La parodia dell’ISIS firmata Iraq

Riposto qui la mia ultima analisi (almeno per quest’anno) della copertura mediatica in lingua araba del fenomeno ISIS (Da’ash in arabo) che ho curato in questi ultimi mesi, con il prezioso aiuto di Qais Fares, per Arab Media Report.

I capitoli precedenti hanno trattato i media siriani, quelli panarabi, e quelli libanesi, sempre in relazione all’argomento ISIS.

E forse il più sorprendente è proprio questo capitolo iracheno, per il modo in cui un paese che è afflitto da anni dalla piaga del terrorismo (e dell’occupazione militare) reagisce ad organizzazioni come Da’ash: provando a prenderle in giro.

La parodia dell’Isil in onda su Al-Iraqiyya

La scena si apre con Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, l’autoproclamato “califfo” di Isil ( Da’ash nel suo acronimo arabo), che calorosamente saluta i “miscredenti” (kuffar). Un giovane che indossa una t-shirt con lo stemma della bandiera inglese gli si avvicina e timidamente osserva: “signore, ci sono alcuni mezzi di comunicazione che criticano il suo stato dicendo che voi non concedete libertà ai cittadini”. “E chi lo dice?”, risponde il califfo in un marcato dialetto iracheno. Poi incalza, ridendo: “Noi siamo lo stato al mondo che permette maggiore libertà e maggiore democrazia ai suoi cittadini! E se non ci credi, vai a vedere con i tuoi occhi come muoiono e come si fanno saltare in aria liberamente!”. “E che mi dici del resto della popolazione?”, ha il coraggio di chiedere il giovane. Così il califfo si convince che è arrivato il momento di fare un restyling all’immagine internazionale di Da’ash. “Chiamiamo i media amici”, ordina ai suoi fedeli, e immediatamente veniamo catapultati dentro un programma televisivo il cui nome fa il verso a “Controcorrente”, lo show di punta di Al-Jazeera che mette a confronto due opinioni diametralmente opposte. Ma qui più che di un confronto ad armi pari si tratta di un trattamento di favore per il rappresentante del califfo che, al termine della puntata, finisce per impugnare la sciabola e trascinare il suo avversario fuori dallo studio televisivo per quella che si indovina essere un’esecuzione.

Con questa doppia parodia dell’Isil e di Al-Jazeera – considerata da molti un modo per sostenere l’organizzazione jihadista – si chiude la venticinquesima puntata della serie tv Dawlat al-khurafa (Lo stato fittizio) prodotta dalla televisione di stato irachena Al-Iraqiyya. Un budget di oltre 6000 mila dollari (cifra record per una serie televisiva irachena), il programma a episodi (musalsal, in arabo) affronta con ironia il tema dell’autoproclamato “stato islamico”: argomento che tocca da molto vicino la popolazione irachena, dopo che l’organizzazione è arrivata quasi alle porte di Baghdad e controlla tuttora una fetta strategica del territorio del paese, compresa la città di Mosul. “Dobbiamo fargli vedere che non abbiamo paura”, ha dichiarato Ali al-Qassem, il regista di Dawlat al-khurafa.

 

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Non è la prima volta che l’industria televisiva irachena, in particolare quella di fiction, affronta argomenti delicati – e rischiosi per l’incolumità di chi ne parla pubblicamente – come quello dell’autoproclamato califfato islamico. Dopo l’invasione statunitense del 2003, e il caos generale in cui è precipitato il paese, registi, attori e scrittori televisivi hanno approfittato dei più ampi margini di libertà espressiva per raccontare pubblicamente temi come l’estremismo islamico, la crescente minaccia del settarismo, la presenza militare occidentale sul territorio iracheno e le violazioni di diritti umani perpetrate dagli alleati nei confronti della popolazione civile. La seconda metà degli anni 2000 è stata un fiorire di serie televisive che affrontavano con coraggio questi argomenti: una per tutte, Fobia Baghdad (2007), il racconto allucinante di una classe media irachena che perde il suo peso politico e culturale, e che si estingue nella violenza quotidiana di intimidazioni, rapimenti, assassini.

Questa volta il salto è evidente: il “califfo” appare nelle sembianze reali di Al-Baghadi, note al mondo intero dal giorno del suo sermone pubblico a Mosul. Le bandiere nere sono quelle dell’Isil; la situazione, seppure raccontata in chiave ironica, è quella assolutamente realistica di un villaggio iracheno che deve vivere forzatamente dentro un “califfato” dove tutto è proibito e ogni cosa è violenza. Persino una partita di calcio. Nella puntata ventisei vediamo i seguaci di Al-Baghdadi convincere il califfo della necessità di ospitare la coppa del mondo dentro il califfato. E così seguiamo una squadra di giocatori di fama mondiale (ci sono anche Del Piero e Messi) mentre sbarca dentro lo “stato fittizio” e comincia a giocare contro i dawa’ash (membri di Da’ash), vestiti di nero integrale, con barbe lunghe e sciabole a portata di mano. Naturalmente la vittoria, a colpi di lame e minacce, va alla squadra del califfo, mentre un Cesare Maldini “arabo” commenta amareggiato: “così i terroristi vincono anche sul campo di calcio, usando la violenza”.

Insomma, Dawlat al-khurafa è una serie tv coraggiosa che usa strumenti come ironia e satira feroce di fronte a situazioni che non sono affatto lontane dal quotidiano degli iracheni, anzi costituiscono ormai una minaccia reale ad un paese già devastato da anni di guerra e caos. Certo criticare Da’ash con ogni mezzo, e cercare di alienargli il sostegno che pure l’organizzazione pare sia riuscita a raccogliere fra alcune frange tribali sunnite, rientra nella missione della televisione di stato, Al-Iraqiyya, produttrice di Dawlat al-khurafa, che naturalmente deve rappresentare la posizione di “unità nazionale” di fronte alla crisi generata dall’avanzata dell’Isil. Anche gli espliciti riferimenti ad Al-Jazeera in Dawlat al-khurafa, dove una feroce parodia dei suoi programmi suggerisce la collusione della rete qatarina con l’estremismo islamico, va nella direzione di denunciare coloro che lavorano, anche mediaticamente, a minare l’unità nazionale.

Non è un mistero, infatti, che il canale di stanza a Doha sia schierato contro l’ex premier sciita Nouri Al-Maliki e, in generale, contro l’influenza sciita – iraniana – sul governo iracheno. Nella puntata del programma Hadith al-thawra (Conversazione sulla rivoluzione) dello scorso 23 novembre, la presentatrice del famoso show di Al-Jazeera incalzava Harlan Ullman, ex consulente della Difesa Usa, chiedendo spiegazioni del perché l’amministrazione statunitense avesse ignorato le tribù sunnite irachene quando “per oltre due anni si sono sollevate pacificamente, chiedendo di porre fine alle ingiustizie perpetrate dal governo Maliki”. Ullman rispondeva riconoscendo gli errori della strategia Usa: “senza gli sheikh della provincia di Anbar e senza la cooperazione sunnita in generale, sconfiggere ed estirpare lo Stato Islamico risulterebbe molto difficile”. Poi ammetteva come l’amministrazione di Barack Obama avesse sottovalutato il pericolo Isil all’epoca del ritiro delle truppe Usa dall’Iraq, e precisava come il governo Maliki avesse commesso “errori molto gravi che devono essere ora superati”.

Maliki e il suo mandante iraniano non sono mai stati ben visti da Al-Jazeera che, sulla questione irachena, si è da sempre fatta portavoce dell’asse “sunnita” appoggiato dal Qatar. L’ossessione della formazione di una cordata Washington-Tehran che si consolidi nella comune battaglia contro Isil è presente trasversalmente nei palinsesti di Al-Jazeera: uno spinoso argomento che viene spesso dibattuto nei talk show della rete, riflettendo la paura di Qatar (e Arabia Saudita) di perdere l’egemonia sul Golfo arabo, nonché i favori dell’alleato Usa. Nella puntata del programma Fil ‘umq (In profondità) trasmessa lo scorso 15 settembre con il titolo esplicito “L’alleanza segreta fra Washington e Tehran contro lo Stato Islamico” (come già sottolineato in una nostra precedente analisi, Al-Jazeera si riferisce a Isil usando l’espressione “l’organizzazione (nota come) stato”, spesso omettendo anche l’aggettivo “islamico”), il giornalista saudita Ali al-Dhufairi accusava l’Iran non solo di intromettersi negli affari della Siria, sostenendo militarmente il regime di Bashar al-Asad, ma anche di interferire pesantemente con il governo iracheno. D’altra parte non mancavano le polemiche contro gli Stati Uniti, colpevoli di fare da apripista all’ingerenza iraniana nella regione con la scusa di combattere “quella che viene vista come un’organizzazione terroristica”, Isil.

