Syria leaks: Anonymous vs Syrian Electronic Army

On Friday 24th Feb. Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar published an article called “Syria`s eletronic warriors hit Al Jazeera“. The article deals with allegedly leaked email conversations happening among Al Jazeera staffers over the station`s Syria coverage. In the allegedly leaked email exchange two Al Jazeera employees, anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim and Beirut-based reporter Ali Hashem, are reported to be complaining about the channel`s seemingly unbalanced reporting of the Syria crisis in favor of the opposition. These emails were allegedly hacked by  pro-regime activist group Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) which was interviewed by Syrian TV channel Dunyia here. In the interview, activists from SEA claim to have hacked into Al Jazeera`s email accounts. But there is no link to the original source, and no files were posted on the Internet with the original content of the leaked emails. All we have is this Dunyia`s interview, were people who declare themselves to be part of SEA claim the hacking attack to have taken place and show some screenshots with the allegedly leaked emails. But this is no evidence of the leak, as these screenshots could have been easily made up for TV`s sake. So far, I was not able to find any website where the leaked files were posted and exposed to the public. I`ve asked Syrian tweeps , and got only the link to the Duniya interview as an answer. I said this was no evidence and a tweep answered “well I dont think it`s easy to reach those hackers”. So, yeah, basically this is the only so-called “evidence” that we have for the hacking attack.

More than just this, nobody at Al Jazeera has officially confirmed or denied the leaks. They simply haven`t commented on it, which makes the thing even more complicate.

So far, this media -or propaganda- war becomes more and more aggressive day by day. Few weeks ago, Anonymous announced to have hacked into some 78 mailboxes at Syrian Presidential Palace, including Bashar al Assad`s media and political advisor, Butheina Shaaban. The contents of her inbox were published here.

This below is my take on the Anonymous` leaks, published by Jadaliyya on Feburary 22nd.

Burj Baramke, Damascus, April 2011

picture by @donatelladr licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

The Syria Leaks 

“The American psyche can be easily manipulated,” writes Sheherazad Jaafari, press attaché of Syria’s mission to the United Nations (UN), in a brief sent to Syrian presidential media aide and former Al Jazeera employee Luna Chebel. The brief suggested how to handle Barbara Walters’ interview of Bashar al-Assad, which was later aired on 7 December 2011. The brief comes from email correspondence hacked by the online activist movement known as Anonymous, who on 7 February announced its penetration of some seventy-eight mailboxes belonging to Syrian Presidential Palace staff and media aides—many merely protected by a “12345” password.

The Western media’s reactions to the Barbara Walters’ interview planning email have been a mixture of surprise (“astonishing office emails” according to the Telegraph), disappointment, and even outrage over the fact that a “New York spin doctor coached Syrian dictator”, the Daily Mail suggested.

Yet the reason for discontent apparently only comes from the naïve way Americans are portrayed in the leaked conversation—as people whose views on Syria are not grounded in facts as much as in perceptions that can be easily adjusted through media brainwashing.

American and Western media in general are very familiar with spin-doctoring tactics to manipulate public opinion. Moreover, planning and briefing before high-profile interviews to public figures is not an exceptional practice reserved for authoritarian regimes, but instead a routine practice widely adopted by Western democratic institutions, from media to governments. The most “disturbing” aspect of Jaafari’s leaked email is precisely that it sheds light on similarities rather than differences, and places authoritarian regimes and Western democracies in a continuum rather than at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

More disturbing similarities come from other leaked emails published by Anonymous here, which allegedly originate from Butheina Shaaban’s inbox. Shaaban is media and political advisor to President Assad and a prominent member of his seemingly reform-minded inner circle. She is fluent in English and holds a PhD in English literature from Warwick University. She is the woman who delivered the first public speech after the uprising started in Syria last March 2011, promising reforms and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

A look at Shaaban’s leaked correspondence sheds light on the symbolic and material appeal that the Assad regime has exercised over a wide spectrum of professionals and personalities, including Western journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, and even leftist activists. The presidential advisor’s hacked inbox draws attention to the elective affinities betwen Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and Western elites.

People like George Galloway—the former British Labour Party member of parliament, who co-founded the Viva Palestina! Organization to bring humanitarian aid and relief to Gaza’s civilian population after the 2008 Israeli attack—is one of Shaaban’s pen pals. In writing to Shaaban and asking for Assad’s support for a Viva Palestina! mission to Gaza, Galloway salutes Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”—apparently the only Arab country committed to the “historic endeavor” of liberating Palestine. It is probably in this commitment to the Palestinian cause that Galloway and many other leftist activists have found a common ground with Assad’s rhetoric that claims Syria as the champion of Panarabism and only country defending Arab interests against Western imperialism (a recurring discourse in his recent January 10th TV address).

Yet this shared language is not only to be found on pro-Palestinian and anti-imperialist ideological grounds. Assad’s inner circle has also proven itself to be a suitable business partner for Western public relations (PR) firms who offer public diplomacy services that reduce relationships between two states or between a state and its citizens to a PR matter to be regulated through the media. Email leaks reveal an ongoing conversation between Shaaban and the Washington, DC-based Capital Communications whose services cover “crisis communications and reputation management” and “how to pitch a story to the US media.”

In another leaked email, even an academic, David Lesch—a Trinity University History Professor who specializes on Syria— proposes Shaaban use an American PR company “to improve the US-Syrian relationship at a crucial time before the next administration comes into office, to improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation.” And his website states that he has met with President Assad and his aides, presumably including Shaaban, “on a regular basis since 2004.”

Shabaan’s circle of global friends also includes Billy Sager, an American billionaire who expresses his gratitude for the “first-hand perspective” he got from visiting the “Ummayyad mosque, souk, coffee shops, and even a hammam (Turkish bath).” In a leaked email, Sager writes that his visit helped him see the country without the “distorting filters of the media,” referring to numerous international articles describing the unrest provoked in Syria by a popular movement seeking dignity and freedom whose existence Syrian government media have never officially acknowledged.

Shaaban`s leaked emails display a gallery of Western professionals from different fields, including a few journalists who were officially invited to the country after the uprising started. All were bound to Assad’s seemingly reform-minded circle through a system of mutual favors and exchanges, personal friendships, and business interests. These relationships have been and continue to be forged by mutual complaisance, indulgence, material comfort, and pleasure. They reveal how deeply the Syrian regime was intertwined with Western elites and to what extent the latter were enmeshed with what the West now largely labels as “the dictatorship.”

Anonymous-leaked emails also shed light on the ability of seeming reformists in Syria to master the universal vocabulary of neoliberalism and globalization through their use of words like “empowerment”, “entrepreneurship,” and “self-initiative”—terms that Westerners’ ears pretend to interpret as a guarantee that a more democratic system would somehow match the opening up of the Syrian market.

