BOOK EXCERPT | Syria's Drama Outpouring from Syria from Reform to Revolt, Vol. 2
Issue 23, Winter/Spring 2017
Syrian drama has oscillated between accommodating and challenging persistent authoritarianism, the Islamic tendency, and the neoliberal moment. In addition to sensational thrillers and costume dramas, Syrians continue to produce works that harken back to an earlier era of Arab cultural production. Realist dramas join sociopolitical satires in critiquing social and economic conditions, with an underlying ideology of enlightenment (tanwir). They reflect an enduring secular, socialist tradition that lives on in Syrian cultural production despite the current regime’s abandonment of these values, and within market preferences for big-budget historical blockbusters.
Much of Syrian social drama is best described as social realism, although it also incorporates melodramatic elements. Broadly, realism involves a commitment to representing everyday life as it is. Melodrama also depicts the real but moves beyond it to evoke a moral universe: as Peter Brooks has famously argued, melodrama is an imaginative mode originating in nineteenth-century Europe, involving a “polarization and hyper-dramatization of forces in conflict,” that makes legible a shared moral code for a secular era. Lila Abu-Lughod has discussed Egyptian musalsalat of the presatellite era as melodramas, and my reading of Syrian social dramas as realist highlights the differences between the who national styles. This is not an absolute dichotomy. Realism and melodrama maintaining an elitist view of melodrama as vulgar sentimentality. Peter Brooks as demonstrated their potential synthesis by exposing the melodramatic threads of elite nineteenth-century realist literature. Conversely, Christine Gledhill emphasizes the realist underpinnings of the television soap opera, a genre typically associated with melodrama.
Syrian social dramas uphold key tenets of Ba’thist ideology; they also subvert it by depicting the failure of state practice. In her study of dissident high culture in Syria, Miriam Cooke argues that oppositional artists use state pronouncements as critique. They play on the distance between rhetoric and reality, illustrating the hollowness of regime slogans. However prosaic they may be, television dramas do this as well, even while operating within official structures. Television creators remind us of Syria’s role as the birthplace and “beating heart of Arab nationalism” (qalb al-‘uruba al-nabid), and many cling to Arab socialist ideals. The senior generation, including esteemed directors Haytham Haqqi, ‘Ala al-Din Kawkash, and Ghassan Jabri, studied in the former Soviet Union or Easter Bloc nations and passed on a social realist aesthetic to their young apprentices, who have transformed it with fast-paced, slick camera work and higher production values. The form is considerably updated; the social concern remains central.
Conditions of production also promote the persistence of the real. Standard realist techniques, such as on-location filming, are adopted by default in the absence of studios. Cinematic techniques, such as the use of a single camera, afford greater depth of image. Recognizable places, with passersby as extras, lend a gritty texture that distinguishes Syrian works from their studio-based Egyptian counterparts. These elements of form are matched by content. In place of melodrama’s Manichean ethical universe, Syrian social drama offers deep moral ambiguity It reflects the dilemmas facing those who live amid authoritarian repression, rigid class hierarchy, and entrenched patriarchy. Similarly, thematic choices echo longstanding concerns of visual realism. A range of social problems are regularly treated, including gender inequality, generational conflict, class struggle, regional tensions emigration, mental illness, child abuse , and domestic violence. With their distinctive dark aesthetic, Syrian dramas typically end unhappily and lack resolution. Realism has long been criticized for the ultimate conservatism of it vision. Syrian drama articulates a degraded present but offers no redemptive future.
Syrian social drama shares sociopolitical satire’s dark sensibility. The work of Spotlight director Laith Hajjo, former apprentice to the Soviet trained Haytham Haqqi, exemplifies this link. Hajjo’s hard-hitting drama debut Behind Bars (Khalf al-qudban) traced in parallel storylines the misfortunes of characters sharing a prison cell. Aired on the Emirati channel Infinity during Ramadan 2005, the work featured negative depictions of Islamic piety and scenes of prostitution, rape, and masturbation. Behind Bars’ reformist impulse was legible in depictions of official abuse, including the imprisonment of rape victims to prevent so-called honor killings.
Hajjo’s deft hand with social issues reemerged the following year with the series Waiting (al-Intizar). A story of ordinary people struggling to escape urban poverty, Waiting was filmed in Dwaila’a, an impoverished neighborhood of the outskirts of Damascus. The use of informal settlements like Dwaila’a to evoke marginality—real and metaphoric—is a longstanding visual realist convention. Long before the erupted in antiregime sentiment, these nether regions, which slipped so easily from middle-class consciousness given the veneer of neoliberal prosperity, were featured in drama series. While Syrian cities’ poorest neighborhoods never match the destination of Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, or Mumbai, urban blight has prevailed. The United Nations estimated that 40 percent of prewar Damascus dwellers, and over one-third of the total urban population in the Arab world—57 million people—live in informal settlements, or “hap-hazard neighborhoods” (al-harat al-‘ashwa’iyya) as they are referenced in Arabic. Waiting was among the first drama series set primarily within such a region.
The writers of Waiting, journalist Najib Nusair and novelist Hassan Sami Yusuf, are Syria’s highest-paid screenwriters; they have earned a reputation for artistic depth, and they share a fascination with Damascus’s informal neighborhoods. Their screenplay traces the life paths of characters who come to Dwaila’a through various misfortunes. Noble their ‘Abbud and struggling journalist Wa’il are both born to the hara, the neighborhood, and inured to its ills. Characters are locked into a frustrating limbo, dire circumstances consigning them to—in Wa’il’s words–an endless waiting list. For most ahl al-hara (neighborhood folk), especially those worst off at the start of the series, Waiting ends in everyday tragedy: jobs are lost, engagements fall apart, and a recovering addict relapses.
Those from outside, like Wa’il’s schoolteacher wife, Samira, seethe with desperation. Wa’il waxes romantic about the neighborhood’s goodness and humanity; Samira rails against its dirt and danger, a position the series producers underscore in the series’ dramatic turning point. While playing soccer in the neighborhood’s only available clearing—a rubble-strewn lot at the edge of a busy highway—the couple’s youngest son is struck by a minivan and blinded.
Since Waiting’s broadcast “’ashwa’i” (haphazard neighborhood) series have become an established subgenre. Numerous evocations of urban blight, set in areas now stricken with antiregime ferment and regime repression, followed on its heels, notably Marwan Barakat’s Summer Cloud (Sahabat saif, 2009), which dealt with the plight of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees , child sexual abuse, and cybercrime; Samir Hussain’s City Dregs (Qa’al-madina, 2009), which begins and ends with floods devastating already desperate lives; Samer Barqawi’s After the Fall (Ba’d al-suqut, 2010), depicting efforts to rescue tenants caught in the rubble of a collapsed building; Muhanna Subh’s Medium Sugar (Sukkar wasat) of 2013 and set in 2010, which posits the haphazard neighborhood and its pathologies as precursors to the uprisings; and Tomorrow We’ll Meet (Ghadan naltaqi, 2015), in which the settlement becomes a refugee neighborhood in Beirut.
Filling in the Blanks
Waiting’s somber mood and dark critique recalls Hajjo’s earlier works, principally Spotlight and the series of brief vignettes entitled No Hope (Amal ma fi). Aired on Syria’s state-owned satellite television station in 2004, No Hope presents a Beckettian dialogue between two armchair intellectuals played by eminent actors Fayiz Qazaq and Bassam Kusa. Shabbily dressed, sipping tea across a rickety tray in a dimly lit shack, the two expound on a different topic each episode in a tone of existentialist gloom. Opening graphics begin tracing the word “hope,” then add its negation as the theme song croons, “It won’t work out for you, no one listens to you, perhaps there’s no hope.” In one memorable episode, “Democracy,” Kusa’s character pontificates on respecting others’ opinions, but doesn’t allow Qazaq to complete a sentence. In another, “The Revolution,” when Qazaq asks what distracts him, Kusa responds “the revolution that hasn’t happened yet,” and the problem of who will lead it. “Maybe he’s among us in some unknown corner, or a child in school,” Kusa ponders. “Maybe he hasn’t even been born yet.” “That’s it!” Qazaq exclaims, “that’s the most likely scenario.” In “Applause,” Kusa tells Qazaq he has been busy clapping, by himself and for no reason, just for practice. Qazaq tells him people have no reason or desire to clap, but Kusa begs to differ: “You say this now, but when push comes to shove, everyone will clap.” He begins clapping loudly, and is soon joined by a chorus of applause timed to the martial strains of Strauss’s Radetzky March. Syrians in earshot join in a surge of praise for an unseen regime spectacle; failure to do so carries consequences.
Syrian intellectuals, especially those involved in “higher,” more autonomous fields of artistic endeavor, often dismiss the type of critique conveyed in Spotlight, Waiting, and No Hope as a safety valve mechanism, offering repressed subjects an opportunity to vent (tanfis). In their functionalist reading, seemingly transgressive programs like Spotlight work to perpetuate the status quo by siphoning off and defusing dissent, and lend the regime an appearance of openness that foreign dignitaries applaud. They also convey an impression that the leadership is aware of social and political problems and engaged in addressing them, so no real change need follow. Scholars have analyzed versions of the tanfis argument. Lisa Wedeen points to both conservative and transgressive potential television comedy that she sees as open to multiple readings. She concludes that the ambiguous works that some dismiss as regime manipulation are the result not simply of state policy, but of artistic struggle over political messages conveyed in popular culture. Rebecca Joubin emphasizes the transgressive qualities of drama, arguing that creators regularly employ domestic relations as allegories of the nation, which serve as subtle yet powerful political critique.
Other scholarly interpretations slightly echo the tanfis theory, placing the regime in near complete control of meaning-making. For example, Miriam Cooke argues that the Syrian state pressures the nation’s leading artists to censure the system in what she refers to as “commissioned criticism.” Ambiguous censorship ensures that artists—and their audiences—never know if they are truly dissenting or doing the regime’s bidding. Donatella Della Ratta (chapter 4 in this volume) stresses the convergence of interests and personal relationships among television creators and the regime. Through a “whisper strategy,” factions of the leadership and security apparatus vie to convey messages in a tightly controlled national media landscape through subtle interactions with drama makers who are themselves invested in the status quo. Negotiations among drama creators and regime representatives ensure ideological alignment rather than subversive critique.
These studies focus on the persistence of authoritarianism through state control of cultural production. If these scholarly versions of the tanfis theory accurately represent regime intent, the safety valve strategy has backfired. Now firmly entrenched in the state-sanctioned artistic establishment, few of the Spotlight team have joined the protest movement, and one has openly supported the regime. Yet the uprising’s explosion of satirical dissidence draws, sometimes vaguely, often explicitly, on the innovative works aired during the 2000s on Syrian state television. Send-ups posted on the Internet, such as the puppet show Top-Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, target the president and his inner circle, stomping over a red line that established cultural producers never dared approach. Such works reinvigorate a comedic form bearing a long history of struggle. Their creators move well beyond the boundaries their predecessors fought to extend.
One Spotlight character particularly resonates: Homsi comedian Ahmad al-Ahmad’s “Spray Can Man” (al-Rajul al-bakhakh). The opening graphic features a ticking bomb. In the first scene, the camera pans a dilapidated hovel adorned with photographs and medals commemorating the character’s athletic glory days. The hero opens his front door to find bags of trash left by a neighbor from the surrounding—and much nicer—apartment buildings. Unable to identify the culprit, he buys a can of black spray paint and writes “don’t throw trash here” on his outside wall. Inspired, he carries the can with him, and, upon finding a nearby trash bin overflowing, sprays “cleanliness is civilization,” reworking a regime slogan. He returns to buy another can, finds the price suspiciously, and leaves “this grocer is a cheat” outside the shop. On a roll, he masks his face with a kufiyya, and against a Star Wars musical backdrop, vents his frustrations on high-rises and government buildings. He twists the proverb “patience is the key to remedy” into “patience is the key to poverty.” Spray Can Man becomes a fold hero and heartthrob who taunts the bumbling security agents assigned to capture him. Newspaper headlines pronounce: “The Spray Can Man and the Contemporary Condition.” When the hero plasters “get off our backs” (hillu ‘anna) on what looks like an intelligence services headquarters, an exasperated official tries a new tactic: a television appeal addressing the graffitist as a citizen who has merely expressed a shared angst but cannot change the country with a spray can. He invites Spray Can Man in for a “civilized, democratic dialogue.” The hero turns himself in, but instead of a platform to address the nation, he is given a whitewashed prison cell and dozens of spray paint cans. While Spray Can Man languishes in jail, another gadfly writes “to be continued” (lissa) in the sky with a jet pack.
The sketch plays on the regime’s manipulation of reformist language, exposing it as doublespeak. It invokes the system’s co-optation of dissent through the pretense of cooperation and the control of cultural production. Like other promised reforms, the lifting or easing of censorship never materialized. Artists of the Bashar al-Asad era have expressed themselves from behind metaphoric bars.
Protestors modeling themselves on Spray Can Man emerged in numerous Syrian cities during the uprising. The Dubai-based oppositional Orient TV aired a news story on the phenomenon, interspersing Ahmed al-Ahmad’s Spotlight antics with footage of real-life graffitists. One such agitator was killed after “causing shabbiha (regime thugs) and security men in Homs a headache for weeks” by writing antiregime sentiments on “sensitive” buildings. Another spray can graffitist disappeared in Damascus “under mysterious circumstances.” Even for the established artists of state-controlled media, metaphoric bars may become real: Spray Can Man’s creator, actor and screenwriter “Adnan Zira‘i, was arrested outside his Damascus home in late February 2012. In April 2013, his wife was taken into custody apparently after enquiring about her husband’s fate. Officials purportedly argued that Zura‘i’s Spotlight sketches incited rebellion. Reports of his incarceration, and Facebook calls for his release, celebrate the influence of his famous character on activists of the uprising. If antiregime messages conveyed in state-controlled works like Spotlight and No Hope were strategically ambiguous, autonomous dissidents now render them explicit. The day after Bashar al-Asad’s March 2011 speech to parliament, anonymous activists operating as Shamrevolution posted on YouTube a remix of No Hope’s clapping episode. The new version interspersed the Qazaq-Kusa dialogue with scenes of cheering crowds and parliamentarians’ obsequious applause, replaying the ominous line “When pus comes to shove everyone will clap.”
The youth collective “With You” (Ma’kum) has produced a send-up of and homage to No Hope entitled Freedom and Nothing But (Hurriya wa bas), featuring Nasser Habbal and Saleem al-Homsi. Aired on two oppositional stations, Orient TV in Ramadan 2011 and al Aan TV in 2012, these vignettes have a strong YouTube and Facebook presence. The series title reworks the regime mantra “God, Syria, Bashar and Nothing But” (Allah, Suriya, Bashar wa bas). The opening graphics of Freedom begin the with word “freedom” (hurriya) then add “and nothing but” (wa bas). Young activist actors adopt No Hope’s scruffy mise-en-scène, transforming somber resignation into revolutionary fervor. Two disheveled youths replace the older actors’ curmudgeons, and the table moves outdoors to a junkyard. Episode seven, “Puppet Theatre” (masrah al-‘ara’is), evokes both the No Hope clapping sketch and the president’s address. One character, holding a newspaper, reels off a list of disasters: an earthquake in Japan, a hurricane in Mexico, and a friend’s death, as his companion punctuates each item with applause. Exasperated, the reader cries, “What’s wrong with you, have you no feelings, no conscience?” “No, it’s not that,” the clapper replies, “I’m thinking of running for parliament.”
While embracing the format of No Hope, the With You team’s expatriate activists distance themselves from its makers. The Hajjo work, they argue, “only skimmed the surface of Syrian issues.” Episode one of the new work begins with a declaration: “Freedom is coming, despite some artists’ hesitation.” The members of With You were pointing to the bitter irony that those who ridiculed the establishment now upheld it: a number of prominent television creators either failed to join the protest of, in the case of actors—the industry’s public face—overtly backed the regime. At the “Spring of Arab Cinema” festival held in Paris in September 2011, a With You spokesperson remarked that the team sought to “awaken professional artists in Syria, and tell them if they don’t wake up, there are young people to take your place.” Veteran drama director Haytham Haqqi took issue, reminding the audience that drama creators were among the first to call for a “democratic, pluralist state with an equal citizenry under a just law.”
Among Syria’s drama producers, a legacy of social and political concern endures. The modes of televisual critique honed during the Bashar al-Asad era inform and inspire antiregime protesters to new heights of artistic dissent. The debt that programs like Freedom and Nothing But owe to the televisual innovations of the 2000s is easy to miss amid celebrations of the uprising’s creativity and condemnations of the pro-establishment stance of some high-profile drama makers. Moments of rupture obscure lengthy processes and incremental shifts in critical public and private discourse. Critics have long bemoaned the limitations of Syrian drama, as television treatments of corruption never attached the upper ranks of the political elite and intransigent authoritarianism suggested the impotence, indeed the regime’s manipulation, of critique. Yet as the works of Shamrevolution and the With You team illustrate, programs of the Bashar al-Asad era succeeded through implication. Avid viewers, some now turned activist cultural producers, filled in the blanks.