Oltre alla spiccata componente anti-iraniana, un altro elemento che emerge nell’analisi dei programmi di Al-Jazeera sul tema Iraq e Isil è una sorta di tacita giustificazione – proprio alla luce dell’ingerenza iraniana a sostegno delle milizie sciite nel paese – nei confronti di quella parte sunnita della popolazione irachena che avrebbe scelto di unirsi a Da’ash o, comunque, di non ostacolarne l’avanzata. Nell’episodio di Ma wara’ al-khabar (Cosa c’è dietro la notizia) dello scorso 27 novembre intitolata “Segnali di progresso dell’organizzazione (nota come) “stato” a Kirkuk e Ramadi”, veniva sottolineato come le aree marcatamente sunnite di queste province avrebbero cominciato a sostenere Isil anche nella sua conquista di territorio. Sfortunatamente, sottolineava uno degli ospiti del programma, Da’ash sarebbe diventato un modello per i sunniti, nella mancanza più totale di orientamento su quale soggetto sia più adatto a rappresentare i sunniti iracheni. Un altro ospite sottolineava come i sunniti di queste province fossero stati massacrati dalle milizie sciite che avrebbero distrutto anche i loro luoghi di culto, facendo divampare il già mal sopito odio settario; mentre i peshmerga sarebbero stati più clementi, pur non avendo anch’essi compreso a pieno la situazione. Ciò avrebbe generato terreno fertile per l’avanzata dell’Isil nell’area, sostenuta tacitamente – anche se non militarmente – dalle tribù sunnite che avrebbero trovato “chi combatte per conto loro”.

Una pericolosa situazione di crescente odio settario che si registrava già nell’estate scorsa, quando una delle guide dell’Islam sunnita, l’egiziano Youssef Qaradawi (ex volto del programma di Al-Jazeera, Sharia wal hayat, Sharia e vita, ora condannato dall’Egitto ) da anni in esilio in Qatar, avrebbe detto apertamente in un tweet del 23 giugno: “I sunniti vengono oppressi particolarmente in #Iraq e #Da’ash non è emerso in un vuoto come alcuni fantasticano”. Dall’altra parte, proprio per fare fronte al settarismo in risalita, i media iracheni, compresi quelli privati, in generale fanno quadrato attorno all’idea di “unità nazionale”, sostenendo la lotta contro Isil guidata dall’esercito iracheno, l’unica forza legittimata a portare avanti la battaglia per sconfiggere l’organizzazione terroristica. Una posizione, questa, che accomuna sia la televisione privata di matrice liberale Al-Sumaria, che Al-Baghdadia, canale satellitare di stanza al Cairo di proprietà di un imprenditore iracheno sciita, entrambi sostenitrici dell’esercito iracheno come elemento di unità nazionale nella lotta contro Isil.

La spaccatura dell’unità nazionale avverrebbe invece sui territori del pop. Recentemente, in una puntata del talent show di punta dell’intrattenimento panarabo, Arab Idol, trasmesso dal gruppo saudita MBC, è stato eliminato Ammar al-Kufi, il concorrente proveniente dal Kurdistan iracheno. Questa volta la mancanza di sostegno non sarebbe da attribuire alla giuria come era successo l’anno scorso quando uno dei suoi membri, la cantante emiratina Ahlam, si era rifiutata di indicare una delle concorrenti come proveniente dal Kurdistan, sottolineando che sempre di “Iraq” si trattava. Quest’anno la stessa Ahlam, forse per riparare al gesto di cattivo gusto dell’edizione precedente, aveva addirittura duettato con Al-Kufi, a cui era stato concesso di esibirsi in lingua curda in uno degli show panarabi per eccellenza.

L’eliminazione di Al-Kufi dallo show sarebbe questa volta dovuta al mancato supporto dei suoi connazionali iracheni. Un articolo redatto lo scorso novembre dall’agenzia irachena NINA news sottolineava il paradosso che un concorrente iracheno in un così popolare show panarabo non venisse appoggiato apertamente dai suoi connazionali, essendo forse proprio la sua identità curda l’elemento discriminante.

In un pericoloso momento in cui all’interno del paese incalza la guerra settaria – della quale Isil approfitta per rafforzarsi facendo leva sul tacito appoggio di una parte delle tribù sunnite – persino la musica pop non è territorio innocente e si trasforma nel campo di battaglia di nazionalismi e settarismi.

 

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ISIL (ISIS/IS/Daesh) and western media: accidental allies?

Here below my latest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English. As for the name issue (well, Al Jazeera has a policy which is to call it ISIL), I’ve drafted my thoughts here on this blog.

ISIL and western media: Accidental allies?

ISIL’s alleged influence on social networking sites might be the result of western hype.

Last updated: 25 Sep 2014 09:02
Hardly a day goes by without reading articles on how smart and tech-savvy – yet barbarian – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is. Typing the word “ISIL” alongside “social media”, “internet” or “media strategy” into a search engine reveals the gloomy yet fascinating world of those online jihadists who seem to be savvy enough to master, together with Kalashnikovs and knives, the modern language of the participatory Web 2.0.

Countless articles have thoroughly dissected last June’s #AllEyesonISIS Twitter campaign, launched to prove the groups’ alleged grassroots online support. Media professionals have emphasised these jihadists’ sophisticated knowledge of contemporary social networking sites, which became clear when they managed to build an Android app available for public downloading. The same was evident when they quickly migrated from Twitter to Diaspora, an online networking site, once the San Francisco-based organisation decided to shut down several of their accounts.

Western media fills its airtime and webspace with analyses of why the group provokes both repulsion and fascination among a wide audience.

ISIL obsession

The obsession with ISIL and its alleged social media success is more apparent in the West. Listening to Arabic media leads to an unexpected discovery. Quite a different framework, in fact, is employed by Arabic-speaking outlets when dealing with ISIL and its fighters.

While in the Arab media, ISIL is depicted as a western post-colonial creation, in international, English-speaking outlets, the organisation is described as a bunch of tech-savvy barbarians who inspire repulsion but also a sort of fascination for their activities in the cyber world and on the ground.

First of all, parody and irony are common on Facebook and other social networking posts that talk about ISIL. This sort of takfiri dark humour, which points to an extremist doctrine of casting others as apostates, is widely documented in Arab media, while almost ignored by its western counterpart.

A few weeks ago, a well-known satirical Palestinian TV series, “Watan ala watar” (Country on a string), came to the attention of international media forpoking fun at ISIL.

Most likely, this happened because the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organisation cofounded by a former Israeli military intelligence officer and based in Washington DC, had translated the clip into English and distributed it on the internet.

The excerpt shows an ISIL checkpoint where two Arab citizens, a Lebanese and a Jordanian, are stopped and executed by the fighters. Soon after, an Israeli passing by is warmly greeted and allowed to go on. This reflects a common feeling among Arab audiences: ISIL targets Arabs much more than it targets Israel or the western world.

Recently, several young Arab voices on social networking sites protested the obsessive attention given by an outraged international community to thebeheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff after so few paid attention to ISIL’s beheading of two Lebanese soldiers and a Syrian journalist, Bassam Rayes.

Outrage on social media

Secondly, news features and op-eds produced by Arab media often read the rise of ISIL within a post-colonial framework. Several Arab analysts connect the rise of jihadist networks and sectarian groups to the imposition of borders by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which they argue resulted in entrenching sectarianism and fragmentation in the region.

Despotic regimes supported by colonial powers in order to maintain the status quo further subjugated citizens in the region through authoritarianism, and an education based on fear and the glorification of the leader’s sole authority. Within this context, civil society did not have any vital space to grow and organise itself in the shape of social movements or parties.

The “Arab Spring” was the first opportunity in decades for the people to reclaim their dignity and move Arab societies forward. However, this spontaneous movement was crushed, partly because former colonial powers had no interest in seeing a post Sykes-Picot Arab world shaped by the Arabs themselves. In an op-ed, which was recently translated into English, a prominent Syrian journalist writes: “Our entire region has been violated by those near and far in order to carry out whatever they want under the pretext of combating terrorism.”

So while in the Arab media, ISIL is depicted as a western post-colonial creation, in international, English-speaking outlets, the organisation is described as a bunch of tech-savvy barbarians who inspire repulsion but also a sort of fascination for their activites in the cyber world and on the ground.

Western hype

However, a recent study on ISIL’s activity on Twitter authored by Shiraz Maher and Joseph Carter has shown that only 50 users accounted for 20 percent of their tweets. This suggests that the organisation’s alleged influence on social networking sites might be the result of a western hype generated by the schizophrenia of our own media system, which is concerned by the threat of terrorism but simultaneously fascinated by a mediated violence that can be easily accessed via every portable device and consumed at home on HD TV screens.

A decade ago, our biggest mediated fear was a man named Osama Bin Laden who used to make his media appearances using a long shot, filmed with a fixed camera, in a simple setting with only a Kalashnikov for his background prop.

More than 10 years have now passed. The long shot has been replaced by fancy fade work, contemporary editing techniques and HD cameras. It seems that ISIL does not need TV channels anymore to spread its violent message.

Today, it has on its side the architecture of the participatory web and the viral circulation of content boosted by social media. And a very special – probably unintentional – ally: western media, drawn in by ISIL’s paradoxically hideous allure.

Donatella Della Ratta is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry. She has authored two monographs on Arab media, and curated chapters on Syrian media and politics in several collective books.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

 

 

 

Le nostre ossessioni di schermi, da Bin Laden allo Stato Islamico

Settembre 2001, la più grande paura (e ossessione) mediatica dell’Occidente si chiamava Osama Bin Laden. Appariva minacciosamente con il logo dorato di Al Jazeera alle spalle, l’inquadratura era studiata con semplicità, dietro il mezzobusto di Osama campeggiava un paesaggio roccioso con un solo accessorio di scena: il kalashnikov. L’apparizione parlava piano, con studiata lentezza scandiva parole in arabo classico, la lingua del Corano, ma anche della letteratura, della poesia, e dei notiziari televisivi nel mondo arabo. Bin Laden terrorizzava l’Occidente intero ma lo costringeva a tradurre, ad avvicinarci “noi” a “loro”, per comprenderne la minaccia, il perché di tanto odio, il perché di quel kalashnikov sul fondo dello schermo.

Sono passati oltre dieci anni, e tante guerre: Afghanistan, Irak, per nominare solo quelle direttamente collegate alle apparizioni televisive di Bin Laden. Il disperato nostro tentativo di spegnere quell’immagine minacciosa nel sangue: sparare a caso nei posti del terrore per stanare l’immagine e cancellarla.

Poi, dieci anni dopo, sono arrivate le primavere arabe. L’occasione storica offerta al mondo arabo per riscattarsi dalla sua “barbarie”, per provare che è capace di chiedere dignità e democrazia. L’occasione era talmente ghiotta per noi Occidente che abbiamo trovato una bella espressione pulita, “primavera”, per raccontare una stagione che doveva contenere rinascita, ma non sangue; rivoluzione, ma non violenza. I nostri media si sono uniti nell’abbraccio collettivo alle primavere arabe: rivoluzioni per il consumo digitale, i gelsomini che profumano per tutta la Tunisia, la piazza egiziana di Tahrir che offre la più bella inquadratura televisiva possibile, ventiquattroresuventiquattro accesa su un popolo che fa fuori il suo dittatore in un’atmosfera quasi carnevalesca. Il più grande spettacolo televisivo del secolo. I nostri media impazziti per questi giovani arabi, blogger, attivisti, che impugnano telecamerine e cellulari invece che il kalashnikov del loro antenato delle caverne.

E oggi arriva l’inverno. Siamo delusi, profondamente delusi da un mondo arabo che non ce l’ha fatta. Ha avuto la sua occasione, e l’ha bruciata. Il mondo arabo non è capace di chiedere giustizia, dignità, democrazia. Non è nel suo DNA. C’è qualcosa di marcio ad Oriente.

Così la primavera è finita, i media hanno cambiato i titoli.

I giovani arabi stanchi delle botte prese hanno mollato i cellulari e imbracciato -magari i kalashnikov!- pugnali e spade con cui oggi tagliano gole e teste. E così c’è una nuova minaccia che imperversa sui nostri schermi, tutti i nostri schermi mobili, portatili, piccoli e grandi: si chiama ISIS, ISIL, o semplicemente IS, Stato Islamico.

Non parla più l’idioma incomprensibile e troppo aulico di Bin Laden: si rivolge a noi direttamente nella nostra lingua, l’inglese, addirittura sfumandola nello slang cool delle periferie dove nasce il rap, l’hip hop, la cultura giovanile occidentale “cutting edge”.

Non ha più bisogno di Al Jazeera per far arrivare il suo messaggio. Ha il tesoro prezioso dell’Occidente a sua disposizione, Internet: i centoquaranta caratteri di Twitter, le segnalazioni di stato di Facebook, i “mi piace” di YouTube. Sa costruire apps che butta dentro il calderone di Google Play Store senza che neppure i nerdoni di Silicon Valley se ne accorgano. Monta video del terrore con camere HD, costruisce inquadrature complesse, zoomma e dissolve. Ed è chiaramente a noi che parla: “a message to America”.

Ironia della sorte, i nostri media che all’unisono nel settembre duemilauno chiedevano ad Al Jazeera di spegnere l’immagine di Bin Laden, di sottrarre il microfono a quella voce pacata e minacciosa in nome della sicurezza internazionale, del non istigare ulteriore odio e terrorismo, oggi fanno a gara a parlare dell’ISIS. Non passa un giorno che non si leggano articoli che ossessivamente scandagliano “la strategia mediatica” dello Stato Islamico, la loro scaltrezza techie, la loro familiarità con i “nostri” social media. Fiumi di inchiostro e pagine web e persino reportage video “embedded” con i soldati dell’ISIS – un pò come si faceva in Irak 2003 con le truppe americane -descrivono minuziosamente il loro stile di vita, nei deserti siriani ed iracheni così come online, nei meandri dei social networks dove impazzano di followers.

Tutto si compie nella celebrazione del momento: come sono bravi questi barbari, qui ed ora, a usare questi nostri media qui ed ora. Pochi, troppo pochi si sono chiesti da dove viene lo Stato Islamico, e perché si manifesti e si imponga proprio in questo momento. Le ragioni storiche vengono continuamente sacrificate all’altare dell’instantanea, dell’intervista intelligente in sessantasecondi, dei centoquarantacaratteri, dell’articolo tempo di lettura dueminuti e quarantacinque.

Eppure l’ossessione mediatica per l’ISIS è principalmente ossessione occidentale. Oggi che Al Jazeera esce di scena come megafono necessario di Bin Laden, oggi che il mondo arabo sta veramente cambiando sotto i nostri occhi, anche se non ce ne accorgiamo mentre misuriamo il cambiamento in termini stagionali di primavere ed inverni, oggi anche i media arabi parlano un’altra lingua quando parlano dell’ISIS. Leggere articoli della stampa araba o ascoltare discussioni sui canali panarabi apre lo sguardo su un altro mondo: il binomio ISIS-social media è lontano dalla glorificazione a cui lo sottopone l’Occidente, e lungi dall’essere il solo, ossessivo punto di discussione. L’esistenza dello Stato Islamico ha aperto un dibattito nel mondo arabo (e anche una spaccatura nel mondo sunnita) che si riflette sui media: cosa vuol dire essere musulmano oggi, da dove arriva questa violenza, cosa ne è delle nostre rivoluzioni, come facciamo ad impedire che il terrorismo non sia una nuova scusa fabbricata per sottometterci ancora, un nuovo Sykes-Picot rivisto e aggiornato in versione 2.0.

Ascoltando quello di cui discute il mondo arabo un dubbio emerge: che sia la nostra ossessione a produrre il mostro che ci perseguita. Come se a furia di discutere morbosamente dei talenti multimediali dell’ISIS lo facessimo diventare veramente talentuoso. Legittimamente sale il dubbio se il silenzio stampa che cercavamo di imporre ad Al Jazeera negli anni di Bin Laden non fosse piuttosto la nostra rabbia di non avere noi, sui nostri schermi, il terrorista del momento in diretta esclusiva. Lo Stato Islamico sembra aver colto questa contraddizione in cui ci dibattiamo, e per questo forse non crea problemi se a chiedere di seguire i suoi soldati giorno e notte a Raqqa e dintorni è Vice, la bibbia del glamour lifestyle, che spazia da come si cucina sano e vegano a come si muore barbaramente decapitati per mano di un gruppo sanguinario ma tecnologicamente cool (e nessuno, ahimé, nel nostro civile Occidente si scandalizza se il giornalista decapitato di turno si chiama Bassam Raies, ed è siriano: ma urla vendetta quando lettere a noi familiari riempiono i sottopancia degli schermi di sangue).

E’ come se l’ISIS abbia toccato il punto più debole del nostro Occidente: la morbosità per lo spettacolo violento; ma che sia e rimanga, appunto, spettacolo. Che ci siano migliaia di schermi, piccoli e grandi, camere e YouTube, portatili e HD home video, fra “noi” e “loro”. Il binomio nuova tecnologia e violenza che alle nostre teste occidentali sembra così assurdo, così inaccettabile (“barbari” e “tecnologici” sono due parole che spesso mettiamo insieme nelle nostre analisi); dentro le nostre pance, invece, quelle a cui parlano i media -l’emisfero destro di McLuhan -, fa scattare qualcosa di ancestrale.

Dalla fine della seconda guerra mondiale abbiamo scacciato la guerra e la violenza fuori dalle nostre porte di fortezza occidentale. La morbosità per la violenza si è trasferita sugli schermi, si è mediatizzata, il sangue si è sciolto nei pixel dei nostri HD home video, ma è ancora lì in agguato. E ci piace ancora consumarla, esaltarla nel momento stesso in cui ufficialmente la ripudiamo.

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Recupero il bel libro di Don De Lillo, “Mao II”. E’ profetico quando osserva che:

c’è un curioso nodo che lega romanzieri e terroristi”. “In Occidente”, dice Bill il romanziere protagonista del libro, “noi diventiamo effigi famose mentre i nostri libri perdono il potere di formare e di influenzare (…). Anni fa credevo ancora che fosse possibile per un romanziere alterare la vita interiore della cultura. Adesso si sono impadroniti di quel territorio i fabbricanti di bombe e i terroristi”.

Gli scrittori hanno ceduto il passo ai terroristi, che parlano alle coscienze più dei libri che scriviamo, delle nostre pallide riflessioni intellettuali, dei nostri dibattiti timidi. Invece i terroristi parlano la lingua trionfante della contemporaneità, la lingua veloce degli hashtag e dei “mi piace”. E i nostri media gli offrono schermi e pagine su un piatto d’argento.

