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

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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.


[1] Muthanna al-Subh, interview with Forward Magazine, October 2008 (

Una gita a Tripoli di mille anni fa..

Tripoli, una primavera di 3 anni fa, una citta` tranquilla, alle otto di sera gia completamente svuotata dei suoi giovani, silenziosa, come assorta in un sonno perenne.

Io, insieme ad un gruppo di chiassosi siriani, un cast guidato da Najdat Anzour, regista di famose serie televisive che spopolano in tutto il mondo arabo, in Libia per girare “Dhulm” (Ingiustizia), il film che avrebbe dovuto guidare il riscatto del popolo libico per gli anni rubati del colonialismo italianoGheddafi in persona aveva “consigliato” sulla sceneggiatura ma poi, consapevole dei suoi limiti, l`aveva consegnata ad Anzour, come decenni prima era stato fatto con un altro siriano d`eccellenza, il produttore “hollywoodiano” di “Halloween” Mustapha Akkad, autore del “Leone del deserto”, la storia della resistenza del popolo libico guidata da Omar al Moukhtar (film ancora formalmente bandito dall` Italia). Anzour, regista che ama le sfide e noto nel mondo arabo per aver affrontato nelle sue soap-opera argomenti come la crisi delle vignette danesi, il terrorismo internazionale e l`estremismo religioso, aveva preso in carico pure quest`avventura libica con l`obiettivo di tirarci fuori un film da cast e distribuzione internazionali.

Quei giorni passati in Libia sul set per la preparazione di un film che non si e` mai fatto (tranne per un breve episodio italiano) mi avevano dato l`impressione che la Libia fosse un paese quasi morto, con una gioventu` silenziosa e assuefatta. Proprio ieri ho rivisto Najdat, sul set della sua nuova serie TV che, guarda caso, parla proprio della gioventu` araba. Ci siamo ricordati di quei giorni libici e gli ho detto del mio stupore . Lui mi ha risposto che“non puoi mai sapere cosa fanno questi ragazzi, chiusi nelle loro camere, incollati agli schermi dei loro computer e cellulari, anche in un paese come la Libia..”. Anzour ha ragione: non possiamo sapere. E, forse, in Europa nemmeno troppo vogliamo sapere. Per anni, in giro per i convegni di tutto il vecchio continente, mi sono sentita dire “non ci sono i numeri per Internet nel mondo arabo, penetrazione troppo scarsa, poca alfabetizzazione, niente computer a casa”. Eppure quello che vedo quotidianamente nelle capitali arabe sono wi-fi disordinati ed onnipresenti, computer passati di mano in mano, di ragazzo in ragazzo, giovani che si girano indirizzi proxy (numeri per sbloccare i siti vietati), riunioni improvvisate e fortuite di Twitter fans e di appassionati di open source, collegamenti web nei luoghi pubblici piu impensati, villaggi remoti isolati da tutto e tutti ma collegati su Facebook, telecamerine e cellulari che riprendono senza tregua. Persino a Damasco c`e un hackerspace. Persino a Ramallah riescono ad organizzare una geek fest.

L`Occidente cerca sicurezze attraverso i numeri. Ma, forse, invece di concentrarsi su quelli troppo bassi della penetrazione Internet valeva la pena di guardare a quelli, altissimi, di quanti giovani sotto i 25 anni popolano l`odierno Medio oriente. E` un 65% della popolazione che ha bisogni e desideri e una mentalita completamente diversi da quelli della minoranza over 50 che li governa. Guardare contemporaneamente le immagini della TV libica, con la folla che acclama Gheddafi e la patetica (smaccatamente falsa) scritta “in diretta”, e quelle di Al Jazeera, girate da amatori sul campo e arrivate via cellulari e Internet, da` un`idea anche solo minima di questo scollamento. L`Europa non ha realizzato che i presidenti, i ministri, i direttori delle tv e delle istituzioni con cui aveva a che fare quotidianamente nelle varie sedi di cooperazione internazionale, era tutta roba andata, vecchia di secoli rispetto a quella popolazione giovane di cui non sappiamo nulla e che e` la maggioranza schiacciante del Medio oriente contemporaneo.

L`Europa che ha chiuso gli occhi di fronte al cambiamento, intanto demografico, del mondo arabo, continuando a trattare la Regione con i vecchi schemi coloniali, ha smaccatamente perso la battaglia, se non la guerra.

Molte delle certezze occidentali a riguardo sono state spazzate da questo tumuoltuoso inizio di 2011, che non solo sta buttando giu i vecchi regimi arabi ma anche una certa abitudine tutta nostra a trattare con la Regione con un velato senso di superiorita`. L`incapacita` – e forse la non volonta`- di capire il mondo arabo, drammaticamente segnata dall`11 settembre 2001, ha culminato, soltanto 10 anni dopo, con il rovesciamento degli schemi di questo fantastico incasinato 2011.

Un equilibrio si e` rotto, per sempre. Da oggi, 2011, il vecchio continente e` sempre piu` vecchio. Lo so ancora di piu` ora che guardo negli occhi Zein, 15 anni, parlata araba inframmezzata da linguaggio internettaro in perfetto inglese, diviso fra giocare al Wii, guardare Doctor House e le soap opera siriane, che parla di politica e dice la sua sull`America e sulla Libia, perfettamente a suo agio fra le vecchie strade scassate degli slum e i caffe` neo-chic spuntati a funghi. E online, naturalmente.

questo super 8 l`ho girato a Tripoli in una gita di mille anni fa..grazie a keydoppler per averlo postato e a lor.esp per averlo linkato

Najdat Anzour`s new TV drama to set Ramadan 2010 on fire

A very hot and dry summer afternoon in Damascus. The kind of weather which pushes you to be indolent. But in this tiny Maliki apartment there is even more activity that usual. Two workstations in parallel are editing ما ملكت أيمانكم” (“Whatever you possess”) and ذاكرة الجسد” (“Memory in the flesh”), the latest TV drama  works by Syrian director Najdat Anzour.

I`ve been knowning Najdat for some years now and I`ve always admired his dedication and passion, whatever kind of work he does. This can`t be more true this time when he is working on such different contexts and stories. “Memory in the flesh” is inspired by the novel of Algerian writer Ahlam Musteghranemi, one of the more appreciated Arab writer of the last century, and  a very unconventional female personality. This 30 episodes TV drama is been produced by Abu Dhabi TV channel with 25% participation of Egyptian Media City, a miracle that only somebody like Najdat could orchestrate. It is very rare indeed to see Egyptian capital producing something that is shot by a Syrian -this has happened previously, as in the case of the Syrian Hatem Ali`s “King Farouk”, but the final result was rather a “made in Egypt”-.

Anzour is working with Syrian (like Syrian star Jamal Suleiman), Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian actors to create what could be described as a “Panarab” TV fiction production, something that tackles regional interests and issues, as the Algerian liberation war, the Lebanese civil war, etc. And, of course, there is a lot of beautiful literature taken from Musteghranemi`s work. Dialogues are in classical Arabic, as Algerian dialect is still not widely understood at a regional level as much as Egyptian or Syrian.

While he is still shooting “Memory in the flesh” between France, Lebanon, UK and Algeria, Anzour is at the final editing stage of “Whatever you posses” (the meaning of ا ملكت أيمانكم” being wider than this, as it is a Quranic expression coming from the “Sura of the Women” that has got a lot of religious nuances). This musalsal, which is also due to be launched during next Ramadan, is in a way at the opposite end of “Memory in the flesh”. Whereas the latter comes from a piece of literature, is set in the past, speaks Classical and addresses Panarab issues, “Whatever you possess” is a social drama very much set in a contemporary Damascus and spoken in Syrian dialect. It deals with issues like relation between men and women, sex, religion, corruption, poverty and extreme richness, all elements that are embedded together in contemporary Syrian daily life. Najdat and his “monteur” show me two finished episodes and I can`t prevent myself from thinking that this is going to set next Ramadan on fire.

Contemporary Damascus is shown with all its contradictions without any filter: one of the most ancient urban settlement in the history of humanity,and at the same time a tiny village where rural values of tradition and its preservation still seem to prevail over modern urban values.

