Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Rise and Fall of the Syrian Drama

Syrian Drama
Syrian actors wait to perform during the shooting of a sequence of TV series “Hamam Shami” or “Syrian Bath” in a studio in Abu Dhabi, on May 30, 2013. MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP

Nabil Mohamed

For more than a decade, precisely in the 2000s, the Syrian television business was one of the most valuable products offered by Syria and exported to several Arab countries, competing with the Egyptian television production that dominated the various Arab broadcast media for many years, and became the primary model for Arabic-speaking series.

Arab series and cinema were the equivalents of the Egyptian productions, according to the prevailing movies in various Arab countries. However, this concept changed relatively when Syria started television production in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

The abundance of Syrian drama production during the early 2000s was only the result of the accumulation of experiences and expertise in TV production during the previous decades, in which the Syrian art cadres such as producers, directors, actors and writers, produced pieces that were, undoubtedly, the ground upon which the identity of Syrian TV art was later founded on.

The Beginnings

Syrian drama production emerged during the unity between Syria and Egypt, particularly on July 23, 1960. This year, the public Syrian Television sector was founded and gradually transferred the Syrian artistic expertise working in theatre and cinema to TV. Many theatre groups were active in Damascus and Aleppo before television and even way before that. From the 1870s to the 1890s, the Syrian playwright Abu Khalil al-Qabbani produced 33 theatrical works[1].

This movement continued with other playwrights during the first decade of the 20th century and later provided TV with cadres who would be the foundation for Syrian drama. Most of the famous TV faces during the founding phase of Syrian TV were from a theatrical background, which had many troupes in Syrian cities, especially Damascus, such as the performance Ensemble[2] founded by Abdel Latif Fathi (1916-1986), who would be later known on TV for his many comic roles, the “Ittihad al-Fannaneen – Artists’ Union Troupe” that had Sabri Ayyad (1916-1969), Rafiq Subaie (1930-2017) and others, and the “Al-A’hd al-Jadeed” ensemble that included Saad Eddine Bakdons (1924-2005) and a group of artists who also played an essential role in the origins of Syrian drama.

These theatre troupes and many others later created the Syrian National Theater Troupe established in Damascus in 1959 and Radio Damascus in 1947, providing the Syrian screen with its most important figures after the establishment of the Syrian TV.

The onset of the television broadcast was an hour-and-a-half a day, transmitted from the top of Mount Qasioun in Damascus. The content at that time included some news and programs, and mainly relied on content produced by other Arab televisions. All of that, in addition to Syrian theatre works by artists who had great fame in Syria and the Arab World as Mahmoud Gabr (1935-2008), Nihad Kalai (1928-1993) and Duraid Lahham.

The first Syrian drama was a TV evening titled “Al-Ghareeb – The Stranger” in 1960, directed by Salim Kataya, who also came from a theatrical background. It starred Thara Debsi, Bassam Lotfi and Yasser Abu al-Jebin, and its theme was the Algerian revolution.

The 1960s can be considered the Syrian television production launch point. Several works gained local and Arab fame, starting with “Al-Ajaza al-Sa’eedah” in 1960 by Khaldoun al-Maleh (1938-2016), starring Duraid Lahham, Nihad Kalai and Mahmoud Jabr. To show a group of names that took the first steps of the Syrian drama, the most famous of them in directing were Khaldoun al-Maleh, Aladdin Kokash (1942-2020), Salim Kataya, Faisal al-Yasiri and Muhammad Shaheen (1931-2004).

In acting, theatre stars continued to lead the small screen from Abdel Latif Fathi to Duraid Lahham, Hani al-Romani (1939-2010), Shaker Barikhan (1926-2007), Salwa Saeed (1935-2000), Thana Debsy, Najah Hafeez (1941-2017) and others.

[1]  The Evolution of the TV Scenario in Syria – Imad Naddaf (General Book Authority 2020)

[2]  Syrian Theater in One Hundred years – Farhan Bulbul (Syrian Ministry of Culture)

Drama: Public Sector

Syrian Drama
Syrian artist Rashid Assaf (C-L) is seen on the filming set of television series “Tawq al-Banat” in the village of Yaafur, some 20kilometres (12 miles) west of Damascus on May 14,2017. Syria, along with Egypt, is known as a hub for television and film production in the Middle East, and the country’s war is having a major impact on its output.
Louai Beshara / AFP

The founding of Syrian TV marked a qualitative leap in the quantity and quality of Syrian artistic production in general. But on the other hand, it focused production in the public sector, meaning that the state became primarily responsible for production after the private sector dominated film and theatre production.

However, since the unity between Syria and Egypt was formed, the trend towards nationalisation commenced, and production was restricted to the state, culminating in establishing the National Theatre, the Syrian Television, and later on the National Organisation for Cinema in 1963.

