Syrian TV drama provides ineffective release valve

Taboo-breaking TV show once seen as harbinger of political reform looks old-fashioned today in light of the uprising.

Syrians are familiar with the word "tanfis" - letting out air - a safety valve allowing people to vent frustrations [EPA]

“Sir, sir! A man just exploded in the city centre!”, a shocked security officer tells his incredulous boss. The scene is featured in episode two, season nine of Buqa’t al-Daw (Spotlight), a Syrian TV drama (musalsal) aired this Ramadan. Buqa’t al-Daw is widely deemed a taboo-breaking drama. In 2001, when it first came out as a media expression of the short-lived political opening after Bashar al-Assad seized power, its satirical sketches touched many sensitive topics related to the country’s politics and society. Issues like corruption, religious extremism, and gender-related problems would migrate from current affairs to be discussed in the satirical sketches of the musalsal in its unique dark-comedy style.

But this new season doesn’t aim at lampooning the al-Qaeda style explosions that, according to Syria TV, are afflicting the country as a result of a foreign conspiracy; neither at mocking people who set themselves on fire in sign of protests against unemployment and lack of dignity in Arab countries, something Arabs have become familiar with after Mohamed Bouazizi’s martyrdom.

“People are simply self-exploding” is the weird conclusion reached by the security officer featured in this second episode of Buqa’t al-Daw season 9. Looking for a solution, the main character goes to visit a sort of mad scientist. “My son,” he tells him, “these days, citizens of the third world have to bear too many pressures… unemployment, poverty, corruption… decades after decades, new generations are simply imploding, that’s why they start to self-explode.” But, the scientist says: “Smart governments have a solution called ‘tanfis’ (letting out air)!”

Every Syrian is familiar with the word tanfis, a safety valve allowing people to vent frustrations and relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action. Tanfis has widely been associated with the practice of allowing free press, dissident art and a culture of defiance to manifest through theatre, music and literature. Many Syrian TV series dealing with taboo issues like Buqa’t al-Daw itself have been labelled as tanfis on citizens, allowing them to breathe – and laugh – within certain permitted margins.

But this season of Buqa’t al-Dawtakes a step further and suggests a better solution rather than dissident art and freedom of expression. “These are old methods of tanfis,” the scientist tells the incredulous security officer. The brand new solution he proposes to adopt is a device that, once plugged into the citizen’s body, will provide him with a sort of relief, letting out all pressures and making him love society again. 

The episode goes on showing how the device has been installed in gas stations and public places so as to prevent citizens from self-exploding. In the last scene of the musalsal, citizens even pay to access the device’s services and get some sort of relief from their daily troubles; lately, they seem to go on happily.

The submissive and obsequious citizens featured in this ninth season of Buqa’t al-Daw recall another episode from the same musalsal which was broadcast in 2010, less than a year before the Syrian uprising started. Al-sirr (The Secret) featured Syrian officials explaining representatives of foreign powers how Syria successfully manages its economy through the complicity of its citizens. Since everybody has to bribe to get whatever service, a sort of parallel economy is created, based on a corrupted system perpetrated by each individual. Through comedy and laughter the musalsal reminds Syrian citizens that they are all part of this system and complicit with it. Corruption can be denounced and individuals can be removed, but resisting the system which generates it is useless, since everybody is partly responsible. Every citizen is a gear of this mechanism and contributes to its survival; as the system’s survival is intertwined with each individual’s personal survival.

But, after two years, with the unfolding of the uprising and the dramatic changes it brought within Syrian society, the lesson that Buqa’t al-Daw reminds to Syrian citizens that it might not work anymore. In its attempts to stay updated with the current events, Syrian TV drama like Buqa’t al-Daw looks incredibly old-fashioned. In a sketch called Al-sha’b yurid (The people want), probably an attempt to mock the street’s main motto of the 2011 Arab revolutions, the musalsal shows how people only seek minor reforms – like a better street maintenance – which they are not even able to accomplish; the main character dies of an heart attack, too scared by the security services while trying to explain them that he was officially asked by the municipality to write the slogan on the city walls.

In an episode named Eid Wahda (One hand) after another popular slogan of the Arab uprisings, which reminds us people’s unity against regimes, the protagonist seeks to convince others to act all together and stay united; he eventually discovers, in the day of his death, that he has been totally left alone by society.

Portraying society as a disoriented mob, which needs guidance and a progressive leadership to overcome its backwardness, is a common practice in tanwiri (englightned) Syrian TV dramas, many of which have high production values, good acting, compelling plots, and have been successful on a Pan Arab level, too.

When Bashar al-Assad seized power, in 2001, this enlightening process pushed by progressive media was accompanied by the promise of political reforms made by a young, seemingly reform-minded new leader. But in 2012, after 17 months of bloody crackdown on Syrian society’s demands to get genuine political reforms and not only taboo-breaking TV drama, it is very unlikely that tanwiri musalsalat like Buqa’t al-Daw will succeed even in making Syrians laugh by reminding them that every citizen is a partner in the (failed) political system.

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr