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Violence in Syria has hurt not just the nation and its people,but also their staple TV soaps

Written by New York Times |
August 20, 2012 12:13:09 am

Violence in Syria has hurt not just the nation and its people,but also their staple TV soaps

IN THE Syrian town my family comes from,every afternoon during the holy month of Ramadan the streets were jammed with people. They were rushing home not only to escape the heat and to prepare the iftar,but also to catch the latest episodes of their favourite soap operas — the musalsals.

This year’s Ramadan is different. In the midst of a brutal civil war,Syrians are getting more than enough drama from real life. At the same time,Syrian production companies have shelved new shows; investors with ties to President Bashar al-Assad’s government have found their bank accounts frozen; and viewers throughout the Arab world have called for a boycott of Syrian satellite channels. A tax break issued by the government has failed to revive the industry.

While the outcome of the fighting is uncertain,one thing seems clear: in losing the soap opera,the Syrian government has lost one of its most powerful means of spreading ideas and political messages,both within and beyond the country’s borders.

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Syrian soap operas took off in the 1990s,when satellite-television access increased across the Arab world,and were watched by tens of millions of people from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. The most successful production companies were always affiliated with the regime and toed the line of government censorship. But in the new millennium,following the second Palestinian Intifada,the attacks of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq,Syrian soap operas became more explicitly aligned with the Assad government’s Baathist or Pan-Arab ideology. They were increasingly set in the distant past,featuring Arab heroes and glorious wars.

The most prominent of these was a musalsal on the life of Sultan Saladin,the 12th-century defeater of the Crusaders and liberator of Jerusalem. The plot presented Saladin as the ultimate Arab hero,without mentioning his Kurdish origins,and the dialogue was stuffed with Baathist propaganda arguing for the “unity of the Arabs.” Even the most naïve viewer could not fail to associate the Crusaders with the Israelis and Americans or Sa’war — the corrupt Egyptian leader — with President Hosni Mubarak.

As the region’s politics changed,so,too,did Syria’s soap operas. Historical dramas from the 1990s,like Damascene Days,showed Arab patriots struggling against Ottoman oppression. But in the series written after the 2003-04 détente between Turkey and Syria,the foes were no longer the Turks but European colonialists.

It may have been propaganda,but for a while,it worked. We,too,regardless of whether we were Christian or Druse,members of the Sunni majority or Alawites like the ruling Assads,cheered Mutaz,the mustachioed tough guy who confronted the chicken-hearted French soldiers; we celebrated the heroism of Um Joseph,the Christian woman who protected the Muslim neighbourhood; and we mourned when Abu Issam,the beloved barber and doctor,passed away. But after this year’s bloody crackdown,anti-sectarian slogans are simply no longer credible. The strength of Syrian drama turned into its weakness.

The writer is a researcher in the Netherlands specialising in Arab media.

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