The Multicultural Power of Soap Operas
It's hard to say whether soap operas can influence geopolitical opinion, but a Brazilian telenovela called "El Clon" (the clone) is leaving Latin America wide-eyed and drop-jawed for all things Arab.
The show, a primetime miniseries produced by the Brazilian network O Globo, began in January. It is broadcast all over Latin America and in the United States via the Florida-based, Spanish-language channel Telemundo.
The show follows Jade, a young Brazilian Muslim, who returns to her mother's homeland of Morocco and must learn to live in a different world. Soon she falls in love with Lucas, a Brazilian traveling with his twin brother, Diogo, and must deal with the cultural consequences. When Diogo is tragically killed, a mad scientist masterminds his dream experiment with Lucas' cells, thus creating "El Clon."
On a recent trip to Ecuador, I encountered "El Clon" in nearly every living room, from those of the wealthy elite to the poorest campesino. Its followers watch religiously.
Filmed on location in Rio and Morocco, the show features extraordinary costumes and scenes in homes, medinas, discotheques and in the streets. An upper-class businesswoman friend who watches "El Clon" every night gushed about the "gorgeous dresses and jewels" of the Moroccan women. Another viewer said her favorite parts are those filmed in Morocco. "It makes me want to go there," she said.
Arab-Latin connections, of course, are nothing new. The Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century, and much of the Spanish language derives from Arabic. The Spanish conquest brought aspects of Moorish culture to Latin America, and in more recent times the Arab migration to the region has continued. In the late-1800s, for example, large numbers of Lebanese Christians migrated to Ecuador, where they worked their way up from street peddlers to successful businesspeople and politicians. (Two of Ecuador's last four presidents were of Lebanese descent.)
Now, it seems, there is a resurgence of interest in all things Arab in Ecuador. When I lived in Quito five years ago, Middle Eastern restaurants spotted the newer part of the city. But now, in La Mariscal, Quito's "zona roja," shewerma stands are on a corner nearly every block, and late on weekends you can smell the sweet smoke of hooka pipes.
In Latin America, where countries have been forced to submit to the political and economic decisions of the United States for decades, the new fascination with Arabia comes at a time when there are new reasons for anti-American sentiment.
In Ecuador, a country that now uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, many people I speak to express a sense of frustration related to what they call a pervasive U.S. "dominion." American popular culture flows into Ecuador on a daily basis via MTV, film, fashion magazines and e-mail "chats", and is willingly embraced by many Ecuadorians. But an anti-American sentiment also exists. Che Guevara's face, that symbol of Latin American autonomy, appears on many a T-shirt. Scribbles of graffiti throughout the country proclaim "Yankees go home!" and "Dollarization = starvation."
Most Ecuadorians told me dollarization -- the process spreading in Latin America by which U.S. dollars replace domestic money in various functions -- has hurt them more than it has helped. The cost of goods in Ecuador has skyrocketed while wages have fallen. Economists and politicians claim such hardships will ease once the country adjusts to the changes. But it's been two and a half years since the switch.
"Dollarization took away this country's power," Jose Yungan, director of communications for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), says. "Now we have no sovereign economy."
Ecuadorian and Latin American responses to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were sympathetic and humane. But for many in the region, the subsequent U.S. military actions in Afghanistan recalled the U.S. support for sides in Central American wars in the 1970s and '80s. And now, the Bush administration's plans for war with Iraq have most of my Ecuadorian friends raising their eyebrows and voicing strong disapproval.
How does the transatlantic sci-fi love story fit into all of this? Soap operas are highly dramatized, fictional accounts of life, but it is possible that "El Clon" represents a tie that binds. As loyal viewer Miriam Gonzalez says, "We Latins are very emotional, and any sympathy toward this previously unknown and misunderstood place could influence our political opinions."
"El Clon's" following surely won't produce a new sect of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in Latin America. But its popularity is revealing the power of primetime television, intercultural romance and the unstoppable exposure to each other's lives across the globe.
PNS contributor Kimi Eisele (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the managing editor of 110 Degrees, a magazine about urban culture produced by teenagers.