The control of the public sector began to change the production quality, reduce commercial production and further intensify the production of works with a political and social orientation, in line with the general national political direction, which in turn opened the door for historical works. This also limited the production of comedies that were relatively dominant in the period preceding the 1960s.

In the 1970s, TV drama production experienced developments in more than one context. The first was setting the editing department of the Syrian TV in 1977[3], then the onset of coloured production in the same year. Among the most prominent television works in that period were “Haret al-Qasr” in 1970, directed by Aladdin Kokash, starring Hani al-Romani (1939-2010), Youssef Hanna (1941-1993), Salim Kallas (1936-2013), Maha al-Saleh (1954-2008) and others.

Then the series “Zokak al-Maylah” in 1972 was directed by Shakib Ghannam (1937-1993), starring Muna Wassef and Hala Shawkat (1930-2007), Osama al-Romani, Adnan Barakat (1935-2000), Issam Abaji (1941-2014) and others.

In this decade, the Syrian television production started to be more diversified, where the historical drama was introduced through the series “Intiqam al-Zabaa” in 1974 directed by Ghassan Jabri (1933-2019), fantasy production through “Dalilah wa al-Zeibaq” 1976, a joint Jordanian-Syrian production directed by Shakib Ghannam, and Bedouin drama through “Ras Ghlais” in 1975, the first Syrian series to be filmed in a desert, directed by Aladdin Kokash. In contrast, the comedies began to considerably recede.

TV production development in the late 1970s was offset by a decline in theatrical and film productions, in line with the public sector’s control over production, and the Baath Party’s ascendence to power in Syria in 1970, which gradually and clearly placed restrictions on private production, and consequently, it began to recede for the benefit of the public sector in all art productions.

About 70 television works, between drama and series, were produced in Syria during the 1970s. This number increased in the 1980s with remarkable development in production tools and partnerships with Arab televisions and studios with more substantial expertise in production. Subsequently, some works began to create a starting point for new forms of production that were consecrated during the subsequent decades, and some of them are still continuing to this very day.

In the 1980s, new directors joined TV production, some of which graduated from art academies abroad. They brought along several new ideas and techniques for them to utilise in the production of the Syrian series. In addition to the first directors who started in the 1960s and 1970s, the screen began to display the works of Muhammad Ferdous Atassi (1942- 2021), who started working in the late 1970s, Hisham Sharbatji and Haitham Haqqi.

The series “Maraya” started to air in 1982, which later became one of the Syrian drama classics and devoted a new form of production, based on comedy sketches, which humorously discusses social and humanitarian issues. Actor Yasser al-Azma presented four seasons of his series in the 1980s: “Maraya 82 – Maraya 84 – Maraya 86 – Maraya 88”, all of which were directed by Hisham Sharbatji.

The 1990s: the New Style

Syrian Drama
Syrian actor Bassam Kusa gestures on the red carpet upon his arrival to attend the closing ceremony of the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival in the Emirati capital on October 22, 2010. KARIM SAHIB / AFP

The 1990s can be considered the actual take-off of modern Syrian drama. What was delivered during this decade was a leap in terms of form and content; as tools developed, new directors joined the production process, and money was invested in large productions compared to what Syria had produced in previous decades. In this particular decade, Syrian drama has become closer to the audience, and some works have become a subject for daily conversation for people, and the reflection of the drama on society was evident in various fields.

In 1990, the first season of the series “Abu Kamel” was produced by Aladdin Kokash, starring Asaad Fadda, Wafaa Moussalli, Malak Sukkar, Hani al-Romani, Maha al-Saleh, Abbas al-Nouri and Salloum Haddad. The series can be considered the first television work to stimulate the traditional Levantine environment, later becoming an independent form of television production and a trademark for Syrian drama. There are conflicting opinions about the role of this dramatic style and its historical significance in the context of Syrian television production. The second season aired in 1993 and was produced by the Syrian TV alone after the first season was produced in partnership with Dubai TV.

Also, in the 1990s, private Syrian production companies engaged in television works, which encouraged private production and changed the production equation, making TV production a successful investment as long as it attracts the right amount of viewership.

“Higrat al-Qulub Ila al-Qulub” is a series aired in 1991 in Syria and the United Arab Emirates, and it was a joint production between the two countries. It was considered the first integrated epic historical work, directed by Haitham Haqqi and starring a group of stars, most of whom were in the “Abu Kamel” series less than a year ago.

Syrian companies such as Al-Sayyar, Al-Faisal, Al-Shira’a, Al-Sham International, Saad and Al-Fayha’ competed to produce social, police and historical works. With this, television production boomed. Every year of the 1990s came along with several works that gained a broad audience in the country, where owning a TV set became relatively affordable after it was limited to certain classes inhabiting major cities.

