As Syria’s conflict drags on, new television drama emerges
For more than two decades, the Syrian television drama has managed to eclipse Egypt’s long-standing entertainment industry. Syrian drama distinguished itself through taboo-breaking and engaging themes. Thanks to increased sponsorship from the Gulf, Syrian drama has thrived and become a staple in Arab homes, especially during Ramadan.
As Syria was plunged into a civil war after the revolution in 2011, many predicted the decline of Syrian television drama. But the industry quickly caught up with the events in Syria and has turned to revolutionary themes that are adding to its strength.
Wiladah Min Al Khasira (Birth from the Waist) is perhaps the most popular of the post-uprising television drama. The show, with so far three series, depicts how the regime and the Syrian people reacted to the uprising. Other shows, such as Sanoud Baad Qalil (We Will Be Back Soon) or Lubat Al Mout (Death Game) have failed to present the events as comprehensively as Wiladah.
Wiladah broke new ground as it depicted the continuing crisis as it is – as ordinary people see it and talk about it. It addressed the revolution not only matter-of-factly but with unprecedented freedom and defiance in presenting something that directly involves the regime. That is why Wiladah was banned by the Syrian authorities, which prevented its third series to be cast inside Syria and refused to show it on government-sponsored channels. The team moved to Lebanon – Rasha Sharbaji, who directed the first two seasons and a few episodes of the third one, stepped down. The scriptwriter, Samer Radawan, also faced some trouble with the authorities and was detained for a short period of time, though on unrelated charges.
Wiladah follows the lives of three major groups: regime elitists who are involved in cronyism and other forms of corruption; average citizens who are slum-dwellers struggling to survive and who can’t get the government to sympathise with their grievances. The third group is security officers, who are represented as the menace of Syria for taking orders from the ruling class to suppress the poor.
Rivalry, exploitation and fighting emanate not only from one group against another but more within each group’s members, with the president completely out of the picture, which speaks either to his lack of command or to his distance, or even to the series makers being unable to come close to criticising Bashar Al Assad.
By the eighth episode, the Assad family enters the picture: the president’s exiled uncle, Rifat Al Assad, is presented as the architect of crushing the revolt. He commissioned former army officer Abu Nibal to the job. Abu Nibal represents a hired thug with some lapses of loyalty, who seeks influential regime officials to provide him with protection.
One of the dramatic achievements of the enigmatic, outspoken and ruthless character of Abu Nibal is to transform a weak slum dweller, Jaber, into a daring young man, who eventually kills Abu Nibal and joins the revolutionary as a “good” character.
The programme also introduces a very popular character, the security officer Rawouf, a savage person who is desperately trying to have a son but fails because of his sadistic treatment of his wives. He plays a central role in engineering ways to end the protest movement violently and without any liability for his officers involved in the clampdown.
As such, Wiladah shows the complexities of the Syrian revolution. It depicts the conflicting interests for those supporting the regime as well as those opposing it, and the absurdities of resorting to violence and causing the demise of the country’s social fabric.
As the war drags on, many Syrians hope that this type of drama will be history by next Ramadan. If not, will the continuing conflict give birth to a new generation of Syrian drama?
Dr Asaad Al Saleh is assistant professor of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Utah