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After years of decline, the Syrian drama industry regained its momentum as productions tackled a variety of sensitive issues.
Syrian soap opera productions captured the hearts of audiences across the Arab world in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the ongoing crisis in Syria, the Syrian soap opera industry has been able to attract viewers across the Arab world. The exceptional quality of these productions and their impact on the audience are among the primary factors cited.
In the most recent Ramadan season, the Syrian soap opera industry – or the Syrian drama as they call it in Syria – addressed a diverse range of sensitive issues. In addition to offering new perspectives on Syria’s history, the industry explored the plight of Syrian refugees and the ongoing Syrian crisis.
Betting on a Comeback
Since 2011, Syria has faced challenging political, security, and economic conditions. Due to these circumstances, discussions began regarding the future of Syrian drama. Nevertheless, Al-Mayadeen channel presented an interesting statistic to counter the assertion that the Syrian drama has been declining.
According to statistics from the Lebanon-based channel, the production rate has remained comparable both before and after the crisis. The average number of produced series per year was around 25 before the crisis and 26 until 2019.
On the one hand, Syrian producers produced 203 Syrian soap opera series between 2011 and 2019. During the same period, they collaborated on 31 soap opera series with their Arab counterparts.
On the other hand, the Syrian drama industry produced a total of 274 series between 2000 and 2010, including nine joint productions. However, this observation does not imply that post-crisis productions possess comparable quality to those produced before the crisis.
The relative stability that Syria has recently been experiencing led to renewed optimism for a renaissance in Syrian drama. The 2023 television season has been particularly noteworthy, garnering acclaim from Syrian and Arab audiences and critics alike for its innovative and contemporary approach. This season’s success is credited to its nuanced and distinct depiction of historical, political, and social issues.
The season featured various stories, from folklore heroes to crime, corruption, politics, and power struggles. For instance, Al Nar Bi Al Nar explored the challenges faced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Al Zind – Thi’b Al Assi delved into farmers’ struggles on Syria’s coast during the late Ottoman rule. Ebtasem Ayoha El General broke the taboo by shedding light on the political corridors of the presidential palace in Syria.
Some series have ventured beyond their traditional Damascene mould to explore new topics. For instance, Al-Arabaji delves into Levantine historical events, while The’ab Al Lail explores a fantastical realm. Similarly, some series have transformed, breaking free from their usual conventions.
Marba Al Ezz and Zoqaq Al-Jinn are good examples of that transformation. On the one hand, Marba Al Ezz explores the economic, social and political transformations that occurred in Damascus during the final years of the Ottoman era in Syria. On the other hand, Zoqaq Al-Jinn is a police drama that tells the story of a serial killer who lives in a Damascene neighbourhood. People think that the jinn are responsible for his crimes.
Fanack conducted a survey among Syrian and non-Syrian viewers on Facebook to assess the soap opera productions presented during the Ramadan season. The survey focused on popular series, including Al Nar Bi Al Nar, Al-Zind – Thi’b Al Assi, and Ebtasem Ayoha El General. Fanack also interviewed a group of writers and filmmakers to gather insights on Syrian soap operas during the 2023 Ramadan season.
Lebanese writer Lynn Najm believes that Syrian drama is unique and has the potential to reclaim its leading Arab position. According to Najm, Syrian drama remains an essential reference for the Arab drama industry, since its old productions remain relevant and watchable after many years.
“The Syrian drama will get a new and formidable boost due to What Syria witnessed in the last decade,” added Najim, “I am betting on several actors, writers, and directors, especially the new faces.”
Palestinian blogger Mahmoud Ahmed said: “With this season’s shows, the Syrian drama industry has already emerged from its dormant state. This industry achieved a significant achievement by breaking away from the extravagant class drama. Al-Zind and Ebtasem Ayouha Al General are major milestones towards addressing modern history on the screen. Al Nar Bi Al Nar portrays the reality of living conditions.”
Many respondents believe that Syrian drama plays an important social role, serving as a means to stimulate thought and spark conversations on important issues. One respondent said: “Syrian drama has opened my mind and guided my thoughts towards many critical topics. Whether it provokes thought or emotions, this drama sheds light on important issues.”
According to another respondent, drama is a “mirror of reality.” He added: “An individual changes in one way or another through drama. Sometimes, drama can change an entire country. It is more important and impactful than we think.”
Several respondents acknowledged the Syrian drama industry’s importance and prominence in the Arab world. One participant described it as a “trailblazer”, given that it addresses critical social, religious and political topics. This boldness holds great social significance. “Syrian drama operates within a Middle Eastern context full of constraints and limitations”, said the respondent, “Despite this, it still challenges the existing state of affairs from within, fulfilling an educational and developmental role.” While this role may not always be evident in some hastily produced shows or those with a Damascene focus, the majority of Syrian dramas remain committed to fulfilling this role.
Al Nar Bi Al Nar
Al Nar Bi Al Nar addressed several sensitive political and social issues not commonly tackled in the Lebanese-Syrian soap operas. In addition to the growing racism against Syrian refugees, the show delved into the social impact of the Syrian military intervention in Lebanon following the Lebanese civil war. It also tackled the issue of the war’s missing persons whose whereabouts remain unknown, and.
