate well with a Middle Eastern audience that cerainly deserves a break from tragedy.

Sci-fi may profess to explore alien planets, but it is our own inner selves that these movies lays bare for exploration.

Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter: @Kareemios