In 1992, Bassam al-Mulla directed the series “Ayam Shamiya”, which will be a starting point for the director to specialise in this type of work, and then produce a group of works that take place in the environment of the old Damascus, leading to his production of the series “Bab al-Hara“, which continues with brand new seasons aired to this day, to become the most famous Syrian drama of all time.

 

Syrian Drama
Picture shows Syrian actor Alaa al-Deen Kawkash who was honored along with 24 artists at the University of Damascus during the 7th annual Artists Day 25 September 2000. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

In 1994, Najdat Ismail Anzour directed the historical fantasy series “Al Jawareh” produced by the Dubai Art Centre. The series entered every home in Syria and even went beyond the country’s borders. It was said that Damascus was on curfew when it aired, as the audience was very attached to it. This series was also a threshold for fantasy works in which Anzour specialised in large part along with other directors.

“Al-Jawareh” marked the beginning of fantasy, in which Anzour specialised in large part, and later directed several works such as “Al-Fawares” and “Al-Kawasir”, then “Al-Mawt Al-Kadem Ela Al-Sharq” in 1997, which gained a wide audience, because the political messages it carried in that time was symbolic and attractive.

But Anzour himself also, later on, turned to historical works. He directed several series that also gained great fame in the 1990s, most notably “Ekhwat al-Turab” in its 1996 and 1998 seasons. It was preceded by “Nehayat Ragol Shojaa'” in 1994, based on the Syrian novelist Hanna Mina (1924-2018) novel. It gained a sizeable Arab audience at that time.

Contemporary history drama also began to surface both clearly and discreetly in the 1990s, with the series “Hammam al-Qishani” 1994, directed by Hani al-Romani for more than four seasons, through which he tried to narrate the history of Syria during the French occupation and the subsequent formation of political party forces and the struggle for power in Syria.

The series was the first of several contemporary historical works that were aired later. One of the most significant of which, was also in the 1990s, the series “Khan al-Harir” in its 1996 and 1997 seasons. It discussed the economic and political movement in Aleppo before, during and after the unity with Egypt, which simulated reality for many analysts and critics.

Most contemporary historical works were accused of adopting the Syrian political regime’s version of history, the Baath Party’s way of recounting its events, presenting its characters, and drawing lessons from it.

Comedy also made great strides during the 1990s, and its pioneer was director Hisham Sharbatji, who continued the 1991 series “Maraya”, to be later completed by other directors after him. He directed other works considered among the best in the comedy-drama, including “Aai’lah Khamas Nojom” in 1993 and followed by three other seasons, “Mozakkerat Modeer A’am” in 1995, “Yawmiat Jamil wa Hanaa” in 1997, and “Batal Haza al-Zaman” in 1999.

Regarding social drama, the series “Al-Fosool al-Arbaa” made a breakthrough in depicting the Syrians’ daily life. The first season was produced in 1999 and was directed by Hatem Ali (1962-2020), who will later go on to become the most famous Syrian director in social and historical works after this series. Al-Fosool al-Arbaa’ also simulated the life of the middle class in Damascus, a class that continued to be the central theme for Hatem’s later social works.

The Production Revolution

Syrian Drama
Lebanese actress and singer Myriam Fares arrives with Syrian director Hatem Ali to a special screening of their new film “Silina” at a movie theatre in the Egyptian capital Cairo late on May 13, 2009. AMR AHMAD / AFP

The early 2000s are considered to be the most crucial stages that the Syrian drama has gone through. It spread all across the Arab market to strongly compete wherever it aired. All Arab channels had at least one Syrian series per year. Furthermore, some of these channels have directed works in Syria and formed partnerships with Syrian companies, especially the Arab Gulf TVs known for their financial and production capabilities.

During these years, all the components of the Syrian drama were developed, from building characters to writing more professional scripts, all the way to giving the music a more critical role, which eventually turned some of these theme music pieces into separate works of art. Due to production abundance, opportunities were provided for new directors and actors to be part of this industry and contribute to its flourishment. Also, new production companies started to work after the private sector dominated the Syrian drama.

When mentioning the various types of drama in Syria, the best examples can be found in the 2000s, chiefly the historical drama whose godfather was the late director Hatem Ali. He directed the late writer Mamdouh Adwan (1941-2004) script into the series “Al-Zeir Salem” in 2000. The Arab satellite channels are still re-broadcasting it to this day, as it left a significant impact and gained a mass audience that no other Syrian series ever had before.

This series encouraged its director to engage in other historical works that also gained great fame, as he presented the history of the Arabs in Andalusia, in cooperation with the writer Walid Saif, through three series, namely “Saqr Quraish” in 2002, then “Rabei’ Kortobah” in 2003, then “Muluk Al-Tawa’if” in 2005.