Perché di fondo esiste una lingua comune, una lingua che accomuna la nostra ossessiva voglia di consumare violenza e coloro che la violenza la producono.

Nel mezzo, c’è un mondo arabo che il mondo ignora perché non riesce ad entrare nei centoquarantacaratteri e non si riassume in hashtag, non si filma e dissolve in HD, e la sua primavera non è passata attraverso il profumo dei gelsomini digitali ma continua a puzzare di corpi martoriati, carne e sangue di gente che ancora muore -mentre sui nostri media si esaltano l’ISIS e i media- per ragioni che forse non abbiamo mai veramente voluto ascoltare.

Media and power relations in Syria

Posting here below an interview which came out on Jadaliyya few days ago where I discuss the topic of media and power relations under Bashar al-Asad (the topic of my PHD research which I hope to soon turn into a fully-fledged book).

The Whisper Strategy (Drama and Power Relations in Syria):

An Interview with Donatella Della Ratta

[Image from kongofsat.net] [Image from kongofsat.net]

We have heard a lot about the spring of Syrian drama, which flourished in the decade that preceded the 2011 uprising and perhaps even before. Some argue that the regime indirectly worked with directors and actors to serve a political goal, while others think that Syrian directors, actors, and scriptwriters were able to offer some challenging artistic works despite censorship and the limitations within which they were allowed to work. Why did the regime support the production of these TV series? Why did directors and actors pin their hopes on the young president? And why did they adopt a political vision that reflects the president’s set of reforms or what is called as the tanwiri trend? In this interview, Donatella Della Ratta tries to shed light on these issues through her experience as a field researcher who studied this topic and work on her soon-to-be-published book on the subject.

Osama Esber (OE): Power relations governed the production of the Syrian drama before the uprising; why did the regime in Syria decide to invest in drama production, to create a cultural network of advisers and collaborators in this respect?

Donatella Della Ratta  (DDR): First of all, I have to clarify that the Syrian regime (or, better said, that part of the regime that is described by the word “dawla,” state, and its media apparatus, i.e. state-owned channels) has never directly invested in Syrian drama. Traditionally speaking, Syrian state-owned media have invested very little in musalsalat production, producing an average of two musalsalat per year. Syrian state media had found a very good formula to get local drama produced yet not to pay for it. In the seventies, they used to allow some talented employees of state media to keep their public jobs at Syrian TV while producing TV drama as de facto private investors, although at the time there was no such a thing as a private sector in Syria’s drama production. There was an unwritten deal with these directors and producers that they could produce their own drama works using the facilities of Syrian state TV; in return, they would give a copy of the final product to be aired in Syria free-of-rights while they could sell it to other Arab countries and make a profit out of it. It is thanks to this very peculiar production model that state TV managed to build a library of Syrian drama productions without investing any cash in it, and leaving the commercial side of the business to Gulf buyers who were already at the time eager to get TV drama to fill their schedules, particularly during Ramadan. In 1991, the Syrian government passed an investment law to “liberalize” some sectors of the economy, including TV production. That was the first time that Syrian private production companies were allowed to open a business inside the country and operate in the audiovisual sector. This was not a liberalization per se, but rather the institutionalization of a private sector which had already existed in Syria for two decades. Yet, there was indeed something novel that occurred during those years: the 1991 law paved the way to a series of private investments, mostly in real estate, banking and other sectors of the economy, more crucial at the time than TV drama. Many of the entrepreneurs who made a fortune out of this investment law by investing in these above mentioned sectors would also start a TV business, whether for prestige, or to exercise influence, or even for money laundry purposes. All of them were tied to the regime (nidham), but not necessarily to the state (dawla), and to its intelligence apparatus (mukhabarat); in many cases they were also hooked up to regional powers, namely big Gulf investment companies, royal families and the like, especially in the Gulf. It is indeed this class of people, very hooked up with the powers that be, which has invested in TV drama and made a business out of it. It is a sort of neoliberal marriage between political powers and the market, between domestic and regional politics. Instead of being at odds as it might have seemed at  first glance, they actually shared mutual interests and concerns, and were often related one to another by family or business ties

OE: Directors and scriptwriters of the drama serials in Syria have claimed that they serve enlightenment goals, and think they work to save the Syrian people from backwardness, while at the same time they have adopted the president’s agenda and worked as producers of a drama demanded by the Gulf financers. How can they be critical of power structures and the other maladies of Arab societies, while, at the same time, they are using drama to serve power and reproduce traditional culture required by it, under the mask of enlightenment claims?

DDR: There is something very peculiar about Syrian TV drama makers, at least those who self describe their mission as being “tanwiri” (having a goal to “enlighten”). These drama makers mostly produce what is described as being a very realistic sort of TV drama, shot in real places and not in studios, and mostly dealing with social issues, sometimes quite controversial such as corruption, abuse of power, gender issues, extremism, relationships between different religious faiths, and honor crime. These drama makers do indeed believe to have a tanwiri mission and do think that their TV work should be driven by an aspiration to guide society toward progress and education. Both in public contexts (such as several meetings with the Syrian president which took place since Bashar al Asad came to power)  and in private interviews that I have conducted with many of them over several years,  Syrian drama makers have described Syrian society as a “backward society” (mujtama’ mutakhallif) and in need of a guidance in order to progress. They believe that this guidance can be provided only by an enlightened minority, which is the elite of cultural producers. This belief is not at odds with Bashar al-Asad’s political thinking—that a minority (the ‘Alawis ) should rule over the (Sunni) majority in order to protect the other minorities (the Druzes, the Christians, etc.) and preserve the multicultural and multireligious complexity of the Syrian mosaic. In this respect, there is an elective affinity which binds Syrian cultural producers, namely the TV drama makers, and the seemingly reformist political elite which surrounds Bashar al-Asad and embraces his theory of gradual reformism. The Syrian drama makers’ tanwiri project is, in their view, not at odds with the fact that there are mostly selling their so-called progressive musalsalat to Gulf buyers. They believe that this still serves their reformist agenda, as their main target (politically and culturally speaking) is Syria, whereas their main commercial (and profit-making) target is the Gulf. They do not see any contradiction in this. Yet, according to the several interviews that I have conducted from 2009 to 2011 with executives from the pan-Arab TV channels that mostly buy musalsalat during the Ramadan season (such as Dubai TV, MBC, Abu Dhabi and Qatar TV) there is a paradox, which is that Gulf buyers buy Syrian drama because they think it is conservative (muhafiza) for the way it portrays women, for example, as opposed to Egyptian drama. The irony is that what Syrian tanwiri drama makers consider to be edgy and progressive TV drama is often read by their Gulf counterparts as conservative and very traditional.

OE: The cultural producers had a simple vision of power relations in Syria, singling out always the president as enlightened, educated, and different from other power structures that make the regime. Why do you think this happened? What made them look at the young president as a possible savior of the country?

DDR: As I said above, there is a sort of elective affinity binding the Syrian president and his reformist circle to the drama makers. They seem to share the same vision of Syrian society and the same mission of reforming it through their guidance. This is something very new in the history of Syria. The previous generation of cultural producers, described by Cooke (2007) and Wedeen (1999), had a much more complex relationship with the Syrian regime and especially with former president Hafiz al-Asad. There was the desire to push the boundaries of censorship and the necessity to comply with the conditions put forward by the regime in order to work in the country. There was a certain amount of criticism allowed, and a strategy of venting (tanfis) through arts and culture. But the relationship between these cultural producers and the powers that be was confrontational and there was an opposition of a sort. This is not the case of the TV drama makers under Bashar al-Asad (at least prior to the uprising): they seem to be complacent and comfortable with the powers that be. They never speak of censorship, and, when they do that, they always like to refer to social censorship coming from a conservative and, again, in their words “backward” society, rather than from an enlightened president. Even when censorship was exercised by blocking some tanwiri musalsalat a few days or hours before they were scheduled to air, Syrian drama makers have always blamed either state media itself or the control that some mukhabarat agencies exercise on the latter. Yet, the president remains untouched by these critical stances; he is in fact the one who “saves” the progressive TV drama–and the tanwiri project behind it–at the last minute, through direct and personal interventions. This has happened many times under Bashar al-Asad’s rule, from the early 2000s–when the president intervened on state media to let the edgy satirical musalsal Spotlight (Buq‘at Daw’) be aired on Syrian TV–until late 2010, when his direct intervention made sure that the very controversial Whatever Your Right Hands Possess (Ma malakat aymanukum) was broadcast, despite the fierce opposition from many other sides of the regime (religious authorities, powerful businessmen, and some mukhabarat branches). However, the situation has dramatically changed after the uprising and there are a few cases in Ramadan 2011, just few months after the uprising started, where the president was not able–or did not want–to intervene in favor of seemingly progressive TV drama.

The Syrian president and his political persona seem to have completely bewitched Syrian TV drama makers, at least until the uprising started. It was as if Syrian TV drama was the media side of his political project, the mirror of his seemingly political reformism. Syrian drama makers have put their faith in it and have come to believe that, despite a cruel and corrupted regime, the president’s reformist intentions were genuine and well grounded, and that they would have been implemented sooner or later. This is why edgy Syrian TV drama often criticizes corruption and abuse of power coming from different powers (sultat) within the regime, especially the mukhabarat, but it never touches the leader who stays as the only one morally and politically entitled to fight the diseases of his own regime from within.

OE: Do not you think that the cultural producers were part of the games of power that aimed at hiding the real problems of the Syrian society?

DDR: I do not think that there was such a thing as a “power game” orchestrated from the above, and I do not think that the cultural producers were puppets being manipulated by stronger powers, if this is what you mean. As I said, I think there was a genuine sort of attraction and fascination vis-à-vis the president, and a sort of elective affinity that has bound the president and his reformist circle to these tanwiri drama makers. These political and cultural elites were firmly convinced that majorities should be ruled by enlightened minorities, and this is what was manifested, both in TV products and in politics. We can take an example from the drama production: It’s Not A Mirage (Laysa Saraban), a tanwiri drama which has dealt with the controversial issue of relationships between different religious faiths in contemporary Syria. The message that the musalsal clearly sends to the audience is: yes we do live together, Christians and Muslims, and we live in harmony and respect each other. But, when it comes to mixing together–as the two protagonists, a Muslim and a Christian who love each other and want eventually to get married–the issue becomes much more complicated. Syrian society is not ready yet to accept a real mix–in fact, the man commits suicide since his love dream will never come true–between religious faiths, and this is not at odds with Bashar al-Asad’s vision of a society that needs to be ruled by an enlightened minority in order to protect other minorities and lead them gradually toward mutual understanding and acceptance.

OE: In her recently published book, The Politics of Love, Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Drama, Rebecca Joubin says that you are linking the majority of current drama to components of the regime and that this grossly generalizes and removes agency from those intellectuals. “In her effort to discredit the government, Della Ratta turns drama creators into passive participants rather than savvy creators who navigate through the perils of censorship, state repression, and co-optation in order to create truly subversive work,” Joubin says. What is your comment on this?

DDR: I do not think we can state that the “whisper strategy”–the way I have described in the chapter “The Whisper Strategy: How Syrian Drama Makers Shape Television Fiction in the Context of Authoritarianism and Commodification” from the upcoming book (Leif Stenberg and Christa Salamandra (eds.), Syria Under Bashar Al-Asad: Culture, Religion and Society (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming)) which Joubin refers to–removes agency from Syrian drama makers.

First of all, what I call the whisper strategy is the mechanism through which some components of the Syrian regime, namely President Bashar al-Asad and his seemingly reform-minded collaborators at the palace (al-qasr), communicate with the drama makers.

My argument is that these parties are engaged in an ongoing dialogue through which they agree upon issues deemed worthy and suitable to be put forward for public discussion using media outlets, particularly musalsalat.

I have used the metaphor of the whisper because I wanted to convey the idea of a soft, gentle, non-coercive way of suggesting issues and circulating thoughts. The nature of the conversation happening between Asad and the drama makers is, in my view, very well described by the softness of the “whisper;” in fact, topics brought up by one side are not imposed or ordered by the other. This happens because the two parties share a common ground, a ground built upon consent and mutual benefit rather than dissent or struggle. There is even more, a sort of fascination à la Goethe’s “elective affinities,” which could describe this ground between the president and the drama makers.

I am surprised that Joubin sees no agency here. What I am saying is that both parties are contributing to the making of a communication strategy which is grounded on a firm, common belief—meaning that Syrian society is “backward” and should be reformed gradually and only under the guidance of enlightened minorities. When I use the word “backward” (mutakhallif) it is because this is an expression which is often repeated by drama makers in public and in private (in all the interviews that I have conducted, Syrian drama makers, especially the tanwiri type that I have described in our previous question, always use this word when speaking about their reformist mission and their commitment to help Syrian society to free itself from its own taboos and progress). The president himself has used this word during several meetings that he hosted with the drama makers in the past decade: “he believed that Syrian drama is the best tool to healing the backwardness of the society,” as several directors who attended a presidential hearing in 2004 told me in our interviews.

What is fascinating about this common ground binding the president and the drama makers is that there is no coercion at all. Drama makers are not, as Joubin argues when she reads my argument, “passive participants.” They are indeed “savvy creators” as she states, and I would never disagree with this statement. Yet, contrary to Joubin, I do not think that these drama makers “navigate through the perils of censorship, state repression, and co-optation in order to create truly subversive work.”

First of all, I argue that there is no such thing as “censorship” in TV drama, at least since Bashar al-Asad seized power. Syrian drama makers themselves like to talk about “artistic evaluation” (taqyim fanni) instead of censorship; they stress on the fact that sometimes the censorship exercised by society is harsher than the political censorship from the government’s side. Again, they see themselves in tune with Bashar al-Asad’s reformist project because they believe it is a tanwiri project, a project in the interest of society–or, at least, of what they believe is in the interest of society. That is why their drama works propose topics–honor crime, gender issues, inter-religious relationships, terrorism, Islamism etc.–that can be read, at a first glance, as “subversive work,” like Joubin does.

Yet, in my view, these musalsalat have nothing to do with what Joubin defines as “sharp critique and bold plots that hammered away at official political discourse.” On the contrary, they are aligned along the lines of official political discourse, particularly that of the president, (i.e., a seemingly reformist, secular, progressive discourse).

In Ramadan 2008, Laysa Saraban (It’s not a Mirage) a seemingly taboo-breaking musalsal dealing with the relations between Christians and Muslims in contemporary Syria was aired. Its young and talented director, Muthanna al-Subh declared at the time, talking about censorship vis-à-vis such a sensitive topic: “honestly we did not face any problem. That was both surprising and pleasing to me. I actually respect the fact that they allowed us to deal with such sensitive issues.”[1]

Yet a work like Laysa Saraban would be unlikely to be censored or rejected, as it perfectly matches with the president’s official rhetoric concerning the religious minorities’ issue. The musalsal seems to suggest that Syria’s religious and ethnic groups, especially Muslims and Christians, can live together but are not ready to merge in a multicultural society.

This message is not at odds with the main argument of Asad (i.e., an enlightened minority should rule to protect minorities in the country and make sure the state remains superficially secular and the population stays as controlled as possible, in order to avoid chaos, social disorder, and religious extremism. This very argument is embraced by the drama makers too, not because of coercion or because of orders coming from above.  My argument is that they both share the same view, the same vision concerning society. So they are active participants in making and remaking the tanwiri ideology, to which they add their own touch and creativity.

I do not see how Joubin could claim that there is a lack of agency here: I made it very clear that this is a bilateral strategy, to the making of which both sides actively contribute. I have also borrowed from Foucault’s “strategy without strategist” in order to underline that the subject of the strategy cannot be identified, yet the strategic necessities that converge from both sides and form the objective of the strategy can be analysed and discussed.

I argue that these strategic necessities, in the case of the regime, are identified in its need to preserve a reformist facade–which is embodied by the president and his reform-minded collaborators at the palace–in front of the Syrian public. When the president in person intervenes to “save” a tanwiri drama–as he did in 2001 with Laith Hajjo’s Spotlight or in 2010 with Najdat Anzour’s Ma malakat aymanukum–it is precisely for this reason, i.e. to preserve a reformist facade in front of the Syrian public, to show the Syrian drama makers that he is personally committed to the tanwiri project, and, in general, to convey the message that, until his political persona is preserved, reformism will live long in Syria.

What Joubin calls “the perils of censorship” are, in my view, just the materialization of internal fights involving different powers (sulutat) within the regime, something that reflects the very nature of power in Syria, made up of loosely interconnected sulutat that can communicate, miscommunicate, or even ignore or reject communication coming from another sulta within the regime. TV drama is one of the many battlegrounds where we can observe the clashes and fights between different powers within the regime (powerful business networks, the government, state media, intelligence agencies, religious authorities, and the president himself). Each of these powers tries to use media to push forward a different agenda; it might also carry several messages at the time, and even contradictory to one another.

So when a controversial musalsal like Ma Malakat Aymanukum–which was reportedly opposed by different sultat, namely powerful business networks, religious authorities, and so on–is finally broadcast because of the president’s personal intervention, I will not call it a victory of progressive, edgy drama, and political reformism, over some obscure, security-minded forces within the regime. This is exactly what the regime needs to do in order to survive: i.e. to perpetrate the promise of reformism embodied in the enlightened, educated, and progressive president. Yet, as I have discussed elsewhere, other examples—such as the Ramadan 2011 tanwiri drama Fawq al-Saqf (Above the Ceiling), clearly show that this power balance within the Syrian regime might shift at any moment, and that the tanwiri project backed by the president in 2010 might succumb to the security project pushed by the security-minded sides of that very regime. Or, rather, the tanwiri project may be put on hold by Bashar al-Asad and his reform-minded circle at the Palace in order to help the other sultat implementing the security project, judged as a priority in a period of unrest, especially when their political survival is also at stake.

On their side, the drama makers are not passive observers. They genuinely believe in the tanwiri project and probably believe that Bashar al-Asad is the right person to implement it. They had put all their trust and hope in this president, and it is pretty evident reading all the media reports in the past decades that they liked each other, they were hanging out together. Joubin herself, in her book, quotes several artists who have openly spoken about this mutual fascination (many of them, like actor Jamal Suleiman, are now in exile and officially opposing the regime).

Arguing that there is a relationship based on comfort and pleasure and mutual fascination between the two sides is not, as Joubin says, removing agency; it is just acknowledging that agency and power structures, in this case, go in the same direction.

I should probably talk a bit more about the methodology and fieldwork that have brought me to thinking about Syrian drama and Syrian drama producers in this way. In 2009, I officially started doing my fieldwork in Syria as a part of my PhD research on the politics of Syrian TV drama at Copenhagen University. During this period, I had attended the filming (taswir) of several Syrian musalsalat of different genres, from historical blockbusters such as Bab al-Hara 5 (The Gate of the Neighbourhood, 2010) to contemporary social drama such as Ma Malakat Aymanukum (2010) or Sarab (Mirage, 2010).

I spent weeks and months “embedded” with Syrian drama makers and conducted formal, open-ended interviews with both the artistic cast and the technical crew, exclusively in Arabic, mostly using Syrian colloquial. Yet, these formal interviews have been integrated with chats, meetings, and interviews obtained in less formal contexts, such as discussions over lunch or teatime, or during a car drive to the location. In addition, I enjoyed the privilege of being invited to join dinners, musalsalat launch parties in Damascus, Beirut, and Dubai, social gatherings involving actors, writers, directors, and producers of Syrian TV drama.

Furthermore, having worked on the topics of musalsalat for several years prior to my PhD research, mostly as a journalist and a cultural curator of several TV-related festivals and happenings in Europe, I had the privilege to invite many of these drama makers to showcase their works in festivals and conferences in Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Brussels, and Copenhagen, where we also had the opportunity to chat over meals, discuss after the screenings, and interact with various types of audiences. I have followed Syrian drama makers in “global” locations, such as marketplaces (e.g., Cannes and Dubai), award ceremonies, and celebrity gatherings (Dubai, Beirut, and Damascus), and I have also interviewed many of those who purchase Syrian drama, the pan-Arab channel executives sitting in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha.

I am confident that this is a quite comprehensive piece of ethnographic work that has been conducted exclusively in the Arabic language and through several years of field work in different locations and working contexts between Europe and the Arab world and not the result of few months of formal interviews.

After so many years spent doing ethnography on Syrian drama makers, my take is that they indeed face “cultural challenges.” Yet, in my view, these are very different challenges from those that Joubin points out. In my view, Syrian drama makers are deeply entrenched in the complex nexus of sets, places, situations, and, above all, connections, that make up our neoliberal era. They do see their works as a commodity, too; they package and sell them for market consumption, and are active participants in market dynamics.

It would be naïve, I think, to read all the complex dynamics described above only in light of a resistance-to-power narrative, and portray Syrian drama makers only in a context where they have to face Syria’s authoritarian powers, whether passively submitting to the latter or ending up being actively complacent with them.

OE: Ramadan is the month of drama showing; after eating, the citizen moves to watching the musalsalat that are produced to suit her/his environment and talk to his/her mind. Do you think that drama played a role in preserving the traditional structures of power in the Arab world, and enhancing the culture of consumption?

DDR: Well, even in the Western world TV serials are quintessentially the realm of consumption. You have an idea of what I mean if you think that the “soap opera” TV genre has been developed around the idea of airing commercials in order to sell soaps! So the relationship between serial TV fiction and consumption is not something new to the media industry, nor anything peculiar to the Arab world. What it really unprecedented in the case of the Arab world is the fact that the biggest chunk of musalsalat is actually produced and aired during the holy month of Ramadan, which has become not only the season of consumption par excellence, but also the season of musalsalat. Many broadcasters are trying to break this pattern by producing TV drama out of Ramadan (MBC has done a number of experiments in this respect, many of them have involved Syrian directors and producers). But, still, Ramadan is the season where all the advertisers will place sometimes even the seventy percent of their budget, leaving a very limited margin to invest in TV productions during the rest of the year.

OE: The fact that Syrian youths resort to the internet to produce an alternative drama or culture reflects that they are aware of the regimes’ use of cultural producers to serve a certain agenda. What do you think about this?

DDR: I think that the internet was the only place where the Syrian youth could possibly go to manifest their dissent and express their creativity. It was the only relatively free, uncensored space and one where cultural production was not monopolized by the elites, as the means of production and distribution were easily accessible to everybody and cost effective too. The internet, particularly Facebook, has become the real platform where the dissent and the creativity–or, better, the creative dissent–of Syrians is manifested. Since the beginning of the uprising, Syrian creativity, in many different formats such as visual art, comics, songs, webseries and so on, has been blossoming on the Internet, and it has never stopped, not even now, after almost three years of an uprising which has turned into a bloody armed conflict. This user-generated, often viral and anonymous creativity is, in my view, a clear signal that Syrian civil society is alive and engaging in a debate which concerns not only cultural production and reproduction–which cannot be entirely monopolized and managed by the elites anymore–but, at a broader level, political participation and civic engagement. This enormous amount of creativity scattered in the virtual alleyways of the internet should be read (and judged) not only as an aesthetic act of cultural creation and a challenge to industrially-produced cultural artifacts, but mostly as a signal of an active citizenship that expresses its dissent in novel and, often, unexpected ways.

OE: You use the concept of “strategy of whispering,” while talking about the relation between drama makers and the president and his entourage. How does this work, and how have the drama makers accepted to adopt the regime’s version about what are the real problems of the Syrian state?

DDR: I have used the expression “whisper strategy” to describe the communication mechanism which links Syrian drama makers and the president because I wanted to convey the idea that, in my view, there are no orders or coercions coming from Bashar al-Asad about what should be produced, or which topics should be discussed in TV drama. Because of this special bond binding the cultural producers to the seemingly reformist face of the Syrian regime, namely the president and his inner circle of reformers, and because of these elective affinities that I have described above, there is no need from the president’s side to impose anything on the drama makers. I have described the “whisper strategy” as a public, oral, and multilateral dynamic. Since he came to power, Bashar al-Asad has held periodic meetings with the drama makers in order to discuss common concerns about how to “heal Syrian society from its backwardness” (this is a recurrent expression in these meetings) by using media and particularly TV serials. These meetings are the quasi-public venues where the “whisper” and the process of fine-tuning between the two sides finally happen. Nothing is hidden or secret; on the contrary, the media report about these meetings, emphasizing how the cultural and political elites in the country are in an agreement about how to move society forward. Syrian drama makers often use the expression “jaw al-’amm” (public mood) to describe the way they pick up topics to be dealt with in their social drama. It is not the regime’s version or the regime’s idea of what should be dealt with in the public space of media. It is much more a matter of these elective affinities binding the cultural producers to the president (and not to the entire regime: the cultural producers always make a clear distinction between the latter, which is corrupted and violent, and the president, who is an enlightened reformist) that generate a soft circulation of suggestions and pieces of advice of what would be appropriate to become a topic for a TV drama, and what would better serve the seemingly reformist project of making Syrian society progress and saving it from its own “backwardness” through progressive and edgy musalsalat.

OE: Why do you think drama actors or directors were used to convince the demonstrators to go back to their homes? Why did they accept this role?

DDR: As I said, there are these elective affinities between the president and the drama makers. I think that the drama makers perceived themselves as being an important part of Bashar al-Asad’s reformist project, therefore they felt entitled to go to places like Duma or Daraa and try to negotiate a political solution (hal siyasi) with the protesters. I think that they thought this was their duty, as being committed to the tanwiri ideal, that they should talk to the masses and make them understand that a compromise should be reached. They were strongly opposed to a security solution (hal amni) which was pushed forward by other sides of the regime, and they probably thought they would achieve some sort of results by initiating a dialogue with the protesters. I do not think the president or any other side of the regime ordered them to go and negotiate at the beginning of the crisis. It was mostly their own initiative, seen as a part of their tanwiri commitment. But, as a Syrian producer once told me, you cannot possibly hope that actors and directors would achieve any result, as they do not really have a negotiation power or influence. They are the media face of the regime; they help maintaining the reformist facade, but, concretely, very little can be achieved through media reforms if they are not matched with institutional reforms. In this institutional void, actors and directors became a sort of substitute of state institutions but this eventually did not work out, because this time protesters were asking for real reforms, and not for cosmetic, media-backed ones.

OE: The production of drama continued after the uprising, and we noticed that the drama is used also to justify or defend without being convincing. One musalsal expressed nostalgia for pre-uprising times, while another one tried to exonerate some sides in the regime, other works portrayed the destruction and used it as a setting, but all this indicates that the uprising did not deeply influence the Syrians, did not reshape, especially in these works, their vision of reality and the nature of power and the necessity of change. Do you agree with this? And why do you think drama chose these perspectives to depict the Syrian uprising?

DDR: It seems to me that the uprising has not had an impact on mainstream cultural production, particularly TV drama making, in Syria, neither in form nor in content. As we have discussed before, seemingly controversial musalsalat were produced in Syria even before the uprising: Syrians were probably ahead even of the Egyptians when producing TV works that dealt directly with contemporary events or current affairs issues.. As an example, take Najdat Anzour’s works such as al-Hurr al-‘Ayn (The Beautiful Maidens) which dealt with terrorist attacks on a compound in Saudi Arabia, or Saqf al-‘Alam (The Ceiling of the World) which talked about the publication of the cartoon lampooning the Prophet Mohamed in Denmark. So the fact that many of the musalsalat aired during Ramadan 2013 had as a main topic or as a background the Syrian uprising does not really surprise me. Syrians are not new to these seemingly controversial issues. The content could seem new but, in reality, it is not. Also the way they deal with such controversial content, the uprising which is ongoing in their own country, is not really new. At the end of the day, even a musalsal such as Wilada Min al-Khasira (Birth from the Waist) which depicts in a quasi-realistic way all the events that have lead to the current bloody situation in Syria (including the abuse of power from mukhabarat, or the character of Atef Najeeb who first decides to use the iron fist with the protesters even at the very beginning of the street demonstrations), carries a message that is not far away from all sort of messages developed and sent out in the public space by TV drama under Bashar al-Asad: that the regime is broken and corrupt, and can be very violent toward citizens. Yet, the president is there to carry on a mission of reformism and to oppose this security-oriented vision put forward by other sides of the regime. A musalsal like Wilada, which for thirty episodes portrays all sorts of violence and abuse perpetrated by the intelligence services, fails to mention the president. Throughout the musalsal, we can see Bashar al Asad’s picture everywhere–in public offices, in the streets with people showing support to him during a “masira“–but we never hear anybody talking about him directly. The only episode where the president as a public figure is mentioned is when he decides to concede amnesty (‘afu) to the prisoners. His figure is therefore connected immediately to an idea of piety, of understanding, and to the will of negotiating and adopting a political solution to the crisis. Even if the orders given by the president to release the prisoners are not respected by some elements of the regime itself (especially by the character who, in the fictional narrative, stands for Atef Najeeb, the intelligence official on duty in Daraa who was reported to be responsible for the first bloody repression of the uprising), the president remains clean and his moral authority is sort of preserved. He gave instructions to his officials to give amnesty to the prisoners; if this did not happen, it is not the leader’s responsibility but some elements of the regime are to blame.

In this message, I do not see anything different from the previous messages sent, prior to the uprising, by the tanwiri drama. Thus, in this respect there is nothing really new in these 2013 musalsalat dealing directly with the events in Syria. The visual language, too, is not particularly new and it seems to me to perpetrate the same type of aesthetics which we were used to before the uprising.

In this respect, the real novelty in terms of aesthetics and creativity is rather all the incredible amount of user-generated creativity that has been produced, mostly on the web, since the outbreak of the uprising. It is here that new forms and contents have to be looked for, and not in the musalsalat industry, at least for now, it seems to me…

OE: You wrote about Al Jazeera’s role in the Arab region, how do you evaluate its role in covering events in Syria?

DDR: Al Jazeera’s coverage of Syria since the beginning of the uprising has been schizophrenic, to say the least. The peaceful uprising of the very beginning was ignored or poorly covered, at least for a month since its inception. After this initial, very “shy,” cautious coverage of the events, the pan-Arab news channel seemed to have shifted its editorial policy vis-à-vis Syria, turning the “story” into one of its main news events at the time (2011). Little by little it became clear that Al Jazeera (AJA) was mostly focusing on one specific aspect of the conflict, namely its growing sectarian side and its increasingly armed nature. By following many of the talk shows and current affairs segments aired by the channel you get the clear impression that AJA has embraced a sectarian stance, being sort of biased towards the Sunni majority of the Syrian population. As an example, AJA has given very little coverage to the protests which were initiated in areas where minorities live (as for example in the Isma‘ili areas, or even in many Christian villages); also, the coverage of the civil society movements and peaceful movements who are critical both of the regime and of the armed opposition has not gained a prominent position in terms of airtime  (just to be clear here we are discussing Al Jazeera in Arabic; the English channel has a completely different editorial policy and agenda).

As many other media outlets, it might be that AJA prefers to cover “spectacular” events, such as violence, bombing, gunfire, and victims, instead of giving airtime to civil disobedience and other less “spectacular” manifestations of defiance and dissent. This is true for the majority of private and commercial oriented broadcasters in the world. Yet, giving the peculiar nature of Al Jazeera–a private, commercial-oriented station on paper, but still financed through government’s money and whose chairman is a member of the Al Thani family, the rulers of Qatar–the situation is much more ambivalent. Despite the fact that AJ has been always proud of its independence from the Qatari government (which was the case in many situations prior to the Arab uprisings), the coverage of the Syrian uprising does indeed reflect a position of this media outlet which is closer to Qatar’s foreign policy, much more than it has been in the past and in other circumstances. Prior to the uprising, the Qatari government had lots of interests in Syria: from commercial interests (both the Emir and the Qatari government had a number of investment projects in Syria) to personal and business ties to Bashar al-Asad (the Qatari royal family was reported to be very close to the president and especially to his wife Asma al-Asad). But, after the official breakup between the two governments, Al Jazeera has clearly embraced an anti-Asad (and, sometimes, with a sort of a sectarian nuance) position, meanwhile becoming the target number one of the media propaganda of the Syrian regime, through Syrian state TV but also through private (owned by businessmen close to the regime) outlets, such as Dunya TV. The media war in ongoing in Syria, and Al Jazeera is, at the same time, a target of it and one of its most prominent actors.

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[1] Muthanna al-Subh, interview with Forward Magazine, October 2008 (http://www.fw-magazine.com/content/muthana-subh-my-dream-was-become-martyr-or-director).

Best chants and slogans from the Syrian uprising

Thanks to some Twitter friends from Syria I`ve just rediscovered these beautiful chants and slogans which were repeated all across Syria expecially in the first two years after the uprising started.

 

This is a selection of chants and slogans:

 

 

 

This is from Homs, one of the most creative places in the Syrian uprising:

 

 

And this is a very interesting documentary – made by Al Jazeera in 2013-  called “The melody of hope” which recaps the most “creative” moments of the Syrian uprising, starting from the first haphazard demonstration in central Damascus Hariqa neighbourhood  back in February 2011 when people were chanting “The Syrian people  won`t be humiliated” .  It also reports about the popular response to Butheina Shaaban`s speech, few days after the protests broke out in Daraa in March 2011. At the time, when Bashar al-Asad`s media and political aide suggested that people were demonstrating for economic reasons, street demonstrations immediately reacted by chanting ” Ya Butheina ya Shaaban as-shaab as-sury mou juaan” (Oh Butheina oh Shaaban, the Syrian people are not hungry”.

The documentary features important personalities of Syria`s creative resistance such as composer and musician Samih Shqer, author of the popular anti-Bashar al-Asad song “Ya Haif”; and popular actor from “Bab al hara” series Jalal Taweel, who was arrested by the secret service while on his way to the Jordanian border, and then forced to record an interview with Syria TV. During this interview, the actor “denied allegations that he was arrested and detained by Syrian police officials, instead claiming that he was kidnapped by an armed gang and was rescued by Syrian police officials near the Jordanian border” (Taweel is now safe and sound outside the country, and very active in supporting the revolution and its original claim to freedom and dignity).

A very interesting part of the documentary  (at around 13.30 minutes) is when it deals with the Karamah Football Club from Homs (Nadi al Karamah) and explores how the slogans and songs chanted by its supporters influenced those which resonated in the streets during the anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.

 

I wish this documentary were translated into English, it could give the international public a better insight on what happened in Syria and how defiant and creative the Syrian people have been.

What`s next for Qatar (and for the Arab region)?

As announced yesterday, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Emir of the state of Qatar, has handed power to one of his sons, the 33 years old Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.

Today, in a 7 minutes televised speech (English transcript available here) the Emir made the formal announcement, although speculations about the succession of power in the tiny but rich and powerful Gulf state have been ongoing for a while. Last year, Sheikh Hamad declared to the Financial Times that Tamim was in charge of ruling the country for 80%. Tamim has been officially the Heir Apparent since 2003; being the son of the Emir`s favorite wife, the influential and glamorous Sheikha Mozah, he was already believed to have the greatest chance among Hamad`s children to become the next Emir.

But maybe not everybody was expecting this to happen right now, when Hamad was still pretty much in control of a country whose profile — financially, politically, culturally speaking — he has widely contributed to raise in his 18 yrs of rule. As speculated in this thoughtful piece by French scholar Nabil Ennasri, author of a book about Qatar, one of the reason for stepping down in favor of his son — besides the Emir`s deteriorating health — could be to stop the criticism that the country has received in these past two years for the aggressive role played in the Arab Spring, particularly in the case of Libya and Syria. By handing power to his son, Sheikh Hamad would prove that he is not preaching democracy and reforms in the Region while being attached to absolute power in his own country. Stepping down would provide the other Arab countries with a “model” (this is the word that Al Jazeera Arabic`s analysts have extensively used today in their coverage of the event) for the succession of power, in a peaceful and bloodless way. Yet, what Al Jazeera didn`t — and cannot — notice is that power still stays strongly in the hands of the same family, while an impression is given of an open-minded ruler who gives up to his privileges in favors of new generations, as Sheikh Hamad said today in his speech.

