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."
But not everyone has watched the shows with an open mind. Today's dramas, which are broadcast in most Arab countries, have sparked vitriolic opposition from Arab regimes and religious authorities. In 2005, Najdat Anzour received death threats after producing Al Hour Al-Ayn, or Beautiful Maidens, a drama about Muslim extremists who want to carry out a terror plot.
Death threats, opposition, and debate don't necessarily equate to change, however. There's a question, it seems, that outsiders have failed to ask: Have the soap operas achieved the lofty goals Jabri spoke of 30 years ago?
Rebecca Joubin, an assistant professor of Arabic at Davidson College who has studied Middle Eastern drama and gender studies, says yes. "Dramas are definitely affecting society because they are talked about all the time," she says, adding that "the subject of women is at the forefront of discussion."
Jabri agrees. He says that men often see women as objects, rather than people, and drama has helped to change that. Women, too, were inspired by the strong female characters they saw in the dramas. Suddenly, Jabri began fielding calls from disgruntled viewers. "Now we can't control our women anymore!" they told him.
But Jabri's son, Sumer, says those effects were unintentional. The majority of directors, he says, are not as romantic as his father. "[Directors are] this bunch of people who have found a way to make money, and are trying to capitalize on it," he says in an earlier conversation without his father. "Tackling controversial issues will help differentiate you, but ultimately you're out there to make money." For most, he says, "the motivation isn't to induce change. Will change come without the deliberate intent of inducing it? Perhaps."
Ramadan fell in August this year. Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian-American graduate student at Georgetown University, remembers it as being particularly hot in Damascus. The last time she spent Ramadan in Syria was 10 years ago. "I can't even remember what it was like before the dramas," Kudaimi says. "I don't know what we did before there were soap operas."
Kudaimi spent two weeks of the holiday with her family. During the long, hot days of fasting, Kudaimi read, watched TV, and attempted to get through the entire Quran. Her grandmother cooked stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh, and maqluba, a rice and eggplant dish. At sunset, the family prayed at a local mosque. The soap opera watching commenced a few hours after dinner.
Kudaimi says she isn't sure how much the dramas sway society.
"I think it's an issue of access," Kudaimi says. "In Syrian society, you have a big divide between the rich and the poor." Rich people, she says, have time to sit down, watch the soap operas and discuss them. But the poor, who are more focused on paying their bills or securing work, don't have the same leisure time.
Both Kudaimi's grandmother and aunt watched the shows. But unlike Najib, they weren't inspired by the progressive actions of the characters. "Their reaction was, why are these issues brought up?" Kudaimi says. "With any TV show, there is potential [for change], but because such shows tend to make people very angry as well, the point might be missed."
Jabri had the same thought when he read the original script for Ma Malakat Aymanukum. He was approached to direct it, but turned it down. It was too provocative, and too intellectual, he told me. "Possibly it affected some intellectual people who like to provoke Islam, but it would never affect the majority of the people. [Work like] this can't change our convictions."
And while Syrian society is one of the most Westernized of the Arab world, Kudaimi still describes it as fairly closed and censored. Outsiders, she says, may be making too much of the soap operas. "A lot of times we think, 'Oh well, these cultural things like TV shows can easily bring about change.' Well, when you're living in a country with a dictatorial regime, it's harder to bring change than it seems."
Particularly for women rights. While Syrian women face less discrimination than most other countries in the Arab world - they hold high positions in government and parliament, and are technically equal to men under the law—certain legal provisions are still discriminatory. Syria's personal status code is one example: Women are dependents of their fathers or husbands, and don't have legal rights to their children unless the father is dead, incapacitated or unknown. They also receive smaller shares of inheritance than men. Polygamy is legal in Syria, and the law doesn't recognize spousal rape.
Still, many Syrians say that the most disturbing societal inequalities come from social norms, not legal provisions. It may be easier, in time, to shift or alter those norms. But right now, "there is a deep authority in our culture against women in Syria," Jabri says. "You must obey me, woman!" he says in exaggerated anger. Then he laughs.
After hours of conversation, Jabri had finally reached the last scene of his life's drama. Once again, he tried to describe the effects of the soap operas.
"Until now, girls didn't have any sexual liberty," he says. "She can't come home with her boyfriend and say to her father, this is my boyfriend."
Has that changed? I asked him.
"No!" He almost shouts. "But 100 percent we see change. It's just within some limits."
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