Not only are they less expensive to produce and more widely understood – with Syrian actors using less colloquial forms of Arabic than their Egyptian counterparts – their subject matter is more appealing too, say Syrian directors.
Leading Syrian directors say their dramas are challenging the historical dominance of Egypt as the leading producer of television for the Arab world.
In place of the staple nostalgia of history epics, it was home-grown terrorism, corruption in the circles of power and mass poverty that were the subjects, once considered taboos in this tightly controlled and socially conservative society, that were tackled head on by Syrian dramas beamed into the living rooms of millions of Arab homes.
“In the classical Egyptian style you tell the same old story over and over,” said leading Syrian director Najdat Anzour, whose latest drama The Renegades fictionalises the devastating effect on Muslim families of real-life terrorist attacks, including in Egypt, Iraq, London and, most controversially, Damascus.
“Syrian dramas deal with contemporary issues,” said the charismatic director. “Renegades is an education for a young generation who are seeing violence on their television screens every day, but who need to know more about how it is happening.”
In this security state ruled for over three decades by the staunchly secular Baath party, it was the series’ first three episodes, showing a good middle-class Syrian being recruited into a terrorist group by a fanatical Islamist, which raised most eyebrows.
Taboo topics tackled
“After she saw the episode my sister called and said she was now very afraid of me, and my mother warned I had been so convincing that I might be recruited by one of the takfiri groups,” said Adnan Abdel Jalil, the chain-smoking Kurdish drama teacher who plays the evil Sheikh Mustafa in the episodes, entitled Flock of Illusions.
Rasha Sharbatji is one of Syria’s new
crop of young directors
Jalil was referring to the Sunni extremist ideology followed by groups such as al-Qaeda, which is used to legitimise attacks on moderate or secular Muslims – such as Syria’s state rulers – who the militants perceive to be heretics to Islam.
A takfiri group was blamed by Syrian authorities for a failed attack on the US embassy in Damascus in September.
In another plotline, Sheikh Mustafa comes to the bereaved wife of a dead militant demanding she hand over her five-year-old daughter for another suicide operation, this time against Damascus’s Justice Palace, an echo of a real-life plot reportedly uncovered by Syrian authorities last year.
Seal of approval
But though the subject matter is sensitive, the Syrian authorities have given the series a rare seal of approval: originally sold to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, a leading Arab television station, for $1 million, The Renegades is now showing as repeats on Syrian terrestrial TV, the first time the state broadcaster has screened a drama depicting home-grown terrorism.
“My feeling is that the authorities are more open-minded now,” said Anzour. “They saw that my primary aim was to defend Islam from those who would take the message of the Quran and use it for their own political goals.”
Last Ramadan, Anzour’s series The Beautiful Maidens won him death threats from Muslim extremists after it questioned the militant belief that 72 virgins lie waiting in paradise for the would-be suicide bomber. It also drew an audience of an estimated 50 million across the Arab world.
This year the silver-haired director is hoping for more of the same: “Egypt used to control 90% of the market, but now we’re challenging for that,” he said gleefully.
Hani Mustafa, a Cairo-based media analyst, disputes that Egypt is losing ground to Syria in the battle for TV audiences.
“Egyptian TV drama is the oldest in the region and has always adapted to challenge prevailing attitudes, whether that was criticising modern behaviour in favour of tradition, or connecting with the rising Islamic ideology in Egypt during the 1980s,” said Mustafa.
“It will remain strong because it is still better distributed to the marketplace than Syrian drama.”
That’s a point recognised by young Syrian director Rasha Sharbatji.
“Though private companies have given a boost to promoting new Syrian dramas, we still have a real problem marketing our work,” said the director of Gazelles in the Forest of Wolves, another hard-hitting Syrian drama broadcast this Ramadan.
“In Egypt there is a government department for everything from getting permissions to film to marketing the work. In Syria the government does not help us like that.”
Sharbatji’s extravagantly entitled drama portrays the appalling excesses of a character called Samer, the son of a fictional senior government official, who ruthlessly plunders the country’s wealth while the majority of its people are seen struggling against crushing poverty.
“I wanted to give a warning to those young men who live like Samer that Syrians are now more aware,” said Sharbatji. “The message certainly got across to the street. Since the series began showing I have received lots of calls from people I don’t know asking: Do you mean me?”
Some episodes of the drama reminded Syrian viewers of Mahmoud Zohbi, prime minister from 1987 to 2000, who was found dead in May 2000 after apparently committing suicide in the wake of a corruption scandal.
“In the past we would not have been able to produce this kind of drama or have it aired. But in drama you can be more critical than in a newspaper because it is more indirect and you can always say that it is only fiction, that Samer could be anyone,” said Sharbatji with a smile.
Yet breaking political taboos in Syria remains anything but plain sailing: Sham TV, the country’s first independent private channel, which had been broadcasting Gazelles in the Forest of Wolves, was taken off the air on October 28 at the request of the information minister, just five weeks after it began broadcasting from outside Damascus.
The channel, previously broadcast from Dubai, was due to air its first news programme just hours prior to the suspension, but Mamoun Bouni, director of Sham TV, said that paperwork over broadcasting rights, rather than politics over programming, had led to the problem. The station is due to re-commence by the beginning of December, having lost an estimated $4m from its off-air time.
Najdat Anzour’s series The Beautiful
Maidens earned him death threats
Other bureaucracy also hampers Syrian TV productions.
“Syrian directors never choose the easiest path, we try to film TV dramas as if they were films for the cinema, taking the camera out of the studio to real locations,” said Sharbatji.
“But for this drama we weren’t allowed to film inside a prison. And we waited four months for permission to film the crucial scene of Samer’s car crash off Quassioun Mountain. But in the end we did not get permission so had to make it digitally.”
Still, said the young director, a new generation of Syrian dramatists will continue working to overcome hurdles, challenging not just Egypt’s share of the Arab TV market but also Syria’s reputation on the world stage.
“Syrian drama is throwing a spotlight on all classes and all issues,” said Sharbatji.
“Gazelles in the Forest of Wolves is a drama about a government in power. I hope if people see this that they come away with the real image of Syria, that there is debate going on here and that we are not a closed, isolated society.”