The women smoke and pray. They don't wear the traditional Islamic veil. Religious extremists crawl through the dirt, shooting at infidels. A woman in a wedding veil cries. Everyone exchanges meaningful glances. Cut to a panorama of Damascus. And that's all in the opening credits of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, a Syrian soap opera.
Syrian soaps haven't always been so dramatic. Or so full of controversial subject matter. In the 1970s and '80s, Syrian television was state-owned and state-controlled: Themes like homosexuality and Islamic extremism were rare.
But a national economic liberalization movement in 1991 triggered an industry upheaval, as entrepreneurs launched private production companies. With big money flowing into TV production for the first time, the industry became more competitive and creative. Now, Syrian actors, directors, and producers are considered among the best in the Middle East.
This past August, Ma Malakat Aymanukum, or "What Your Right Hand Possesses" grappled with Muslim extremism, domestic abuse, homosexuality, and adultery. Last year, Syrians were mesmerized by "The Time of Shame," the story of a repressed woman who has an affair with one of her neighbors and complains that no one sees her as a human.
Najdat Anzour, the director of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, says he took on the soap opera to "shed light on the negative aspects" of society. "We are tackling taboos," he told AFP. "It's not the clothes we're interested in, but human behavior."
Below is episode one, part one of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, this year's most controversial Syrian soap opera. Many Syrians despise the show and the way it portrays Arabic society, while others have applauded its take on taboo issues. In this opening segment, we are introduced to Laila, the main character, and her brother, a Muslim extremist. He questions her about what she was doing with her friends—girls he doesn't seem to trust—and appears unhappy that she is wearing high heels. He asks why she needs to wear them to study—is she trying to get attention from men?
Notice the focus on women's dress—traditional vs modern—in the beginning. Later in the segment, a sheikh lectures about Western negativity toward Islam, and we meet a group of women who—later in the series—will be forced into sexual relationships with men for money.
Associated Press and AFP articles have described the shows as "hugely popular" and "the latest rage in the Arab world." But while the stories dominated conversations during the month of Ramadan, when they first aired, questions remain about the real effects of the dramas on Syrian society.
Ghassan Jabri, a 77-year-old Syrian television director, is telling me the story of his career, and the history of television in Syria, as if he were a character in one of his own soap operas. There's drama. Suspense. And emphatic hand gestures.
Sumer, Jabri's son, is pouring coffee. "Half a cup for you, Dad, I have to ration it," he says laughing.
Jabri begins his story with a date: July 23, 1960. Syria's first television broadcast. Jabri was studying law. But when he watched television for the first time, "my brain was completely destroyed. I wanted to be a director."
Even then, Jabri said he knew television in Syria had the potential to be much more than entertainment. In 1976, he gave a speech in Prague about the role of real television drama.
"[The purpose is] to change the facts, to induce change," he says, recalling his remarks. Qays Najib, a Syrian soap opera actor, says the possibilities of social change played a crucial role in his decision to star in Ma Malakat Aymanukum.
Najib played a religious young man who studied at Egypt's renowned Al Azhar mosque. He later comes to Syria to marry, and takes his new wife with him to Paris to continue his studies. When they get to Paris, his wife decides to shed her hijab, or the Islamic body covering for females.
"[My character] says to her, it is your decision, it is a relationship between you and God," Najib explains. "Even though my character is like a Sheikh, he can understand the opinions of other people."
Najib says reading about his character inspired him to work in the provocative series. "This guy has a lot of skills that we need now in the Arab world," he says. "To be open-minded, to not be extremist."