By OMAR ADAM SAYFO
Published: August 16, 2012
IN the Syrian town my family comes from, every afternoon during the holy month of Ramadan the streets were jammed with people. They were rushing home not only to escape the heat and to prepare the iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast, but also to catch the latest episodes of their favorite soap operas — the musalsals.
This year’s Ramadan is different. In the midst of a brutal civil war, Syrians are getting more than enough drama from real life. At the same time, Syrian production companies have shelved new shows; investors with ties to President Bashar al-Assad’s government have found their bank accounts frozen; and viewers throughout the Arab world have called for a boycott of Syrian satellite channels. A tax break issued by the government has failed to revive the industry.
While the outcome of the fighting is uncertain, one thing seems clear: in losing the soap opera, the Syrian government has lost one of its most powerful means of spreading ideas and political messages, both within and beyond the country’s borders.
Syrian soap operas took off in the ’90s, when satellite-television access increased across the Arab world, and were watched by tens of millions of people from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. The most successful production companies were always affiliated with the regime and toed the line of government censorship. But in the new millennium, following the second Palestinian intifada, the attacks of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Syrian soap operas became more explicitly aligned with the Assad government’s Baathist — or Pan-Arab — ideology. They were increasingly set in the distant past, featuring Arab heroes and glorious wars.
The most prominent of these was a musalsal on the life of Sultan Saladin, the 12th-century defeater of the Crusaders and liberator of Jerusalem. The plot presented Saladin as the ultimate Arab hero, without mentioning his Kurdish origins, and the dialogue was stuffed with Baathist propaganda arguing for the “unity of the Arabs.” Even the most naïve viewer could not fail to associate the Crusaders with the Israelis and Americans or Sa’war — the corrupt Egyptian leader — with President Hosni Mubarak.
As the region’s politics changed, so, too, did Syria’s soap operas. Historical dramas from the ’90s, like “Damascene Days,” showed Arab patriots struggling against Ottoman oppression. But in the series written after the 2003-4 détente between Turkey and Syria, the foes were no longer the Turks but European colonialists. One of the most popular soap operas ever, “Bab al-Hara” or “The Neighborhood’s Gate,” recounts the adventures of the inhabitants of an old Damascus neighborhood who, regardless of their sectarian backgrounds, were united in their opposition to the French.
It may have been propaganda, but for a while, it worked. We, too, regardless of whether we were Christian or Druse, members of the Sunni majority or Alawites like the ruling Assads, cheered Mutaz, the mustachioed tough guy who confronted the chicken-hearted French soldiers; we celebrated the heroism of Um Joseph, the Christian woman who protected the Muslim neighborhood; and we mourned when Abu Issam, the beloved barber and doctor, passed away (or was killed off because of a controversy between the actor and director).
But after this year’s bloody crackdown, anti-sectarian slogans are simply no longer credible. The strength of Syrian drama turned into its weakness.
While there are few soap operas left on television, their stars continue to play a role in Syrian politics. After the authorities assaulted Dara’a in March 2011, hundreds of actors and writers signed the so-called Milk Petition, condemning the crackdown and requesting aid for the region’s children. In response, more than 20 production companies issued a notice accusing the signers of treachery and announcing that they would never work again. If the war goes the other way, the loyalist actors — those who rushed to defend the regime, appearing on talk shows to condemn terrorist groups and foreign conspiracies — will have an equally hard time finding their way back to the screen.
Perhaps the greatest theatrical blow to the Assad government and its myth of a unified Syria came last fall, when Jamal Suleiman, an Alawite actor and the son-in-law of a former minister of information, failed to return from a trip abroad. Just 10 years earlier, he played the role of Saladin, liberator of Jerusalem.
All of these stars and their shows were once tools of the regime, and thankfully they are no longer. But when this war is over, we should remember that the musalsals were also a source of pride for the Syrian people, a homegrown popular art form that once brought all of us together. The rest of the Arab world will not mourn them much; popular Turkish soap operas have already stepped in to fill the gap. But in the hot afternoons of Ramadans to come, in Syria, even the staunchest opponents of the Assads will miss the musalsals.
Omar Adam Sayfo is a researcher in the Netherlands specializing in Arab media.