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Syrians tune in the West

Radio stations mix thumping dance music and racy U.S.-style talk shows, providing a rare cultural bridge in the Arab world.

April 22, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — It's the midmorning commute, and time for the horoscope on "Good Morning Syria," the nation's hottest radio show.

"Cancer," host Honey Sayed addresses listeners first in Arabic, then in English, with an air of sisterly candor, "don't get all worked up for nothing."

On the other side of the window, deejay Abdullah Shaaban cues an oldie from John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. "I got chills, they're multiplying," Travolta sings. "And I'm losing control."

Honey laughs and continues with her astrology report. "An opportunity is present," she coos into the microphone, "so take it, Leo."

Newly instituted freedom on the nation's airwaves has transformed Syria's sonic landscape. Some say it is shaping the way people view themselves, part of a wave of global influences turning this nation, whose government is the most hostile to the West in the Arab world, into the culture most amenable to it.

Honey 's "Good Morning Syria" is the staple of Madina FM, the oldest of nine new commercial radio stations. All sprang up over the last few years with the approval of President Bashar Assad, who ascended to power after the 2000 death of his father, Hafez Assad.

The stations broadcast hectic and supercharged melanges of Arab pop tunes, thumping dance music and lurid hip-hop rhymes spliced with snippets of Western-style culture, like horoscopes and call-in programs. Guests on talk shows discuss topics as touchy as child abuse and homosexuality. Hosts like Honey toggle between English and a relaxed informal Arabic rarely if ever heard here in the past.

The musical repertoire includes techno and rock 'n' roll as well as Arab pop. Tunes by Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe and Egyptian heartthrob Amr Diab are interspersed with those of American stars including Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Beyonce.

It's indisputable that these are tough times for cultural understanding between the Arab world and the West. Muslim clerics rail against decadence in the United States and Europe. Right-wing politicians in America and Western Europe denounce Islam as a religion of terror and intolerance.

But despite the political and military tensions, the rhythms and textures of daily life here are increasingly meshing with those of Western nations. On the streets of Damascus, people breezily draw in American sounds, sights and icons, making them part of their own cultural DNA.

In a land viewed by the Bush administration as an associate member of the so-called axis of evil, 50 Cent floods the airwaves.

"The American media talk about everything bad in Syria," says Michel Succar, Madina FM's fast-talking general manager. "We love Western music."

The 30-year-old, his shaved head gleaming, his arms flailing, continues: "We love Rihanna. It's very cool. Syria is very cool."

And regardless of the widespread unpopularity of U.S. policies across the Middle East, the seductive "cool" of American pop culture retains immense power, especially among the country's increasingly young and urbane population. At least 37% of Syria's 20 million people are younger than 15, and half live in cities, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Music won't immediately improve political relations between Damascus and Washington. But transforming a nation's culture can shift it toward the Western orbit. The 1970s music of Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd enticed a generation of young reformers in late 1980s Eastern Europe. Years later, a flood of Western culture and commerce inspired the "color revolutions" that took out authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet bloc. In the Middle East, Western pop culture appeals to authoritarian leaders as well as ordinary people.

"Now there is a new generation -- the generation of the sons," said one Western diplomat based in Damascus. "In this field of cultural freedom they are more liberal. They want to enjoy life. Many studied in the U.S. or Europe."

No independent research firm tracks the number of listeners to Syrian radio stations. Based on its own research, Madina FM estimates that 8 million Syrians tune in at least occasionally, with an annual growth rate of about 7.5%. The station purchases music licenses through the regional offices of major Western record companies such as Sony, Universal and Disney as well as record companies in Cairo and Beirut.

Madina FM has also attracted a healthy roster of local and international advertisers, including the country's two main cellphone companies, Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies, Western and Middle Eastern junk food brands and automakers such as Subaru and Mercedes. In some instances, guests pay to appear, as does a gynecologist who uses Honey's show as a way to drum up business while dispensing women's health advice.

On Wednesdays, Honey brings a psychiatrist on air to discuss sex education, infidelity, domestic abuse, child molestation and other previously taboo topics.

"It's Syria," says Succar. "Not Afghanistan."

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