The roof of perfection and Syrian drama

To somebody who`s not used to Syrian TV drama and its “extravagances”, “Fawq as-saqf” (Above the roof) will look like a total surprise and a bit surreal,too, particularly in the current circumstances.

Every day, the images which open the musalsal show protesters staging demonstrations, Syrian flags and people asking for freedom. Every single day it is aired (musalsalat are daily fictions of about 45 minutes per episode that, during the holy month of Ramadan, go on air each day for a total of 28-30 episodes), “Fawq as-saqf” sketches show stories related to people aiming at staging anti-government demonstrations, or trying to escape censorship and control from the moukhabarat (secret service), or having to face the dilemma of “to show or not to shoot” at protesters.

To somebody who`s not used to watch Syrian drama this would certainly seem as an act of bravery and a media miracle happening, particularly if you consider that the musalsal is produced and aired by Syria state TV.

Episode number 2 is particularly interesting to this respect. It tells two parallel stories that at the end of the episode would eventually converge in a surreal grand finale.

The first character appears in many different situations: at the beginning of the episode, he lights a cigarette while walking and, despite seeing an hole where he would eventually fall into, he keeps walking. “Precaution does not prevent destiny” , he comments. In another scene the same character appears as  a taxi driver who remembers not to have fasten his safety belt and starts considering the bad consequences of this irresponsible act. Instead of fastening the seat belt indeed, he keeps considering how stupid it is not to fasten it and eventually jumps into a policeman. Eventually, everything he was thinking that could happen finally happens. But, khalas, “precaution does not prevent destiny”, he thinks.

On parallel, we see another character who is selling fruits and, all of a sudden, a vase of flowers falls from above but does not hurt him. Hamdullilah, he says, “around us and not on us”.

The same character is sitting in his living room eating when a thief comes and takes all the relevant objects that are around him, then runs away. The character, who did not make a single move during the all action, finally comments: “Thank God, around us and not on us!”

But perhaps the most surreal situation is when he is sitting at the cafe` playing backgammon with a friend and the secret police comes into and takes everybody, except him, who quietly smokes his narghile waiting for everything to be over. His final comment is, again: “Thank God, around us and not on us”.

On parallel, we see the first character finally taking the decision to sign some documents. He ventually orders to open fire on a crowd that we can hear shouting “Hurryia, hurryia” (Freedom, Fredoom). The scene is kind of surreal, especially if we think of all the You Tube videos we have seen coming out of Syria and all the people who died and are dying during the demonstrations while screaming similar things. But, khalas, he says, while thinking that “maybe I should have..”..and then concludes “precaution does not prevent destiny”.

Perhaps the most surreal scene is the grand finale, when the two characters meet up while everything is destroyed and burning.

“What happened to this country?”, says one. “I am responsible for this, I knew this was going to happen, but at the end precaution does not prevent destiny”. The other one keeps repeating “thank God, around us and not on us”, while it is clear that “around us” everything has been destroyed.

At the end of the episode, the symbolism of the two characters becomes evident even in the names they call each other with, one related to  being chosen and the other related to being aware of something. Free will and freedom of choice seem to be here at the core of the musalsal, but the message is very ambiguous, as it could be read in different ways, both supporting the “protesters”` or the government point of views.

I think the musalsal is actually addressed to those who have not taken any side yet: the “silent majority” which is the core of the Syrian population and, at the moment is those who remain silent at home, neither  joining the protests or  the pro-regime chorus. These people who have not sided yet are the core target of “Sawq as-saqf”, or at least of this episode…Those who don`t like the aggressive propaganda made by private TV Dunya and not even the state TV way of addressing issues too directly. It is clear that, among this “silent majority”, there are sophisticated people, educated people who will probably better understand the soft and ambiguous style of “Sawq as-saqf” rather than a more direct message .