As a Western diplomat told me in Damascus a few weeks after the uprising started, “They fooled us. We thought they were like us, ’cause they were speaking the same language as us.” This sentence reveals a dangerous but very common assumption in the West: “us” is good. The fact that Assad’s entourage was speaking the same language “as us” has led to the misleading interpretation that they were going to comply with “our” values—those supposedly on the right side of history.

However, Butheina Shaaban’s inbox and the network of relationships disclosed by the Anonymous leaks prove that the situation is indeed a bit more complex than simply an “us” versus “them” scenario.

Keep an eye on Algeria: tomorrow it might be the day

Many have wondered why Algeria has not moved yet or has failed to move.

I`m not an expert in this country and I`ll promise to post more stuff from researchers and people who know the topic much better than me.

But I just want to draw your attention on the #Wakeupcall #Algeria the day of mobilization which activists have organized for today, February 21st.

The main points of the mobilization –named “Mission n1”, so maybe there will be more to follow —  are summed up by activists :

1
send a message to the President starting from 10 am to launch the campaign

2
message should be the same and should be sent by email or fax : “We, the Algerian youth, ask the President of the Republic to make people under 35 years old part of the political process and to make this official before the end of 2012”

More info here on Facebook and on the Wakeupcall website, which is actually a global website (in English) including similar mobilizations scheduled in countries like India or Iraq.

Whether just an Internet call, we should keep an eye on Algeria and see if/how these mobilization campaigns eventually turns into something else.

 

Damascus` Mezzeh funeral “stages” biggest anti-regime protest

Today, it was the first time we could actually see the “huge numbers” –those that, according international, being s missing in Damascus make the revolution`s fate very uncertain- finally hitting the capital`s streets.

But, just to be clear: it was not for anti-regime protest. A huge crowd -thousands and thousands- gathered in Mezzeh Sharqyyia -an area of town were Damascus university is situated, alongside with the Iranian Embassy, Saudi Consulate, many companies` offices, upper-scale restaurants etc-  to mourn three people that were killed yesterday.

http://www.ustream.tv/embed/recorded/20523808

This video which was broadcast live through a mobile shows how the mourners gather very close to the Iranian embassy (one of the first building we can see in the footage, just opposite the telephone company MTN building) and then start marching alongside the Otostrad al Mezzeh (Mezzeh Highway), a wide highway. The crowd should be huge if we are not able to see the highway where they are marching  (later on in the video, they will abandon the main route and go inside the tiny alleys of the Mezzeh area).

Still, this is a funeral. People are only chanting religious slogans to mourn the dead, the only reference to the revolution is when they (rarely) chant “Syrian people are one” (a popular revolutionary slogan since the beginning of the uprising). For more than an hour, the only thing we can see is an amazing crowd that marches in huge numbers few kilometers away from the Presidential Palace, while snow starts to come down. It is truly an breathtaking scene.

It is not to diminish its importance that I feel I need to underline that this is mostly a funeral.

It turns openly into an anti-regime protest only towards the end of the video (around 1 hour and 14 minutes) when a smaller group of people starts to shout “May God protect the Free Syrian army!”, a clear signal that it`s an anti-regime crowd. A minute later, another revolutionary slogan follows that chants “the Syrian raises his hand”, then many people start shouting against Abu Hafez (this is how they call Bashar al Assad, in reference to his first son, Hafez).

But it is only when the crowd makes a clear reference to the shabbiha (a pro-regime militia) that the fire is opened (around 1 hour 1minutes) and the crowd is dispersed. Then, they start cursing Abu Hafez and, few minutes afterwards, the broadcast is interrupted.

Reuters reports that 3 people at least were shot dead today after the fire was opened.

Over the Internet and all across social media, this funeral march resonated as the biggest anti-regime protests happening in the capital so far. It was mostly a funeral, true. And, because of it being a funeral, the slogans we could hear were religious more than political, although a part have changed towards the end.

Although we cannot classify it as truly an anti-regime protest (we have seen funerals all across Syria being much more explicit in their political nature) it marks a very important phase in this 11 months-old revolution. People have  rehearsed, probably, for a much bigger thing. Cleverly enough, they have not chanted anti-regime slogans in the beginning of the march in order not to be dispersed immediately or killed. But they have proved that they can take, little by little, the streets of the capital. Knowing Damascus, this is a slow process which cannot happen all of a sudden.

But the crowd`s power and energy was palpable today, even under cold snow.

For more live broadcast, this is a good Ustream channel from Damascus here and here an amazing compilation of live stream feeds from all across Syria.

There is also a Storyful of the day here.

 

SNC and FSA are media proxies: Syria revolution is elsewhere…

As Syrian revolution almost growing one year old, we hear more and more media talking about the alleged role that armed opposition -namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – would play -or not play- in fueling the revolt. Other media like to speculate whether the Syrian National Council (SNC)`s political role would be decreasing as a consequence of the rise of an armed opposition.

The emphasis on both the FSA and SNC -whether over or under estimating their role on the ground- is simply misleading.

And I`m glad I`ve found two good articles that explain why, and they come from two good sources. One was posted on Syria Comment Joshua Landis` blog and forum specialized on Syrian issues- last 12 February. It`s published under the nickname of Idaf who allegedly left Syria recently after working with activists on the ground. Judging from his/her writing, I do believe he/she is a reliable source as he/she describes in a pretty accurate way the situation on the ground, putting an emphasis on the fact that there is real, ongoing revolution storming Syrian society and it`s happening elsewhere rather than in SNC and FSA. Certainly not in Paris, where the SNC has its head; nor in Turkey, where the FSA`s headquarters are based. But on the ground, in Damascus, Idlib, Daraa, Homs, Kafer Nbel, etc etc.

Reading this article together with the recently published Al Jazeera English`s interview with Nir Rosen -a journalist who has been covering crisis and conflicts in places like Iraq, and had the privilege to have access to Syria for a couple of months- will be a very useful exercise. Rosen sheds light on the fact that there is no such a thing as the FSA on the ground: rather, there are hundreds of small resistance cells, each of them fighting the regime with their own means and ideology, but loosely interconnected and without a central leadership. A decentralized network of people sometimes connected one to each other, but in a loose way –certainly not through a central command or authority which gives them the legitimacy to operate- .

This description given by Rosen really resembles the way the activists are acting on the ground: small, decentralized groups loosely interconnected. Most of the time, they dont need to be connected or to be aware of what the other group is doing. They prefer to operate in secrecy, in small numbers, without sharing the information with too many others or revealing their activities in public in order not to be prosecuted -but especially to  be able to continue doing their daily work-.

This daily work has been ongoing for months. It is silent and doesnt get reported on media cause there is “nothing” to report, at least in the fast-food of information that media have become nowadays. There are no killings, there is no “action” in media terms, and these people prefer to work instead of releasing TV interviews, press statements, or twitting about what they do. Indeed, there are bravely doing their work on a daily basis, risking their life trying to build a better Syria.

Let the SNC, FSA (and Internet activists) do the media work. But, at the end of the day, it`s on these smaller, locally-grounded leaderless groups that the Syria revolution is grounded, both militarily and activism-wise.    

