DAMASCUS - In a bygone era, cinema-going in Syria was a popular event, shared by young and old. Men would dress in full attire, women in evening gowns, and children with bow ties, to attend blockbuster films in Damascus.
That came to an abrupt end in the 1960s when the importation of foreign films fell under the strict monopoly of the government, which then practiced a radical brand of socialism. All films from the United States were banned and replaced with those cranked out by the Soviet Union.
The only American films in the country were those smuggled in on VCRs. By the 1990s, satellite television had arrived, then came today's plush cinema complexes with state-of-the-art technology. These made use of a law passed by President Bashar al-Assad
that broke the state's monopoly over the importation of foreign films and Damascus now boils with international blockbusters.
During the early years of cinema in Syria movies were still silent, much to the pleasure of ordinary people who spoke only Ottoman Turkish and understood neither English nor French. That, along with cheaper rents for American films, explains why Syrians went for American movies containing plenty of action and little talk.
Westerns and the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin were particularly favored. The Little Tramp was so popular in Damascene society that in 1929 Chaplin made a publicity stop in Syria before heading to Egypt. This was right after Chaplin's classic The Circus had topped box-office sales throughout the country, drowning all French productions. Ticket prices in Syria were not cheap, however, costing 10 US cents - a day's wages - towards the 1940s, meaning that only a certain class could go to the cinemas, while most ordinary Syrians relied for entertainment on the majestic voice of Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, who could be heard on the radio every Thursday.
By the early 1940s, most major newspapers had a cinema column and there were 40 cinemas in Syria and Lebanon, holding approximately 22,000 seats and selling 2.3 million tickets a year. Topping the charts was the remarkable novelty - motion picture cartoons, which first came to Syria via Walt Disney's 1928 black-and-white, Steamboat Willie. Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse and Tarzan did more for bilateral relations between Washington and Damascus in the 1920s and 1930s than US presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover combined.
Now, films like 2012, which walk that extra mile to promote the US, depicting a heroic African-American president who wishes to die with his people on the streets of Washington, are being freely shown in Damascus. The fact that ticket prices are at an affordable US$6.5 should help US films drum up pro-American sentiment in the Arab world, as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s during the Cold War.
Unexpectedly, the blockbuster hit this year is a Bollywood film, My Name is Khan, starring seasoned Indian actor Shahrukh Khan and the immensely capable and beautiful actress Kajol Devgan, two of the top figures in the Indian motion picture industry.
At first glance this may seem strange - an Indian film doing well in Syria and the Arab world - but a closer look reveals that one of the most successful films of all time in Syria was 1961's Jungleestaring Shammi Kappour with the hit song Suku, Suku.
Khan's film, however, is different from what most Arab audiences have experienced; it does justice to Islam and with award-winning Indian music it portrays events that are still strong in the memory, especially the younger generation. It talks about September 11, 2001, America and the aftershocks of the terrorist attacks on the Muslim community at large, both within the US and abroad.
The film starts in India where Rizwan Khan, a Muslim, lives with his mother and brother in Mumbai during Hindu-Muslim riots in the early 1980s. He suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, and is gifted with the ability to repair anything that is broken. The elder brother heads off to the US and then takes Rizwan there after their mother dies.
The young man works for his already established brother at a cosmetics company, peddling products while continuing to suffer from particular disorders, due to his autism, like breaking into a fit of nerves when he hears a loud noise, or sees the color yellow. He takes everything that is said to him at face value, and does not know how to tell a lie.
During his work he meets Mandira, a beautiful Hindu Indian hairdresser who lives with her son Samer, who is from a previous marriage. Rizwan falls in love with her and tries to impress her by cranking out the entire history of San Francisco - somewhat imitating Dustin Hoffman in 1988's classic film, Rain Man. They fall in love and because he is so good to Samer, Mandira gives her son her new husband's family name - he becomes Samer Khan.
Their fairytale life comes to an abrupt end when planes crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Suddenly, America - the land of opportunity for Khan and so many Muslims - is not so safe for Muslims, or those married to Muslims.
The family neighbor, Mark, a TV producer, travels to cover the war in Afghanistan and is killed during his work, explaining why his son, Samer Khan's best friend, suddenly stops talking to him, blaming Islam for the death of his father.
Samer is harassed day and night by friends at school, due to his color and name, and at one point finds his locker stuffed with Osama bin Laden photos. The young boy is killed in a prejudice-driven racial attack on the school football field - beaten until curtain fall by older boys - breaking the heart of both Mandira and Rizwan, who, on hearing the news, solemnly repeat verses from the Koran, "Inn Ila Allah wa Inna Ilayhi Rajioun" (We were made by God and to him we return).
In a hysteric fit, Mandira tells Rizwan to get out of her life, claiming that because of their marriage - because he is a Muslim - her son died. Innocently and due to his autism, Rizwan nods accordingly, but before leaving asks her, "When should I return Mandira?" She frantically replies, "When you tell every person in this country that you are not a terrorist. Go up to the president of the United States and tell him, 'Mr president, my name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist!'"
Taking her words at face value, the heartbroken Rizwan sets off to meet George W Bush to tell him just that, and en route gets picked up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for his funny looks, accent and for blurting the words "not a terrorist" at one presidential event attended by Bush.
Like many Arabs and Muslims who were put in similar situations, Khan is interrogated and tortured by the FBI. He is eventually released, reunited with Mandira and granted an audience with "the savior of Muslims in America", Barack Hussein Obama. Fortunes are reversed and Khan is approached by a security officer who says, "Mr Khan, the president wants to meet you!"
At every screening in Damascus, the full-house audience walks out of the Cham Cinema City complex in tears. Many weep for the lead actresses' loss of her son in the film, but at a deeper level the film touches on something inside every Arab and Muslim: a raw nerve of how unjust the world was to them after 9/11.
My Name is Khan has created a certain pride in being a devoted Muslim, as the lead character is shown in the film. He prays five times a day, as most Syrians do, uses phrases from the Koran in his daily conversation and believes that justice will prevail both in this world and the afterlife for those who uphold the Prophet Mohammad and Islam.
Many Syrians and Arabs see a mirror reflection of themselves on the screen through the life of Rizwan Khan, a simple man who leads a simple life, is devoted to his family and religion and who yet is accused of being a terrorist by the US. The fact that Rizwan Khan was actually Indian and not Arab did not really matter to Syrian viewers.
Khan literarily looked like thousands of Arabs and Muslims who were forced to dress in a funny way, speak with a different accent, change their names or take off their headscarves because of the difficult political conditions enforced upon them after 9/11. This is why My Name is Khan - rather than Louis Leterrier's epic action adventure Clash of the Titans or Martin Campbell's crime thriller Edge of Darkness- is taking over cinemas in the Arab and Muslim world.
Since the film opened worldwide this April it has grossed over US$36 million - with $300,000 in the Middle East on day one alone. By the end of the first week, the film had earned an impressive $1.75 million.