Christa Salamandra, Lehman College, City University of New York
Over the past decade, Syria has developed a television drama industry rivaling that of Egypt, long the center of Arab media production. With the spread of satellite technologies and the proliferation of Arabic language satellite stations, Syrian dramatic miniseries, musalsalat, reach ever-widening audiences throughout the Arab world and in numerous diasporic communities beyond. The industry has become powerful and prominent, and its products increasingly technically refined. An average of thirty, thirty- episode Syrian series now air each Ramadan—the prime Arab broadcast season—in what industry figures have dubbed al-fawrah al-dramiyyah, “outpouring of drama” (Dick, in press). With this expansion, television drama has become the contemporary Syrian cultural form par excellence. But for many television makers, this success reflects the steep cost of economic liberalization, a process rife with bittersweet consequences. My fieldwork among Damascus-based TV makers examines the processes of liberalization, regionalization and Islamization from the point of view of Syria’s largely secular artistic and intellectual community.
Syrian television has become a key symbol of national culture, transforming both the way Syrians see themselves in relation to other Arabs, and their image in the Middle East and beyond. Syrian historical series are taken so seriously as to produce diplomatic tensions. For instance, the Turkish government took issue with references to the Armenian genocide in Najdat Ismael Anzour’s Brothers of the Earth of 1996. More recently, American officials lobbied complaints about the perceived anti-Semitism of 2003’s The Diaspora. Most dramatically, the US managed to persuade Qatar State Television to suspend broadcast of the Road to Kabul, a Syrian-Jordanian co-production, after eight episodes. The Americans feared the series’ sympathetic depiction of mujahadeen fighting the Soviets would attract new recruits to the Iraqi insurgency (Dick, 2006).
The Syrian television industry parallels and reflects the transformations Syria’s deBa’thification process is producing. Throughout most of its history, Syrian television was state-owned as well as state controlled; its employees uniformly low in status and relatively impoverished. A move toward economic liberalization in 1991 opened the door to a mushrooming of private production companies. Syrian television now attracts, and to varying degrees employs, writers, directors, photographers, visual artists, designers, composers, musicians and actors, from various sectarian, regional and class backgrounds. The emergence of a star system has produced increasing social fragmentation, as some have become wealthy and famous, and many more struggle.
The television industry encompasses entire local intellectual and artistic communities, and situates them in a growing pan-Arab regional market where numerous, well-financed, private and state-owned satellite stations buy Syrian productions. Industry discourses reflect the dilemmas facing Syria’s artists and intellectuals, whose world has widened. Syrian television is increasingly transnational, but must operate within the confines of a state whose attitude towards the medium remains ambivalent. Sometimes the state embraces TV as an emblem of Syrian national culture, or a safety valve for oppositional voices. At others it tightens the reigns on television’s potential subversion. Usually, television drama appears a low priority on the state’s agenda. While government censorship persists, public sector involvement in other aspects of production shrinks. Syrian state television produces an occasional low-budget musalsal, and also buys some privately produced series. But it is the Gulf Cooperation Council satellite television stations, both private and public, that finance and purchase the bulk of Syrian programming. Producers argue that a lack of state regulation exposes them to the capriciousness of Gulf business practice. While Egypt’s foreign ministry has taken upon itself the role of distributor, marketing packages of series to Gulf channels, the Syrian state has left its TV makers to fend for themselves in a competitive market. As one scenarist argues: “We have become like vegetable peddlers, selling series out of sacks on our backs as if they were potatoes.”
A sense of disenfranchisement permeates the industry. Syrian TV makers are aware of-–indeed perhaps exaggerate—the power of their medium to transform Syrian society, and often see themselves at the vanguard of a modernizing process. They feel that GCC domination of the market has usurped this important role. Elitist assumptions about mass culture persist in the absence of ratings or formal channels for viewer feedback. TV producers see Arab audiences as unsophisticated and impressionable. Viewers, they believe, will absorb and conform to television’s messages. Industry figures argue that the potential for promoting progressive political or social agendas has actually decreased with regionalization. As a pioneer director put it, “in the old days, we were poor, but our art was our own. We produced work that we felt was good for Syria. Now we have become like merchandise, slaves to a bunch of Bedouin who have no appreciation for our urban civilization.”
Even if TV makers were able to “say” what they liked, the current media cacophony would likely drown out their voices. As viewer choice widens, social and political impact narrows. Increased drama production and expanded satellite access have obliterated the annual media sensations that once both united the national audience in the act of viewing and responding. In place of the singular Ramadan television event of the early 1990’s are some thirty Syrian musalsalat, aired on numerous terrestrial and Arab satellite stations, both private and public. One informant recently calculated that a viewer would have to spend ten hours a day watching TV during Ramadan to get an accurate sense of the drama series on offer.
Drama, once the centerpiece of Arab television production, no longer dominates the primetime, in Ramadan or the rest of the broadcast year. The musalsal, perhaps the oldest local genre, and the one Syria arguably dominates, now cohabits a televisual torrent of game shows and reality TV from Lebanon, and the news-as-entertainment debate shows offered by Al-Jazeera and its many competitors. A resurgent Egyptian television drama industry, recovered from a slump during late 1990s, adds its own numerous muslasalat to the Ramadan mix.
Funding exigencies and foreign competition have not curtailed experimentation, as Syrian series encompass a broad range of styles, genres, settings, and topics. Production has become increasingly sophisticated. As budgets swell technical standards soar. In the mid 1990s Syrian directors moved their cameras outdoors; land and cityscapes distinguish Syrian dramas from their studio-filmed Egyptian counterparts. Yet amid the “outpouring”, two dominant themes emerge: an exploration of local resistance against foreign occupation and evocations of Imperial Islam. Najdat Ismail Anzour’s stylistically groundbreaking 1993 adaptation of Hanna Mina’s novel End of a Brave Man, featured the struggle of costal villagers against French Mandate forces, and his Brothers of the Earth depicted the uprising against the Turks in southern Syria. Folkloric touches such as the distinctive white embroidery-trimmed shawls featured in End of a Brave Man touched many viewers who left the countryside in the massive urbanization process of the late 20th century. But cities dominate center stage in Syrian TV dramas. Damascus of the early nationalist period—late Ottoman and French Mandate—provides the setting for numerous recent dramas, notably the works of Damascene director Bassam al-Malla. In Damascene Days (Ayyam Shamiyyah) of 1993, Bygone Days (al-Khawali) of 2001 Salhiyyah Nights (Layali Salhiyyah) of 2004, and The Quarter Gate (Bab al-Harah) of 2006, al-Malla married themes of local authenticity and resistance to Ottoman Turkish occupation. Affectionately-draw caricatures of everyday life—barber, baker, quilt maker and hummus-seller—with humorously exaggerated Damascene accents, become slices of the everyday life of old. The works of screenwriter Fouad Sharbaji, such as Abu Kamel, Part 2 of 1994 and The Midwife (al-Daya) of 2003 depict the Damascenes’ struggle against the French, emphasizing politics rather than folklore. Such series may have been intended as nation building celebrations of community united against oppression; yet they often provoked fierce discursive battles among both producers and viewers. Perceived inaccuracies, and depictions of collaboration with the Ottomans and the French, angered many. Others took issue with allegedly sanitized depictions of the city, its past and its people.
Series set in the golden ages of Islamic empire are replacing treatments of the more recent, more sensitive, and more local, Syrian past. Biopics of heroic figures such as Saladin and Omar al-Khayyam, and historical epics depicting the Ummayad and Abbassid eras seem designed for pan-Arab audiences. Islamic Spain—Andalusia—forms a significant subset of these, notably in the works of director Hatem ‘Ali. Big-budget dramas, such as Cordoba Spring (Rubi’ Qurtuba) 2003, Hawk of the Quraysh (Saqr Quraysh) 2002, Zaman al-Wasl (Time of Joining) 2002, Petty Kingdoms (Muluk al-Tawa’if) 2005, and Murabitun al-Andalus (about the Murabitun Dynasty) 2005, combine elaborate period sets, luxurious costumes, and extra-filled battle scenes with themes of good and evil, Muslim community against foreign enemy. Ambiguous references to contemporary politics and society encoded in these distant historical narratives can be ignored by censors and denied by producers. They avoid the social complexities of the contemporary world, gliding past conservative GCC censors, and appealing to GCC buyers.
Many industry “have nots”, those who either refuse to join or were left out of the most lucrative projects, argue that Golden Age themes pander to two dreaded enemies: the Syrian regime, and the Islamist movements. Themselves largely secular Muslims, Syrian cultural producers argue that heroic biopics work to bolster these two seemingly opposed forces, both united by non-urban orientations. They accuse big-budget epic producers of selling out to what critics Mazen Bilal and Najib Nusair call “prevailing values in the societies of the oil states” (1999:8). Claims of compromise become part of the competitive fray among cultural producers, reflecting a “poetics of accusation,” a mode of sociability common among elite groups in Syria (Salamandra 2004: 147). A director argues:
These works reviving the glories of the past amount to indirect support for the Islamists. The project is to make money, but the results play into the hands of the Islamists: look to the past, look to our own values, which should be revived. Their major crime is that they glorify the past, falsify the present, and ignore the future. This trend goes along with the Arab regimes. Tribal relations and values are promoted. Islam provides a framework for this: “obey those who are leading you”. It promotes regressive social values. This is all very much blessed by the people in charge, who want everything to remain as it is. This is why we see that there is no effort to deal with the actual lives of people. This is society as expressed by the ruling system, not society as it really is.
An earlier version of this posting appears as “La télévision á l’heure de feuilleton” in
La Syrie au présent: Reflects d’une société, Baudoiun Dupret, Zuhair Ghazzal, Youssef Courbage and Muhammed al-Dbiyat, eds. Paris: Actes Sud, 2007, pp. 469-475.
- Bilal, Mazen and Najeeb Nusair. 1999. al-Drama al-Tarikhiyyah al-Suriyyah: Hilm Nihiyat al-‘Asr (Syrian Historical Drama: The Dream of the End of an Era). Damascus: Dar al-Sham.
- Dick, Marlin. 2006. “The State of the Musalsal: Arab Televsion Drama and the Politics of the Satellite Era”, Transnational Broadcasting Journal, 15.
- Salamandra, Christa. 2004. A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.