RIP Anthony Shadid

Anthony Shadid, a brave professional journalist, died yesterday in Syria. It`s another important voice who fades out in the superabundance of information and a scary lack of analysis.

I`d like to republish here what MERIP posted about him. RIP.

 

We at MERIP are shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of Anthony Shadid, an extraordinary reporter, wondrously talented writer, judicious analyst of Middle East affairs, warm, generous person and good friend.

In between sojourns in the Middle East, Anthony served on our editorial committee from 2000-2002. A fuller tribute will appear in the upcoming issue of Middle East Report. For now, we reproduce below the list of his writings for the magazine, including this dispatch from Iraq under UN sanctions, which demonstrates some of the reasons why his later work on that country would be nonpareil.

Our deep condolences to Anthony’s family and to his many friends and colleagues.

 

Daring Theater Offers Respite from Baghdad’s Misery

Anthony Shadid

Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999)

Soon after the tattered curtains part in Baghdad’s Sheherezad Theater, a boisterous Baghdad comes to the fore.

The frenzied strains of an Iraqi pop song herald the appearance of a cross-dressing belly dancer, seductively clad women and a wiggling and jiggling government official, and suggest the presence of drink and drugs in the office of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Animal Resources. On stage come a secretary who works as a pimp, an effeminate deputy minister who loves his wine and women, and his boss, who goes nowhere without an escort of prostitutes.

The plot? Tucked in with dancing, stand-up routines and a few tortured ballads is the story — sort of — of the Kuwaiti ministry’s plan to buy an American bull for the outrageous price of $115 million to improve the gene pool of Kuwait’s livestock.

“Bye Bye America” has played to full houses during a wild run that began in November in Baghdad. Its target, obviously enough, is the Kuwaiti government, with some barbed attacks on America’s sway over the Gulf’s monarchies and potentates. The laughs, however, don’t just come at the expense of Kuwait. In other plays on the Baghdad stage, the bribes and bureaucracy that torment Iraqis are the butt of jokes, and some criticism is bolder — even shocking — the kind of stuff that would earn an editor of any staid Iraqi newspaper a stint in jail — or worse.

The plays have transformed Iraq’s once dormant theater scene into a thriving arena for artistic expression and creativity that is often daring and usually ribald. From just two playhouses a decade ago to 20 today, theater represents one of the few bright spots on Baghdad’s bleak cultural landscape. Lines from popular plays are frequently quoted in cafés, and tickets for some sold-out weekend shows can be scalped for five times the price of 1,000 Iraqi dinars (55 cents). Virtually all the productions are comedies, and therein lies their saving grace: They provide an officially sanctioned outlet for mounting frustrations. So official, in fact, that Saddam Hussein himself is said to be a patron, allocating 35 million dinars last year to help with their rather meager overhead.

The beauty of Iraq’s theater, though, goes beyond the exhilaration it brings to a city whose streets, like al-Rashid and Abu Nuwas, with their now shuttered nightclubs, were once synonymous with a capital as cosmopolitan and secular as any in the Arab world. It also evokes that free-wheeling time a generation ago when Palestinian students received scholarships to study in Iraq and Arab writers and artists fled the anarchy of Lebanon’s civil war to bring their intellectual force to a flowering Baghdad, making 1970s Iraq, for those on the “correct” side of politics, a time as nostalgic as the romanticized city of Abbasid glory.

Baghdad’s tragedy today, it seems, is not what it is but what it has become under the United Nations’ seemingly permanent sanctions. Although the material conditions of Iraq have improved under exemptions that allow the government to buy food with oil exports, the sycophancy of much of the country’s sanctioned intellectual life and, more acutely, the desolation of its cultural landscape drearily remain, mocking the oft-quoted adage that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”

Dar al-Ma’moun, one of Iraq’s main publishing houses, once issued 20 titles a year. Now it produces only two, maybe three. Its 96 translators of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian have decreased to ten today. The Iraqi film industry, once a pet project of the government, has all but shut down, Iraq’s cinemas closing with it.

In this grim setting, Baghdad’s theater brings subtlety, a finesse that seems reminiscent of al-Hallaj, whose ecstatic exclamation that “I am the Truth” got him executed — actually, dismembered — in tenth-century Baghdad for blasphemy. The sophistication is all the more welcome in a city that, with its victory arches, martyrs’ memorials, and paintings of Saddam in black beret, suit and tie or kaffiya, or in Norman Rockwell-like scenes with children, is anything but subtle.

One long-running play, “A Party for a Respectful Person,” skewers an Iraqi official for obstructing access to the permits Iraqis need to travel or to sell and buy a house. The official, a director-general, usually the highest position that will come in for criticism, defines his day-to-day work with a furious style of favoritism and nepotism. The play ran for a remarkable three years.

In “Mudhouse,” a play set during the Hashemite monarchy, Iraqis are taken to prison, questioned and tortured, some emerging beaten and bruised. For the audience, it takes little imagination to place the scenes squarely in modern-day Iraq.

“Playground of the Hypocrites” takes the idea a tantalizing step further. In this play, an Iraqi is detained and politely asked by his interrogator to sit down. He is then told to confess. But, he asks, where is the boiling oil, the whips and the ceiling fan he should be hanging from? When told there’s nothing of the sort, he warns his interrogator, “They’re going to fire you!”

The writers and actors know they are on a long leash and are typically reluctant to talk about their freedom for fear of endangering it. If they do, they put it in the context of current politics, namely sanctions, the one topic anyone in Iraq can discuss.

“Life used to be much easier, and now all that is cut off,” says Sabah ‘Atwan, who finished writing “Bye Bye America” in 1993. “Iraqis feel they are suffocating with the sanctions, and the theater gives them the lungs they can breathe with.”

He makes clear, though, that the government has made a conscious decision to give Baghdad’s liveliest plays a freer reign. Or, as he put it in an interview, “The Ministry of Culture and Information doesn’t place a police officer inside the theater.”

His play is not so much subtle criticism as fast and fierce comedy, an often salacious celebration of puns, innuendo, slapstick and base humor that plays on every Iraqi stereotype of Kuwait and creates a few along the way. The Kuwaiti government spends $115 million for the American bull. To ease its transition, it allots $10 million for his housing, $10 million for food and entertainment and another lump sum for his own airplane — equipped with a swimming pool. A delegation meets him at the airport, and functionaries interview a personal Indian cook and a Chinese barber.

“We will bring cows from the Philippines, Thailand and Holland. We’ll bring them from all over to entertain the bull,” says Mr. Fouad, the minister’s secretary and pimp. Inside the office, the deputy minister drinks from a flask tucked behind his gown. He complains incessantly that Fouad will not deliver him the women he provides the minister. And he signs his papers with a thumb print because he cannot read or write. In any crisis, the minister shouts, “Call America! Call Texas! Call Washington!” At other times, he breaks into a dance.

