Syrian musalsalat in 2012: failed “tanfis” projects


Picture from “Spotlight 9”, 

Al Jazeera English website has just published my analysis of this year`s 9th season of renowned Syrian drama Buqa’t al-Daw (Spotlight) which aired in 2001 for the first time, breaking taboos as corruption and gender issues. After more than 10 years of broadcast, here is where it got..

Syrian TV drama provides ineffective release valve
Taboo-breaking TV show once seen as harbinger of political reform looks old-fashioned today in light of the uprising.

“Sir, sir! A man just exploded in the city centre!”, a shocked security officer tells his incredulous boss. The scene is featured in episode two, season nine of Buqa’t al-Daw (Spotlight), a Syrian TV drama (musalsal) aired this Ramadan.Buqa’t al-Daw is widely deemed a taboo-breaking drama. In 2001, when it first came out as a media expression of the short-lived political opening after Bashar al-Assad seized power, its satirical sketches touched many sensitive topics related to the country’s politics and society. Issues like corruption, religious extremism, and gender-related problems would migrate from current affairs to be discussed in the satirical sketches of the musalsal in its unique dark-comedy style.

But this new season doesn’t aim at lampooning the al-Qaeda style explosions that, according to Syria TV, are afflicting the country as a result of a foreign conspiracy; neither at mocking people who set themselves on fire in sign of protests against unemployment and lack of dignity in Arab countries, something Arabs have become familiar with after Mohamed Bouazizi’s martyrdom.

“People are simply self-exploding” is the weird conclusion reached by the security officer featured in this second episode of Buqa’t al-Daw season 9. Looking for a solution, the main character goes to visit a sort of mad scientist. “My son,” he tells him, “these days, citizens of the third world have to bear too many pressures… unemployment, poverty, corruption… decades after decades, new generations are simply imploding, that’s why they start to self-explode.” But, the scientist says: “Smart governments have a solution called ‘tanfis’ (letting out air)!”

Every Syrian is familiar with the word tanfis, a safety valve allowing people to vent frustrations and relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action. Tanfis has widely been associated with the practice of allowing free press, dissident art and a culture of defiance to manifest through theatre, music and literature. Many Syrian TV series dealing with taboo issues like Buqa’t al-Daw itself have been labelled as tanfis on citizens, allowing them to breathe – and laugh – within certain permitted margins.

But this season of Buqa’t al-Dawtakes a step further and suggests a better solution rather than dissident art and freedom of expression. “These are old methods of tanfis,” the scientist tells the incredulous security officer. The brand new solution he proposes to adopt is a device that, once plugged into the citizen’s body, will provide him with a sort of relief, letting out all pressures and making him love society again.

The submissive and obsequious citizens featured in this ninth season of Buqa’t al-Daw recall another episode from the same musalsal which was broadcast in 2010, less than a year before the Syrian uprising started. Al-sirr (The Secret) featured Syrian officials explaining representatives of foreign powers how Syria successfully manages its economy through the complicity of its citizens. Since everybody has to bribe to get whatever service, a sort of parallel economy is created, based on a corrupted system perpetrated by each individual. Through comedy and laughter the musalsalreminds Syrian citizens that they are all part of this system and complicit with it. Corruption can be denounced and individuals can be removed, but resisting the system which generates it is useless, since everybody is partly responsible. Every citizen is a gear of this mechanism and contributes to its survival; as the system’s survival is intertwined with each individual’s personal survival.The episode goes on showing how the device has been installed in gas stations and public places so as to prevent citizens from self-exploding. In the last scene of the musalsal, citizens even pay to access the device’s services and get some sort of relief from their daily troubles; lately, they seem to go on happily.

But, after two years, with the unfolding of the uprising and the dramatic changes it brought within Syrian society, the lesson that Buqa’t al-Daw reminds to Syrian citizens that it might not work anymore. In its attempts to stay updated with the current events, Syrian TV drama like Buqa’t al-Daw looks incredibly old-fashioned. In a sketch called Al-sha’b yurid (The people want), probably an attempt to mock the street’s main motto of the 2011 Arab revolutions, themusalsal shows how people only seek minor reforms – like a better street maintenance – which they are not even able to accomplish; the main character dies of an heart attack, too scared by the security services while trying to explain them that he was officially asked by the municipality to write the slogan on the city walls.

In an episode named Eid Wahda (One hand) after another popular slogan of the Arab uprisings, which reminds us people’s unity against regimes, the protagonist seeks to convince others to act all together and stay united; he eventually discovers, in the day of his death, that he has been totally left alone by society.

Portraying society as a disoriented mob, which needs guidance and a progressive leadership to overcome its backwardness, is a common practice in tanwiri (englightned) Syrian TV dramas, many of which have high production values, good acting, compelling plots, and have been successful on a Pan Arab level, too.

When Bashar al-Assad seized power, in 2001, this enlightening process pushed by progressive media was accompanied by the promise of political reforms made by a young, seemingly reform-minded new leader. But in 2012, after 17 months of bloody crackdown on Syrian society’s demands to get genuine political reforms and not only taboo-breaking TV drama, it is very unlikely that tanwiri musalsalat like Buqa’t al-Daw will succeed even in making Syrians laugh by reminding them that every citizen is a partner in the (failed) political system.

Syrians and the “surplus” of Syrian drama

Ramadan started few days ago, and this is a very different one this year. Over the past years I`ve tried to report as much as I could about the most interesting TV drama productions in the Region and to discuss important issues related to musalsalat industry in the Arab world (financing, advertising etc). But this year is different. And even for professional media analysts it`s still very hard to watch Ramadan musalsalat without thinking of the events unfolding in the Region, particularly in Syria.

These days Ramadan is celebrated all across the world and Damascus, the hub of Syrian TV fiction production -and my second home, too-, is witnessing clashes in the streets, bombing, shelling.

While watching the Syrian musalsalat production for 2012 -which I will try to review in a later post-  I can`t help going back with my memory to an episode of comedic musalsal Buqa`t al-Daw (Spotlight), the famous Syrian TV drama which sprouted from the very brief opening of the Damascus Spring 2000-2001. Everybody, at the time, had strong hopes that the country would go under serious reforms, both economic and political. The Damascus Spring was soon over but the musalsal went on, for many seasons (it has now reached its 9th).

The episode I would like to tell you about is called Al-sirr (The secret) and was part of Spotlight`s season 7 (aired two years ago, in 2010, before the uprising started). 

A meeting is held between Syrian officials and representatives of foreign countries from the five continents in order to exchange experiences in managing a country`s economy. The foreigners are very interested to learn how Syria can manage its economy so well. Syrian officials are keen on explaining their secret which lies in the “excess value”, “surplus” (qyma za`da). A scene features a citizen who has to submit documents to a public official. The official cost of this operation is 50 Syrian Pound but the citizen pays 950 Syrian Pound in excess (qyma za`da), in order to have the public employee speeding up his documentation.

In the following scene a mazot seller meets up with a citizen shivering for the cold. The mazot is sold above its real price, so the excess value which was paid in the former scene has been re-gained. This is the shared chain (silsila mushtaraka) that lies at the basis of economic circulation in Syria. Syrian officials that are featured in the musalsal proudly explain that this “secret” (the title of the musalsal episode is al sirr, the secret) finally secures economic balance, as everybody pays the qyma za`da in order to get services, while the state pays nothing.

The musalsal concludes that the production of state economy (intaj al iqtisaad al-dawla) is based on what the citizens produce (intaj al muwatin): this process triggers a virtuous circle where the citizen, even if only paid 200 dollars monthly, will make profit at someone else`s expenses, and the latter will do the same, until the chain will be complete. Within this informal economy a citizen can earn even 10 times more his official salary, without being a burden for the state.

Through comedy and laughter, the musalsal reminds citizens that they are all part of the system and complicit with it. Corruption can be denounced and individuals can be removed, but resisting the system that generates that corruption is useless, since everybody is part of it. Every citizen is a gear of this mechanism and contributes to its survival; as the system`s survival is intertwined with personal survival.

This is how Syrian citizens have been constantly reminded, as audiences of tanwiri (enlightened) inspired media content like Spotlight and many other Syrian “neo-realist” musalsalat, to be culpable of perpetrating the social diseases that afflict Syrian society. 

How different it is to watch al sirr right now, in 2012..

Syrian people have become aware that denouncing corruption was a trick perpetrated by the system itself, helped by seemingly progressive media content. Let`s not forget that the production company who has been producing Spotlight for 9 years, Syrian Art Production International, is owned by Mohamed Hamsho, former Syrian MP and involved in different business deals with the Assad`s family.

Encouraging laughter over social and political problems was a way to relief Syrian citizens but also to remind them that any form of resistance was impossible, as they were complicit with the corrupted system and its rotten mechanisms. If there is an already accomplished result of the 2011 Syrian uprising, it is that Syrians have clearly refused these accusations to be a gear of the corrupted system. They have refused to be assimilated to it as its natural component. They have said no to corruption as a  part of their daily lives and their society`s life.  

Syrians won`t be laughing again.

Drawing freedom on Syria`s walls- a tribute to “spray man” Nour Hatem Zahra

Yesterday it was the last time  “spray man” Nour Hatem Zahra could draw freedom on Syria`s wall.

picture from Facebook group Freedom Graffiti Week

The graffiti artist, a member of the peaceful resistance movement in Damascus, was killed. He was buried today in Kafer Sousah, in Damascus. Syrian activist Hamaecho took these pictures at his funeral.

Graffiti and wall paintings have played an important role in communicating peaceful opposition to the Syrian regime.

Back in March 2012, Adnan Zaray –a musalsalat (TV series) writer who first dealt with the “spray men” (Rajul al bakhakh) movement in well-known 2001 musalsal “Buqa`t daw” (Spotlight)— was  arrested in Rukn ad-din, a suburb of Damascus.

For the first time on Syrian TV, the episode written by Zaray featured the so-called “rajul al bakhakh“, the “spray men” who use the city`s walls to spread political messages.

10 years later, TV fiction has turned into reality. The Syrian revolution-related messages  spread by “spray men” like Nour Hatem Zahra on Syria`s walls were probably less acceptable than those appearing in the safe, controlled media space of TV series.

Graffiti have been largely used in Syria as a tool of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance. Last week a peaceful anti-regime graffiti campaign appeared on Syrian cities` walls and on the virtual alleys of Facebook.

Today the same Facebook page is populated with graffiti that have been drawn on Damascus` walls as a tribute to  Nour Hatem Zahra .

Juan Zero, a popular Syrian cartoonist, has dedicated his last work to this courageous “spray man” who died for imagining freedom. A bullet hits him while he is painting the word “hurryia”, freedom, on his country`s walls.

Dramas of the Authoritarian State

This article is an excerpt from my thesis (and from a chapter I`m gonna publish soon in a forthcoming book on Syria). It was published yesterday on MERIP website. 

I want to dedicate this to all Syrian people who are suffering and waiting for justice cause they`ve never been treated as citizens.

Dramas of the Authoritarian State

by Donatella Della Ratta | published February 2012

During August of 2011, which corresponded with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, viewers of the state-run satellite channel Syrian TV might have stumbled upon quite a strange scene: A man watches as a crowd chants “Hurriyya, hurriyya!” This slogan — “Freedom, freedom!” — is a familiar rallying cry of the various Arab uprisings. It was heard in Syrian cities, including Damascus, when protesters first hit the streets there on March 15, 2011. But it was odd, to say the least, to hear the phrase in a Syrian government-sponsored broadcast. Until that moment, state TV had not screened any such evidence of peaceful demonstrations in Syria.

The scene goes on to show the same bystander ordering policemen to shoot at the protesters. Immediately afterwards, he seems to regret his order, muttering: “Maybe I should have….” At this point it becomes clear that this scene is no news bulletin or user-generated YouTube clip documenting an actual protest. Rather, it comes from amusalsal (pl. musalsalat), as the 30-episode miniseries that accompany Ramadan in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere are known. The grand finale of this musalsalFawq al-Saqf (Above the Ceiling), features the two main characters overlooking a desolate landscape. “What happened to this country?” asks one. “I am responsible for this. I knew it was going to happen…but, in the end, precaution cannot stave off destiny.” The other character replies by repeating the phrase: “Thank God, around us and not on top of us.”

Without a Trace

The credits attribute the paternity of Fawq al-Saqf to the Radio and TV Production Organization, a unit inside Syrian TV launched in 2010 with a mission to employ a “private-company mindset” in churning out dramas, according to Diana Jabbour, the former director. Over the past decade, demand for Syrian musalsalat has increased across the Arab world, with Syrian producers now clocking in right after the historically dominant Egyptians in the quantity of hours provided to the Gulf-owned networks that sit atop the pan-Arab market. The bulk of the Syrian supply comes from private producers, and the Organization, which enjoys financial autonomy and the authority to form public-private partnerships, was intended to represent the new face of government involvement in Syrian TV drama.

Fawq al-Saqf was one of the first productions commissioned by the agency. Its episodes were authored by screenwriters who had worked on Buq‘at Daw’ (Spotlight), a comedic musalsal that was considered among the most daring in Syrian history, airing in 2001 at the tail end of the “Damascus spring,” the short-lived political opening after the accession of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency. The director of Fawq al-Saqf, Samir Barqawi, is a promising young talent who is not openly aligned with the regime. The serial thus had all the components of what many Syrians would call tanfis (blowing off steam), or what Lisa Wedeen has described well as a means of allowing people “to vent frustrations and displace or relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action.” [1] Fawq al-Saqfcould also have been an example of “commissioned criticism,” “an official and paradoxical project to create a democratic façade” in a period of unrest by featuring a level of dissent in official media. [2]

Neither of these classifications is persuasive, however. Had the musalsal been tanfis or “commissioned criticism,” the official media would have advertised it heavily, to say the least. But no promo spots for Fawq al-Saqf aired on the state-run channels. The daily program “Drama 2011,” which helps viewers navigate the crowded Ramadan schedule, did not even mention it. And though it is customary for Ramadan serials to be rebroadcast in later months, Fawq al-Saqf was never put back on the schedule. Even prominent dramatists who were asked about it seemed unaware of its existence. The only outside station to mention the musalsal was the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel al-‘Arabiyya, which featured it once on the daily “Drama Ramadan” program. Then the musalsal was stopped at its fifteenth episode, before the end of Ramadan, with no reason given. It simply disappeared from TV screens without a trace.

After Ramadan ended, in September, the topic of Fawq al-Saqf came up at a seminar at the University of Copenhagen. Adib Kheir, owner of the production company Sama Art Production, dismissed it as a “silly project that was done without any planning, testing or pre-testing.” Kheir belongs to a group of Syrian producers who view TV drama as a commodity: His business relies on such products as Turkish serials dubbed into Syrian dialect, which are highly popular in the pan-Arab market. From his strictly commercial perspective, Fawq al-Saqf was simply a failure.

Sotto Voce

Fawq al-Saqf grew out of a proposal offered by Sami Moubayed during a meeting held at the presidential palace in the spring of 2011, according to the head of censorship at the Radio and TV Production Organization, Mahir ‘Azzam. [3]Moubayed teaches political science at the private Kalamoon University in Damascus and is editor-in-chief of Forward, a monthly magazine from the influential Haykal media group, which promotes the idea of a progressive, liberal Syria under the Asad family’s leadership. He is a personal friend of Bouthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Asad’s media adviser, who delivered the first official response of the state to the Syrian uprising. Moubayed’s articles on the uprising — some of which appear in American outlets like the Huffington Post — give a sense of his skill in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the presidential palace`s seemingly reformist project. [4] In a piece called “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” he acknowledges that Syrians like Saadallah Wannous and Muhammad al-Maghout were given leeway to produce meaningful art “under the watchful eye of the government, hoping that their plays or poems would ‘defuse’ public discontent.” But he consigns such arrangements to the past, and does not list Bashar al-Asad’s Syria among the countries that are facing uprisings today. He seems, furthermore, to endorse the regime’s narrative that the enemy in Syria is political Islam: He muses that the politically engaged literary works he cites will seem outdated “to a rising Arab generation that will emerge after the Arab spring, perhaps five to ten years from now. One day, they will definitely see the light, yet again, where need for them rearises, perhaps when the Islamists coming to power today turn into another Husni Mubarak or another Qaddafi.” [5]

According to ‘Azzam, Moubayed’s pitch for Fawq al-Saqf started with a simple question: “How can we resolve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way?” The Forward editor went on to describe his concept for the musalsal as a “third view that does not embrace the regime’s view or the street’s…something that the regime would not feel as a provocation when watching it, but would not anger the street or encourage people to demonstrate after the broadcast.” The presidential palace seemed to like the idea, for the Organization (where ‘Azzam heads the censorship division) was told to take the project under its wing.

Fawq al-Saqf can thus be said to exemplify a mechanism linking cultural producers to different components of the Syrian regime, one that I call the “whisper strategy.” [6] It is an example of Michel Foucault’s strategies without a strategist, a sotto voce conversation whereby priorities are negotiated and commonalities established over the content of cultural production. The metaphor of the whisper suggests a relationship based not on coercion or clashing cultural paradigms but rather on Max Weber’s “elective affinities,” a nexus of shared beliefs, interests and concerns. The ideological common ground occupied by regime and many cultural producers is a belief in the backwardness of Syrian society, which ostensibly can progress only through an enlightening (tanwiri) process led by benevolent minority rulers. When discussing their media projects, cultural producers very often mention the “culpability of society” in its own backwardness and the need to reform it through tanwiri media projects. “Drama has to criticize society,” stressed Syrian screenwriter Najeeb Nseir to a Dunya TV interviewer on October 19, 2010. Thanks to the “whisper strategy,” everyone, from dramatists to state censors, is aware of and agrees upon the specific issues to be tackled in TV drama and media productions in general.

In the case of Fawq al-Saqf, Moubayed seems to have initiated the whispering in the interest of a reformist project: National dialogue is presented as a solution to the Syrian crisis, but the dialogue is to be conducted under the regime’s auspices and its boundaries are to be fixed from the top down, in cooperation with cultural elites.

This thinking informs the title of the musalsalAbove the Ceiling, which seems to promise a national dialogue without “red lines” or upper bounds. The “ceiling” metaphor is often reiterated by Bashar al-Asad — including in the interview he gave to Syrian TV on August 21, 2011 — to suggest that media outlets already enjoy a high degree of freedom in the country, but do not exploit it. The metaphor is ambiguous, as it specifies neither who is entitled to set the standards of freedom nor where their margins lie. Asad implies that the media impose a “ceiling” upon themselves, but does not point to where this ceiling is, meaning that the media do not dare push against it. It is precisely this ambiguity that matches up with the enlightenment project of cultural elites, by definition a small group, who are deemed to have the necessary discernment to keep raising the ceiling in accordance with the times and the political opportunity. The tanwiri project should always look fair, transparent and reform-minded to the audience. As Fawq al-Saqf director Barqawi stressed in an interview: “We nurtured a form of civilized dialogue. We don’t have to present works that please one side at the expense of the other…. My goal is to invite the viewer, whatever his political orientation, to see himself and the other in the series.” [7]

The Regime Wants…

The power centers inside the regime — the presidential palace, the different branches of secret police (mukhabarat), the various ministries — are not entirely homogeneous in outlook. They communicate, of course, but they are also capable of miscommunications, misfires and changes of opinion. It sometimes occurs that one power center pushes forward a political project that contradicts the prerogatives of another, or even that one power center supports multiple, simultaneous, mutually contradictory projects. Despite its exceptional backdrop, the 2011 uprising, Fawq al-Saqf reveals a dynamic that is routine rather than exceptional: namely, the interference of several regime components in the making of TV drama, with each power center pursuing its own agenda, or more than one agenda, at the same time.