Hatem Ali turned towards the history of the Palestinian cause on television through his famous piece “Al-Taghreba al-Falastenya” in 2004. Ali also turned to historical biography works, such as “Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi” in 2001 and “Al-Malek Farouk” in 2007, which was the fruit of a Syrian-Egyptian partnership.

Hatem Ali was the distinguishing mark in Syrian television drama during the 2000s, through historical and social works. He presented many series, the most famous of which was “Ahlam Kabeerah” in 2004, “Assi Addami” in 2005, and “Ala Tool al-Ayam” in 2006. These works were considered a qualitative development in social drama compared to productions before 2000. They seemed to evidently simulate reality, touch daily life, and observe the signs of the disintegration of the middle class in Syria.

These outstanding features were apparent in several other television works that became famous during this decade, including “Al-Intezar” in 2006 by director Laith Hijo. He was part of a group of several young directors whose star shone at that stage. They previously worked as assistant directors with Hatem Ali and Haitham Haqi and then directed significant works.

Comedy-drama during this decade experienced a qualitative development. The foundations laid by Yasser Al-Azma through “Maraya” in the previous two decades were developed with the continuation of new versions of it and the new works such as “Spotlight”, the first two seasons of which were directed by Laith Hijo, to constitute a developed Syrian taste in comedy. This model combines humour and the daily life of the Syrians, and it continues producing new seasons of the series to this day, with an evident decline in quality.

Laith Hijo continued his comedy through other works. His masterpiece “Dayaa Dayaa” was immortalised in the Syrian memory. He produced two seasons of the series in 2006 and 2008. Many critics considered it a new stage in Syrian comedy, and that he made the characters Asaad Kharshouf and Goda Abu Khamis, played by the stars of the series Bassem Yakhour and Nedal Sejari, into a duo that resembles Ghawar al-Tousha and Hosni al-Borzan (Duraid Lahham and Nihad Kalai), the most famous comedy duo in the history of Syrian art.

In the Levantine environment drama, dozens of works were produced, the most famous of which was “Bab al-Hara”, whose first season was aired in 2006 and has continued to this day, where the 12th season of it is being produced, a work that gained great Arab fame, especially in its first season.

The Syrian drama production has developed quantitatively and qualitatively and produced about 40 series each year during the 2000s. Still, all of that would undoubtedly collide with what would happen in Syria after 2011.

The Fall

Syrian Drama
Veteran Syrian actress Mona Wasef speaks to attendees during a ceremony honouring her organized by the country’s Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts at its headquarters in Damascus on January 4, 2022.
LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

With the beginning of the popular movement in 2011, and the situation in Syria quickly worsening, leading later on to the outbreak of war across the country, the Syrian drama had to be one of the sectors that would subsequently experience a severe decline, affected by everything, from the economic boycott and sanctions, to the emigration of industry professionals, and indeed the increasingly tightening grip of the Syrian regime on production in general.

The Syrian dramas that became famous after 2011 were rare, even the series directed by the best Syrian directors did not gain fame or popularity. Be it Haitham Haqi, Hatem Ali, Laith Hijo or other great Syrian directors, it can be said that what they delivered after 2011 was their flimsiest and least popular among all of their portfolios of achievements.

The Syrian crews searched for producers abroad, some of which settled and did not return to Syria under the pressure of economic crises or because of their political stance. While production inside Syria became poor and commercially ineffective, and after the private sector had the upper hand, the public sector returned and attempted to revitalise television production without success, so that today’s most substantial Syrian works are the ones produced from partnerships with Egypt or Lebanon or those adopted by Gulf televisions.

Still, even these works lacked the Syrian artistic identity consolidated during the first decade of the millennium.

In comedy, “Spotlight” continued, and Yasser al-Azma presented two seasons of “Maraya” in 2011 and 2013, but they were weak and unsuccessful. The new seasons of “Bab al-Hara” witnessed the transformation of drama production into a commercial commodity in its producers’ hands. Its characters were killed off when no agreement could be reached between the producer and the former stars, and new characters were created as new faces replaced the old.

Syrian television drama dominated Syria’s cultural and artistic features for more than three decades. Despite the popularity, it was at the expense of other arts, such as cinema and theatre, which remained hostage to the mood and financing of the public sector.

Drama must have won the satisfaction of the Syrian political regime since it was displayed everywhere in Syria, as it has consolidated ready-made arts at home and abolished the arts of collective attendance and the operatic state of cinema, theatre and houses of culture.

Also, with all the realism that the Syrian drama showed, and all the boldness of some series, especially comedies, it got stuck at a particular barrier that it could not manage to cross, the barrier of the supreme authority that could have prevented everything with the stroke of a pen.

Countless are the drama works either banned from filming or airing by the dictate of the political decisions that have the final say as to what the Syrians will watch on TV.