And then there’s the fun that could implicate a government at home or abroad: One minister warns that if they do wrong, the interior minister will take them into a dark room and make them sit on a bottle. In another scene, an underling lambasts the minister behind his back, then flatters him with a kiss on the cheek.

On this evening, one of Baghdad’s frequent electricity outages cuts short the nightly performance. One of the lead actors, Muhammad Imam, soon comes on to a dark stage lit by a few candles to apologize to the audience and beg them to come another night. The audience, in turn, seems to take it in stride. There are worse things in Baghdad, they insist, than a power cut.

“It’s not their fault,” says Sattar Karim, a 37-year old Iraqi who brought his family. “It was about to end anyway.” He pauses, then adds casually: “We like to enjoy ourselves, even if it is for a short time. It’s always good to laugh.”

Also by Anthony Shadid in Middle East Report:

Lurking Insecurity: Squatters in Khartoum,” MER 216 (Fall 2000)

Nature Has No Culture: The Photographs of Abbas Kiarostami,” MER 219 (Summer 2001) (with Shiva Balaghi) (text only)

Victims of Circumstance,” MER 222 (Spring 2002)

The Shape of Afghanistan to Come,” MER 222 (Spring 2002)

 

Irony, Satire and Humor in the Battle for Syria

This was out today on Muftah.org 

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus (Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/))

On February 3, 1982, the regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad massacred thousands in the city of Hama, quashing the city’s Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising. Thirty years later, during the current Syrian uprising, the government has again subjected Hama to substantial military action. In the midst of this on-going violence, Syrian activists have marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre with Internet-based user-generated videos, representing the first time people have spoken in a public and even creative way about “the events,” as they are referred to in the country. The finger puppet web series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator,” a thirteen-part comic production created by a collective of Syrian artists, recently featured an episode called “Beshuu`s birthday,” in which Hafez al-Assad returns from hell to remind his son and current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the success of the 1982 Hama crackdown. During the episode, a fearful Bashar musters the courage to remind his father that during the Hama massacre he killed everybody but Ibrahim al Qashush, a Syrian singer whose popular song “Yalla Irhal ya Bashar” or “Come on, Leave Bashar” has become an anthem of the 2011 Syrian uprising. In this song, al Qashush mocks Bashar and his well-known inability to pronounce the letter “s”: “Go, Bashar…May you and the Baath party be destroyed…Go and fix your pronunciation of the letters!” (In July 2011, al Qashush’s body was found in a local river, his throat cut and larynx removed along with signs of brutal torture).

The dark humor found in Top Goon and the songs of al Qashush might seem misplaced in light of the thousands of deaths across Syria (more than 7000, according to the opposition group Local Coordination Committee) and bombings taking place in major Syrian cities (such as the February 10, 2012 bombing in Aleppo, which left 28 dead according to Syrian authorities). In fact, however, these creative forms of political activism are one of the few mechanisms left for nurturing civil disobedience in a conflict that has been increasingly depicted as a civil war. As a Syrian communication expert who wishes to remain anonymous points out: “The more we see an armed conflict, the more it means that the regime has succeed in its campaign. They know how to play when arms are involved, but do not know how to react to mash-ups, parodies and irony.”

“One of the goals of artistic production is to bring a sort of relief to people who are suffering on the ground,” say Mohamed and Ahmad Malas, Syrian twins, playwrights, and actors who were imprisoned by the government for a few days after joining the artists` demonstration in Damascus in July 2011. The Malas twins now live in Cairo and travel around the world raising awareness about the suffering of the Syrian people through their theatrical plays. Recently, the Malas twins have been

“We Are All Germs” (Photo credit: “We Are All Germs Facebook” page)

performing their plays in Paris where they also began filming a new project, which registered more than 5,000 views two days after it was posted on YouTube. In the video, the playwrights stage a vox-populi on the Champs Elysee, blaming Bashar al-Assad, the Baath party and Syria’s corrupt regime: “You see this, how beautiful Paris is? Here people go to the theater and appreciate culture, not like in our country, where you’ve pursued a mafia politics, and theater is just another place for corruption.”

In speaking of the President and the regime, the video is filled with curse words. In the past, such insults would never have been used against the President or the Baath party, but with the old fear gone these once untouchable symbols of state power are now regularly ridiculed and derided. Using extreme, unpleasant expressions that were never before heard in Syria is a form of liberation, represents a symbolic break with the past and serves as notice that many Syrians will never again blatantly pretend to believe the magnificent rhetoric of the Baath party and the President.

Hussein Jabri, aka Abu Zoheir, exemplifies both the trend towards “cursing,” and its political significance. Jabri has reached near hero status on YouTube with his videotaped phone calls to Syrian officials from the presidential palace, the government and different secret services branches. He begins the conversation by greeting the official with a polite, warm welcome. Things, however, quickly turn surreal as Jabri offers to sell new devices for bombing protesters to the secret police, and then levels extreme curses against the regime. Even people who object to his vulgar style have reacted positively to a phone call in which Jabri forced a secret service official to confess that the government, and not the “armed gangs” referred to in the official narrative, tortured and killed Syrian activist Ghrias Matar.

“I am with Syria” (viral campaign on the Internet)

During the Syrian revolution, perhaps the most striking examples of irony and dark humor have emerged from Homs, a city that has seen the worst violence so far. In the past days, Homs experienced heavy bombings and shelling in what is believed to be an attempted crack down against a vibrant center of street protests and rebellion. The virtual alleys of the Internet reflect Homsi creativity, documenting the protesters` chants and the dances performed during demonstrations across the city’s streets. A satirical Facebook page pretends to offer washing and lubrication services to the tanks used to crack down against protesters in the city. The most popular joke on the page mocks the regime’s claim that, because the protests begin with the word “Takbir” (an incitement to praise God’s greatness), the demonstrations are being led by Islamists, and, in its place, creates a new slogan “Tahwiil” (the word used for bank transfers), a clear reference to the regime’s greed and corruption. Another very popular Facebook page “the Chinese revolution against the Chinese dictator” reports on events in Syria as if they were taking place in China, and pokes fun at regime officials as if they were Chinese communist party members.

Also from Homs is the Facebook page, “Kulluna Jaratheem” (We Are All Germs), which mocks the official narrative describing protests/protesters as “germs”. Bashar al-Assad is represented as Doctor Dettol – a disinfectant widely used in Syria – while Syria’s citizens are depicted as germs, “whether bacterial or viral.” Interestingly, the slogan “We Are All Germs” as well as the page’s avatar are parodies of a government-backed public relations campaign that

“I am not Indian” (viral campaign on the Internet)

featured on billboards in Syria during the early stages of the uprising. These billboards included a raised hand declaring, “Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law”.” Whether girl or boy, I am with the law.” Soon thereafter, parodies of these government posters circulated around cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised hand, each poster carried a different slogan. “I am free,” said one raised hand. “ I lost my shoes,” echoed another – suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a customary symbol of protest in Arab culture. “I am with Syria” featured on other cyber-posters. “I am not Indian,” joked another poster, revealing Syrian wittiness as well as awareness that the regime has exclusive control over the formal meaning of “law” and “lawlessness.” “I am not Indian” is the ironic answer to a regime that asks its citizens to abide by the law as if they are foreigners who do not know the rules of the game in the country.