Yet maybe the most important question to answer revolves around the fate of Hamad bin Jassem, the powerful –and extremely wealthy, as The Independent reports here –– Prime Minister who also occupies the strategic position of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nothing has been said about the government that the new Emir will head. Everybody at the Palace knows that Sheikha Mozah, the mother of the new Emir, and her son, have manifested open hostility vis-a-vis Hamad bin Jassem and his politics. Hamad bin Jassem is deemed a strong man, and very much in charge of Qatar`s strategic choices in terms of foreign policy (and in its investments` deals, too) –which, lately, have been so much criticized –.

Rumors have been circulating, more than one time, that Hamad bin Jassem would likely orchestrate a coup against Sheikh Hamad sooner or later; looking at Qatar`s history this would not have been unlikely, since the succession of power in the country has always happened through coups (including when Sheikh Hamad took over his father, in 1995here there is a rare TV excerpt of his speech at the time–).

Sheikh Hamad has reiterated that Qatar`s policy wont change; and this is also what Al Jazeera`s analysts were stressing today during the speech`s coverage. However, the next days or weeks will tell us what would likely happen to Qatar`s foreign policy and to its masterminder, Hamad bin Jassem.

 

The Al Jazeera controversy over Syria, and why we should say no to nihilism

The controversy over Al Jazeera`s coverage of the Syrian uprising has been ongoing for quite a while. Actually, I remember Al Jazeera`s coverage to have been quite controversial since the very first days of the uprising, as it was pretty much non-existent.  At the time, pro-revolution activists accused the Qatari based-channel to underestimate the protests that started on March 15th 2011 in the country and to have given them almost zero airtime. The channel was accused to serve the diplomatic interests of Qatar, which at the time was pretty close to Bashar al-Asad and his family.

But soon the situation changed and Al Jazeera started to cover Syria extensively. I remember very well those Fridays during which I would sit with friends in Damascus to watch the  Al Jazeera-exclusive live coverage of the demonstrations from places such as Daraa, Homs, or from the suburbs of the capital. Sometimes they would split the TV screen into four, in order to give space and relevance to each city that was protesting.

This was when the majority of the Syrian activists were still in love with Al Jazeera, and when pro-regimes were actively engaged in a campaign aimed at defaming the channel for its allegedly unbalanced and unprofessional coverage of the crisis in Syria. This campaign even took some “creative” aspects as in these posters designed by pro-regime activists and distributed on Facebook.

1

 

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(source: anonymous pro-regime activists on Facebook)

After these episodes, which were mostly concentrated in the first six months of the uprising, many things have happened. Criticism is now coming not only from pro-regime activists, but also from some of Al Jazeera`s employees, such as the head of Beirut office Ghassan Ben Jeddo, who resigned in protest of an alleged lack of professionalism of the channel in reporting the Syria crisis; or Ali Hashem, a journalist from Beirut.

Internal criticism coming from the employees of the channel has matched with an increasing criticism coming from Arab analysts, such as Sultan al Qassemi, who in this article accused Al Jazeera to have failed to portray the Syrian uprising in a professional, balanced way. Many Syrian activists, too,  have lamented the alleged sectarian angle of Al Jazeera`s coverage of Syria, which would give prominence and relevance to the Sunni-led component of the uprising, ignoring the contributions given by Syrian minorities (such as Christians, Ismailis and Alawis) to organizing protests and anti-regime civil disobedience actions.

Despite all the criticism and many mistakes made by Al Jazeera (as much as by other channels, I have to say) in terms, for example, of not always verifying information and videos coming from social media before the actual broadcast, I have t to admit that I was pretty interested by the way they covered the “dhikra” of the second year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, few days ago. It was quite comprehensive, touching various angles, from the military one to the humanitarian, and covering different part of Syria in a simultaneous way.

I was particularly touched by the coverage of Aleppo done by Ghada Oweis, who reported from inside the city, focusing on how life goes on, despite all the difficulties, in areas that are under the control of the Free Syrian Army. Al Jazeera has put a different correspondent in each different areas of Aleppo, and sometimes they do a live broadcast going from one neighbourhood to the other, giving a pretty incredible feeling of simultaneity, hence a feeling of life.

Ghada Oweis, according to this post distributed virally on Facebook, is “wanted” by an Aleppian businessman who is ready to pay 50.000 USD dollars to have the journalist (and “terrorist” as it is written in the post) remitted to the Syrian authorities, “dead or alive”.

I dont know this gentleman and have not enough connections to verify if this post is true or is fabricated by other parties in order to suggest that pro-regime activists are ready to kill journalists. I don`t know.

Ghadaoweis

(source: Facebook)

 

There are so many things we don`t know. I watched another news story done by Ghada in Aleppo few days ago, concerning an historical building being reconverted in a school for children after being bombed by the regime. There was a teacher being interviewed who told the story of the building, of the kids, of the attempts to have life back in that building despite all odds. It was a touching story but I felt something strange when the guy mentioned the fact that the building was bombed “an year  and half ago”. At the time, in fact, bombing of Aleppo had not started yet. But, I thought, the guy might have been just a bit emotional and made a mistake (although the journalist should have corrected him). When I switched Twitter on, however, I found something in Edward Dark`s timeline which was pretty incredible. Edward is a nickname for a well-know activist from Aleppo who stood against the regime since the beginning of the revolution, but eventually turned against the revolution itself when it reached an armed phase, and notably when the FSA gained ground in his own city, Aleppo.

So what was in Edward`s timeline? A message from a Facebook account, allegedly that of lawyer Alaa al Sayed who, according to Edward, is a famous pro-civil society activist (and, I gather, not a regime goon). He said:

الاعلامية غادة عويس على الجزيرة غطت منذ قليل بتقرير صحفي بناء تاريخي حلبي تعرض للقصف :
للتوثيق و التاريخ :
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البناء هو للكنيسة اليسوعية التي بنيت عام 1887 م ثم
تم تأجيرها لمديرية التربية في بداية الخمسينات و صارت مدرسة،
بعدما انتقلت الكنيسة الى ساحة الكرنك ثم الى العزيزية .
تم استخدامها كروضة باسم روضة ازهار تشرين حتى اغلاقها منذ ما يزيد على السنتين
و تم تحويلها بعد ترميمها الى متحف وضعت فيه الوسائل التعليمية الاثرية التي كانت مستخدمة في مدرسة المأمون منذ مائة عام والتي وجدت في أقبية المأمون عند ترميمها .
ملاحظات على التقرير :
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لم تكن الروضة مفتوحة منذ عام و نصف و اغلقت بسبب القصف، فلم يكن هناك قصف بحلب منذ عام و نصف.
و الروضة مغلقة قبل ذلك بكثير .
و الشاب الذي زعم انه معلم في هذه الروضة و توقف طلابه عن تلقي العلم غبر صادق .
لم تكن هذه الكنيسة يوما مدرسة الشمبانيا و هي معهد الاخوة الفرير في منطقة المحافظة، و صورة التلاميذ و الاساتذة المكتوب عليها مدرسة الشمبانيا التي استندت اليها الاعلامية عبارة عن صورة تاريخية وضعت في المتحف .
و الرجل من اهل الحي الذي قابلته و قال ذلك لا يمكن ان يكون من اهل الحي يوما .
الرجل الذي قال انه من اهل الحي و اولاده كانوا طلابا في روضة المدرسة و انقطعوا عن الدوام بسبب الاحوال الحالية ، غير صادق فلا هو من اهل الحي و لا اولاده كانوا في الروضة المغلقة من سنوات .
غادة العويس : في حلب تحديدا يطلب منك مزيدا من المهنية و التدقيق …ديري بالك معنا ما في لعب …

I won`t translate the message, but just the most important part of it, which is that, according to this gentleman, Ghada has been inaccurate in her story about the old building. First, because as I had also noticed, there was no bombing in Aleppo “half an year ago”. “The building was closed much longer before”. Second, because the guy who pretended in the news items to be a teacher in that school would be lying. Third, because the place itself was not what the report pretends it to be, but an historical Jesuit church which then became an institute run by the “Freres” , etc etc etc. Fourth, because the picture featuring the school pupils which the report shows is, according to Mr Al Sayed, an historical picture coming from the museum.

I could continue but I will stop. What does this lesson teach us? Not to trust Al Jazeera? Not to trust Twitter and Facebook? not to trust images?

I don`t know Aleppo enough to establish the truth on that building, or church, or whatever it is. I don`t know either Ghada Oweis or Alaa al Sayed to have enough elements to decide about who is right and who is wrong. This is yet another example of the complexity we are running through, every day, when it comes to Syria coverage.  But we should not embrace nihilism, as many are doing: “since everything can be fabricated by those folks, by both sides, then everything will be fabricated so I wont believe to anything that comes out from Syria”.

At the end of the day, this is the game the regime wants to play. And this is why at the beginning of the revolution, and for a very long time, it was so careful not to allow professional journalists in the country, which has left the entire Syria coverage in the hands of activists.

What we should do is to continue asking questions, to ourselves and to the others, every time we watch a news item -as much as when we read Facebook posts or  a tweet-, in order to understand where the truth lies. It is a time-consuming operation, I know. I have myself not enough time to do it -as journalism is not my daily job, and this blog posts took at least three days before being written, as I had promised  Ryan Smith on Twitter –.

But we should aim at doing it, always. Asking questions is an healthy exercise.

Nihilism is not.