Arab media truly needs to be reformed. When Syrian youth took to the streets in 2011, many TV channels and newspapers showed willingness to intervene in the newly emerging political scene. Instead of expanding its coverage to include the voices of Syrians from all linguistic, political, social, cultural and religious backgrounds, they delivered a polarising message, allowing sectarianism to flirt with politics. Encountering this loss, however, I wondered why our media always runs after the people who highlight social and political issues within the context of sectarianism.
I began to consult the archives, hoping to find some historical explanation. When examining the media methods, tools, rituals and ethics, which our region knew before the emergence of the nation state system, I became amazed with the messages of pluralism, creative thinking and free speech which the space of the coffeehouse mediated.
"They delivered a polarising message, allowing sectarianism to flirt with politics"For those who believe that the long-cherished sectarian polarisation in our society is bound to cast its own shadow on the work of Arab media, I propose to them that this has not always been the case in a region where coffeehouses encouraged people to seek entertainment and also discuss political and social concerns without necessarily pushing them into the dangerous scene of sectarianism.
In 1597, an Englishman, George Manwaring, described how the coffeehouse of Aleppo reminded him of the sociable and friendly atmosphere of the English tavern. “As in England,” Manwaring wrote, “we use to go the tavern, to pass away the time in friendly meeting, so they have very fair houses, where this coffee is sold”.
Manwaring did not mention that the people in the coffeehouse asked about one’s culture, nationality or religion before deciding to socialise with him. The coffeehouse was a space where the individual found a pluralistic culture, as well as a medium of entertainment.
Donald Campbell, a Briton who lived in Aleppo in 1783, mentioned how the storyteller in the coffeehouse suddenly steps off the stage and disappears. Here the people in the coffeehouse begin debating the conclusion of the story: “the buzz grows loud, and soon increased onto clamour”, Campbell noted. People are given the choice to respond to the story in their different ways. Entertainment and sociability in the coffeehouse were far from being checked by religious or sectarian rhetoric.
Campbell mentioned how the storyteller in the coffeehouse was an entertainer but at the same time a social and political commentator. Just like with unbalanced and biased media reports, Campbell recalled realising how the tradition of oral storytelling in coffeehouses breeds violence, excessive passion and irrationality.
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In Arabian coffeehouses, there is no “common sense”, Campbell added. But his friend, a Frenchman whom he met in Aleppo, guided Campbell into a better way of understanding this local tradition. “You must know,” the Frenchman proposed, “that he to whom you took to be a madman, is one of the most celebrated composers and tellers of stories in Asia”. The story that Campbell heard was about a man named Cassem, “whose misery and avarice are represented in it as bringing him into a variety of scrapes, which waste his wealth”.
Cassem was not satisfied with what his fortune brought him. He sought to enrich himself by all possible means. The storyteller mentioned how Cassem bribed the Cadi (the judge) so that the latter may freeze the rule of law. Here Campbell marvelled at the entertaining and educational value of storytelling. He was fascinated with how storytellers critiqued corruption. The coffeehouse did not host court jesters or religious preachers. Rather it was keen to employ social and political reformers.
The shadow show in the coffee house was another educational tool. The inhabitants of Greater Syria knew the main heroes of this show by the name of Karagoz and Hacivat. The Frenchman informed Campbell that Karagoz is “the champion of Freedom” in this part of the world.
The figure “Kara-Ghuse had from time to time created a great deal of uneasiness, not only to private offending individuals, but also to the magistracy itself,” the Frenchman noted, “that no offender, however entrenched behind power, or enshrined in rank, could escape him”.
The storyteller was an entertainer but at the same time a social and political commentatorOrdinary people in Aleppo respect him “(as we venerate the liberty of the press) as a bolder teller of truth, who with little mischief does a great deal of good, and often rouses the lethargic public mind to a sense of public dangers and injuries”.
Rousing public spirit against the corruption of the elites becomes the main job of Karagos. All this was pure politics. Karagoz did not mind whether the person and official who violated public liberty was a Muslim (Sunni-Shia) or Christian.
Campbell and his French friend recalled how Europeans must learn from this medium. “If Master Kara-ghuse was to take such liberties in France, Spain, Portugal, or Germany,” the Frenchman suggested, “all his wit and honesty would not save him from punishment”. In Aleppo, however, he speaks against corruption with full confidence because he is protected and supported by the people, not the leaders of the sects.
The call for liberty and justice occurred in this public sphere, the coffeehouse, where people felt that their causes were responsibly represented. This is what we miss these days in our media. Recalling the story of the coffeehouse, therefore, could be a thought-experiment on how our rich past can guide us into a moment of change. This story may encourage us to seek to challenge the rhetoric of sectarianism in Arab media.
A version of this article appeared in The Outpost.