“I am free” (Photo credit: Free Syrians)

“I am not Indian” and cyber-posters featuring multiple-colored hands, which mirror the hands raised in the Syrian street, are perhaps the best examples of citizenship regaining its legitimate place over and above concepts such as “law,” “nation,” and “unity,” which the regime has historically monopolized and manipulated. They are also prime examples of an emerging remix-culture, first theorized by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessigthat exists in the form of an inner creativity producing and re-manipulating symbols and narrations, which is finally blossoming in Syria despite the horrible circumstances.

*Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Institute in Damascus, focusing her research on the Syrian television industry. You can follow her writing and work at www.mediaoriente.com and on twitter @donatelladr.

How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime (Part Two)

PR groups like the D.C. based Capital Communications were in talks with the Syrian government few months before the uprising. The group chair, Akram Elias, offers Shaaban an “action plan that covers in depth the subject matter” discussed in a previous meeting. The email does not specify the topic of the conversation, but Capital Communications skills serve areas like “crisis communications and reputation management” and offer services as“how to pitch a story to the US media” for those who want to shape “effective messages”. Among its clients, the group counts many foreign governments as that of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and also Russia. Other groups that focus more on bridging the government and the private sector have tried to set their operations in Syria. N.Y. based Global Leadership Team  attempted –unsuccessfully, it seems from the email correspondence – to reach out to the presidential palace in order to host world summits on innovation and capitalism in Syria and to award first lady Asma al-Assad among “the most innovative people” in the world.

 People like Shaaban and the presidential palace`s inner circle of seemingly reform-minded folks –English-speaking, Western-educated elites that know how to impression the West by employing words as “empowerment” and “entrepreneurship” which make up the universal vocabulary of neoliberalism– have been able to seduce organizations that lie at the extreme sides of the ideological spectrum, like the World Economic Forum and Viva Palestina!.

Former British Labour Party MP George Galloway, who co-founded the latter to bring humanitarian aides and relief to Gaza`s civilian population after the 2008 Israeli attack, is a well known leftist activist. His involvement in the Palestinian cause has matched with Assad`s rhetoric of Syria being “the last Arab country” committed to the “historic endeavor” of liberating Palestine. Dubbing Assad`s Syria as the “last castle of Arab dignity” is as enormous as when he cheered Saddam Hussen with “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability” .Later, Galloway declared to have been misunderstood, as those words were addressed to the Iraqi people, not to the dictator; he might have been caught in the same kind of misunderstanding concerning Syria.

 The charm that Assad`s Syria has exercised on both world`s capitalists and leftist activists relies on an enmeshed network of privileges, personal favors, mutual benefits and exchanges, mixed with what is left of old fashioned anti imperialist ideology. Here, the seemingly-opposites coincide. This clever mix of neoliberalism and anti-imperialism rhetoric is cultivated by the presidential palace and pushed forward in the public space of media by its unofficial spokespersons. Deemed respectable and enlightened by Western media, companies, governments “these people speak the same language we do” –as a Western diplomat once told me–. The editor in chief of the Syrian Forward magazine, Sami Moubayed, is one of them. His articles on the Syrian uprising give a sense of his skills in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the palace`s seemingly reformist project. This might be the reason why Moubayed is able to appeal an edgy US publication as the Huffington Post; as much as he is able to get invited to dinner by Turkish ambassador in Syria and be hinted as the person who should write “to express the Syrian position” on Turkish press.

Last spring, Moubayed had proposed the palace to “solve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way” and push forward a “third view”  between the official regime position and the people`s. This project — the TV series “Fawq al-saqf” (Above the ceiling)— failed dramatically, as it never reached audience success and was stopped after its 15th episode in Ramadan 2011 . The same seems to happen now to these West-appealing elites sitting at the palace, whose reform-minded project is proving to be just a media project, not even a well marketed one anymore.

How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime

Hundreds of emails flooded from some 78 inboxes of Syrian presidential palace`s aides and media advisors last Monday, after an attack led by Anonymous – apparently the accounts` passwords just lacked security (and imagination) as their protection was simply“12345”--.

The most controversial leaked email was sent by a press attache at the Syrian mission to the United Nation, Sheherazad Jaafari –who happens to be the the daughter of the current Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari— The email is addressed to Luna Chebel, former host of the Al Jazeera Arabic show “Lil-nisa`faqat” (For women only), who left the Doha-based channel on May 2010 over a dress-code dispute with its management and went to work as al-Assad`s media aide at the Palace.

Jaafari advised the Palace`s aide on how to handle the interview between Bashar al-Assad and ABC`s American journalist Barbara Walters. This is the interview where we saw on screen the Syrian president declaring: “We don’t kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person”. While, at the time, many thought that Assad was in a clear state of denial concerning the bloody crackdown, he was actually just following Jaafari`s advice to win over an “American Psyche (that) can be easily manipulated”.

 “Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not by an institution, that’s what you have to know,” the Syrian President told Walters in the ABC interview. Here, his emphasis on the difference “between having a policy to crackdown and having some mistakes committed by some officials” echoes his media aides` suggestion to stress on “mistakes” that “have been done in the beginning of the crisis because we did not have a well-organized “police force”. Americans can be convinced if they here that “there are ‘mistakes’ done” but these are going to be fixed, suggests the planning email.

Jaafari also reminds the president`s aide to have him stressing that Facebook and YouTube were not censored during the crisis –in fact they have been banned for years and their legal use was restored only in February 2011, just one month before the beginning of the Syrian uprising — and that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya had offices in Damascus at the time when the unrest started –in fact they were operating under the Ministry of Information`s strict surveillance and independent filming was never permitted, even long time before 15th March—.

While this interview planning email can draw a clear picture of what (some) Syrians think about (some) Americans, indeed this is not the most interesting part of the Anonymous` leaks. Much more comes out when looking at the emails  written and received by Bashar al- Assad`s media and political advisor Butheina Shaaban, a prominent member of the seemingly reform-minded Syrian president`s inner circle. Going through her correspondence helps exploring the symbolic and material appeal that Assad`s regime`s was exercising over journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, leftists activists and even an eccentric millionaire, Bobby Sager.

Sager –who served as an inspiration for NBC`s show The Philanthropist– has spent a significant amount of time “traveling the world” and “he`s pals with Sting, hobnobs with Lady Gaga”. But his friendship with these top music industry folks has probably not moved him as much as the time spent with Syrian English-speaking elites and President al-Assad himself. These days together have apparently secured him an unprecedented insight on Syria and a “first hand perspective” thanks to his visits to the “Ummayyad mosque, the souk, the coffee shops and even the hammam”.