This contrast is visible in everything from the locations to the characters, with a particular emphasis on females. Rich “enfants gates” that spend their time on the border of a swimming pool in their rich father`s villa, talking about make up and coiffeur, whispering on their fancy mobiles and elaborating on the latest fashion magazine coming from the West – and young educated girls that are pushed to sell their bodies to pay for their parents` health treatments-. The middle class is astonishingly absent from this picture -as it is, in reality, fading away from Syrian society class composition-. Middle class is shrinking everywhere in the entire world, as a result of the globalisation process that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer: but in Syria this process dramatically involves all the values that middle class traditionally brings to society, its dedication to education and hard work, its belief in self-initiative and self-making, its urban background. The females protagonists of “Whatever you possess” -Leila, Alia and Nadine- represent three prototypes well alive in contemporary Syrian society. Their complicated relations with men are mostly based on exploitation, submission, dependence, inequality, frustration and on a unbalanced exercise of power. To this respect, every social class seems to be the same -no differences between the rich and poor, the shrinking middle class being even more desperate as more conscious of the process that is leading to its own disappearance-.

Whatever you possess” is made up of luxury villas and poor suburbs, smoky bars full of belly dancers and Qoranic schools, women dressed in “total black” and kinky “femme fatales” going from one party to another. It shows a society which is totally permeated with liberalization and globalization but hasn’t developed its “anti corps” , being only able  to read this process in financial terms (i.e. being empowered to buy the latest luxury car or mobile) but not in cultural ones.

I remember Najdat showing the promo of “Whatever you possess” to a Danish non Arabic speaking audience in Copenhagen. The results was amazing, as people could understand -through the powerful visual language – the story he wants to tell, maybe much more universal than as it looks at a first glance.

During the past few years, Najdat Anzour has smartly dedicated his career at “universal” issues that are of Westerners` and Arabs` common concerns, I.e. terrorism, relations between religions, issues like the Danish cartoon controversy. I`ve always found this very interesting but I have to say that I`m happy to see “Whatever you possess” focusing on Syrian society, debating about it, pointing out at its problems. Being more local he has probably become more universal, and even more understandable by us Westerners, even the non Arabic speakers, as those folks in Copenhagen. There is a lot of criticism in Syria in respect to this kind of “Syrian neorealism” featuring all the problems and the contradictions of the Syrian society on Regional TV screens, moreover during the holy month of Ramadan. People say those fictions don`t offer any solution for social change, just portray the bad side of a society. However, I think that through TV works as the latest Anzour`s, people could at least become conscious of some issues and realize they do exist, instead of using TV just as a way to escape in an imagery past that existed once or probably never existed.

“Whatever you possess” by N. Anzour, 2010

pictures from

“West by the Arab media” and musalsalat on YouTube

After many people asked for copies, and thanks to my Danish friend @moltke, I was finally able to upload  on my brand new  YouTube channel ThedonatellaDR (sounds a little bit “over” but not many other names were available) some excerpts of the festival “Occidente dai media arabi” that we held in January 2008 at Teatro Palladium in Rome, then replicated in a smaller version at the European Parliament in Brussels in April 2009.

After those two major screenings, I’ve been showing around during many academic presentations those incredibly interesting little fragments of Arab TV, and everybody kept asking “could you make a copy for me?!”.

Finally we won’t need to copy anymore and you could find this material online (it’s great that some teachers and educational institutions have been asking for it already).

Those are the 4 clips from the festival that we have uploaded on You Tube:

“Irhab Academy” (Terrorism Academy), Saudi Arabia 2006

Written by Abdallah B. Al Otibi -a former “wannabe” jihadist that now makes  “anti terror”television programs-   this is an episode of the well known Saudi musalsal “Tash ma tash” that has been broadcasted during each Ramadan for many years and it’s widely popular all across the Arab Region.

A powerful satire of the famous Lebanese reality show Star Academy”, “Irhab Academy” uses the strongest weapon of mass distruction -irony- to ridiculize terrorism as an act of stupidity.

“Block 13”, Kuwait 2001-2003

The Kuwaiti “version” (very different indeed, except from the drawings) of South Park set in a Gulf capital. The excerpt shows a funny scene with a copycat of Saddam Hussein triying to kidnap Kuwaiti scholarbus in a clumsy way.

