Syrians tune in the West

Times Staff Writer

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."

Still, authorities closely monitor the media here for political provocations. Radio stations hand tape recordings of broadcasts to the Ministry of Information after they've aired. But as long as they avoid talking about religion or politics and keep the discussion upbeat, they seem to be on safe ground.

"Even the news we give is always positive," says Honey, rushing in and out of the studio to chat during commercial breaks.

"Never anything negative!" she exclaims, with a bubbly laugh that is her signature. "If they want negative, they can go to Al Jazeera."

Honey was named after a French model her parents fancied. She has long brown hair and a permanent smile, swaying to the music with her hand in the air. Born to Syrian parents, she grew up in Kuwait and studied in Lebanon and Egypt before settling in Damascus six years ago. In February, she spoke at a Washington think-tank forum sponsored by the Rand Corp. about media in the Middle East.

"What's not fair is that the flow of information is one-way," she says she told forum attendees. "You know Syria politically. But we know your music, we know your clothes, we know your movies, we know when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah Winfrey's chair when he was in love with what's-her-name."

Her show welcomes the unexpected. Once, a fan visiting from Lebanon called in and told Honey he was standing outside the radio station. Employees invited him inside where he spoke live on the air.

Not exactly Howard Stern, but innovative by Syrian standards.

"We go crazy on the air," Honey declares.

At first the Syrian cultural establishment frowned on all of it. "There were a lot of magazine articles saying, 'What do they think they're doing?' " Honey says. "But we underestimate people a lot. They just want a choice."

On air, Honey speaks English in a slow, succinct staccato, to make it easier for Syrians with minimal English skills to pick up words.

"A magnificent morning, Libra," she says, her voice bounding with joy, before warning, "But be careful! Your eyes are bigger than your wallet."

Her unrestrained laugh is even used for promos. "A guy called me up and said he wished he could make my laugh his ring tone," Honey says, before rushing back into the studio.

Phone calls and text messages roll in nonstop. A man who works at a coffee shop calls. Then a teen from the provinces. She wants to hear a song by Nancy Ajram, the Arab world's current mega-darling. She tells Honey she loves her.

"Guys call in and say, 'My wife isn't speaking to me, Honey. She says she won't speak to me unless you tell her to,' " Honey says during another break. "I'm like a sister or a best friend to them."

A text message commands, "Play 'In Da Club,' " one of 50 Cent's raunchier numbers.

Deejay Abdullah sneers incredulously: "In the morning?"

He spends his time between songs fiddling with a computer mouse, dragging and dropping photographs of pop stars onto the folders filled with MP3 versions of their songs. He works four CD players, three flat-screen monitors and a bank of equalizers.

"I studied chemistry," says the black-clad deejay. "But I loved music more than anything else."

He spins a Rihanna remix. "I gotta get my body moving, shake the stress away," she sings. "Please don't stop the music."

Outside the third-floor studio, crowded and smoggy Damascus hurtles forth. A jittery taxi driver gropes in his pocket for change. An engineering student on a bus clutches her books to her chest. A harried civil service employee behind the wheel of a Russian sedan peers out at traffic from behind tinted eyeglasses.

The music surrounds it all, blaring from cars and tinny radios of the old marketplace.

"Please don't stop the music," Rihanna pleads. "Please don't stop the music."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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