Undeterred by pleas for mercy, the high-ranking intelligence officer Ra’uf pushes the junior ‘Azzam to his knees. Ra’uf forcibly shaves the young man’s head as other officers look on. He commands ‘Azzam to remove his shirt and pants, do pushups, jump up and down, and slide across the ground on his elbows. When another officer pounds him with a bat, ‘Azzam breaks down. Crying that he has had enough, he grabs a gun, shooting into the air and then at Ra’uf’s feet. He orders Ra’uf and the others onto the ground, gathers his clothes and runs away. When Ra’uf presses charges, an exceptionally kind mukhabarat officer says, “I saw how you humiliated him and induced him to carry a gun.”

This scene, from screenwriter Samir Fahd Radwan’s Minbar al-Mawta (Platform of Death), is one of many in the 2013 Ramadan miniseries that considers how peaceful protests in Syria turned into an armed uprising. The encounter between Ra’uf and ‘Azzam is a visceral exploration of the links between violence and masculine dignity. ‘Azzam’s humiliation — the forced shaving and stripping — is a form of emasculation, a gendered punishment made worse by the presence of his comrades in arms. Forced shaving, or “drawing a map on the head,” is a traditional punishment in the Syrian military, though it is not restricted to the army. Filmmaker ‘Abd al-Latif ‘Abd al-Hamid used the trope of head shaving in Layali Ibn ‘Awa (Nights of the Jackal, 1989) and Qamaran wa Zaytuna (Two Moons and an Olive Tree, 2001) to symbolize the individual’s vulnerability in the face of power. Radwan’s account of what happens when men are thus humiliated was too bold for Syrian censors, who rejected the project for state sponsorship. But the director had secured funds from Klaket, a Syrian company, which had moved to Abu Dhabi after the uprising, and had the episodes filmed in Lebanon. Minbar al-Mawta became one of the most popular shows of the 2013 season.

Oppositional politics are not new to Syrian television drama. Since the 1960s, the miniseries (musalsalat) that air during Ramadan have offered not only entertainment and escape, but also sharp critiques of official political discourse. [1] How does such critical work emerge in a culture industry dominated by an authoritarian state that brooks no opposition in other arenas? Some Syrians attribute the politically charged serials to tanfis (blowing off steam), a tactic by which the regime allows TV to act as a “safety valve” for popular frustrations. miriam cooke likewise argues that this “commissioned criticism” provides cathartic relief outside formal politics. [2] Lisa Wedeen also proffers a theory of tanfis as part of her explanation for the durability of authoritarianism under Hafiz al-Asad, but maintains that artistic transgression like parody is an outlet for an oppositional consciousness that nourishes a counterculture. [3] Under Bashar al-Asad, says Donatella Della Ratta, television dramatists are no longer bound by the politics of pretense described by Wedeen and also no longer struggle to widen the boundaries of accepted discourse. Della Ratta contends that the new generation of creative artists — or at least the majority — are implicated in a “whisper strategy” by which they maintain a comfortable dialogue with power. [4] Yet making this link to the regime robs the dramatists of agency. The “wall of fear” in Syria is severely damaged by two years of open resistance, and the theory of tanfis no longer captures the way in which savvy creators navigate the perils of censorship, intimidation and cooptation to get subversive work in the public eye.

Drama in Crisis

From 2000 to 2010, Syria experienced a fawra dramiyya, an outpouring of drama. Each year during Ramadan, channels aired 35-40 Syrian miniseries the quality of which far surpassed the productions of rival Egypt. [5] The Syrian productions were distinguished in all areas — writing, directing, acting, music and set decoration. Renowned screenwriter Najib Nusayr asserts that the high caliber of writing is due to the fact that the majority of musalsal writers are novelists, poets and journalists. [6] After political parties were banned in the 1960s, many activists became writers and journalists, and television attracted highly talented writers due to its transformative power and ability to reach the masses. During the boom years prior to the 2011 uprising, Damascus was transformed into a lively set in the pre-Ramadan months as filming took place throughout the city. But producers shot in every corner of the country; large sums were spent sending casts and crews to find the perfect place for filming even the smallest scene. The viewing of musalsalat became not just a Ramadan ritual but a national pastime drawing millions of viewers each day. The musalsalat were often topics of discussion in coffeehouses and intellectual gatherings throughout the year when popular shows were rebroadcast. [7]

