DAMASCUS // A gunshot echoed, knives and daggers clanged together and the wind whistled by, rustling the blood-soaked keffiyehs of the fallen as their comrades battled on.
The participants were kashasheen al hamam - rooftop pigeonkeepers - and the scene was the set of the new Syrian Ramadan soap opera, Al Dabbour. The show, which will be shown on New TV, is one of many special series that will be broadcast during the Holy Month. The producers hope their depictions of the trials and conflicts in the urban profession, centuries old in the Levant, offer a fresh topic for viewers. The keepers were often considered dishonourable and jobless, and were not allowed to give evidence in court. The people of Damascus often thought that the kashasheen were spying on women from the rooftops.
"Kashash al hamam, a very old profession in the Damascene heritage, was never a focal point," said the actor Samer al Masri, who plays the eponymous protagonist in Al Dabbour, ostracised and stripped of his wealth. "So now we show it in all of its conflict stages." Al Masri, who was the star of the celebrated show Bab el Harra, was speaking on the set of Al Dabbour, a desert location 45km from Damascus. The site was also the location of the Bedouin soap opera Abwab al Ghaym, the idea for which came from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and for which he has written poetry.
The set recreates a Damascene district from the early 1900s. It is divided into alleyways and squares, each featuring a prominent part of the district's architecture, such as the main square, a coffee shop and a souk with a fountain in the middle. The filming schedule has been gruelling - 17 hours of work a day in its final stages, and 80 days of shooting that finished just a fortnight ago. Producers say Al Dabbour's originality will lure viewers amid fierce competition between television shows with a similar Damascene theme during Ramadan.
"The character of Al Dabbour represents a struggle of a person who was kicked out of his district and they shaved half of his moustache off [considered an insult at that time], and how he fights to regain his rights and what was stolen from him," said Ammar al Kateeb, the show's production manager. "There are several stories within the show. The scenes are also full of action - we are not relying on women's gossip any more."
Traditional Syrian soap operas often use conversations at women's gatherings to advance the plot. The storyline of Al Dabbour also features a love struggle, a war between the protagonist and the brother of the woman he loves. "Her brother won't approve of Al Dabbour marrying his sister, and you can see that dispute reflected in the war of the pigeonkeepers in all of its stages," al Masri said. Hammi Bakkar, who plays Nizar, the younger half-brother of Al Dabbour, reflected on the value of family ties, a theme featured prominently in the show.
"There are many details within the character that bring back nice values of brotherhood and strong blood ties, some of which have been lost in the modern life", said Bakkar, stage blood dripping down his forehead from a scene he had just finished filming. "It is important that people don't get influenced by the characters literally. It is not the daggers, the thick moustaches or loud voices that they should be associating with. It is the values of honour, patriotism, ethics and altruism."
That lesson is not new to al Masri, whose most well-known character is El Ageed Abu Shhab from Bab el Harra. The show and the character became a focal point for Arab resistance sentiment in his depiction of the fight against colonialist Britain. He was often invited to national celebrations in Syria and other countries. But he left the show before its fourth season when he found out that his character was going to be depicted as a spy, which, he said, contradicted Abu Shhab's role model image.
"So they want to create a whole generation of traitors and defeat? If I contributed with even one per cent to create an Arab generation of heroes and patriots, I insist on sticking to that position," he said. He said even if the producers changed their minds and brought him back as the same character, he would not rejoin the show. "I will not go back now that I know there are hidden hands behind the production," he said.
Al Dabbour will continue in a second season during Ramadan 2011. email@example.com