A New Beginning for Syrian Soap Operas

08 August 2014


For over a decade, Syrian soap operas -- known in Arabic as "muslasalat" --  gained national and regional recognition, replacing Egypt as the number one exporter of televised drama. The Syrian regime nourished this sector at the expense of other cultural productions, including theater, filmmaking and literature. Three years into the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, soap operas have evolved into increasingly diverse narratives.

While the Syrian televised drama sector left some brilliant contributions over the last years, such as Al-Taghriba al-Filastiniyya (The Palestinian Exile), Al-Intizar (Waiting), Buq'at Daw' (Spotlight) and Al-Husrom al-Shami (Damascene Sour Grapes), most of the production was clearly aligned with the official political discourse. The series allowed for depiction of the country’s social problems and tensions, but certain issues were clearly off-limits. In the words of researcher Donatella Della Rata:

“Edgy Syrian TV drama often criticizes corruption and abuse of power coming from different powers within the regime, especially the mukhabarat, but it never touches the leader who stays as the only one morally and politically entitled to fight the diseases of his own regime from within.”

With the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the industry became very divided. Many had to leave the country due to their support for the uprising, such as stars Fares al-Helu, Jamal Suleiman, May Skaf, Abdel Hakim Petra and Yara Sabri. Others stayed in Syria and firmly stood by the regime, denying the legitimacy of protests and echoing statements of foreign conspiracies aimed at destabilizing the country, while a third group remained silent.

Today, the Syrian Ministry of Information continues to back some televised drama productions, which adjust the official narrative to the current scenario. TV series Taht Sama’ al-Watan (Under the Homeland's Sky) depicts revolutionary icons such as the suburb of Darayya as having been pacified, happy under the protection of the Syrian army and intelligence services. Darayya, which was known for its massive peaceful demonstrations against the regime and the work of nonviolent activists such as Ghiath Matar and Yehia Sharbaji, is today a devastated area, after a relentless campaign of arrests, killing and shelling of the city.

Meanwhile, other kinds of productions have emerged. Minbar al-Mawt (The Tribune of the Dead), by Samer Radwan, offers a panoramic view of the outbreak of the uprising, while exploring the different narratives existing in Syria. In the words of Radwan, “the Syrian street is very divided, and I wanted to depict this division with neither deception nor embellishment”.

Other series offer a revolutionary point of view, mainly focused in besieged Homs. Marayat al-Hisar al-Homsi (Mirror of Besieged Homs) and Baqaat Daw Homsiya (Homsi Spotlight), both made for Youtube, aim to challenge the regime's narrative disseminated through official channels, while proving that Syrian televised drama has potential, regardless of the regime. Although produced with scarce resources and facing many technical difficulties, the series serves as a valuable experiment of post-Assad Syrian drama production.

Om Abdo al-Halabiye (Om Abdo, the Aleppine), may be the most successful attempt to produce an alternative to state-controlled soap-operas. The series, which highlights the strong female character of Om Abdo, depicts a scenario of homelessness, deprivation and constant shelling of neighborhoods. Political and social issues are addressed through comedy. Stories such as those of displaced Syrians, vaccination campaigns, or female armed battalions are soaked in dark humor, as the characters' strong will to move forward overcomes death and devastation. Also made for Youtube, the series quickly became viral.

Om Abdo, the Aleppine, together with some other series written from the point of view of resistance, were specially produced for the period of Ramadan. The fact that the month of fasting is precisely televised drama's prime time, makes these contributions even more significant in their attempt to explore an alternative to state-supervised Syrian drama. The Syrian regime, these productions prove, no longer monopolizes the country’s narrative.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad