Violence and Visibility in Contemporary Syria: An Ethnography of the “Expanded Places”

My latest essay on Syria is out on CyberOrient Vol. 9, Iss. 1, 2015

Abstract

This article reflects on the relationship between visibility and violence as redefined by the combined action of warfare and networked communication technologies. Drawing on the author’s own ethnography conducted in Syria in 2010, and on anonymous YouTube videos, it introduces the concept of “expanded places” to look at sites that have been physically annihilated; yet, at the same time, they have been re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks. Building on Rancière’s work on the distribution of the sensible, the article argues that, at the intersection of those simultaneous actions of annihilation and regeneration, a new geography of visibility and violence is being shaped which rearranges the existing into a completely new political form and aesthetic format. Thriving on the techno-human infrastructure of the networks, and relying on the endless proliferation of images resulting from the loss of control of image-makers over their own production, expanded places are aggregators of new communities that add novel layers of signification to the empirical world, and create their own multiple realities and histories.
Bab al hara

This short film (you can view it here) results from the combination of the author’s own video ethnography conducted in 2010 at the Damascene Village within the framework of her Ph.D fieldwork on Syrian TV drama; and of several videos produced by anonymous users and Arab TV channels that were widely shared on the networks between 2012 and 2014.

“ls not every ethnographer something of a surrealist,

a reinventor and reshuffler of realities?”

(Clifford, 1988:147)

Introduction

This article reflects on the relationship between visibility and violence as reconfigured and redefined by the combined action of contemporary warfare and networked communication technologies.1 It focuses on the interweaving of the destruction of places as a result of war, and the ever-circulating images of those very places, which are endlessly reproduced and recreated through and on the networks. I argue that a new understanding of places is being shaped and brought to light at the intersection of these simultaneous actions of annihilation and regeneration.

This novel geography of visibility and violence is defined around sites that have been physically annihilated; yet, at the same time, they are being re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks. I introduce the concept of “expanded places” to define these sites that are enjoying a form of mediated after-life despite the fact that their physical selves have been destroyed. Here “expanding” does not refer to the repetition, recreation, reproduction, and re-circulation of images; nor to the proliferation of the latter if understood as a mere growth in quantitative presence across contexts.

In order to reflect on the characteristics and implications of the process of “expansion” being generated on and through networked communication technologies I build on the conceptual framework developed by Jacques Rancière (2013) on the “distribution of the sensible,” which emphasizes the political dimension of aesthetics, and reads the aesthetic dimension as inherently political. I draw on his reflections on the “aesthetic regime” to look at my own ethnography conducted in 2010 at the Damascene Village (al qariyya al shamiyya), a theme park located in al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. From 2006 to 2010, the site served as a location for the TV series Bab al hara (The Gate of the Neighborhood), with its romanticized storyline of the Syrian resistance against French colonial rule in the 1920s; which did in fact start in the al Ghouta district. In 2012, as the Syrian uprising turned into a fully-fledged civil war, the Damascene Village was occupied several times by opposing factions, each of them shooting video accounts narrating the seizure of the theme park using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from the TV series. Eventually the Damascene Village was destroyed; yet, the self-shot videos, once uploaded onto YouTube, continued to fuel the spread of clashing narratives and contradictory understandings of national resistance, which turned a physical site hosting a staged representation of a conflict into a conflict zone itself, endlessly reproduced through social networking sites.

Before being expanded by the combined action of warfare and the networks, the Damascene Village was already a politically charged, symbolic site; as different layers of times and places – the historical al Ghouta of the 1920s anti-colonial struggle – were mass mediated through a fictional representation – the Bab al hara TV series – where the actual, physical space had become entangled with its imaginative representations. However, there is something fundamentally new occurring when networked communication technologies become involved in the process of mediating a space that has been physically destroyed. The aim of this article is precisely to look at the intersection between violence and technology, between annihilation and regeneration, where expanded places are generated; and to explore the new “fictionality” being shaped here, understood as a way of assigning novel meanings to the empirical world, a philosophical device to rearrange the existing into a completely new (political) form and (aesthetic) format (Rancière 2013:33).

My argument is that in order to think of this new form and format of violence and visibility, we have to focus on the techno-social platform triggering the process of expansion of places, that is networked communication technologies, understood both as the multi-layered technical infrastructure of social networking sites mediating signs, spaces, meanings and people; and as the subject of that very mediation, made up of anonymous and unidentified individuals. Using ethnographies of the Damascene Village, studied both as a physical site and as its expanded versions, I will underline how key features of the networks – circulation, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship – forge a new relationship between visibility and violence, which, by expanding the former through a never-ending layering and cross-referencing of times and spaces, ceaselessly replicates the latter.

Because of the incessant speed and dissemination made possible by the networks, images of expanded places prove to be extraordinarily resilient. At the same time, they are both the place and the methodological device for violence, if the latter is executed through images. Violence is also inflicted on the image itself, as the dramatic ending of the Damascene Village will reveal.

Prologue: from al Ghouta to Bab al hara, turning physical and mediated spaces into expanded places

Al Ghouta (oasis) is an area surrounding Damascus, and was formerly known as the green belt of the Syrian capital. In Syria’s collective memory, al Ghouta is the place where the anti-colonial struggle against French occupation took shape and was organized in the 1920s. The connection between the physical space and its symbolic value in shaping shared ideas of nation, unity, and resistance has been widely celebrated in Syria’s cultural production.2 In the country’s collective imagery al Ghouta has become a “place” in Yi Fu Tuan’s understanding of the term: something that “feels thoroughly familiar” (Tuan 1977:73).

During the post-independence years, al Ghouta was the favorite venue for picnics and family outings, the ideal place for Damascene families to seek relief from the heat and the hustle and bustle of Syria’s capital. However, as a result of the liberalization policies that in the late 1980s considerably expanded commercial ventures in several sectors of the economy previously controlled by the state, al Ghouta was affected by a wave of property development and exposed to a process of uncontrolled urbanization.3 As part of the transformation of al Ghouta into an urban suburb, a theme park was built to attract further investment to the area, together with a culture of leisure and consumption. Named “the Damascene Village” and located in the Eastern part of al Ghouta, strategically close to the international airport, the entertainment facilities reproduced the stunning beauty of the Old City of Damascus and was home to a number of elegant restaurants, a museum of Damascene folklore, and a zoo.

For five consecutive seasons (2006-2010) the Damascene Village served as the location for Bab al hara, a Syrian TV series that quickly became one of the highest rated in the history of Arab satellite television.4 Bab al hara idealized the daily life and social customs of a Damascene neighborhood at the time of the French mandate, celebrating the people’s struggle against colonial rule; which, as said earlier, was organized precisely in al Ghouta, the area where the TV series had been filmed. Therefore, the Damascene Village became a physical replica of the historic 1920s rebel stronghold conceived as a TV set for a reenactment drama of that very struggle; which, historically speaking, took place exactly in the location where the fictional copy had been rebuilt for the sake of media consumption.

In May 2010, in the context of the fieldwork I was conducting for my PhD research on Syrian TV drama, I spent a month in the Damascene Village, embedded with the Bab al hara crew. At that time, the physical site of the Damascene Village had been metaphorically turned into Bab al hara. Inside the Damascene Village everything, from the architecture of the buildings to the design of the shops and the goods being sold, was the spatial manifestation of a corporate-driven entertainment culture inspired by the Pan-Arab TV series property of a top entertainment group, the Gulf-based, Saudi-owned MBC. The Syrian suburb was occupied, both physically and metaphorically, by pan-Arab capital, which reshaped the symbolic geography of the place, turning it into a mass-mediated reproduction of itself as reenacted in Bab al hara.

In November 2010, I took a group of university students and professors on a day trip to the Damascene Village. Everything that happened during the outing was Bab al hara-related.  We dressed up as its characters; we talked to each other employing its language, making references to its symbolic universe; we even performed sequences from the TV series using them as an access point for discussing contemporary Syria. Our experience was a full embodiment of Jeremy Rifkin’s reflection that “theme parks symbolize the primacy ofconsumption as formula for organizing social relationships” (Anton-Clavé 2007:156);5 and of Guy Debord’s understanding of “spectacle” as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1999:2).6

Both domestically and at a pan-Arab level, Bab al hara was the perfect media representation of an inclusive national, multicultural project. In fact, the hara (neighborhood) portrayed in the series included Muslims and Christians, men and women, all of them united by the common fight against foreign occupation, and struggling to preserve their national unity and a shared identity of al watan (the homeland). This message of inclusiveness was in tune with the seemingly reform-minded project backed by president Bashar al Asad and his inner circle of advisors, widely supported by the cultural elites of the country, including the Syrian TV drama makers.7

As noted by Lisa Wedeen (2013), TV entertainment, together with other market-oriented languages, had contributed to spreading the fantasy of a multicultural Syria under al Asad’s leadership, where consumption, linked to stability and order, could make the “good life” accessible to everybody. The Syria of the 2000s was a fully-fledged “neoliberal autocracy” where aspirations for a good life had become melded to “fantasies of multicultural accommodation, domestic security, and a sovereign national identity” (Wedeen 2013:842-843). Bab al hara had rendered this vision into the shiny, corporate-driven language of a blockbuster TV series. Everyone could become part of the Syrian dream, just as everyone potentially belonged to al watan.

However, in March 2011 the Syrian uprising broke out, making al watan a very contentious, politically charged issue, and bringing to the surface the contradictions and clashing ideas hidden behind a seemingly inclusive vision of national unity and belonging. One year later, in August 2012, I saw the Damascene Village again, on my computer screen; yet, this time it was not serving as a film location for Bab al hara.8 The place had been occupied by a group of anti-al Asad armed rebels; soon after, it was re-conquered by the Syrian army, then again retaken by opposition forces, who remained there under siege until nothing was left of the former Damascene Village. Video accounts were shot and uploaded to YouTube from both sides, narrating the seizure of the Damascene Village by using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from Bab al hara. In some cases, they re-enacted entire sequences from the TV series; a realistic mise-en-scene which turned a fictional, romanticized story of unity and resistance against the French occupation into a real-time (and armed) clash between different factions at a time when the uprising was turning into a full-blown civil war.

Syrian and pan-Arab news stations reporting about the events in the Damascene Village edited the YouTube videos taken by the army and the rebels together with archive footage taken from the TV series, using its soundtrack to package their news features. Once again, everything was Bab al hara-related. Paradoxically, all the media discourses generated around the clashes in the Damascene Village of the 2010s – including those produced by non-fiction media – borrowed from the nostalgic, fictitious reproduction of historical events in the Syria of the 1920s. Once circulated online, these media discourses were once again re-manipulated and remixed by anonymous users cross-referencing between the fictional historical Damascus of the 1920s, the real Damascene Village of the 2010s, and the news accounts of the destruction of the latter that eventually became entangled with the narrative universe of Bab al hara. This layering of media might be interpreted as a process of “remediation” in Bolter and Grusin’s understanding (2000), that is a way of referencing older media and repackaging them in order for new media to achieve its cultural significance.

Yet, there is something fundamentally different in the process of hyperlinking, cross-referencing and generating endless layers of times, spaces and meanings initiated and boosted by any networked content – whether a self-produced video item, or a piece of mainstream television – if uploaded to YouTube and shared across the networks. Jodi Dean (2010) has rightly described the feedback loops and the circuits of drive as the main feature of networked communication technologies. Here the latter is understood as a techno-social infrastructure defined by characteristics of reflexivity and the endless circulation of messages that are shared, manipulated, and repeated over and over again in a loop where any possible meaning is lost. Messages become mere contributions to the ever-circulating flow of data upon which networked communications technologies thrive. The implications of this process in terms of production of meaning are dramatic. According to Dean (2009), the uncontrollable speed and spread of contributions over the networks help prevent the formation of any sort of signification. “Networked communications – particularly in their continued entanglements with the mainstream media – format the terrain of battle between competing conceptions of the Real;” here the latter do not generate a plurality of visions, but a set of “disintegrated spectacles” which undermine any possible condition of belief and generate a feeling of “constituent anxiety” (Dean 2009:173).

This process – which is inherent to the networks – is amplified within highly contentious contexts, such as contemporary Syria, experiencing a violent and bloody armed clash of visions over the country’s future. If Bab al hara used to symbolize, at a mass media level, Syrian national unity and a shared idea of al watan, the uprising escalated into civil war has turned the TV series into a heavily contentious site. This is apparent from the YouTube videos shot by the Syrian army and the armed rebels.

The Syrian army’s video features an unveiled young woman in military fatigues, a TV reporter embedded with the troops whose role is to witness and support the military fight to reconquer the Damascene Village by providing a live account for the wider Syrian audience. This recalls the character of Umm Joseph in Bab al hara, an old Christian lady who fights for the independence of her country alongside her male (and Muslim) colleagues, symbolizing the multicultural inclusiveness of the hara as a metaphor for the entire country. On the contrary, the rebels’ videos feature only men who are mostly bearded; a trait that clearly suggests their religious affiliation. In a fascinating (and surreal) mixture of the real and fictitious, the rebels call themselves rijal al Ghouta al sharqiyya (the men of Eastern al Ghouta), borrowing the expression from the TV series; and, at the same time, referring to the real al Ghouta, which stands both as the filming location of Bab al hara, and as the area they are conquering while shooting the video. Visually and textually playing with the intertwinement and cross-referencing of places and times, the rebels’ videos denounce the siege being imposed by the Syrian army on the al Ghouta of the 2010s, connecting it to the historical siege of that very area carried out by the French troops in 1920s as dramatized and narrated in Bab al hara.

These video accounts being circulated on the networks clearly show that the fantasy of inclusiveness behind the hara – and behind Bashar al Asad’s political project – has now been fragmented into clashing narratives packaged by opposing armed factions that have occupied both the physical space of the Damascene Village, and the symbolic, mediated space of Bab al hara. Thus, the Damascene Village has been transformed from a set staging an historical fight fictionalized for the sake of TV drama to a set enabling real armed fighting, used by opposing parties to re-enact Bab al hara’s re-enactment of the people’s anti-colonial struggle, and to give it novel meanings in the context of the Syrian civil war.

Bab al hara was already a contentious space long before the Syrian conflict broke out. From the time of its first broadcast, back in 2006, the TV series generated several heated debates, mostly on Syrian media. For example, critics had pointed to the inaccurate representation of the women of the hara, who were portrayed as passive mothers and wives, subject to their husbands’ and fathers’ will. Others accused the TV series of ignoring the vibrant cultural life and the high educational level of Damascenes at the time, focusing exclusively on the lower, uneducated class.9 However, these controversies mostly took place within the space of traditional mainstream media, such as the written press or TV talk shows. Now, the combined action of violence performed in the context of an ongoing civil war and of networked communication technologies has broken up the narrative of a shared nationhood into a variety of competing versions of reality; none of them able to restore the conditions necessary for a belief in a shared national project. A novel space has been created by the entanglement of warfare and technology, where lines are blurred between the physical, lived experiences of war and their media representations, which have gained a new existence by virtue of the endless circulation of the layering of times, spaces, and people enabled by the networks.

This new environment, defined around what I call “expanded places,” re-establishes the relationship between violence and visibility, and broadens the very idea of conflict. Here, mediated and symbolic languages are employed to perform and legitimize the violence perpetrated in physical spaces. At the same time, the large scale production and reproduction of this very violence through networked forms and formats serves to actualize and rationalize it, its viral circulation being endlessly nurtured and boosted by the techno-human structure of the networks.

Expanding warfare through the networks: an ethnography of expanded places

Drawing from the ethnographies of the Damascene Village, I want to reflect on the relationship between visibility and violence in the performance of contemporary warfare as defined by and through the networks, and on the implications of being exposed to violent events in the context of a networked environment. Philosopher Micheal Shapiro (2011) calls this situation of continuous exposure to violence the presence of war. It is by virtue of the “technologies of perception” shaping our communication habitat. He argues that an overlap between the materiality of violence being performed remotely and the comfort of the places where we consume it is produced (Shapiro 2013:137). This reflection is key to approaching expanded places as novel environments generated by the combined action of warfare and networked communication technologies.

Long before new media, scholarship had raised the question of the juxtaposition of conflict zones as places for the production of violence, and comfort zones as environments for the consumption of the latter, emphasizing the role of visual media in bringing together these apparently opposing contexts. Several works have focused on the relationship between violence and visual media, stressing the capacity of the latter to shape a sort of dramaturgy (and ideology) of warfare. Susan Sontag (1977) was the first to underline that the over-saturation of images of violence and violent images had resulted in hindering their potential capacity to generate any sort of ethical responsiveness. Finally, their very existence could not help but bear witness to “the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction” (Sontag 1977:70).

Judith Butler (2009) pushed this reflection farther by arguing that the role of images was not only to document violence, but to actively perform it. This capacity to contribute to the performance of violence is, in her view, closely connected to their rapid spread and dissemination through a diverse set of media. Butler has stressed the importance of media circulation in shaping the relationship between violence and visibility, and has directly linked media representations to modes of military conduct. In her words: “there is no way to separate, under present historical conditions, the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates and which rationalize its own operation” (Butler 2009:29).

Yet the role played by networked communication technologies in generating expanded places exceeds that of facilitating the mere circulation and proliferation of visual media, and of producing and reproducing media representations. Here the networks have to be conceived not only as a techno-infrastructure boosting the endless reproduction of images and texts, but also as the human fabric beneath the mechanism of that very reproduction. The web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2004), also defined as participatory web or “social” web, is in fact at the same time the technological infrastructure and the human network connecting people and information in a system of cross-referencing and hyperlinking. Reflexivity and circulation are key features describing this environment of networked data and people, together with anonymity and decentralized authorship.

The combination of the technological and human element defining networked communication technologies generates a fundamental difference with non-networked media, such as photography or television, which were the focus of Sontag and Butler’s reflections. By virtue of the networks’ techno-human infrastructure, visuals and data are not just copied or disseminated, but hyperlinked and cross-referenced with other visuals and data, and connected to an ever expanding web of people, places, and times. Within this architecture, everybody is a maker of messages and a connector between one message and another; between one node of the web and another. The hyperlinking of people, places, and times is central to the process of expanding places that have been annihilated by violence and warfare, while at the same time being multiplied in endless mediated versions where new spatio-temporal and symbolic connections are established.

The fate of the Damascene Village makes this apparent. Here, different layers of time have overlapped: the historical 1920s; the 1920s as re-imagined by a media product made in the 2000s; the 1920s celebrated in a fictional version of the 2000s and re-employed in the 2010s by opposing factions to fight a real war and endorse their own version of armed resistance. Places have also merged: the historical site of al Ghouta with its physical replica, the Damascene Village; and the fictional representation of al Ghouta offered by Bab al hara with the militarized and physically besieged Damascene Village. New meanings have been generated through this melting of times and places, as shown by the self -recorded video accounts produced by the rebels and the Syrian army. Both sides have linked a fantasy of the historical al Ghouta as re-elaborated by Bab al hara to their own fantasy of conquering Syria’s collective imagination through the physical occupation of the TV series location, which is also the material site where the local anti-colonial struggle originated. By re-articulating the links between historical resistance struggles, the fantasy of this very resistance filtered through TV fiction, and their ongoing armed resistance, both the rebels and the loyalist army have been playing with images and signs, cross-cutting times and spaces.

The multi-layered cross-referencing of a plurality of times and spaces is a result of the process of expansion which occurs by virtue of the techno-human infrastructure of networked communication technologies. This spatio-temporal overlap and the blurring of the boundaries between a fictional replica of a physical, historical place, and the latter’s material existence, coincide to shape a continuous real-time and live-presence which characterize time and space in expanded places. The YouTube videos that have been uploaded by the armed rebels and the Syrian army, shared by thousands of unknown users worldwide, remixed by Arab TV news stations, re-manipulated by other unknown users who edit them once again and, finally, re-injected into the ever-circulating data stream generated by the networks, have all contributed to the expansion of the place formerly known as theDamascene Village. Expanding a place, in fact, does not only mean multiplying its spatio-temporal existence, but also interconnecting it with other places, times, languages, material existences and individualities.

The endless making and remaking of the connections between images and spaces and the continuous attribution of novel meanings to the empirical and symbolic world generate  alternative ways of framing the “existing sense of reality,” redefining the “trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done” (Rancière 2009:49). Along these lines a new fictionality emerges; which, as conceptualized by philosopher Jacques Rancière (2013), does not refer to the making up of a fictitious universe, nor does it evoke a relationship of truth and falsehood. As shown by the story of the Damascene Village, the same symbolic and visual reference (Bab al hara) can be employed simultaneously by opposing factions (the Syrian army and the armed rebels) to produce contrasting narratives of resistance, and clashing ideas of nationhood. It can both serve to evoke a seemingly inclusive multiculturalism promoted under al Asad’s leadership; and, at the same time, to remind us that an entire nation is being besieged, not by occupying foreign forces but by the Syrian regime.

Fictionality has to be understood as the philosophical device rearranging the existing into a completely new (political) form, and (aesthetic) format. I argue that the relationship between the political and the aesthetic being established in expanded places has to be defined along the lines of Rancière’s reflection (2013) on the “aesthetic regime,” that is a framework organizing the visible, the thinkable and the sayable independently from the logic of causality or representativity characterizing previous forms of “distribution of the sensible.”Within the “ethical regime” and the “representative regime” the question of the image was raised in reference to an external principle (Rancière 2013:16-17); whether ethical (that is “truth content” of the image, its “end or purpose”) or representative (i.e., its ability to imitate in a “good or bad, adequate or inadequate” way). Images have been assessed and judged within the ethical and the representative regimes around a principle of truthfulness, or of representation. In the former, images have to aim at something, have to move and mobilize: in the latter, they have to describe “proper ways of doing and making” according to a criterion of representation or mimesis (Rancière 2013:17).

However, the logic of expanded places does not respond to any of these criteria. The fictionality specific to the aesthetic regime is, in fact, a framework marked by a “proliferation of modes of speech and levels of meaning” (Rancière 2013:33) where temporality is defined around a “co-presence of heterogeneous temporalities” (Rancière 2013:21) – as we have witnessed with the continuous layering of times and places in the Damascene Village. In the context of Rancière’s aesthetic regime the logic of facts and the logic of fiction are blurred, as much as in expanded places like the Damascene Village.

This seems to bear a resemblance to Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal (1994) defined as a space “whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of the truth” (Poster 2001:170). The proliferation of mediated languages which shaped Baudrillard’s understanding of “simulation” (1994) as the main process describing the hyperreal could evoke the layering of forms and formats that have entangled the real Damascene Village with its representations through Bab al hara, re-connecting it again to the historical al Ghouta. However, while Baudrillard’s simulation is a mediated process which “bears no relation to any reality,” expanded places are shaped around the networked re-elaboration, re-imagination, and re-manipulation of materialities, physical places, and historical events (Poster 2001:173). Both the Damascene Village and Bab al hara are mediated embodiments of the fantasy of national unity and resistance historically and symbolically represented by al Ghouta. The expanded versions of the Damascene Village generated through networked communication technologies also bear reference to the events happening on the ground in contemporary Syria (the siege of al Ghouta carried out by the Syrian army), re-connecting them to an historical event that occurred in another time (the siege of al Ghouta carried out during the French colonial mandate) which occupies a strong symbolic place in the country’s collective imagination.

All the expanded versions of the Damascene Village bear a connection to other times and spaces, a connection which is used by each faction to support its own version of reality. Yet, what we should focus on is not this relation to a supposed ontological reality lying beneath expanded places; but rather the process by which the networks add new layers to the existing sense of reality, and how this results in creating new “communities of sense” (Rancière 2009). The story of the Damascene Village proves that it does not really matter whether the fantasy of al Ghouta elaborated by Bab al hara corresponds to an historical reality; what it is important to reflect upon is that this very fantasy has been used to generate and reproduce violence from opposite armed factions, both of which have employed mediated and networked languages to claim legitimacy over their own idea of homeland and national resistance.

In this context “the Aristotelian dividing line between two ‘stories’ or ‘histories’ – poets’ stories and the history of historians – is thereby revoked, the dividing line that not only separated reality and fiction but also empirical succession and constructed necessity (…) Testimony and fiction come under the same regime of meaning” (Rancière 2013:33-34). Therefore, instead of looking at the questions generated by expanded spaces in relation to an adherence to reality and truth, or in connection with an idea of representation, I suggest focusing on the way new meanings, novel political forms, and aesthetic formats emerge within these environment by virtue of the process of cross-referencing and hyperlinking boosted by the networks. This constitutes a major shift from Sontag and Butler’s reflections on violence and visibility elaborated in the context of non-networked media. Both scholars had evoked either an ethical or a representative function of the images which, within the networked environment connecting people and data defining expanded places, is replaced by a logic where “descriptive and narrative arrangements in fiction becomes fundamentally indistinct from the arrangements used in the description and interpretation of the phenomena of the social and historical world” (Rancière 2013:33).

Defining new forms and formats in expanded places

Novel political forms and aesthetic formats appear in the context of networked communication technologies that define expanded places around a new idea of realism. I argue that these forms and formats are fundamentally different from those shaped by non-networked media. Departing from critical theories of realism developed in cinema studies – such as Andre Bazin’s idea that the real should be “aimed at” (Deleuze 1989:1) – and from the “ideology of realism” put forward by television – directly linked “to the possibility of ‘live'” broadcast (Zimmer 2015:84) – I propose looking at these new forms and formats in light of the characteristics of circularity, reflexivity, anonymity and decentralized authorship which, as previously underlined, describe the networks as a techno-human infrastructure.

Reflecting on the distribution of the sensible and on the different organizational forms it generates, Rancière has emphasized the role that “mechanical arts” played in shaping a new aesthetic, and therefore political, format (Rancière 2013:27). Here technology is not understood as a mere technique of reproduction and transmission; rather, it is the platform that allows a fundamental shift introduced within the aesthetic regime (i.e., “the honor acquired by the commonplace”) to emerge and be visualized (Rancière 2013:29). In Rancière’s view, the aesthetic revolution – another way of saying modernity – has broken with a certain relation to the image established within the ethical and representative regimes; revoking, on the one hand, “the representative tradition’s scales of grandeur,” and, on the other hand, “the oratorical model of speech in favor of the interpretation of signs” (Rancière 2013:30).

The combination of an aesthetic shift with the technological possibility of focusing on “the anonymous” and on the “minute details of ordinary life” has given rise a new understanding of history as a continuous process of assigning meanings to material realities, of connecting signs and symbols in unprecedented ways. In this sense we can define history as a “new form of fiction,”10 and look at reality as capable of “bearing greater fictional invention” by virtue of the never-ending connections between times, places, and people, being continuously made and remade, done and undone (Rancière 2013:34). According to Rancière, documentary films, because of their inner aspiration to capture reality, have a greater chance of rendering the blurring of lines between different material realities and their representations which defines the aesthetic regime.

The French philosopher does not explicitly mention networked communication technologies. However, his emphasis on the anonymous subject as an active producer of history understood in terms of fictionality bears more than a resemblance to the “prosumer” of the networked age.11 In places that have been expanded by the combined action of warfare and technology everyone can participate in the task of producing and reproducing history, as we have seen in the Damascene Village, where the rebels, the Syrian army, pan-Arab news channels, and thousands of unknown users have all contributed to remaking the connection between the historical al Ghouta and the actual besieged al Ghouta, between Bab al hara and their own fantasy of national resistance.

The peculiarity of such new formats as the YouTube videos disseminated virally over the web 2.0 is that they combine a visual culture of “compulsive documentation films” packaged to signify the quintessential form of “experience;” with “the diffuse dispersal of information” of the networked experience (Zimmer 2015:97). As argued by Catherine Zimmer (2015:97), “self experience should be exchanged and circulated in order to become relevant. In other words, subjectivity and mediated representation are one and the same,” as they are both determined by the techno-human infrastructure of the networks where these formats are produced and circulated. Once again, a technological possibility helps render a fundamental aesthetic – and political – shift, that is the rise of the anonymous subject and decentralized authorship nurtured by virtue of the circularity and reflexivity of the networks. At the same time, serving as a distribution platform, networked communication technologies boost the production of content, which is then re-injected into the networks in an endless cycle of circulation.

Therefore, the new formats of realism shaped on the networks result from “ever-accumulating layers of technological mediation;” they are defined, as Zimmer (2015:112-113) underlines, by “a reflexive structure that makes explicit reference to the manner in which any event or understanding of an event is multiply mediated.” The story of the Damascene Village clearly evokes this process of connecting layers of networked times, places, and people; and creating a new understanding of reality which contains all those apparently contradictory strata in a sort of continuous real-time presence. While producing the personal and the individual, at the same time the video accounts shot by the Syrian army and the armed rebels are networked multilayered formations that become “increasingly indistinguishable in aesthetic and function from the social spectacle, the virtual assemblage, and the hypermediation of networked communication” (Zimmer 2015:112).

By virtue of their networked genealogy the formats generated within expanded places shape a fluctuating understanding of reality and history, as they continuously rearrange links between signs and images; being influenced by the circularity, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship of the networks as they do so. Throughout this process they “reconfigure the map of the sensible;” through the modeling of new perceptions, trajectories and meanings they come to produce new political forms (Rancière 2013:35). A new aesthetic order à la Rancière generates “uncertain communities” politically questioning “the distribution of roles, territories, and languages” (Rancière 2013:36). Yet, in expanded places that have been destroyed by violence and warfare, then have been re-born through a networked after-life, this process goes much further. Here, challenging the distribution of the sensible is not only a matter of contentious politics, but of generating and regenerating violence and destruction through the endless circulation of formats of violence boosted by the inner techno-human structure of the networks.

Epilogue: resilience of the image in expanded places

A paradox within expanded places is that, after having been physically annihilated, they are regenerated through their own images which, once injected onto the networks and hyperlinked to other images, times, and spaces, grant to their destroyed selves an endless, networked after-life. In fact, images lie at the core of the process of life-extension. Expanded places are image-fed, growing around the proliferation of the networked forms and formats previously described.

The networks, conceived as the techno-human infrastructure enabling expansion by virtue of its circularity, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship, bear another structural characteristic that contributes to strengthening the proliferation of images in expanded places, which is the diffused ownership of the information circulating through networked communication technologies. Having inserted images in the data stream image-makers lose control – and ownership – of their own visual production. This is apparent in the case of the Damascene Village; even in the presence of a mainstream corporate product such asBab al hara, whose ownership is protected by copyrights, its circulation on the networks produces a de facto loss of control over it, resulting in indiscriminate viral sharing and manipulation by anonymous users, other satellite networks, and armed groups like the Syrian army and the rebels.

The loss of ownership over content, which has been widely celebrated by the cultures of sharing and remixing, was already observed in the 1970s by Jean Luc Godard.12 “Poor revolutionary fools, millionaires of images of revolution,” remarked the French filmmaker in his documentary film on the (failed) Palestinian uprising, Ici et ailleurs (“Here and elsewhere,” 1976). Those Palestinians who had generated thousands of images that were supposed to celebrate the victory of their revolution had actually lost control of those very images; which then could serve to tell multiple, contradictory stories. The condition of being image-makers who are no longer image-keepers is the link connecting a documentary film from the 1970s and the over-mediated and networked environment where expanded places proliferate.

However, it is precisely because of the content producers’ failure to preserve their own production that places such as the Damascene Village are granted a further life and can endlessly proliferate and hyperlink with other images within the techno-human infrastructure of the networks. The process of expansion of places relies precisely on this split between image-makers and image-keepers. Images should be left free to circulate in order to nurture the endless data flow upon which networked communications technologies prosper; they should escape from their makers for the sake of being injected into the ever-circulating stream of networked forms and formats. Because of this, a superabundance of images populates expanded places, images that are extremely resilient, and become even more so by virtue of the speed and the dissemination of other data hyperlinked to them in a non-stop flow. Here, images have a dual nature; they are, on the one hand, the methodological device for the performance of violence and, on the other hand, the object of this very violence.

The scholarship has widely reflected on visual media as a tool and technique for executing violence. Analyzing visuals from Abu Ghraib, Catherine Zimmer (2015:44) concluded that torture was not only documented but “performed through the act of photography.” Summing up a decade and more “politically and culturally saturated by the ‘war on terror’,” she remarked that this “state of exception” had served as a perfect ideological context for torture-based media production (Zimmer 2015:53-55). However, violence can be performed on violent images themselves, as the ending of the Damascene Village suggests.

In August 2013, a chemical attack was launched on the area of al Ghouta. It resulted in further deaths, destruction and starvation within the district. Because of the dramatic shortage of food, a fatwa was issued allowing people to eat animals not usually consumed. There was a lion in the zoo at the Damascene Village. The Arabic word for lion is asad; therefore, in a highly symbolic act, the anti- al Asad rebels under siege killed the lion and ate its meat. A video was shot documenting the entire process, with the purpose of sharing it online. However, shortly after being uploaded, the footage was removed by YouTube, which claimed that it violated the company’s community guidelines.

Only a snapshot from the rebels’ video has been saved, and it is still circulating (at the time of writing) on the networks. Other images from the video have been sentenced to death by the networks, and condemned to eternal oblivion. Another type of violence has been inflicted on violent images by the networks acting upon a double-edged logic. On the one hand, the technological infrastructure beneath networked communication technologies, functioning around reflexivity and circulation, boosts the expansion of places that have been physically destroyed, regenerating them, and granting them a form of survival after annihilation. On the other hand, that very infrastructure that nurtures “communicative capitalism” (Dean 2009) condemns all things produced to comply with disciplinary frameworks that have been elaborated by private companies and corporate capital.

Hence, those producing violence are also submitted to violence; this operation is much more nuanced and almost imperceptible, as it is perpetrated by the networks adhering to a corporate principle that establishes what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. Contemporary image-keepers are no longer that generation of filmmakers who used to reflect critically on the question of image. The networks have become today’s image-keepers; they store and preserve, or delete and destroy images following a logic that still is to be fully explored, understood, and critiqued.

Conclusions

This article has reflected on the increasing role played by networked communication technologies in shaping and re-designing the spatiality and perception of contemporary warfare, and the latter’s relationship to visibility and the production of visual economies. Drawing on ethnographies from the Syrian Damascene Village, it has argued that the combined action of violence and visibility, warfare and networked communication technologies produces what I have described as expanded places. Expanded places are endless networked versions of physical sites that have been destroyed, and then regenerated through the multiplication of mediated forms and formats enabled by networked communications technologies. They thrive on the latter’s techno-human infrastructure, and rely on the endless proliferation of images occurring as a result of the loss of control of image-makers over their own production. Expanded places are aggregators of new communities of meaning; they are able to catalyze the formation of new meanings and identities, and add novel layers of signification to an existing reality, creating their own multiple realities and histories.

The ethnography that I have conducted on the Damascene Village, with the help of several videos produced and uploaded by multiple subjects (some of them identifiable, others anonymous), constitutes a first case study aiming at discussing the characteristics of expanded places, and at opening up a reflection on multiple spaces generated by the intertwinement of warfare and technology. The article has looked at the prominent role that images play in shaping the expanded places; how they inhabit them; and how they help create new connections between signs and spaces, granting new life to these expanded spaces and catalyzing new communities of sense around them.

The sad ending of the Damascene Village has added another layer for further reflection, which relates to the ownership and control over the images within the networks. The latter not only generate new layers of signification and meanings to an existing reality; they also establish rules, codes of conduct, and a politics to govern and manage expanded places. The disappeared footage of the lion killed in the Damascene Village should stand as a reminder that the process of expansion and multiplication of mediated languages around a place could be blocked at any moment; and that there is a politics – and a political economy – behind even such seemingly ethereal places, which calls for further investigation.

References

Anton-Clavé, Salvador 2007. The Global Theme Park Industry. Wallingford: CABI.

Baudrillard, Jean 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press.

Bolter, David J., and Richard A. Grusin 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Butler, Judith 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso.

Clifford, James 1988. The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Dean, Jodi 2010. Blog Theory. Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Debord, Guy 1999. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Deleuze, Gilles 1989. The Time-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Poster, Mark 2001. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, Jacques 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury, paperback edition.

Rancière, Jacques 2009. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics. In Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics.  Beth Hinderliter, William Kaizen, Vered Maimon, Jaleh Mansoor and Seth McCormick, eds. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 31-50.

Shapiro, Micheal 2013. Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Tuan, Yi-Fu 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wedeen, Lisa 2013. Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria. Critical Inquiry 39:841-873.

Zimmer, Catherine 2015. Surveillance Cinema. New York: New York University Press.

Notes


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments that greatly contributed to improving the final version of this article; and the editors for their support during the review process. A big thank you to Kay Wallace who did the final proofread; to the Bab al hara producers for giving me access to the filming in 2010; to Khalil Younes, Hillary Mushkin, Omar Ghazzi, Mohammed Abdallah, Salim Salama, for inspiring me to pursue my work on the “expanded” al Ghouta; to the people of al Ghouta, still living under siege. I would also like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Arab Image Foundation (FAI) in Beirut for giving me access to rare and precious visual material on Syria at the time ofthe French occupation. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Danish Institute in Damascus for supporting my research work on al Ghouta and expanded places with a research grant.

Such as the literary production by Badawi al Jabal (a pen name of Mohammed Sulayman al Ahmed), a Syrian poet and anti-colonial political activist.

For further reading on neoliberal reforms in Syria, see Haddad, Bassam (2012) Business networks in Syria. The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.  Stanford: Stanford University Press

For further reading on Bab al hara and entertainment television in the Arab world, see Khalil, Joe F., and Marwan M. Kraidy (2009). Arab Television Industries. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Emphasis added.

Emphasis added.

For further reading on Bab al hara, and on the political economy of  Syrian TV drama industry, see Della Ratta (2013) Dramas of the Authoritarian State. The Politics of Syrian TV Drama in the Pan Arab Market. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Cross Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The fifth season of Bab al hara was aired in Ramadan 2010. The TV series restarted several years later; a sixth and seventh seasons were broadcast in Ramadan 2014 and 2015.

For further reading see Della Ratta (2013) Dramas of the Authoritarian State. The Politics of Syrian TV Drama in the Pan Arab Market. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Cross Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

10 The provocatory title of Rancière’s essay (2013) is: “Is History a Form of Fiction?”

11 This definition was coined by Alvin Toffler in 1980 when he predicted that, with advanced technologies, the role of producers and consumers would merge.

12 For further reading on the cultures of sharing, see Lessig, Lawrence (2008) Remix. Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. London: The Penguin Press.

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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.

Women in musalsalat: “Bab al hara 5” and “Abuab al ghraim”

This morning I jumped into this Emirates 24/7 article on Bab al hara 5 which states: “Syrian drama popular despite abuse of women”.

This is not the first time I`ve heard heavy critical statements on the way Bab al hara serial portrays women and their role in the society. The directors and many of the actors have tried many times -in public occasions- to “adjust” this belief. I met once Kamal al Murra, one of the writer of the musalsal, and, when asked  this question (he must be tired of people asking why women are portrayed so badly) he answered very frankly that Bab al hara was not aiming at portraying the whole Syrian society. It was the story of just one little neighbourhood (hara) in Old Damascus and, despite the “hara” was an imagined one (iftiradiya) the social behaviour, the values and the lifestyle portrayed in it were exactly like in many others “harat sha`abiya ” at the time. He was referring to a low-class “hara” where you couldn`t expect to see elite behaviours or lifestyles, such as educated or “liberated” women.

In Bab al hara 5 episode broadcasted yesterday, the main topic was Hisam -the eldest son of the so madly popular Abu Hisam- desperately looking for a third wife. Hisam is already married twice but, as he points out: “I`ll have the first two wives taking care of the house and the children. I want to enjoy life with the third one”. In another scene  his sister Bouran goes to visit their mother – that very same Souad who was divorced by the honourable Abu Hisam for having dared to express a different opinion from his- and asks her to mediate with her husband who wants their teenager daughter to get married. When Bouran tries to make him understand that she is “still playing”, he gets mad and screams that they are not supposed to pay forever in order to raise their daughter. In another episode, we see Bouran`s male son who goes to school -the “kuttab”- whereas his little sister stays home with mum and learn how to be a perfect housewife.

I don`t know in how many episodes -basically, every time somebody gets pregnant- all the men “order” their women to “deliver a boy”. Ironically enough, should this wish come true, al “hara” would be a male-only neighbourhood not able to reproduce itself without recurring to the “ghrarib” (the foreigner).

Almost at the same time  slot Bab al hara 5 is broadcasted on MBC, its Pan Arab competitor Dubai TV broadcasts “Abuab al ghraim” (the doors of the cloud) directed by Syrian Hatem Ali. Despite the directors and many actors in the cast are Syrians, the spoken language of the musalsal is a very delicate kind of old fashioned Gulf dialect. The story is in fact inspired by  Dubai ruler Sheikh al Maktoum`s poetry and set during the time when British occupation forced the local bedouin population to migrate.

The difference between “Abuab al ghraim”`s bedouins and “Bab al hara”`s urban population is enormous, particularly when it comes to women. Bedouin women are proud, fierce and bold. Their  are very feminine but their attitude can be  confrontational vis-a`-vis their men.

Watching this “bedouin drama” made me think to that”hara” in Damascus, the “oldest urban settlement in the world”, as all the Damascenes like to remind each foreigner.

The past is never “the Past” and everything we tell about “those times” is the result of a precise choice -being it intentional or unintentional- that we are making “right now”.

Precisely for this reason, the “hara” of the oldest city in the world can be much less “urban” than a bedouin camp.

Interestingly enough, both of them are “made in Syria”.

Me with some “Bab al hara” women at Bab al hara 5 shootings, May 2010, Damascus.


Ramadan, the “month of musalsalat”, begins today

Ramadan kareem to everybody in the Muslim word. Today the holy month starts but, as a Syrian director friend of mine once said, this is “the month of musalsalat” for many people.

The National, the UAE online publication, published yesterday the “essential viewing this Ramadan“.  Yahoo!Maktoob has also prepared a tailor made platform for Ramadan which includes a  TV guide to find out which musalsalat are being broadcasted by whom. It might be not so easy to find out what you want to watch during Ramadan, as with more than 500 FTA channels -many of them broadcasting musalsalat of good and very low quality- it`s kind of difficult even to make your personal viewing schedule. I started watching TV extensively yesterday afternoon, when most of the channels were broadcasting overviews of their Ramadan grids. I was surprised to realize how many “Bedouin serials” are about to be broadcasted this year, I could see desert settings and hear much more Khaleji dialect than I remember from last Ramadan season. Dubai TV was a mix of glittering “Hollywood style” stars as Yousra and the Syrian Bassel al Khayat introducing their new musalsalat, plus very basic -and not funny for me..but maybe it`s because the dialect is harder – bedouin musalsalat, kind of “low cost” look. From time to time, the presentation of its Ramadan grid was interrupted to leave air space to English spoken features -like one on “Dubai as the best shopping place for gold”- clearly addressed to potential tourists.

Al Jazeera had a show called “Mata Ramadan?” (When is it Ramadan?) in order to find out when exactly the holy month should kick off.

Today is the official start of the fast together with the musalsalat “grand bouffe”. The afternoon was mostly “colonized” by sheikhs dealing with religious habits, fast, Ramadan enquiries from the audiences. Even MBC was silent on musalsalat side and focused on those “religious” programmes.

The only place where I was able to watch a musalsal this afternoon was Dubai TV, which was broadcasting the latest Syrian actor Bassam Kousa`s Tv drama, where he plays an Arab “Rain man” (do you remember Dustin Hoffman playing the autistic but brilliant main character together with Tom Cruise?). The musalsal is called Wara` as-shams (Behind the sun) and it is produced by well-known Syrian company Aj headed by Hani Arshi (who also appears in the role of consultant for the musalsal). It tells the story of a young and beautiful couple whose life will change since the announcement the child they are expecting is affected by the Down syndrome. From which I could see on the screen today, Bassam Kousa is very far from Dustin Hoffman`s performance in “Rain man”. He over-acts and over-reacts and makes you wonder why if you want to have any success during Ramadan (or even want to be just noticed) you have to tackle sort of “taboo” issues -but the kind of taboos that make your audience cry, like an handicap-. Sounds like the old Hollywood lesson: just perform the role of a marginalized, handicapped, etc and you will get your Oscar home. Despite I love Bassam and the way he acts, I have to say that this first episode of “Behind the sun” did not convince me at all.

Dubai TV is betting on Hatem Ali and Yousra`s works as “main dishes” this Ramadan. Hatem, who I have met in Damascus and chatted about his view on musalsalat industry, has wonderful insights, he is a talented director and a gifted intellectual. I loved his last film work “Al leil at-tawuil” (The long night) produced by Haitham Haqqi which I could only screen in Barcelona at Wocmes congress for the first time last July. I`m not a big fan of his Andalusian or Bedouin works, but I`ll definitely watch “Abuab al ghraim” (the gates of the cloud) tonight at 23 pm KSA which has been taken from Sheikh Al Maktoum`s (the ruler of Dubai) poetry. The Sheikh inspires more than one programme on Ramadan grid,  it seems: just watched “Kawather ramadaniyya” (Ramadan thoughts) which also comes out from his pen.

Even if I have no idea about what the drama will be about, I`ll watch the latest Yousra`s of course, tonight at 00.00 KSA on Dubai. Yousra has been my favourite actress since the time she was acting with Youssef Chahine and, even if she is in a musalsal, for me it`s always the same blood- tempered girl of “Iskandria kaman wa kaman?“.

MBC will broadcast the “must follow” of the season, “Bab al hara 5” and I`m very curious to see it on air, after I have attended the musalsal shootings in Damascus last May. No, of course I won`t tell in this blog if Abu Shehab or Abu Issam are coming back! Also curious to watch “Tash ma tash” in its 17th season, if I can make it to understand the Saudi accent. There are a number of Egyptian musalsalat on MBC that I will have a look at, knowing well that I will give up after a few episodes.

Future TV is broadcasting Najdat Anzour`s “Ma malakat aymanokom” (which I will not dare to translate: too many different translations are appearing on the Net, and the expression comes directly from the holy Quran, the women`s sura) which I have watched a bit in his office during the editing process, founding it beautifully done and extremely interesting. Najdat also has got “Zhakirat al jasad” (Memory of the flesh) on Abu Dhabi TV which is inspired by the life of Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi.

That`s already so much to watch and there`s even more to discover just by zapping with the remote control from channel to channel after the Iftar meal.

MBC on “Colloquial Arabic in Syrian TV Drama”

MBC has reported on the lecture “Colloquial Arabic in Syrian Tv Drama” that was given by Mr Wafiq al Zayim (“Abu Hatem” in Bab al hara) at the Danish Institute in Damascus.

You can find the  original report here.

ps I love this picture of the Danish Institute`s Director HC Nielsen and “Abu Hatem” together!

(picture by Ferhad Hammy, MBC)


وفيق الزعيم مع مدير المعهد الثقافي الدنمركي خلال ندوة “اللهجة الشامية”
فرهاد حمي – mbc.net

فاجأ طالب ياباني يدعى “تومي” الحضور في ندوة بدمشق بتقليد شخصية “أبو حاتم”؛ التي يجسدها النجم السوري وفيق الزعيم في مسلسل باب الحارة.

وطلب الزعيم -الذي كان يحاضر في الندوة حول اللهجة العامية وتطورها في الدراما السورية- من الشاب إعادة حركات التقليد أكثر من مرة، الأمر الذي أضفى بهجة على الندوة التي نظمها المعهد الثقافي الدنمركي.

وناقشت الجلسة -التي حضرها أكاديميون وطلاب أجانب يهتمون باللهجة العامية السورية- دور كتاب “طيب الكلام”، وهو قيد الإصدار لـ”أبو حاتم”، في مساعدة الأجانب الوافدين من الدول الأجنبية على تعلم اللهجة الشامية، لا سيما أنه يتضمن قاموسا للأمثال الشعبية والمفردات الدمشقية.

وقال الفنان السوري -في تصريحات خاصة لـmbc.net، في سياق تعقيبه على المحاضرة-: إن الدراما السورية في الوقت الراهن تحتل المرتبة التاسعة على مستوى الدراما العالمية، وذلك نتيجة غوصها العميق في الموضوعات.

واعتبر -في الوقت نفسه- أن مسلسل باب الحارة ليس الأفضل من بين الأعمال السورية، إلا أنه استطاع طرح مبادئ إنسانية وأخلاقية في قالب درامي جميل؛ ما جعله ينال الشهرة والانتشار على مستوى العربي و العالمي.

وأشار الزعيم إلى أنه على الرغم من تطور العصر وطغيان التكنولوجيا على الحياة اليومية، الذي أدى بدوره إلى تراجع العلاقات الاجتماعية والإنسانية، جاءت الدراما البيئية وعلى رأسها باب الحارة لتقديم وتصحيح الرؤية الأخلاقية، والعودة بالناس إلى القيم الاجتماعية الأصيلة.

وذكر أحد المواقف بهذا الصدد قائلا: “إن إحدى المواطنات الأمريكيات طلبت منه أثناء زيارته الأخيرة إلى أمريكا تقديم الشكر على لسانها إلى جميع العاملين في مسلسل باب الحارة، وذلك على خلفية تقديمه أفكارا تربوية مثالية تساعد الأهل على القيام بالتربية الجيدة لأولادهم”.

واعتبر الفنان السوري أن مقهى أبو حاتم يمثل المركز الثقافي لذلك العصر، حيث كان الجميع يتجمعون فيه لبحث ومناقشة الأمور والمشكلات التي تحيط بكل مواطن دمشقي، عبر المجلس التعاوني في ذلك الوقت، فضلاً عن تقديمه القصص والروايات القديمة عبر الحكواتي.

وفي السياق نفسه، قال هانس نيلسون مدير معهد الثقافي الدنمركي: إن الخطوة التي قام بها وفيق الزعيم بجمع المفردات والأمثال الشعبية في كتابه ستساعد الأجانب الوافدين على تعلم اللهجة الدمشقية.

وأشار إلى أنه متشوق جدا لرؤية الجزء الخامس من مسلسل باب الحارة بعد متابعته لأجزاء الأربعة السابقة، متمنيا تطوير لهجته العامية على اعتباره يعيش في سورية منذ فترة طويلة.

من جهتها وصفت الباحثة الإيطالية دونتيلا ديلارتا المشرفة على المحاضرة كتاب وفيق الزعيم بأنه مرجع حقيقي لكل الأجانب الذين يأتون إلى سورية لتعلم اللغة العربية العامية والفصحى، خاصة أنه فنان يعمل في الدراما الشامية ويتقن لهجتها بشكل جيد، مشيرة إلى أن دراسة اللغة من خلال الدراما التلفزيونية تعد مفتاحا لتقييم واقع المجتمعات العربية على حد قولها.

دوناتيلا تعد رسالة الدكتوراه حول صناعة الدراما السورية في جامعة كوبنهاجن، بالتعاون مع مركز الثقافي الدنمركي، حيث سبق لها إصدار كتاب حول المحطات الفضائية العربية، بحكم أنها تدرس واقع إعلام العربية من أكثر من عشر سنوات.

أم جوزيف مثال للتلاحم

وفي السياق نفسه، أكدت الباحثة الأمريكية روبيكة جوبن التي تحضّر بدورها رسالة الدكتوراه حول المكانة الاجتماعية للمرأة في الدراما السورية، أن طريقة تقديم النساء في مسلسل باب الحارة ليست كما يظن البعض على أنها بنفس النمطية، بل إن لكل واحدة منها خصوصية معينة تختلف عن الأخرى.

وأضافت أن شخصية أم جوزيف خير دليل على التلاحم بين الديانتين النصرانية والإسلامية، وهو ما يدحض النظريات الغربية حول وجود صراع بين الديانتين في المنطقة العربية، موضحة أن أكثر ما يميز باب الحارة هو الالتزام بالعلاقات الاجتماعية من خلال الأعراف والتقاليد والعقيدة الدينية، دون اللجوء إلى القانون والشرطة للتدخل في حل مشاكل الناس.

ولفتت إلى أن طريقة تقديم حفظ القرآن الكريم للأولاد الصغار في باب الحارة تبين مدى مصداقية تلك الفترة، مؤكدة أنها ستقوم بجلب طلابها من أمريكا إلى موقع تصوير باب الحارة ليتفاعلوا مع ذلك المكان بحقيقته على أرض الواقع، وأنها بصدد لقاء طويل مع الفنان وفيق الزعيم لإطلاعها أكثر على خبايا باب الحارة.

من جهة ثانية، وعد الطالب الياباني “تومي”، الذي يدرس اللغة العربية بجامعة دمشق، وقلد وفيق الزعيم، ببذل قصارى جهده لترجمة كل المفردات والأمثال الشعبية التي وردت في كتاب الفنان وفيق الزعيم إلى اللغة اليابانية؛ ليطلع من خلاله المجتمع الياباني على الثقافة الدمشقية.

Colloquial Arabic in Syrian TV Drama

Tomorrow 8th June at 8pm the Danish Institute in Damascus (situated in the beautiful area of Suq as-souf in Old Damascus) is hosting a lecture on “Colloquial Arabic in Syrian TV Drama” (Arabic only). Mr Wafik al Zayim, the famous actor who plays “Abu Hatem” character in “Bab al hara” TV series, is also a TV drama writer specialized in “Damascene drama” type and he is currently working on the script of next Bassam al Malla`s (Bab al Hara creator and director) TV musalsal “Khan al Shukr” (shooting should start right after Ramadan).

Mr Wafik has been studying the relation between Syrian colloquial Arabic (3ammia suryia) and TV production. He has just completed a dictionary of old Damascene terms that will be soon be released on Panarb market.