The uncontested beauty of places which would strike a foreign student or a tourist in his first day visit to Damascus has actually helped Bobby to uncover details of the country that “the distorting filters of the media or the haze of distance” had kept secret before.

 But it`s not only this updated nuance of Orientalism that shapes the comfortable relationship binding Western (especially US-based) elites to Syrian regime officials. There are, of course, material privileges coming out from such a link: a bill of 150.000 USD per month, for example, would be the price to “improve the US-Syrian relationship at a crucial time before the next administration comes into office, to improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation..”. Surprisingly enough, this email does not come from a PR firm, but from a University Professor who probably does act as an intermediary in this sort of transactions. David W, Lesch, from the Department of History at Trinity University in Sant`Antonio US, far from being an ordinary scholar with a prominent interest in Syrian issues, is somebody who “has also met on a regular basis since 2004 with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and consulted with Bush and Obama administration officials on an on-going basis in high-level attempts to improve US-Syrian relations”. His official biography adds that “Dr. Lesch was also president of Middle East International Business Associates, Inc., a consulting company that facilitated business opportunities in the Middle East for American companies–among his clients were a number of Fortune 500 corporations”. 

…..

(part one-to be continued)

Dramas of the Authoritarian State

This article is an excerpt from my thesis (and from a chapter I`m gonna publish soon in a forthcoming book on Syria). It was published yesterday on MERIP website. 

I want to dedicate this to all Syrian people who are suffering and waiting for justice cause they`ve never been treated as citizens.

Dramas of the Authoritarian State

by Donatella Della Ratta | published February 2012

During August of 2011, which corresponded with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, viewers of the state-run satellite channel Syrian TV might have stumbled upon quite a strange scene: A man watches as a crowd chants “Hurriyya, hurriyya!” This slogan — “Freedom, freedom!” — is a familiar rallying cry of the various Arab uprisings. It was heard in Syrian cities, including Damascus, when protesters first hit the streets there on March 15, 2011. But it was odd, to say the least, to hear the phrase in a Syrian government-sponsored broadcast. Until that moment, state TV had not screened any such evidence of peaceful demonstrations in Syria.

The scene goes on to show the same bystander ordering policemen to shoot at the protesters. Immediately afterwards, he seems to regret his order, muttering: “Maybe I should have….” At this point it becomes clear that this scene is no news bulletin or user-generated YouTube clip documenting an actual protest. Rather, it comes from amusalsal (pl. musalsalat), as the 30-episode miniseries that accompany Ramadan in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere are known. The grand finale of this musalsalFawq al-Saqf (Above the Ceiling), features the two main characters overlooking a desolate landscape. “What happened to this country?” asks one. “I am responsible for this. I knew it was going to happen…but, in the end, precaution cannot stave off destiny.” The other character replies by repeating the phrase: “Thank God, around us and not on top of us.”

Without a Trace

The credits attribute the paternity of Fawq al-Saqf to the Radio and TV Production Organization, a unit inside Syrian TV launched in 2010 with a mission to employ a “private-company mindset” in churning out dramas, according to Diana Jabbour, the former director. Over the past decade, demand for Syrian musalsalat has increased across the Arab world, with Syrian producers now clocking in right after the historically dominant Egyptians in the quantity of hours provided to the Gulf-owned networks that sit atop the pan-Arab market. The bulk of the Syrian supply comes from private producers, and the Organization, which enjoys financial autonomy and the authority to form public-private partnerships, was intended to represent the new face of government involvement in Syrian TV drama.

Fawq al-Saqf was one of the first productions commissioned by the agency. Its episodes were authored by screenwriters who had worked on Buq‘at Daw’ (Spotlight), a comedic musalsal that was considered among the most daring in Syrian history, airing in 2001 at the tail end of the “Damascus spring,” the short-lived political opening after the accession of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency. The director of Fawq al-Saqf, Samir Barqawi, is a promising young talent who is not openly aligned with the regime. The serial thus had all the components of what many Syrians would call tanfis (blowing off steam), or what Lisa Wedeen has described well as a means of allowing people “to vent frustrations and displace or relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action.” [1] Fawq al-Saqfcould also have been an example of “commissioned criticism,” “an official and paradoxical project to create a democratic façade” in a period of unrest by featuring a level of dissent in official media. [2]

Neither of these classifications is persuasive, however. Had the musalsal been tanfis or “commissioned criticism,” the official media would have advertised it heavily, to say the least. But no promo spots for Fawq al-Saqf aired on the state-run channels. The daily program “Drama 2011,” which helps viewers navigate the crowded Ramadan schedule, did not even mention it. And though it is customary for Ramadan serials to be rebroadcast in later months, Fawq al-Saqf was never put back on the schedule. Even prominent dramatists who were asked about it seemed unaware of its existence. The only outside station to mention the musalsal was the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel al-‘Arabiyya, which featured it once on the daily “Drama Ramadan” program. Then the musalsal was stopped at its fifteenth episode, before the end of Ramadan, with no reason given. It simply disappeared from TV screens without a trace.

After Ramadan ended, in September, the topic of Fawq al-Saqf came up at a seminar at the University of Copenhagen. Adib Kheir, owner of the production company Sama Art Production, dismissed it as a “silly project that was done without any planning, testing or pre-testing.” Kheir belongs to a group of Syrian producers who view TV drama as a commodity: His business relies on such products as Turkish serials dubbed into Syrian dialect, which are highly popular in the pan-Arab market. From his strictly commercial perspective, Fawq al-Saqf was simply a failure.

Sotto Voce

Fawq al-Saqf grew out of a proposal offered by Sami Moubayed during a meeting held at the presidential palace in the spring of 2011, according to the head of censorship at the Radio and TV Production Organization, Mahir ‘Azzam. [3]Moubayed teaches political science at the private Kalamoon University in Damascus and is editor-in-chief of Forward, a monthly magazine from the influential Haykal media group, which promotes the idea of a progressive, liberal Syria under the Asad family’s leadership. He is a personal friend of Bouthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Asad’s media adviser, who delivered the first official response of the state to the Syrian uprising. Moubayed’s articles on the uprising — some of which appear in American outlets like the Huffington Post — give a sense of his skill in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the presidential palace`s seemingly reformist project. [4] In a piece called “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” he acknowledges that Syrians like Saadallah Wannous and Muhammad al-Maghout were given leeway to produce meaningful art “under the watchful eye of the government, hoping that their plays or poems would ‘defuse’ public discontent.” But he consigns such arrangements to the past, and does not list Bashar al-Asad’s Syria among the countries that are facing uprisings today. He seems, furthermore, to endorse the regime’s narrative that the enemy in Syria is political Islam: He muses that the politically engaged literary works he cites will seem outdated “to a rising Arab generation that will emerge after the Arab spring, perhaps five to ten years from now. One day, they will definitely see the light, yet again, where need for them rearises, perhaps when the Islamists coming to power today turn into another Husni Mubarak or another Qaddafi.” [5]

According to ‘Azzam, Moubayed’s pitch for Fawq al-Saqf started with a simple question: “How can we resolve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way?” The Forward editor went on to describe his concept for the musalsal as a “third view that does not embrace the regime’s view or the street’s…something that the regime would not feel as a provocation when watching it, but would not anger the street or encourage people to demonstrate after the broadcast.” The presidential palace seemed to like the idea, for the Organization (where ‘Azzam heads the censorship division) was told to take the project under its wing.