Syrian writer and director Nidal Koshha believes that Al Nar Bi Al Nar documents a series of significant incidents. According to Koshha, these incidents reflect “intellectual distortions affecting the shows’ characters that are representative of society.” Koshha believes the series attempts to “present visions and solutions to life problems largely related to war, refuge, and human relationships.”
The respondents had positive feelings towards the series, because it was the first one to talk about racism, incitement to hatred, and the Syrian presence in Lebanon. In the meantime, the show sparked new debates and divisions regarding the Syrian-Lebanese relationship and the ideological divide between radical Islamists and leftists.
One respondent said: “The series provides a glimpse into the current reality. It shows how some Lebanese individuals, who do not speak for the majority, harbour racist attitudes towards Syrians.” The respondent also emphasised the need for more shows that shed light on political and social issues, helping to rectify what is wrong in society.
A significant number of Syrian and Lebanese viewers have expressed their admiration for the series, reflecting a widespread consensus. Many viewers found themselves emotionally invested in the show, feeling sympathy, anger, or even rage at certain scenes. One Syrian respondent interpreted this consensus as evidence that the racist actions of a small segment of society do not represent the views of the entire community. She hoped the series would help foster a safe and peaceful coexistence between Syrians and Lebanese.
Thanks to its depiction of a revered hero from the Al-Assi Valley, Al Zind attracted a large audience. The hero of the series, whose name is Assi, stood up against the oppressive feudal lords in the area.
The show’s popularity further increased by its characters’ use of distinct local dialects, which conveyed their sectarian and regional affiliations. For instance, Assi spoke in the Alawite dialect prevalent among region residents, while Nawras Pasha and some of his aides spoke in the Sunni dialect common in Latakia.
According to writer Ammar al-Maamoun, the prominence of the Qaf dialect throughout the series led some to label it as an “Alawite series.” This label suggests that the series adopts the regime’s narrative and mocks the Syrian revolution because the hero speaks in the Qaf dialect, and it recalls the notion of Alawite persecution or victimhood.
However, al-Maamoun argues that the series focuses on the history of the Assi River basin, not on sects, and more importantly, it has nothing to do with the Syrian coast. He also notes that ‘the horror of the Qaf dialect’ has proved its dominance, and all dialects and regions perished for the benefit of one sect in the viewers’ imagination.
In the same context, a respondent said: “This series opens up horizons for Syrian drama to address minorities and stop stereotyping them. Its significance lies in portraying and narrating a story from that region and using a dialect that viewers are not used to, except for making jokes.”
Despite some errors in the series, most respondents agreed that the story contains symbols and references relevant to our present time. One respondent said: “The slaves’ revolution is valid for all times and places. It is not exclusive to a region, dialect, or affiliation.” He emphasised that the used dialect does not distinguish a single sect but is spoken in a wide area in Syria with several sects.
Another respondent admired that the series’s visual image was influenced by several scenes from world cinema. He says the convergence of cinema and television in this series “can bring new blood to the industry.”
Ebtasem Ayouha Al General
The series has created a social and political situation among Syrians that no other show has done before. Out of fear of security persecution, the show’s viewers from inside Syria have even referred to it as “that series.”
The series revolves entirely around sensitive political issues in Syria. At the start of each episode, a disclaimer claims that any resemblance to real events is coincidental. But viewers can tell right away that the show is based on real events that took place in the al-Assad family’s inner circle.
In this regard, a respondent said: “The writer is pretty smart. Bashar Al-Assad’s era is not the only subject of the series. It goes back to when the al-Assad family took power in the 1970s. Therefore, Forat’s character was able to portray both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, while Assi’s character depicted Rifaat and Maher al-Assad.”
In terms of form and performance, respondents agreed that the series could have been much better. However, they also noted its significance in bringing attention to political realities that are often overlooked. Most respondents emphasised that Arab and specifically Syrian drama needs such shows. According to them the importance lies in digging deep into the highest level of Arabs’ political reality.
Actress Azza al-Bahra and other cast members said that the series is not a documentary of the al-Assad family’s era. Instead, it is a work of art, subject to dramatic and artistic conditions. Al-Bahra further noted that this soap opera could apply to all dictatorships.
In an interview with Fanack, director Orwa Mohammed described the series as a “groundbreaking experiment in political drama production.” He emphasised that the series is not tied to any specific political ideology but offers a critical perspective on the political reality in Syria.
In this regard, Mohammad said: “The primary objective of the series is to criticise dictatorial regimes. It is not limited to Syria alone. It depicts any oppressive regime in the region.”
According to Mohammad, the soap opera delves into Syria’s political dilemma as the show progresses, covering the father’s reign until the son establishes a new regime. The series highlights the intersections between these two periods. Mohammad notes that merging several real-life figures into one character reflects the unchanging security mindset in Syria, regardless of the individuals, names, or means involved.
Despite acknowledging criticism of the series’ technical aspects, Mohammed highlights the strength and impact of its message. He emphasises that this soap opera has successfully reached the public, sparked controversy, and raised important questions. “The series’ objective is not to provide answers, but rather to initiate meaningful discussions and critical thinking,” said the director.
According to Mohammed, the audience is eager for soap operas that challenge their preconceived notions. “Even those who initially opposed the series still tuned in,” he added.
Mohammed is optimistic that this experience will open the door for similar future productions. “We all hope to see more productions providing a comparable degree of transparency and impact in a region where all forces tend to suppress any dissent or criticism,” he concluded.