It is instructive here to flash back to 2001, the first full year of Bashar al-Asad’s presidency and the inaugural season of Spotlight. Touted by the official press as breaking taboos, Spotlight dealt with such sensitive topics as corruption and the abuses of the mukhabarat. It initially enjoyed the open support of Bashar al-Asad himself, lending credence to the ambient hopes at the time that the new president was indeed reform-minded. “Spotlight was born in the atmosphere of the ‘Damascus spring’ and is the direct expression of Bashar al-Asad’s first phase,” says its director, Laith Hajjo. But the serial nonetheless ran afoul of the Viewing Committee at Syrian TV and its episodes were partly redacted before going on the air. “Eighty percent of Spotlight was shot this way,” said Adib Kheir at the Copenhagen seminar. “Somebody gives his blessing for a project, then it goes into production and the troubles begin.” It was only following the palace’s direct intervention that the musalsal was finally broadcast. Some of its sketches were indeed bold. Former vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was reportedly livid after one mocking episode seemed to discourage foreign investment. [8] But Khaddam did not succeed in stopping Spotlight from being aired, as the presidential palace held the balance of power at the time, and placed a priority on presenting a reformist face.

Fawq al-Saqf lacked the protective atmosphere of the “Damascus spring,” however, and its problems with the censor began even earlier than its broadcast, starting with the very title of the production. Originally, the serial was to be called al-Sha‘b Yurid… (The People Want…), part one of the anti-regime couplet then echoing in Arab capital after Arab capital. That was vetoed. The Viewing Committee was reported to have rejected several episodes as well, only to reverse itself when the palace interceded with authorization. While the serial was being broadcast, ‘Azzam recounts, “different parties” lodged complaints and “other official corners,” namely the security services, placed personal phone calls to Syrian TV personnel in order to exert pressure for cancellation. Fawq al-Saqf had become a big headache for the channel, which first dropped the promo spots and then made the decision to halt the broadcasts. Ma‘an Haydar, director-general of Syrian TV, cited non-completion of taping as the reason for stopping the serial, promising to rebroadcast every episode once they were all ready. [9] “The reaction of the palace was silence, which basically meant agreement to interrupt the broadcast,” says ‘Azzam.

At the time that Fawq al-Saqf aired, the balance of power had probably shifted to the intelligence services and the palace’s tanwiri project yielded to the security-first mindset. Or, perhaps better, the palace itself had placed thetanwiri project on hold in order to facilitate the security project in a period of unrest.

The state-run media outlets are stuck in the middle of these intra-regime battles, unwilling or unable to take responsibility for what they are airing, and compelled to abide by different and sometimes contradictory orders. Syrian TV officials initially chose the low-profile approach of declining to promote or advertise the musalsal so as not to be read as supporting one faction of the regime over another. In a situation so slippery, the eventual decision to postpone the musalsal was the only way not to anger anyone, as outright cancellation might conceivably have done. In the end, however, postponement was akin to cancellation.

Personal Interventions

The shift in the balance of power among the power centers of the Syrian regime is apparent as well in the different fates of two TV dramas produced in 2010 and 2011 by the same director, the well-known Najdat Anzour. In 2010, Anzour penned Ma Malakat Aymanukum (Those Whom Your Right Hand Possesses), a musalsal that treats Islam in contemporary Syria. The script condemns religious extremism, as manifested in suicide bombings or violence against women, and exalts the freedom, tolerance and self-determination to be found in piety when properly understood. This approach is in keeping with the regime’s long-time advocacy of secular politics in order to protect Syria’s religious minorities while at the same time proving itself religious enough not to offend the country’s conservative Sunni majority. Here again, cultural production and official discourse converge in a tanwiri project. Ma Malakat Aymanukum’s script passed through the initial stages of state approval.

But then, prior to broadcast, the viewing committee sent it to the Ministry of Information for further examination. One of the points of contention was the serial’s title, taken from a Qur’anic verse that might be read to suggest male ownership of women. The phrase “ma malakat aymanukum” appears in the Qur’an 14 times, and generally refers to slaves. The sura from which the title is taken prohibits sexual intercourse with married women, except “those whom your right hand possesses.” Given the delicacy of the matter, the Ministry of Information, which normally has the final word, decided to ask the advice of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, another power broker was reportedly very annoyed by the serial — Muhammad Hamsho, a businessman close to Bashar’s brother Mahir, commander of the Fourth Armored Division that is the core of the security forces. Ma Malakat Aymanukum features a corrupt entrepreneur who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hamsho, down to details like running for election and opening a TV production business. Anzour has never explicitly named Hamsho as an opponent of his series, speaking merely of “people with interests” and “people bothered by the musalsal.” In any case, while the Ministry of Religious Endowments was reviewing the file, a veto of the broadcast of the musalsal from prominent Sunni scholar Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti forced Syrian TV to pull it off the Ramadan grid, just one day before the scheduled premiere. Disappointed, Anzour says he “made the president aware of the issue.”