Fawq al-Saqf can thus be said to exemplify a mechanism linking cultural producers to different components of the Syrian regime, one that I call the “whisper strategy.” [6] It is an example of Michel Foucault’s strategies without a strategist, a sotto voce conversation whereby priorities are negotiated and commonalities established over the content of cultural production. The metaphor of the whisper suggests a relationship based not on coercion or clashing cultural paradigms but rather on Max Weber’s “elective affinities,” a nexus of shared beliefs, interests and concerns. The ideological common ground occupied by regime and many cultural producers is a belief in the backwardness of Syrian society, which ostensibly can progress only through an enlightening (tanwiri) process led by benevolent minority rulers. When discussing their media projects, cultural producers very often mention the “culpability of society” in its own backwardness and the need to reform it through tanwiri media projects. “Drama has to criticize society,” stressed Syrian screenwriter Najeeb Nseir to a Dunya TV interviewer on October 19, 2010. Thanks to the “whisper strategy,” everyone, from dramatists to state censors, is aware of and agrees upon the specific issues to be tackled in TV drama and media productions in general.

In the case of Fawq al-Saqf, Moubayed seems to have initiated the whispering in the interest of a reformist project: National dialogue is presented as a solution to the Syrian crisis, but the dialogue is to be conducted under the regime’s auspices and its boundaries are to be fixed from the top down, in cooperation with cultural elites.

This thinking informs the title of the musalsalAbove the Ceiling, which seems to promise a national dialogue without “red lines” or upper bounds. The “ceiling” metaphor is often reiterated by Bashar al-Asad — including in the interview he gave to Syrian TV on August 21, 2011 — to suggest that media outlets already enjoy a high degree of freedom in the country, but do not exploit it. The metaphor is ambiguous, as it specifies neither who is entitled to set the standards of freedom nor where their margins lie. Asad implies that the media impose a “ceiling” upon themselves, but does not point to where this ceiling is, meaning that the media do not dare push against it. It is precisely this ambiguity that matches up with the enlightenment project of cultural elites, by definition a small group, who are deemed to have the necessary discernment to keep raising the ceiling in accordance with the times and the political opportunity. The tanwiri project should always look fair, transparent and reform-minded to the audience. As Fawq al-Saqf director Barqawi stressed in an interview: “We nurtured a form of civilized dialogue. We don’t have to present works that please one side at the expense of the other…. My goal is to invite the viewer, whatever his political orientation, to see himself and the other in the series.” [7]

The Regime Wants…

The power centers inside the regime — the presidential palace, the different branches of secret police (mukhabarat), the various ministries — are not entirely homogeneous in outlook. They communicate, of course, but they are also capable of miscommunications, misfires and changes of opinion. It sometimes occurs that one power center pushes forward a political project that contradicts the prerogatives of another, or even that one power center supports multiple, simultaneous, mutually contradictory projects. Despite its exceptional backdrop, the 2011 uprising, Fawq al-Saqf reveals a dynamic that is routine rather than exceptional: namely, the interference of several regime components in the making of TV drama, with each power center pursuing its own agenda, or more than one agenda, at the same time.

It is instructive here to flash back to 2001, the first full year of Bashar al-Asad’s presidency and the inaugural season of Spotlight. Touted by the official press as breaking taboos, Spotlight dealt with such sensitive topics as corruption and the abuses of the mukhabarat. It initially enjoyed the open support of Bashar al-Asad himself, lending credence to the ambient hopes at the time that the new president was indeed reform-minded. “Spotlight was born in the atmosphere of the ‘Damascus spring’ and is the direct expression of Bashar al-Asad’s first phase,” says its director, Laith Hajjo. But the serial nonetheless ran afoul of the Viewing Committee at Syrian TV and its episodes were partly redacted before going on the air. “Eighty percent of Spotlight was shot this way,” said Adib Kheir at the Copenhagen seminar. “Somebody gives his blessing for a project, then it goes into production and the troubles begin.” It was only following the palace’s direct intervention that the musalsal was finally broadcast. Some of its sketches were indeed bold. Former vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was reportedly livid after one mocking episode seemed to discourage foreign investment. [8] But Khaddam did not succeed in stopping Spotlight from being aired, as the presidential palace held the balance of power at the time, and placed a priority on presenting a reformist face.

Fawq al-Saqf lacked the protective atmosphere of the “Damascus spring,” however, and its problems with the censor began even earlier than its broadcast, starting with the very title of the production. Originally, the serial was to be called al-Sha‘b Yurid… (The People Want…), part one of the anti-regime couplet then echoing in Arab capital after Arab capital. That was vetoed. The Viewing Committee was reported to have rejected several episodes as well, only to reverse itself when the palace interceded with authorization. While the serial was being broadcast, ‘Azzam recounts, “different parties” lodged complaints and “other official corners,” namely the security services, placed personal phone calls to Syrian TV personnel in order to exert pressure for cancellation. Fawq al-Saqf had become a big headache for the channel, which first dropped the promo spots and then made the decision to halt the broadcasts. Ma‘an Haydar, director-general of Syrian TV, cited non-completion of taping as the reason for stopping the serial, promising to rebroadcast every episode once they were all ready. [9] “The reaction of the palace was silence, which basically meant agreement to interrupt the broadcast,” says ‘Azzam.

At the time that Fawq al-Saqf aired, the balance of power had probably shifted to the intelligence services and the palace’s tanwiri project yielded to the security-first mindset. Or, perhaps better, the palace itself had placed thetanwiri project on hold in order to facilitate the security project in a period of unrest.

The state-run media outlets are stuck in the middle of these intra-regime battles, unwilling or unable to take responsibility for what they are airing, and compelled to abide by different and sometimes contradictory orders. Syrian TV officials initially chose the low-profile approach of declining to promote or advertise the musalsal so as not to be read as supporting one faction of the regime over another. In a situation so slippery, the eventual decision to postpone the musalsal was the only way not to anger anyone, as outright cancellation might conceivably have done. In the end, however, postponement was akin to cancellation.

Personal Interventions

The shift in the balance of power among the power centers of the Syrian regime is apparent as well in the different fates of two TV dramas produced in 2010 and 2011 by the same director, the well-known Najdat Anzour. In 2010, Anzour penned Ma Malakat Aymanukum (Those Whom Your Right Hand Possesses), a musalsal that treats Islam in contemporary Syria. The script condemns religious extremism, as manifested in suicide bombings or violence against women, and exalts the freedom, tolerance and self-determination to be found in piety when properly understood. This approach is in keeping with the regime’s long-time advocacy of secular politics in order to protect Syria’s religious minorities while at the same time proving itself religious enough not to offend the country’s conservative Sunni majority. Here again, cultural production and official discourse converge in a tanwiri project. Ma Malakat Aymanukum’s script passed through the initial stages of state approval.