In 2011 the number of miniseries dropped to 23, amid increased violence, poor access to historical sites and the exodus of important figures in Syrian drama. The number rose slightly to 26 in 2012, but now there are roadblocks and bombings in Damascus, as well as elsewhere. Filming for the 2013 season was confined to calmer areas such as Tartous and Suwayda, or relocated outside Syria, primarily to Lebanon, creating the phenomenon of Syrian-Lebanese co-production. [8] This shift is the subject of much lamentation in the industry and the press. Noted television editor Iyad Shihab Ahmad boycotted the 2013 season: “I’m not happy with the direction Syrian drama is taking — that is, being filmed mostly outside Syria. In my opinion there is a secret agreement between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Lebanon to transport Syrian drama outside Syria. I can’t compromise and support this step.” [9] Some production crews remained willing to take the risk of filming in Syria. This dedication — and willingness to try out new, lesser-known talent — boosted the 2013 crop to 34 musalsalat.

The 2013 series spanned the range from escapist fantasy to drama immersed in the instability and trauma of war. “Bi’a Shamiyya” (Old Damascus) dramas, a classic form set during the French mandate, remained popular since it was easy to film in some areas of the Old City. [10] Prior to the uprising, these series were understood as allegories criticizing the regime. Yet so ossified are “bi’a Shamiyya” themes — honor and shame, romantic jealousy, female vengefulness — that the 2013 shows, including Qamar al-Sham (Damascus Moon) and part two of both Tahoun al-Sharr (Mill of Evil) and Shamiyyat (Damascenes), evoked nostalgic detachment rather than commenting on current life. A set of contemporary comedies — Fattat La‘bat (Game Start), Ruznama (Calendar), La‘ba bi-La‘ba (It’s Just a Game) and Kharza Zarqa’ (Blue Beads) — also avoided direct references to the conflict. Only the occasional explosion left in during editing (likely by accident) would remind viewers that the absurd plots were unfolding in the midst of war.

Another group of musalsalat employed love and marriage as metaphors for contemporary politics, a device popular since the advent of Syrian television in the 1960s. Indeed, through the lens of love, sexuality and marriage, Syrian dramatists have for years managed to subvert dominant regime narratives and question the very foundation of regime legitimacy. The construction of the qabaday (tough guy) is a central theme with an evolving relationship to femininity and a deep connection to political critique. The more revolutionary Syrian musalsalat demonstrate that only when men shed the role of protector of women’s sexuality can a truly egalitarian relationship exist between the sexes. It is a metaphor for the only way that citizens can attain dignity in an authoritarian order. Indeed, for avant-garde contemporary drama creators, the sexual repression of women is symbolic of the political oppression of an entire population. [11] In 2013, several miniseries, both contemporary and historical, used gender roles and marital relations to examine the roots of Syria’s political turmoil without direct reference to the conflict. These miniseries, which were filmed in Syria, include Sukkar Wasat (Medium Quantity of Sugar), Sarkhat al-Ruh (Scream of the Soul) and Ya Mal al-Sham (O Precious Damascus). Other miniseries that did focus on the upheaval — Watan Haff (Bare Country), Taht Sama’ al-Watan (Under the Sky of the Country) and al-Ha’irat (Helpless Women)—located its roots in the politics of gender and dignity. All three of these serials were approved by the Censorship Committee and produced in Syria. Other gender-focused serials were the sketch-comedy series Maraya 2013 (Mirror 2013), filmed and produced in Algeria, and Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil (We’ll Return Soon) and Minbar al-Mawta, both of which were filmed in Lebanon.

Weak Men, Willful Women

Beginning with the early political parodies of the 1960s through 1980s, Syrian drama has highlighted an embattled, subordinate masculinity within the family, which stands in for the state in microcosm. The frustrated husbands governed by their wives’ demands — with the recurring image of marriage as a prison — have served as a means of commenting on economic hardship, corruption and dictatorship. Women’s empowerment as a result of suppressed masculinity emerged as a fear. When a man showed his dominance over a woman or was violent toward her, it was depicted as part of a vicious cycle of state violence causing men to become violent, rather than an example of hegemonic masculinity. Indeed, the performance of hegemonic masculinity was meant to show the political vulnerability of men. [12] This theme, though by no means the only one related to gender, persists to this day.

Sukkar Wasat takes place in 2010 in central Damascus and an outlying “haphazard,” or unplanned and poorly served, neighborhood of the capital. The serial explores the social instability that results from contemporary pressures on masculinity. In the haphazard neighborhood, hard-working cab driver ‘Isam struggles to be a provider, but has become impotent, leading his wife Su‘ad to stray. When Madame Insaf — a villainous nurse known for blackmailing young women who receive abortions at her clinic — sees a man leaving her neighbors’ apartment, she presses ‘Isam to be “a man” and protect his dignity. When he confronts Su‘ad, she also tells him that he is not a man. As the marriage deteriorates, Su‘ad struts around the neighborhood in tight clothes, flirting with men. ‘Isam’s despair explodes into violence: He stabs Su‘ad, yelling pathetically, “I am a man! I am a man!” This breakdown, screenwriter Mazin Taha suggests, is symptomatic of a malaise that plagues Syria, but is most visible in the margins of urban society. While Taha avoids overt political critique, in a later episode, the medical doctor Jalal tells his secretary that haphazard neighborhoods are like a large holding tank that gathers all economic challenges and social dysfunctions. “One day when this tank explodes,” he warns, “there will be a disaster in Syria.” It is noteworthy that Taha refers to the upheaval in Syria not as a revolution but as an azma (crisis). [13]

Several other miniseries of the 2013 Ramadan season confront the conflict through themes related to a crisis of masculinity and marriage metaphors in the storylines. One episode of Watan Haff follows newlywed Nabil as he faces wedding debts and his wife’s expectations, the stress of which has made him impotent. On his mother-in-law’s advice, he sees a doctor who prescribes medication to help him relax and repair his “hurt dignity.” The pills transform him into a model of masculinity, all flexing muscles and confident posture, who is overly demanding in the bedroom. To counteract the dignity medicine, his wife distracts him with conversation about the violence in Aleppo and Houla, or reminds Nabil of their debts. Nabil soon becomes consumed with the economic hardships of life under siege and complains about the government to a childhood friend, Nadir. Terrified that Nadir may be a shabbih (regime thug), a depressed and anxious Nabil stops taking his medication. He confronts Nadir: “You’re a spy, shabbih, you’re a bastard, what a shame — you qabaday.” Since 2000 the term qabaday has been firmly entrenched in Syrian drama. At a time when men are increasingly disempowered vis-à-vis the state, it has been used to refer to the fantasy of the male hero: the qabaday fighting colonial powers. As men are less and less able to provide for their families, they derive their honor even more aggressively from the sexual purity of the womenfolk. And to counter this genre, a new trend emerged to disassociate manhood from the qabaday and construct alternative masculinities. [14] In Watan Haff the writer likens the qabaday to the shabbih who oppresses weaker men and robs them of dignity.

The Syrian-filmed al-Ha’irat, described in the press as presenting bold themes, and which introduced many new faces to Syrian audiences, explored the oppression of women — spinsters, married, divorced, widowed — by society’s petty tyrants. [15] While Sukkar Wasat referred obliquely to political oppression through the central marriage, al-Ha’irat’s fractious relationships parallel the social conflict in which the characters are caught. The story begins in 2013 with the fighting in full force. Bombings punctuate the narrative, and some characters are forced to move when their neighborhoods are destroyed in the combat. The problems of war — long bread lines, shortages of cheap diesel and clean water—heighten the interpersonal struggles at the heart of the show.