“Al Hur al ein” (The beautiful maiden), United Arab Emirates, 2005

Directed by Syrian Najdat Anzour (one of the most controversial and acclaimed Arab directors), the soap opera tells about the 2003 terrorist attacks to a compound in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, that killed  35 people and wounded over 160, mostly Arabs.

“Saqf al alam” (The roof of the world), Syria, 2007

“Saqf al alam” has a special meaning, expecially those days that the Danish cartoons controversy has been revamped by the gloomy revelations of David Headley, who admitted an existing terror plot against Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten.

The scene that we have translated and uploaded shows that there could be another way to address the issue, which both Muslims and Danes should seek: dialogue.

An eye on the Mossad:Najdat Anzour’s last provocation for Ramadan 2009

Ramadan is about to start, so it is the TV battle that every year surrounds Muslisms’ holy month.

One of the most promising (in terms of raising polemics) musalsal this year will be Najdat Anzour‘s ” Rigal Al Hasm(Decisive Men). Anzour is not new to provocation, having directed many controversial musalsalat on hot topics such as  Al Hur al ayn” (Virgins of Paradise) – on Islamic terrorism and suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia – or “Saqf al alam” (The roof of the world) – on the Arab anger after Danish Jyllands Posten had published Prophet Mohammad’s cartoons-.

But this year musalsal -which is going to be aired by Abu Dhabi TV during the soon to be started month of Ramadan – deals with a real “hot potato”: the Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, and Syrian-Israeli relations during the 1967 war, particularly after the occupation of the Golan heights.

The musalsal focuses on the story of a Syrian man -played by Syrian star Bassel Al Khayat– who seeks revenge for his  family that was killed in the bombardments of Golan. He goes then to Europe where he is able to infiltrate the Mossad with the help of the Israeli female agent Mirage. The story therefore moves to Israel where Bassel is quickly integrated into the Mossad and its interior conflicts and corruption. He starts a relation with Mirage, then with another Israeli female agent, played by Miss Lebanon Nadine, always keeping in his mind his family and his girlfriend left in Syria waiting for him. The plot is somehow interesting but the most interesting part is how Anzour has filmed the musalsal.

Last April, when I was in Syria, I got the chance to be invited to the shootings taking place in Syrian coastal town of Tartous.  The way Najdat and his Jordanian costume designer Hala have recreated the ’68 atmosphere in the West Bank is somehow interesting. They show an intense nightlife, bars and clubs full of music, beautiful women dressed as all the Europeans used to dress during the 68 revolution, an “easy going” and pretty libertine lifestyle. The setting is a kind of “pop” as you can see from the pictures here below.




Another very interesting part is how he worked on the linguistic part. Having decided to shoot some parts in Hebrew, there was a “linguistic coach” on the set to train actors with the right Hebrew pronunciation (he is a Syrian who has spent a number of years in an Israeli prison). Then, as usual in Anzour’s sets, there were a lot of foreigners -mostly British people- that he invited to Syria to bring technical equiments -like the “truth machine” to shoot the scene when Bassel is questioned by the Mossad about his real identity- and also to play some “cameo” roles.

Being asked about the choice of the topic, Najdat states that he wanted to focus more on the “human side” of the story, rather than on the political one.  He insists he wanted to show the corruption and the intrigues that are hidden under what is considered one of the most powerful intelligence service in the world.

Only the screen could tell us what the result will be, and how “Rigal Al Hasm” will tackle the complicate Arab-Israeli issue. But something is for sure: this year the Mossad will have a face for the Arab audience, which is also the beautiful face of Miss Lebanon. They will see human relations -even if based on lies and double cross- developing between Syrians and Israelis, they will hear Hebrew on their Ramadan TV screen (altough this is not new, having the Syrians done many other musalsalat on the Arab-Israeli issue with some original dialogues in Hebrew).

This is for sure enough to have -at least- some major newspapers and talk shows talking about the musalsal.

“Rigal Al Hasm“, produced by businessman Hany Mokhlef (for a big amount of cash: rumors say between 2.5 and 5 million dollars), will be broadcasted on Abu Dhabi TV and many other Arab channels.