Beirut: Blasts echo in the distance as two longtime friends and neighbours sit along a narrow street in old Damascus chatting about Syria, when one of them calls the civil war raging in their home country a “crisis.”
“It is called a revolution!” the other shouts. “If you are one of those who believe in a foreign conspiracy, then move away from here,” roars the man, whose son has been detained by regime forces for nine months for taking part in pro-democracy protests.
The first man retorts that he is sitting in public property and has the right to call it whatever he wants.
It’s a scene from ‘We Will Return Soon’, one of at least three Syrian soap operas airing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that deal primarily with the Syrian civil war.
The shows, spotlighting a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and uprooted millions of others from their homes, have captivated millions of viewers across the Arab world. Other Syrian soap operas broadcast during Ramadan also address the war though it’s not their main theme.
Some of the series are pro-regime and managed to film in Syria, while other series critical of President Bashar Al Assad’s brutal military crackdown had to be filmed in studios in neighbouring Lebanon or Gulf Arab countries. Still others tried to achieve a delicate balance between the two.
With emotions running high among Syrians, reaction has been mixed. A few have called for the programmes to be boycotted, particularly those deemed supportive of the regime. But for many Syrians, and especially the hundreds of thousands of refugees in other countries, the shows are a reminder of the lives they left behind.
“These shows make me miss Syria and its people,” said Shadi Attasi, a 35-year-old Syrian from the central city of Homs who fled the war and now lives in Dubai. “They also make me sad because while this is only acting, a lot of people in Syria are living this exact scenario of violence and injustice.”
During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and sit down for an elaborate meal in the evening. Arab satellite channels broadcast special Ramadan programmes and soap operas each night, trying to hook families who have gathered to break their fast.
Syrian soap operas have gained major popularity in the past few years, rivalling Egyptian dramas that had long dominated viewership across the Arab world. Among the most successful was Bab Al Hara, or ‘The Neighbourhood Gate’, which follows families in a Damascus neighbourhood between the world wars, when the French ruled Syria and the local population chafed under foreign control and yearned for independence.
Critical of regime
This year’s Syrian soap operas mark a stark departure from the past, dealing with themes and using language unthinkable before the uprising began in March 2011 against the Al Assad family’s decades-old iron grip rule.
The new TV series also depict some security officers as corrupt and ruthless human beings who live well beyond their means and order troops to kill with no mercy.
One popular series, ‘Birth from the Waist’, is openly critical of security agents, even showing a security officer ordering his men to “open fire at the dogs,” in reference to anti-regime protesters. The show, which airs on several Arab satellite channels but not on Syrian state-run TV, is about widespread corruption in Syria as well as the uprising and security crackdown.
Many producers have been unable to move inside Syria, forcing them to set up studios elsewhere.
Much of the country is now carved up between rebel and government-held territory. Crossing from one area to the other is often a perilous journey and may take hours, if not days. Those that have been produced in Syria are approved, pro-regime series, and at least in one case, the army has assisted in providing cover.
The Syrian Village, near Damascus, where many series including ‘The Neighbourhood Gate’, were filmed in the past few years, was damaged in the fighting. Rebels took it over from government troops earlier this month.
The war has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones, polarising Syrians into supporters and opponents of Al Assad. Al Assad’s regime denies there is a popular uprising, calling it instead a foreign conspiracy backed by Israel and the United States.
In the Ramadan series this year, actors often appear to be cast as characters with likeminded views.
Syrian actress Kinda Allouch has backed the opposition since the start of the crisis. In ‘We Will Return Soon’, which tells the story of a Syrian family that fled to Lebanon to wait out the war, Allouch’s character proudly proclaims in several episodes that she backs “the revolution.”
Duraid Lahham, Syria’s top actor who touts a nationalist line, also stars in ‘We Will Return Soon’. His character rejects the idea that what is happening in Syria is a revolution, referring to rebels as “armed men.”
In ‘Birth from the Waist’, Abdul Hakim Kuteifan, who is known to be a strong supporter of the opposition, plays the role of a corrupt security officer whose office is adorned with a poster of Al Assad. The series was reportedly banned from filming in Syria.
Najdat Anzour, one of Syria’s best-known producers and most acclaimed directors, was widely criticised earlier this year for entering the Damascus suburb of Daraya under army protection to shoot his latest series, ‘Under the Homeland Sky’, at a time when the area was under government attack.
Some activists even said that the army stopped its military operations in the suburb for two days in order for Anzour to finish filming part of his series. The series is now airing on state TV and several other pro-regime stations. It shows, among other things, how Syrian female refugees are exploited sexually and forced into prostitution.
“Just because they saw some soldiers with us, they [opposition] believed that we are glorifying the victories of the army in Daraya,” Anzour told AP in a recent interview in Damascus.
“It is not a big deal to film in Daraya,” he said. “Daraya is Syrian territory. It is not Israel.”
Hassan Yousuf, a Syrian script writer and cultural journalist, said it was too early for the country’s war to be discussed in soap operas.
“I believe that a reading of the national crisis that we are passing through needs time. ... It stems from an entire history and it is difficult to treat it [casually] through artistic works,” he said from Syria, where he is based.
“Still, I raise my hat for all those who produced and wrote this year” despite the difficulties, he said.
Amr Al Azm, a Syrian academic in the United States who is also an opposition figure, began a campaign on social media calling on people to boycott soap operas made by regime supporters.
“When my family and I turn on the TV and see it is a Duraid Lahham program, we switch off the channel,” he said. “It is a form of civil disobedience.”
But his boycott call rings hollow for many Syrians, who are desperate for a taste of their homeland.
A Syrian woman now living in Beirut, who declined to be identified for fear of drawing attention to herself, said she’s hooked on the soap operas, although watching them breaks her heart. “Every day I watch TV, I remember my Syria and I cry.”