This article by Esseline van de Sande was published earlier in Dutch at the Great Middle East Platform
An interview with Rebecca Joubin, associate professor and chair of Arab studies at Davidson College North Carolina, renown scholar in the field of Syrian drama about her recent book: ‘Mediating the uprising – Narratives of Gender and Marriage in Syrian Television’ 2020. The book gives deep insights into the political and social climate during various stages of the uprising and war. Looking through the eyes of the Syrian entertainment industry, we see a pre-uprising booming and now a re-emerging business. Because of the war, increased violence, destruction and the exodus of important figures from Syrian drama, the number of miniseries initially dropped. Yet free media channels such as YouTube provided word-wide access with the production of drama growing exponentially. For the Syrians, scattered around the world, the miniseries create a vibrant community, against all odds.
SUITCASES WITH LOVE STORIES
At the hearts of it all are love stories. Joubin lived in Syria from 2002 onwards founding Art Gallery Al-Jisr, The Bridge. A space where artists, musicians, and intellectuals engaged in informal animated discussions on culture and politics. Joubin directed the gallery together with her late husband Monkith Sa‘id, renowned artist and sculptor.
After 2008 she travelled back and forth to the U.S. to complete her research. Her suitcases were always filled with hundreds of DVD’s in order to keep track of the musalsalat: Miniseries. At the airport in Damascus she would be consequently stopped by customs and had to explain what this was all about. But, once she told them, she always got free passage. “I really like love stories”, she answered smilingly, and so did they. A conversation about famous actors and favorite drama series would unfold.
Drama may be one of the carriers of hope, keeping Syria and the Middle East together. “The recent death of Hatem Ali, one of the most popular drama directors in the Arab world has shown that Syrians from different parties, ethnic groups, areas, colors and societal decent agree and mourn this great Syrian and cultural loss. This hasn’t happened since 2011”, observes soapwriter Araa Al Jaramani. No wonder as everyone follows the latest series, debates them in coffee houses and at intellectual gatherings. Joubin’s analysis doesn’t only capture the Syrian heritage of drama in times of ongoing catastrophe yet invites the reader to a coffee table to debate the relevance of this popular art form. Also providing a human side of the war offering representative voices and points of view of the role and relevance of drama, the beating heart of Arab society.
THE POLITICS OF LOVE
Joubin passionately follows the Syrian miniseries for decades.
“A national pastime and an important ritual during the Ramadan season, drawing millions of viewers each day, these miniseries are very different than the shallow storylines that soap operas provide. The Syrian drama creators deliver high quality in the different fields such as screenwriting, directing, acting, music and mise-en scène. Old Damascus miniseries have become popular since they take place in real historical places and capture earlier time periods. The authenticity of the series and the natural setting of filming are praised. Prior to the uprising Old Damascus series were seen as a metaphor since screenwriters would critique the Ba‘th party via the French Colonial Mandate in a subtle and interesting way.”
“When the uprising started, people often accused miniseries such as Bab al-Hara, The Neighborhood Door, of having caused the uprising. This miniseries had been so popular that in Damascus 2011 they would even sell tissue boxes called Bab al-Hara and had even built a site that tourists could visit. Yet over the past few years the series completely changed their stance. They no longer critique the Ba’th party but rather Western conspiracies against Syria. When the uprising started people started to say it was all because of America, Israel, France and Europe. Thus, the dialogue has changed. There is still a critique of the government but now via the conspiracies of the West, while the concern is truly war-torn Syria.”
Joubin’s research has documented drama all the way back to the 1960s. For her second book ‘The Politics of Love’ she viewed over 250 miniseries, examined press reports, followed Facebook discussions and had extensive interviews with drama creators like the Godfather of Syrian drama: Haitham Haqqi and others like Mamduh Adwan, Najib Nseir, Inas Haqqi and Colette Bahna. An extensive group of writers, directors and actors confirmed stories also from the older generation giving insight into the history of Syrian television drama.
It is no wonder that Syrian television drama is so vibrant. Damascus has a longstanding tradition of storytelling where the hakawati, storyteller mesmerizes his audience. One of the oldest Story Houses, Nawfura has been open since the 17th century. In the oral tradition drama is the most important ingredient. Joubin sees drama not only as visual literature but focuses on it as a work of art.
“Drama is the powerhouse where all the art forms come together. The Syrians have been masters in this for decades, in fact centuries. When in 1960s political parties were banned, many activists started working for television. A distinguishing feature of Syrian television is that the majority of writers are novelists, poets and journalists. They know how to take history and turn it into art. Despite their high artistic value, these miniseries do not aim for mere entertainment, but dismantle official narratives. The drama series are the primary arena for the expression of post-colonial Syrian culture and artistic talent in a struggle over visions of the past, present and future of the nation.”
“The relationship between drama producers and the authoritarian regime is complicated. Unlike cinema, television production is not under direct state control. Yet many private production companies are linked to the state and control the industry. Many in the industry contend that it is the money laundering of corrupt officials who finance Syrian dramas. Smaller production companies also have links to the state. Many intellectuals also accuse them of money laundering. The regime purposely chooses those with corrupt files in order to hold leverage over them. Insiders claim that after the 2011 ‘Arabic Spring’ these production companies closed down because those laundering money withdrew their funds from Syrian banks, transferring them outside of Syria.”
People wonder why the Asad family still manages to hold on to their power.
“Their mastery in framing the narrative by creating fear, divide and rule has kept them in the saddle. Under Hafiz- al-Asad, in its capacity as key storyteller, the state used culture to gain legitimacy. In order to win the trust of intellectuals, the new leadership claimed to support a cultural revolution in Syria. Bashar, even more actively than his father, sought out meetings with artists on a regular base and forged friendships. A good example is the word ‘uprising’. Over the years the regime consciously delegitimized the word and introduced the more neutral word azmeh, ‘crisis’. The multi-year sketch comedy Buq‘at Daw’, Spotlight, mocked this in the episode: ‘A Historian of the Crisis’ during Ramadan 2017. In this short sketch we are introduced to Nasser Adib, a historian wearing a perfectly white suit who is being interviewed on television. He explains that it is his duty to record the ‘azmeh’. Later on, he is confronted and pressured by various secret service people as well as by businessmen and -women. Each one tries to sell him their perspective on ‘the crisis’. As spectator you feel the pressure building and the constant threat and fear of abuse. As a metaphor for the different narratives, the historian is handed green, red or blue files.
At the end the historian is paralyzed. He embraces his freedom when he starts working as a street vendor selling sweets in the street wearing two different slippers.”
Is this the only way in Syria to escape making a political stance?
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
People outside of Syria wonder what is the connection between the writers and the regime. Isn’t it the elephant in the room?
“It interests me why many production companies are indirectly affiliated with the regime and yet still are able to produce highly critical works. The state allows harsh satires and political parodies, but also creates a relationship between makers and the state by distributing privilege in order to uphold the foundation of the political system and at the same time safeguarding nobody will become too rich. Think about gifts such as houses, cars or smaller services such as military exemptions or the opportunity to send your children abroad.”
“Those who engage in politically critical discourse are often perceived as secret government supporters. This is not simply a question of gifts and privileges. The government bestows favors to some and not to others in order to create tensions between artists as part of their
heavily ingrained “divide and conquer” strategy. The government system of networking, patronage and co-optation filters down through the strata of society; drama production is one area in which one can witness the infiltration of corruption. This phenomenon is portrayed in the miniseries presenting stories of actors trying to survive in an industry filled with moral depravity and an unfair system of privilege. The government distributes privilege to some intellectuals it could later count on to “pay the bill”. At the beginning of uprising while some stood by the regime and others were outspoken against the regime, most were outwardly neutral mirroring the attitude of the Syrian population, known as the “silent majority.”
The late poet Mamduh ‘Adwan, also an important screenwriter, lamented that: ‘intellectuals are compelled to negotiate between their need for security and their desire for creative rebellion; only by diluting their work artist find homeostasis within the bureaucratic conventions of the regime.’
How does the Syrian mind work?
“Ramadi: grey, now refers to people who are neutral and refuse to disclose their true political stance. This new creative way of describing a color is captured by Syrian drama creators. For drama gives you a piece of society, a piece of culture. Syrian drama cannot be placed in just one category and we see screenwriters dealing with the pressure in different ways. Some try to escape reality by being nostalgic. Some try to take a political opposition stand while others try to make a story about love or marriage without any political statement. Yet some directors go even further in their critique. We can’t say that there are no politically critical series in Syria, since many writers use metaphors and symbols to get their points across. But yes, some screenwriters have argued that it is easier for them to be politically critical when writing outside of Syria. For example, film director Inas Haqqi has produced an Internet show called Under 35. This is the first online Syrian production company that aims to give young people an uncensored platform for expression working outside of Syria. “
“Yet, we can’t generalize about this. Screenwriter Najib Nseir wrote Fawda: Chaos 2018, in Lebanon. This series was not very direct in its politics, but still it was critical and it managed to be filmed in Syria. Those living in Syria will often write about daily life struggles that sometimes feel closer to their heart than politics. Those who are living far away from war may have a privilege of writing about direct politics since they don’t face the same consequences. Still both within and outside Syria, drama creators deal with marketing issues. For example, Haitham Haqqi’s Wujuh wa Amaken: Faces and Places 2015 filmed in Turkey, was highly critical and even dealt with the history of Syrian at the start of the 2011 uprising. However, the series was not broadcast widely in the Arab world and had serious marketing issues. So it cannot be denied that politically critical series – that are direct – will have difficulty with obtaining funding.”
RED LINE & WHISPERS
Although drama series master sending messages between the story lines, the regime has drawn an invisible red line. Nobody knows exactly when you are stepping on or over this line at the risk of being abducted disappearing in the horrendous dungeons. Because of this there is a lack of deep political and cultural articles on Syrian drama in the media. This leads to a claim of media specialists outside of Syria that drama creators are implicated by a so called ‘whisper strategy’. The government whispers, intellectuals talk about it and so on and so on. This stance claims that drama creators produce stories to maintain a comfortable dialogue with the Asad regime. Joubin strongly opposes focusing on this idea.
“Some Syrian drama creators do talk amongst themselves about a ‘whisper strategy’ and they are the first to call themselves out on this. Indeed Syrians are self-reflective and are first to talk about their continual battle to avoid falling into complicity. They realize the benefits that arise with complicity and acknowledge that the temptation is there. At the same time, we as Western scholars need to avoid placing drama in categories especially when we know that they have all different ways of coping with their current realty. Why generalize and remove agency from these intellectuals in an effort to discredit the regime?”
Joubin prefers to direct her attention to the drama creators themselves.
WORDS AS SWORDS
“The regime policy has always tried to create division amongst intellectuals, using the narrative of fear of Islamicists taking over. Intellectuals who stayed behind in Syria and don’t always express their political views are judged too harshly. Some of them believe that true revolution is in the arts from within without direct political participation. Many artists who never actually spoke out directly against the regime continue to be missing and others never received permission to produce their highly critical miniseries. In the eyes of the regime their words are like swords protesting the killing, destruction, spying, corruption and hypocrisy of the regime. The reality of war was essential despite marketing pressures. Director Rafi Wahbi captured in his miniseries Helawat Al Ruh: The Beauty of the Soul the slogan: Wahed, wahed, al Sh‘ab al Suri Wahed , One, one. The Syrian people are one. Wahbi argues that this was the core message at the beginning of the peaceful uprising that the masses where trying to relay to the regime and the outside world.”
“Although Syrian drama production plunged at first, producers kept going in very hard circumstances in order to keep Syria alive and put a smile on peoples’ faces. Making comedy, they are able to bring joy out of everything. What I love about Syrian drama is that they find humor in everything that happens and make it shimmer in the midst of horrific times. Finding a glimmer of hope is a defense mechanism; their resilience is enormous.”
Some say that politically critical series are permitted due to tanfis, the so-called safety valve. A metaphor in which the regime allows for drama creators to engage in critique that permits for relaxation and respiration intended to stave off a revolution. This framework is for the most part dated since a revolution happened and free channels like you tube became available.
Joubin states: “Western academics aren’t the ones that invented the safety valve. The idea comes from within the Syrian culture. They are they are so critical and call themselves out if they feel they are complicit. They are the first to mock it or make a satire on it. Coming back to self-reflexiveness: Nothing will happen in Syrian culture without it being reflected in the drama. Quite a few series and sketch comedies have poked fun at the notion of tanfis and as such, they have assumed responsibility for complicity when it occurs.”
Joubin also registers a Pan-Arab development where the Syrians are leading the way.
