Here is a copy of my monthly column published in last month’s issue of Bold Magazine.
By Habib Battah
At one point in Syria’s most anticipated new TV series, a commander dressed in an army uniform kills several of his fellow men in a fit of rage.
“Blame it on an armed group,” he tells a junior soldier looking on in disbelief, invoking a well-worn regime line to delegitimize opposition fighters.
It was one of several unexpected moments in this year’s Ramadan television selection, where scores of new shows are debuted. All eyes this season were on Syria, one of the biggest regional television producers, revived partially by a relocation to Lebanon for many of its writers and directors.
Yet true to Arab television’s all-too-often avoidance of realism, “Wiladi Min El Khasiri” (Birth from the Waist) was the only show based on the war that has plagued the country for the last two years. It painted a messy picture of the battlefield with both rebels and government forces engaging in savage violence, implying that two sides shared blame for the conflict and its victims. Though simplistic in its portrayal of social grievances, this was a far cry from typical state television propaganda, which is largely devoid of self-criticism, especially on the war front.
Screen shot from Wiladi Min El Khasiri
Unexpected soul searching also crept into the script of “Sanoud Baad Kalil” (We will Return Shortly), which follows the life of a divided Syrian family taking refuge in Lebanon. Listening to the evening news with despair, the father bemoans the loss of old Damascus, “where we lived so well” as the son nods in agreement.
But his daughter-in-law, who has devoted her time to helping refugees, sharply disagrees. “Not everyone lived like us,” she replies cooly, followed by a dramatic pause.
Still, all of the show’s protagonists–there are around 10– live comfortable, if not luxurious, lives in exile. Far from the desperate, jobless masses of refugees flooding over the Lebanese border every day, the cast of “Sanoud Baad Kalil” are gainfully employed, well-dressed iphone-wielding professionals. Some even inhabit mansions and five-star hotels. None resemble the destitute families begging and sleeping on the streets of Beirut.
Screen shot from Sanoud Baad Kalil
Of course the wide disconnect between life on and off screen is a hallmark of Arab production, not limited to the Syrian industry. Plots often revolve around a wealthy– if not obscenely rich– family with a palatial home as the main set.
The other significant genre of Ramadan programing is the period piece, usually set either in medieval times or during mid-twentieth century colonialism. In both cases, the enemy is an uncomplicated foreign element and the heroes are poets of bygone Arab nationalism. But again this Ramadan TV season brought a surprising spin on the formula with the series “Ya Mal El Sham” which reverts between the present day and 1948 Palestine.
Interestingly, the series features a number of Syrian Jewish characters, complicating the frequent archetype of a Jewish enemy. One of the leads is Wedad, who is cared deeply for by Muslim friends and constantly waxing lyrically about Damascus, “where people know how to live and love.” Her husband however plays a menacing Zionist collaborator, engaging in various acts of sedition and criminal activity. His character is juxtaposed with a town myth of an untrustworthy Jewish Damascene who once butchered a local and used his blood for ritual.
Known as blood libel, the accusation springs from centuries-old xenophobic and antisemitic discourse. But instead of dismissing the tale as imaginary, it is re-enacted as fact in a gory flashback sequence featuring a bucket of blood. It is hard to imagine that the director, who seemed bent on portraying religious coexistence as a central theme, allowed his piece to perpetuate such a damaging sectarian narrative.
Zionist Syrian Jewish character plots in screenshot from Ya Mal El Sham.
Mal El Sham ends with the loss of Palestine and the demise of a certain Arab revolutionary spirit, a metaphor fit for the societal dissolution that looms before Syria and much of the region today. This somber tone is echoed throughout this season’s productions, a natural reflection of the turmoil perhaps, but made all the worse by wholly unrealistic portrayals and medieval defamatory tales.
Aside from scripts, this year’s productions suffer from the usual ailments. Lighting, sound mixing and camera operation are either rushed or not taken seriously. Skilled art directors and actors also remain in short supply. For years now, multiple shows have been shot at the exact same “old neighborhood” or “Hara” stone courtyard studio, meant to emulate the Syrian capital’s glory days. Meanwhile the same actors play different roles in simultaneously airing shows, in some cases up to three at a time. All this becomes very confusing to the viewer. For example in one series, two actors play siblings and in another, the same two actors play a married couple.
The ever-present “Hara” or neighborhood, a set used in multiple Syrian soap operas. Shot from Ya Mal El Sham.
In spite of all this, productions are prolific, with major Arab channels typically purchasing upwards of four shows each during the holy month alone. One would think quality could be improved if resources were pooled into fewer products. The subtle improvements and surprises this year prove that talent does exist, but often seems to be stretched too thin to keep audiences begging for more.
For those that are accustomed to other languages, low budget productions can make Arab television feel like a chore to watch. And for those who are not, it is simply the only option and an easy excuse for Arab media corporations to continue producing average quality output.