The former minister of culture, Riyad Na‘san Agha, affirms that he lobbied for the musalsal, adding that “the president himself intervened in favor of it,” too. Anzour also lays emphasis upon the positive role played by Bashar al-Asad: “When I attended the meeting with artists and producers, he mentioned the musalsal three times and said, ‘Had I not personally intervened, the musalsal would have been gone.’ He used exactly that expression: ‘Had I not personally intervened.’”

Yet the president certainly did not do the same for Anzour’s 2011 TV drama offering, ChiffonChiffon revolves around several portraits of teenage boys and girls wrestling with questions about sex and drugs. It features a scene where a girl protagonist, who dresses in stereotypically masculine ways and lives among men, walks toward the very conservative Sunni mosque of Abu Nour, surrounded by veiled women.

In 2010, al-Buti was forced to accept the broadcast of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, which he had previously rejected as religiously offensive. On April 5, 2011, with the uprising well underway, he renewed his attack on the miniseries in an interview with Syrian TV, attributing the spreading unrest to Anzour’s musalsal. Shortly after this episode, and in response to a call from Syrian actors and directors for humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Dar‘a, known as “the milk statement,” Anzour appeared at the forefront of producers who signed a counter-petition calling for boycotting the protesting artists in TV drama. “There was never any shortage of food or milk,” he said. “It was a political statement. The authorities were dealing with armed terrorist groups.” [10] Anzour’s blatant rush to toe the official line might have been payback for Bashar’s intervention in 2010 or a genuine commitment to the president’s political project. In any case, Chiffon was not broadcast in Ramadan 2011. Anzour has excused the cancellation as a decision taken in the “national interest.” But the incident reveals the continuous shifts of alliances within the regime. Under the palace’s auspices, al-Buti had launched an Islamic religious channel, Nour. In a time of unrest, when the security project had become a top priority, the regime probably needed the Sunni scholar’s support much more than that of secular cultural elites.

No Longer Torn

The relationship binding these cultural producers to the Syrian regime is quite different from what miriam cooke has described regarding a previous generation of Syrian intellectuals, who were torn between the desire to criticize the regime and the obligation to compromise with it. This generation negotiated what later became forms of “commissioned criticism.” The intellectuals cooke deals with — writers like Saadallah Wannous, Muhammad al-Maghout and Mamdouh ‘Adwan — saw themselves as engaged in a continuous struggle to widen the red lines around permissible discourse. The cultural producers involved in whispering with the state, on the other hand, are committed to dialogue with power and tend to deny the existence of censorship. Instead, they rather speak about the necessity of “artistic evaluation” of their scripts.

Unlike cooke’s intellectuals, these TV dramatists do not hide their relations with the regime power centers, but show them off. They back the regime’s cultural project of treating the social pathologies — corruption, gender inequality, religious extremism, illiteracy — that make up its alleged “backwardness.” “Religious and social control are our real problems and at the origin of our backwardness,” says Laith Hajjo. “Drama can help to solve this.” The noble-soundingtanwiri label helps these screenwriters and producers to merge their work with the regime’s own awareness campaigns, by means of the well-placed whisper. “I would say I have a tanwiri mission,” asserts Nseir. “My works don’t aim to put a mirror in front of the society. I want them to discuss issues that are dealt with in my musalsalatand to progress through this discussion. I don’t want to describe; I want to provoke debates and drive social change.” The drama makers are thus not so much complicit as they are comfortable with the powers that be.

Pleasure and comfort — derived from the social status and financial privileges the new generation of Syrian cultural producers are granted — mark the relationship between them and the various power centers inside the regime. These features have in effect replaced the agreement upon “unbelief” that, as described by Lisa Wedeen, bound politics together with cultural reproduction under Hafiz al-Asad. In the Hafiz al-Asad era, cultural producers did not believe the patent propaganda they cranked out; rather, they forged a tacit pact with the regime whereby they acted “as if” they believed it. These “shared conditions of unbelief,” according to Wedeen, “actually reproduce[d] the conditions of obedience under Asad.” [11] In neoliberal Syria, where TV drama makers live in greater material comfort, the regime and its allied cultural producers are closer to stakeholders in a common investment project whereby they both define what is good and advisable for Syrian society. That society, in turn, is never addressed as made up of citizens or consumers, but is rather imagined as a backward majority that should be ruled and disciplined through practices of enlightenment accessible to a select few.


[1] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University o Chicago Press, 1999), p. 88.
[2] miriam cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 72.
[3] ‘Azzam was interviewed by journalist and former censorship committee member Ibrahim al-Jabin, who related ‘Azzam’s remarks at the September 2011 University of Copenhagen seminar. Unless otherwise noted, all other persons quoted in this article were interviewed by the author.
[4] See, for example, Sami Moubayed, “The Road to Syrian Democracy,” Huffington Post, June 23, 2011.
[5] Sami Moubayed, “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” Huffington Post, December 8, 2011.
[6] Donatella Della Ratta, “The ‘Whisper Strategy’: How Syrian Drama Makers Shape Television Fiction in the Context of Authoritarianism and Commodification,” in Leif Stenberg and Christa Salamandra, eds., Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Culture, Religion and Society (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).
[7] ‘Aks al-Sayr, August 26, 2011.
[8] Marlin Dick, “Syria Under the Spotlight,” Arab Media and Society 3 (Fall 2007).
[9] Ibid.
[10] The National (Abu Dhabi), July 23, 2011.
[11] Wedeen, p. 92.