“Syrian screenwriters are very strong and are leaders on the drama scene. In general, Syrian drama creators are so multifaceted that one individual can sometimes act, write, and direct the same miniseries. The Pan-Arab development – often led by Syrian creativity – manifests itself in new series where actors from different countries in the Arab world speak in their own dialects. Sometimes it is not clear where the miniseries is taking place and we are taken into an imaginary world. Syrian star actors are also playing leading roles in the strongest Egyptian productions of various seasons. Furthermore, there has been a flourishing of Lebanese-Syrian joint production. The Lebanese have the money and the Syrians are passing their knowledge on. After some years competition between Syrians and Lebanese grew. The Lebanese started to produce series without the help of their Syrian counterparts.”
It continues to be the Syrians who are known for attempting to find remedies in drama for societal ills. Reading between the lines of a story is a skill any Syrian masters.
ARCHIVES FOR THE FUTURE
What are people going to think about this time period in twenty years?
“After the revolution the issue of tanfis does not really apply anymore. Now what are they writing for? What is interesting is that they are not using metaphors as political critique because they are at the midst of war. The issues are more complex. For example: brothers against brothers, the breakdown of family structures. There are more topics on the table. There are also many varied perspectives, which manifests that this is a very lively vibrant and resilient culture. Some are nostalgic, some are oppositional and forceful, some are aligned with the regime and have nostalgia for the way things used to be. Perspectives even sometimes melt into each other. Each writer has his own defense mechanism. A lesson for me was that people pick and choose. Series have become a network bringing people who live far away together.””
“Prior to the uprising marriage and love metaphors were employed to indirectly critique the government. There was a transition when the uprising and the ferocious war started. At that time some screenwriters wanted some normalcy in the basics of life. For others, writing became a kind of heritage preservation and way to construct a collective memory. Screenwriters are highly aware that they have taken on the responsibility to recount this particular time period. They hope that in twenty years Syrians will be able to view these series and get a sense of what happened during this time from all different perspectives.”
“Syria unraveled after the revolution and many experienced stress, trauma, violence and were forced to live into exile, cut off from their creative environment. Despite all the barriers the Syrian drama creators kept on going even they were politically divided. Sometimes I ask myself: What are the ethics? Still, sometimes I ask myself: What are the ethics? For example, in Tomorrow We Shall Meet broadcast in 2015 the well-established actors, who are living comfortably in Lebanon, are playing impoverished Syrian refugees. Is this ok? In recent years all series are available via You Tube and subtitled and thus one can even see commentary about the ethics of production as well as other issues on social media. Thus, opening up to the world and enabling a broader audience to watch, has inspired lively debates and has created increased self-reflection. I am always so astounded by how accessible and self-effacing these drama creators are, how willing they are to engage in self-critique. I believe that it is this humility in the culture, which will also document the heritage for the future.”
“The revolution created more space, opened topics and created more open discussion. For example: the ‘fatherhood metaphor’ where the father is no longer a guardian of his daughter’s purity. A father figure, who is not only guardian and bread earner of the family, but is also emotionally there. There are many of movements debunking the taboos, moving on. One other strand from the 60s onwards focuses on the status of women. There is this idea it is best to keep one’s own culture, rather than accept the individuality of the West. In 2014, religious extremism was on the rise and Syrian culture tried to disassociate itself with extremism. Each year since 2014 I travelled to Lebanon to find out about the new developments. One screenwriter who avoid talking about contemporary Syrian issues asked me, ‘What type of wisdom can I give to someone who lost everything?’ While this writer originally wanted to avoid the current war, he later moved on to depicting the human side of war, the idea of neighborhoods changing as more and more people come in as others leave. It has been interesting to witness different thought processes of the writers and how their ideas change with time. I am still quite surprised about how I never had any problems accessing these writers even in the midst of their hardship. They would talk for hours with me, allowing me to document the process behind the scenes, giving me a window into their creation.”
“I have learned through these drama creators that there has to be something for everybody. While some series are deep and tackle relevant issues, other series are more escapist and avoid mentioning the war. Some writers cannot talk about what’s happening now, so they escape in different worlds. The audience shapes content. Some audiences need silly drama, where others need to see what’s happening talking about the propaganda. They are all adapting in their own way, as there is not one way of adapting to the circumstances. All this comes together and shows a vibrant city.”
“Many in the west tend to generalize about the Syrian culture, describing it as monolithic. ‘All women are oppressed.’ If you come from the west with a very judgmental frame you miss a lot. The Syrians are self-aware of their own demons. This opens a window into the depths of their soul. They constantly ask themselves: Who are we? What is our legacy? They are surviving, their creativity is exploding and they try to create flourishing art.”