At the end of the day, the message directed to these people who are still sitting at home and not taking any side, is: “do something for your country, you can avoid now destroying it by acting fast”. But it remains unclear which action the musalsal suggests to take,  if a pro or an anti government side. Here lies the ambiguity of the musalsal, which, in my opinion, only suggest to take a side without suggesting which one.

Even this ambiguity and this surreal and soft style would eventually look at odds with Syrian state TV editorial line and, more generally speaking, state propaganda which is  much more assertive and direct.

But, for somebody who has been following the evolution of Syrian TV drama, this is not big news. Syrian musalsalat have always been blessed as the only media product in the country where criticism and taboo-breaking are widely tolerated, allowed and sometime even encouraged.

Scholars Lisa Wedeen and Miriam Cooke refer to this as “tanfis”, a sort of “commissioned criticism” , a safety valve  that allows the audience to breath and brings some sort of temporary relief, while at the same time  keeps maintaining the status-quo. Many of the taboo-breaking Syrian musalsalat have worked this way, tackling “red lines” issues as government corruption, relations between Islam and religious minorities, terrorism and extremism, etc. And now, even the protests and the unrest  in the country.

Thinking about who has commissioned the musalsal and aired it -state TV, under the supervision of Firas Dahni who is a long time well known and respected employee of Syrian TV- “Fawq as-saqf” looks  responding to this “tanfis” logic. But, although being aired daily by state TV, no mention of the musalsal is made in the daily Ramadan Drama program aired by Syrian TV, where the musalsalat schedule is repeated in order for the audience to know which channels (among the state owned Syrian Drama, Syrian Satellite TV and the two terrestrial channels) broadcast what. After weeks of intensive “zapping” between one channel and another to locate the most important Ramadan productions, I was not able to find it and the only place I`m able to watch it is online, through the much blessed 4Arabz website. It looks as Syrian TV is not advertising the musalsal at all, and nobody among my Syrian friends working in this industry was aware of it. Which kind of means that, if the original aim of “Fawq as-saqf” was to convince the “silent majority” to take a side in the current situation, it has  failed. The “silent majority” is in fact most probably watching something else, much  better marketed and positioned in the crowded Ramadan satellite grids.

“Fawq as-saqt” looks to me as a nice, interesting to study, completely useless product (from the Syrian audience perspective). It may serve well our speculation and academic researches but I`m not sure how much it can deal with Syrians watching it on the screen (or not watching it) during the current circumstances.

Since the musalsal is not advertised at all, and almost nobody in the Syrian industry or audience is aware of it, I must conclude that, instead of being a “tanfis” or a “call on duty” thing, “Fawq as-saqf” is rather one of the last jewel of the Syrian media rhetoric. The metaphor of the “roof” (saqf) has been recalled many times by President Bashar al Asad by meaning the high degree of freedom which is given to Syrian musalsalat, Syrian media and Syrian people themselves and which, in many cases, is not been seized by any of them. It is as if, even having such an high degree of freedom to talk and deal with taboo issues, Syrian citizens would not be able to understand what it means or enjoy it. It is as if self-censorship would be stronger than state censorship. At the end of the day, the regime discourse is clear: “freedom (as reforms, etc) is there, it is YOU (being a Syrian artist, intellectual or citizen) who is not able to use it and enjoy it”.

The title of the musalsal suits perfectly with this metaphor: “above the roof”, as to say that this goes even further, much higher than the usual “roof” of freedom. Indeed, this is  something that  still looks as a  regime gift, while the citizen is not even able to reach such a degree of openness. He lacks the knowledge, the education and the tools.

Listening to Bashar al Aasad`s speech yesterday, I was struck by the metaphor of the “roof” being reiterated. Again, Syrian President has used the “roof” as a something closely related to the  media and the objectivity they should aim at.

The roof is the parameter of perfection to be reached, the perfect freedom, the perfect objectivity, the perfect state.  But only the regime seems to know where this roof is and how this ideal of perfection could and should be pursued, while citizens remain clueless in front of something which looks unknowable.

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