The roof of perfection and Syrian drama

To somebody who`s not used to Syrian TV drama and its “extravagances”, “Fawq as-saqf” (Above the roof) will look like a total surprise and a bit surreal,too, particularly in the current circumstances.

Every day, the images which open the musalsal show protesters staging demonstrations, Syrian flags and people asking for freedom. Every single day it is aired (musalsalat are daily fictions of about 45 minutes per episode that, during the holy month of Ramadan, go on air each day for a total of 28-30 episodes), “Fawq as-saqf” sketches show stories related to people aiming at staging anti-government demonstrations, or trying to escape censorship and control from the moukhabarat (secret service), or having to face the dilemma of “to show or not to shoot” at protesters.

To somebody who`s not used to watch Syrian drama this would certainly seem as an act of bravery and a media miracle happening, particularly if you consider that the musalsal is produced and aired by Syria state TV.

Episode number 2 is particularly interesting to this respect. It tells two parallel stories that at the end of the episode would eventually converge in a surreal grand finale.

The first character appears in many different situations: at the beginning of the episode, he lights a cigarette while walking and, despite seeing an hole where he would eventually fall into, he keeps walking. “Precaution does not prevent destiny” , he comments. In another scene the same character appears as  a taxi driver who remembers not to have fasten his safety belt and starts considering the bad consequences of this irresponsible act. Instead of fastening the seat belt indeed, he keeps considering how stupid it is not to fasten it and eventually jumps into a policeman. Eventually, everything he was thinking that could happen finally happens. But, khalas, “precaution does not prevent destiny”, he thinks.

On parallel, we see another character who is selling fruits and, all of a sudden, a vase of flowers falls from above but does not hurt him. Hamdullilah, he says, “around us and not on us”.

The same character is sitting in his living room eating when a thief comes and takes all the relevant objects that are around him, then runs away. The character, who did not make a single move during the all action, finally comments: “Thank God, around us and not on us!”

But perhaps the most surreal situation is when he is sitting at the cafe` playing backgammon with a friend and the secret police comes into and takes everybody, except him, who quietly smokes his narghile waiting for everything to be over. His final comment is, again: “Thank God, around us and not on us”.

On parallel, we see the first character finally taking the decision to sign some documents. He ventually orders to open fire on a crowd that we can hear shouting “Hurryia, hurryia” (Freedom, Fredoom). The scene is kind of surreal, especially if we think of all the You Tube videos we have seen coming out of Syria and all the people who died and are dying during the demonstrations while screaming similar things. But, khalas, he says, while thinking that “maybe I should have..”..and then concludes “precaution does not prevent destiny”.

Perhaps the most surreal scene is the grand finale, when the two characters meet up while everything is destroyed and burning.

“What happened to this country?”, says one. “I am responsible for this, I knew this was going to happen, but at the end precaution does not prevent destiny”. The other one keeps repeating “thank God, around us and not on us”, while it is clear that “around us” everything has been destroyed.

At the end of the episode, the symbolism of the two characters becomes evident even in the names they call each other with, one related to  being chosen and the other related to being aware of something. Free will and freedom of choice seem to be here at the core of the musalsal, but the message is very ambiguous, as it could be read in different ways, both supporting the “protesters”` or the government point of views.

I think the musalsal is actually addressed to those who have not taken any side yet: the “silent majority” which is the core of the Syrian population and, at the moment is those who remain silent at home, neither  joining the protests or  the pro-regime chorus. These people who have not sided yet are the core target of “Sawq as-saqf”, or at least of this episode…Those who don`t like the aggressive propaganda made by private TV Dunya and not even the state TV way of addressing issues too directly. It is clear that, among this “silent majority”, there are sophisticated people, educated people who will probably better understand the soft and ambiguous style of “Sawq as-saqf” rather than a more direct message .

At the end of the day, the message directed to these people who are still sitting at home and not taking any side, is: “do something for your country, you can avoid now destroying it by acting fast”. But it remains unclear which action the musalsal suggests to take,  if a pro or an anti government side. Here lies the ambiguity of the musalsal, which, in my opinion, only suggest to take a side without suggesting which one.

Even this ambiguity and this surreal and soft style would eventually look at odds with Syrian state TV editorial line and, more generally speaking, state propaganda which is  much more assertive and direct.

But, for somebody who has been following the evolution of Syrian TV drama, this is not big news. Syrian musalsalat have always been blessed as the only media product in the country where criticism and taboo-breaking are widely tolerated, allowed and sometime even encouraged.

Scholars Lisa Wedeen and Miriam Cooke refer to this as “tanfis”, a sort of “commissioned criticism” , a safety valve  that allows the audience to breath and brings some sort of temporary relief, while at the same time  keeps maintaining the status-quo. Many of the taboo-breaking Syrian musalsalat have worked this way, tackling “red lines” issues as government corruption, relations between Islam and religious minorities, terrorism and extremism, etc. And now, even the protests and the unrest  in the country.

Thinking about who has commissioned the musalsal and aired it -state TV, under the supervision of Firas Dahni who is a long time well known and respected employee of Syrian TV- “Fawq as-saqf” looks  responding to this “tanfis” logic. But, although being aired daily by state TV, no mention of the musalsal is made in the daily Ramadan Drama program aired by Syrian TV, where the musalsalat schedule is repeated in order for the audience to know which channels (among the state owned Syrian Drama, Syrian Satellite TV and the two terrestrial channels) broadcast what. After weeks of intensive “zapping” between one channel and another to locate the most important Ramadan productions, I was not able to find it and the only place I`m able to watch it is online, through the much blessed 4Arabz website. It looks as Syrian TV is not advertising the musalsal at all, and nobody among my Syrian friends working in this industry was aware of it. Which kind of means that, if the original aim of “Fawq as-saqf” was to convince the “silent majority” to take a side in the current situation, it has  failed. The “silent majority” is in fact most probably watching something else, much  better marketed and positioned in the crowded Ramadan satellite grids.

“Fawq as-saqt” looks to me as a nice, interesting to study, completely useless product (from the Syrian audience perspective). It may serve well our speculation and academic researches but I`m not sure how much it can deal with Syrians watching it on the screen (or not watching it) during the current circumstances.

Since the musalsal is not advertised at all, and almost nobody in the Syrian industry or audience is aware of it, I must conclude that, instead of being a “tanfis” or a “call on duty” thing, “Fawq as-saqf” is rather one of the last jewel of the Syrian media rhetoric. The metaphor of the “roof” (saqf) has been recalled many times by President Bashar al Asad by meaning the high degree of freedom which is given to Syrian musalsalat, Syrian media and Syrian people themselves and which, in many cases, is not been seized by any of them. It is as if, even having such an high degree of freedom to talk and deal with taboo issues, Syrian citizens would not be able to understand what it means or enjoy it. It is as if self-censorship would be stronger than state censorship. At the end of the day, the regime discourse is clear: “freedom (as reforms, etc) is there, it is YOU (being a Syrian artist, intellectual or citizen) who is not able to use it and enjoy it”.

The title of the musalsal suits perfectly with this metaphor: “above the roof”, as to say that this goes even further, much higher than the usual “roof” of freedom. Indeed, this is  something that  still looks as a  regime gift, while the citizen is not even able to reach such a degree of openness. He lacks the knowledge, the education and the tools.

Listening to Bashar al Aasad`s speech yesterday, I was struck by the metaphor of the “roof” being reiterated. Again, Syrian President has used the “roof” as a something closely related to the  media and the objectivity they should aim at.

The roof is the parameter of perfection to be reached, the perfect freedom, the perfect objectivity, the perfect state.  But only the regime seems to know where this roof is and how this ideal of perfection could and should be pursued, while citizens remain clueless in front of something which looks unknowable.

Discussing the analysis of media production in Syria: musalsalat and news websites

Thanks to the interest and the kind invitation of Yves Gonzalez-Quijano on the 26th of January the French Institute of Damascus IFPO is hosting the seminar “Discussing the analysis of media production in Syria: TV drama and news websites“.

I am going to present my PHD research on Syrian musalsalat with a particular focus on the methodological aspect of doing media studies in Syria. My Italian colleague Enrico de Angelis is studying Syrian news websites with respect to their links to a broader Internet culture and the challenges they present to traditional news-making in Syria. Our talks start at 6pm and are going to be in English (no translation).

On the same day, but starting at 2.30 till 5 pm, IFPO will host an interesting round table with Syrian journalists from news websites (in Arabic only).

Speakers are: Nabil Saleh (Al Jamal), Mohamed Abdel Rahim (Sham News), Firas Adra (DPress) and Mazen Bilal (Suryia al Ghad). The round table is organized by Enrico De Angelis and moderated by Yves Gonzalez-Quijano.

Syrian musalsalat in Sweden

I`m in Lund, Sweden, attending a very interesting conference on Syria and will be giving a talk this morning under the title of “An overview on Syrian drama production context: private producers, Gulf funding and the State as multiple powers re-shaping contemporary Syrian musalsalat”.

The panel will feature Christa Salamandra, the US anthropologist who first studied Syrian drama; Cecile Boex who`s working on audiovisuals and contentious politics at IFPO in Damascus; and Shayna Silverstein from the  University of Chicago on secularism and the aesthetics of debke performance. The conference is a three day event featuring also art exhibitions and oud performance, being a window on the many facets of Syrian contemporary culture. Thanks to the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University for organizing this!