Syria's Subversive Soap Operas

What effects might television dramas have on democratic revolution?

Leah Jul19p.jpg

Actor Qusai Khouli plays a resident of Damascus's slums in Birth from the Loins / Clacket Productions

I knew I was hooked on Syrian soap operas, or musalselat, the first time I saw "Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves." The 30-episode series, directed by Rasha Sharbatji in 2006, followed the antics of a spoiled, rich megalomaniac named Samir, played by actor Qusai Khouli. Samir's abusive actions toward his university friends go unchecked since his father occupies a high-level position in the Syrian government, which makes people afraid of crossing their abuser. Samir torments friends and enemies alike in the worst possible ways, until the day one of his victims gets fed up. With Samir in the passenger seat of her car, Samir's latest female conquest intentionally drives off the side of Damascus's Mount Qassiyoun, killing herself and leaving Samir disfigured.

The series was a clear condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Syrian upper class and gross abuses of power at a level that the audience could easily relate to and the censors could begrudgingly let pass. When anti-regime demonstrations broke out in Syria in March 2011, I remembered a quote from Samir:

You can have your revolutions, your socialism, and your rights - do whatever it is that you do. But in the end, everything will return to its natural state. It will always hold true: the son of the Pasha remains the son of the Pasha and the son of the maid will remain the son of the maid.

Even though this musalsel premiered in 2006, young Syrians were still talking about it three years later when it was eventually recommended to me. Samir was the prototypical ibn al-masool, or son of an authority figure, a true-to-life cliché many Syrians have come to know and revile through rumors of so-and-so's son's misbehavior. In this scene, Samir is at a nightclub and has his assistant order the DJ to play a better song. A turf war comes to a head between Samir and another club-goer, ending with Samir pulling out his gun and shooting up the nightclub. While this series didn't directly criticize authoritarian governments, it was shocking in its frank treatment of corruption - even if it was at the micro-level.

Around the same time the anti-regime demonstrations began in Syria this year, Syrian directors were on the verge of wrapping up several months of filming on the latest batch of musalselat. Most musalselat are bundled into about 30 episodes, which translates to one episode for each night of Ramadan - the month-long period of fasting in which these series are premiered. As The Atlantic reported last year, musalselat are considered a higher art form, not merely vapid soap operas. Syrian musalselat have become one of the country's most prized exports, with Gulf countries paying top-dollar for melodramatic soaps starring all Syrian casts and shot on location in Damascus. But this year is different.

With the first day of Ramadan falling on August 1 and demonstrations increasing in size, some have called for a boycott of Syrian musalselat and others have formed a blacklist of Syrian actors and writers who had been vocal in their support for the regime. Despite predictions of Syrian drama not finding any buyers, about 20 musalselat will air on a range of Arab satellite stations this Ramadan, which is roughly on par with the number of Egyptian series running this year. This hardly compares to the approximately 60 Syrian and 70 Egyptian dramas filmed last Ramadan, but some have argued that fewer musalselat means better quality.   

As Syrian families gather around televisions this Ramadan and indulge in this latest round of melodrama, we can only wonder how this season's plotlines will speak to a new Syrian reality, one that seems to hold an unprecedented potential for political upheaval. To be sure, Syrian drama is not where you go for explicit critiques of hereditary autocracy. Even though some of the best-written musalselat in recent years have dealt openly with police abuse, rape, poverty, honor crimes - you name it - the majority of Syrian drama is the light-hearted escapism that you can find on any television channel in the world.

This latest round of musalselat were conceived and written before the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and now, Syria, but they will be received in a Syrian reality that even the most fantastical musalsel writer couldn't have foreseen six months ago. For decades, musalselat have avoided (or been censored so as to avoid) overt discussions of Syrian politics, but as seen with Sharbatji's "Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves," there can be just enough wiggle room to issue critiques of what many have long perceived to be the injustices in daily Syrian life.

Which path will this year's musalsalet take? Will they be ill-poised to accommodate the changing political sensibilities of many Syrians? Or will they afford the average family with a break from the "chaos" in the streets?

Of the 20 Syrian musalselat premiering this year, the majority are social dramas, with many newspapers noting a decline in the number of historical dramas produced. In between the social and historical dramas are the popular sketch comedy shows and biographical series. Now, a look at this year's most-awaited Syrian musalselat:

Presented by

Leah Caldwell is a freelance journalist based out of Washington, D.C.

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