But then, prior to broadcast, the viewing committee sent it to the Ministry of Information for further examination. One of the points of contention was the serial’s title, taken from a Qur’anic verse that might be read to suggest male ownership of women. The phrase “ma malakat aymanukum” appears in the Qur’an 14 times, and generally refers to slaves. The sura from which the title is taken prohibits sexual intercourse with married women, except “those whom your right hand possesses.” Given the delicacy of the matter, the Ministry of Information, which normally has the final word, decided to ask the advice of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, another power broker was reportedly very annoyed by the serial — Muhammad Hamsho, a businessman close to Bashar’s brother Mahir, commander of the Fourth Armored Division that is the core of the security forces. Ma Malakat Aymanukum features a corrupt entrepreneur who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hamsho, down to details like running for election and opening a TV production business. Anzour has never explicitly named Hamsho as an opponent of his series, speaking merely of “people with interests” and “people bothered by the musalsal.” In any case, while the Ministry of Religious Endowments was reviewing the file, a veto of the broadcast of the musalsal from prominent Sunni scholar Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti forced Syrian TV to pull it off the Ramadan grid, just one day before the scheduled premiere. Disappointed, Anzour says he “made the president aware of the issue.”

The former minister of culture, Riyad Na‘san Agha, affirms that he lobbied for the musalsal, adding that “the president himself intervened in favor of it,” too. Anzour also lays emphasis upon the positive role played by Bashar al-Asad: “When I attended the meeting with artists and producers, he mentioned the musalsal three times and said, ‘Had I not personally intervened, the musalsal would have been gone.’ He used exactly that expression: ‘Had I not personally intervened.’”

Yet the president certainly did not do the same for Anzour’s 2011 TV drama offering, ChiffonChiffon revolves around several portraits of teenage boys and girls wrestling with questions about sex and drugs. It features a scene where a girl protagonist, who dresses in stereotypically masculine ways and lives among men, walks toward the very conservative Sunni mosque of Abu Nour, surrounded by veiled women.

In 2010, al-Buti was forced to accept the broadcast of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, which he had previously rejected as religiously offensive. On April 5, 2011, with the uprising well underway, he renewed his attack on the miniseries in an interview with Syrian TV, attributing the spreading unrest to Anzour’s musalsal. Shortly after this episode, and in response to a call from Syrian actors and directors for humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Dar‘a, known as “the milk statement,” Anzour appeared at the forefront of producers who signed a counter-petition calling for boycotting the protesting artists in TV drama. “There was never any shortage of food or milk,” he said. “It was a political statement. The authorities were dealing with armed terrorist groups.” [10] Anzour’s blatant rush to toe the official line might have been payback for Bashar’s intervention in 2010 or a genuine commitment to the president’s political project. In any case, Chiffon was not broadcast in Ramadan 2011. Anzour has excused the cancellation as a decision taken in the “national interest.” But the incident reveals the continuous shifts of alliances within the regime. Under the palace’s auspices, al-Buti had launched an Islamic religious channel, Nour. In a time of unrest, when the security project had become a top priority, the regime probably needed the Sunni scholar’s support much more than that of secular cultural elites.

No Longer Torn

The relationship binding these cultural producers to the Syrian regime is quite different from what miriam cooke has described regarding a previous generation of Syrian intellectuals, who were torn between the desire to criticize the regime and the obligation to compromise with it. This generation negotiated what later became forms of “commissioned criticism.” The intellectuals cooke deals with — writers like Saadallah Wannous, Muhammad al-Maghout and Mamdouh ‘Adwan — saw themselves as engaged in a continuous struggle to widen the red lines around permissible discourse. The cultural producers involved in whispering with the state, on the other hand, are committed to dialogue with power and tend to deny the existence of censorship. Instead, they rather speak about the necessity of “artistic evaluation” of their scripts.

Unlike cooke’s intellectuals, these TV dramatists do not hide their relations with the regime power centers, but show them off. They back the regime’s cultural project of treating the social pathologies — corruption, gender inequality, religious extremism, illiteracy — that make up its alleged “backwardness.” “Religious and social control are our real problems and at the origin of our backwardness,” says Laith Hajjo. “Drama can help to solve this.” The noble-soundingtanwiri label helps these screenwriters and producers to merge their work with the regime’s own awareness campaigns, by means of the well-placed whisper. “I would say I have a tanwiri mission,” asserts Nseir. “My works don’t aim to put a mirror in front of the society. I want them to discuss issues that are dealt with in my musalsalatand to progress through this discussion. I don’t want to describe; I want to provoke debates and drive social change.” The drama makers are thus not so much complicit as they are comfortable with the powers that be.

Pleasure and comfort — derived from the social status and financial privileges the new generation of Syrian cultural producers are granted — mark the relationship between them and the various power centers inside the regime. These features have in effect replaced the agreement upon “unbelief” that, as described by Lisa Wedeen, bound politics together with cultural reproduction under Hafiz al-Asad. In the Hafiz al-Asad era, cultural producers did not believe the patent propaganda they cranked out; rather, they forged a tacit pact with the regime whereby they acted “as if” they believed it. These “shared conditions of unbelief,” according to Wedeen, “actually reproduce[d] the conditions of obedience under Asad.” [11] In neoliberal Syria, where TV drama makers live in greater material comfort, the regime and its allied cultural producers are closer to stakeholders in a common investment project whereby they both define what is good and advisable for Syrian society. That society, in turn, is never addressed as made up of citizens or consumers, but is rather imagined as a backward majority that should be ruled and disciplined through practices of enlightenment accessible to a select few.

Endnotes

[1] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University o Chicago Press, 1999), p. 88.
[2] miriam cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 72.
[3] ‘Azzam was interviewed by journalist and former censorship committee member Ibrahim al-Jabin, who related ‘Azzam’s remarks at the September 2011 University of Copenhagen seminar. Unless otherwise noted, all other persons quoted in this article were interviewed by the author.
[4] See, for example, Sami Moubayed, “The Road to Syrian Democracy,” Huffington Post, June 23, 2011.
[5] Sami Moubayed, “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” Huffington Post, December 8, 2011.
[6] Donatella Della Ratta, “The ‘Whisper Strategy’: How Syrian Drama Makers Shape Television Fiction in the Context of Authoritarianism and Commodification,” in Leif Stenberg and Christa Salamandra, eds., Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Culture, Religion and Society (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).
[7] ‘Aks al-Sayr, August 26, 2011.
[8] Marlin Dick, “Syria Under the Spotlight,” Arab Media and Society 3 (Fall 2007).
[9] Ibid.
[10] The National (Abu Dhabi), July 23, 2011.
[11] Wedeen, p. 92.