Beirut: Syrians sat glued to television sets with the start of Ramadan, awaiting Syrian actor Taym Hasan’s new series 'Al Zend'. It was billed as a “serious” work, very different from any of the comedy associated with Ramadan or the social dramas set in Old Damascus, popularised by the 2006 work 'Bab Al Hara'.
Set in the countryside of the midland city of Homs in the 1890s, it tells the chivalrous story of Asi Al Zend, a hot-tempered villager who rebels against his feudal landlord after Ottoman authorities passed the Ottoman Land Code in 1858.
Passed under Sultan Abdulmejid I, the law required land owners to register ownership, prompting a cruel pasha to strip Zend’s rural family from its land—which is everything they owned in life. When Asi’s father objects, he is shot dead at the doorsteps of his village home. In a fit of fury, the young Asi stabs the pasha’s agent and flees into the wilderness, enlisting as a soldier in the Ottoman Army.
He returns to his native village 17 years later, seeking revenge from the pasha’s son Nawras, played by young Syrian actor Anas Tayara.
Asi tries to reclaim his family’s lost land, triggering a power-struggle that continues to unfold as 'Al Zend' airs on MBC Drama daily for what remains of Ramadan.
Both Taym Hasan and Anas Tayara have been receiving wide praise for their performances, along with that of their lead actress, Dana Mardini.
In fact, so popular is the work that short clips of 'Asi Al Zend' have gone viral on social media, and Syrian barbers are saying that young men are coming to their salons asking for the “Zend look” (short hair, thick curved moustache).
The Barkawi-Hasan partnership
The series is Directed by Syrian director Samer Al Barkawi, who has been working with Taym Hasan for the past decade, with one successful television show after another.
Their cooperation started with two modern works 'Cello' (2015) and 'Nus Yawm' (2016), both billed as joint Syrian-Lebanese works, before embarking on a five-part action series called Al Heiba, which tells the story of a kind smuggler named Jabal (Taym Hasan) operating from a village on the Syrian-Lebanese borders.
So acclaimed was the work and so popular that it led to the making of a movie carrying the same name in 2022.
Taym Hasan’s rise to pan-Arab fame actually pre-dates 'Al Heiba', beginning with his portrayal of Nizar Qabbani in a 2005 work carrying his name, followed by his powerful performance as King Farouk in the television series 'King Farouk' (2007), director by the late Syrian director Hatem Ali.
The work was so popular that it triggered a newfound interest in the life and times of King Farouk, whose reputation had been tarnished by the 23 July Revolution of 1952. New books and academic studies were released about the career of Farouk, thanks to the series.
After King Farouk, Taym Hasan relocated completely to Cairo, marrying reputed Egyptian television host Wafaa Keilani. After a long absence from Syria, he returned to take part in the funeral of Hatem Ali in December 2020, who had directed many of his earlier works.
Shocking and entertaining
What made Taym so popular at a pan-Arab level was his ability to take on practically any role, no matter how complex, from a romanticising poet in 1940s Damascus to the young king of Egypt, gracing the halls of the country’s royal palaces while speaking with an impeccable Egyptian accent.
Then came 'Al Heiba', which took him from Cairo royalty to the roughness of a smuggler’s life, and now to the countryside of Homs with Asi Al Zend.
“Television works usually take 60-90 days to complete,” said Syrian film critic Mulham Saleh. “With 'Al Zend', the production was so grand that it took 170 days to shoot the work, spread across the countryside of Damascus, Homs and Latakia.”
Everywhere the cast went, large crowds came out to greet them, thanks to Taym’s popularity.
Speaking to Gulf News, Saleh explained: “Confidently, we can say that 'Al Zend' raised the competition bar rather significantly, shocking audience while entertaining them simultaneously.”
'Al Zend' is not a historical work, and doesn’t claim to be, despite the director’s minute attention to historic details, ranging from Ottoman dress code of the 1890s to resurrecting historical buildings from a bygone era, like the Ottoman Imperial Bank branch in Damascus, whose little remains were torched by a 2015 fire.
“The work achieved unmatched local and pan-Arab popularity and influence due to a three-way partnership between the Lebanese producer (Al Sabah), the Syrian director (Al Barkawi) and lead actor Taym Hasan” said Saleh. “This very successful partnership is now entering its second decade, laying the grounds for future pan-Arab drama of international calibre, capable of competing with international works.”