The series centers on Haifa and her domineering husband, Ahmad, who is having an affair with a widow. The marital tensions have caused their daughter Sawsan to develop an eating disorder. Sawsan tells her mother she fears marriage and falling into the hands of a man as oppressive as her father, who does not allow Haifa to leave the house without his permission. When Ahmad notices his children siding with Haifa, he orders her not to involve the kids in their disagreements. In the first hint of mutiny, she retorts, “Does your behavior embarrass you?” A shocked Ahmad says to himself, “This is first time she is challenging me.” The tables turn when, in a sudden act of defiance, Haifa announces, “I want to go out just to breathe. I’ll go out even if you don’t let me.” Ahmad soon divorces her, but the split only causes more strife.

In one of the show’s most pointed exchanges, Ahmad’s son, Salwan, tells his father, “Marriage isn’t about power, but mutual understanding.” Ahmad disagrees: “If you show weakness to others they will take advantage.” Haifa ultimately judges her revolt a mistake due to the emotional pain the squabbling and divorce cause her children. Ahmad agrees to take her back, and although he has not changed, Haifa feels it is better to accept oppression and forfeit her dignity than endure the heartbreak of Ahmad’s revenge. After the sheikh remarries them in their home, Ahmad storms off and the children offer to take Haifa out. She declines, explaining, “All our problems started with just one outing.” Haifa and Ahmad’s relationship can be read as a metaphor for the uprising and its aftermath: The rebellion (of some Syrians) has led to hardship for all, and an especially heavy price has been paid by those, like the couple’s children, caught in the middle. The show is innovative for exploring the inner lives of women. But by making Haifa—the show’s primary “helpless woman” — the agent of change in the marriage, screenwriter Usama Kawkash imbues her choice to reconcile and submit to Ahmad’s authority for the sake of her children with a conservative message: Dissidents should end their fight for dignity to spare Syria the bitter and bloody consequences. Or perhaps Kawkash is trying to capture the bitterness and impossibility of the choice Syrians now face, one of which leads to emotional destruction and the other of which leads to physical destruction.

Revenge or Reconciliation

The choice between revenge and reconciliation was one of the most popular themes of the 2013 Ramadan season. Sarkhat al-Ruh told six five-episode stories of betrayal written by various screenwriters. In “Sata’ir Zawjiyya” (Marital Curtains) by Fadi Qushaqji, Rana and her actor-husband, Wasim, celebrate their one-year anniversary. Though his previous marriage ended in divorce due to his philandering, Rana trusts him completely. Gradually, however, Rana realizes that Wasim has not changed. Although she refuses to betray her husband, Rana colludes with ‘Isam (whose wife is another of Wasim’s lovers) to play at having an affair. When Wasim goes crazy at the idea of Rana’s cheating, Rana tells ‘Isam that perhaps they have gone far enough. While ‘Isam craves revenge, Rana sees it as an empty victory.

In a key scene, Wasim insists that Rana sleep with him, but she refuses: “There is something called the dignity of the body.” “Dignity” has been a key term used in Syrian protest drama since the political parodies of the 1960s, and has been a central demand of the resistance movement since 2011. Diane Singerman, writing about Egypt, argues that dignity is necessarily a gendered concept, a demand that “the state must respect the integrity, safety and autonomy of the body.” [16] Given Qushaqji’s strong feminist and humanist themes in previous miniseries such as Ta‘b al-Mishwar (Exhaustion of the Journey, 2011) and Arwah ‘Ariyya (Naked Souls, 2012), his use of this term suggests a critique of a regime that cannot admit it is violating the dignity of its citizens. Like the regime, which casts the protesters as betraying the nation and aligning themselves with imperialists, Wasim interprets Rana’s refusal as a kind of treason. In the final scene, Rana and ‘Isam sit at a restaurant. ‘Isam insists on making their pantomime affair real to consummate their revenge, but Rana’s decision is unclear. The story ends without any indication of her choice, uncertain like the future of Syria.

Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil and Minbar al-Mawta sparked the most discussion on the street and in social media in the season. Both were attempts to capture both sides of the conflict and focused on the inability of Syrians to find common ground even in the most personal relationships. Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil, the story of a semi-estranged family displaced to Lebanon by the violence, ended cynically, with no sign of either an emotional or geographical reunion. There is, however, a glimmer of hope at the end of Minbar al-Mawta — when the lives of Umm Rami and Umm ‘Azzam — two grieving mothers whose sons fought on opposite sides of the conflict — intersect. When Umm Rami goes to fetch the body of her second son, Nawwar, a soldier in the Syrian army, she notices ‘Azzam (the same young mukhabarat officer, who has joined the opposition to avenge his younger brother’s death) lying next to him. Realizing that ‘Azzam is alive, she carries him home — leaving her son’s body — to nurse him back to health.

‘Azzam recovers and calls his family to confess the debt he owes to the woman whose son he killed. Though Umm ‘Azzam acknowledges Umm Rami’s right to avenge Nawwar, she suggests another path for their families and, implicitly, for Syria. When Umm Rami brands ‘Azzam a murderer, his mother replies, “Maybe your son is a killer. Who knows? I’ll go. Either I’ll hear my son is a shahid (martyr) or you can call me to escort my son home. Neither you nor I chose this madness. Our disaster won’t end until we try.” As Umm ‘Azzam departs, Umm Rami ponders her choice and the episode ends with the pained faces of both women. The audience does not know what Umm Rami will choose — peace or revenge. The finale disappointed many fans, [17] perhaps because its ambiguity, again, reflects Syria’s uncertain future.

Minbar al-Mawta ultimately holds the regime responsible for transforming a legitimate revolution demanding dignity and freedom into a civil war ruled by the thirst for revenge. Members of the cast have publicly acknowledged as much. [18] Yet Radwan’s script does not endorse vengeance as a solution to Syria’s crisis, but rather laments that the regime and outside actors have caused ordinary Syrians to fight each other without even knowing where they are headed. Contra miriam cooke’s argument that the demand for vengeance expressed in Syrian art marks a “point of no return” for the violence, [19] the nuanced exploration of conflict and dignity in stories of love, marriage and family in recent musalsalat suggest that many Syrians, of varying political perspectives, see reconciliation as the only path to Syria’s survival. Here one recalls the construction in Syria drama of a softer qabaday, one for whom reconciliation rather than fighting shows strength. In an article entitled “The (Little) Militia Man: Memory and Militarized Masculinity in Lebanon,” Sune Haugbolle illustrates that some artists have portrayed men who fought in the Lebanese civil war as feminized little men — exploited by the socio-political system and just as victimized as others in the senseless war spurred by sectarianism. This portrayal cut against the grain of normative discourse by which fighters are he-men protecting the land. Artists thus use the notion that sectarian violence is horrific to subvert the paradigm of militarized masculinity. [20] In Syrian drama, too, masculinity is being deconstructed to show gentleness and reconciliation as defining true manhood and a way out of being manipulated by the government and outside powers.


[1] Rebecca Joubin, The Politics of Love: Sexuality, Gender and Marriage in Syrian Television Drama (New York: Lexington Press, 2013).
[2] miriam cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 23-30, 65-80.
[3] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 90-92.
[4] Donatella Della Ratta, “Dramas of the Authoritarian State,” Middle East Report Online (February 2012).
[5] Marlin Dick, “The State of the Musalsal: Arab Television Drama and Comedy and the Politics of the Satellite Era,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 15 (Fall 2005), pp. 2-5.
[6] Najib Nusayr and Mazin Bilal, al-Drama al-Televizioniyya al-Suriyya: Qira’a fi Adawat al-Mushafaha (Damascus: Dar al-Hisad, 1998); Najib Nusayr and Mazin Bilal, al-Drama al-Tarikhiyya al-Suriyya: Hulm Nihayat al-Qarn (Damascus: Ziyad al-Saruji, 1999), pp. 32-54.
[7] Christa Salamandra, “Arab Television Drama Production in the Satellite Era,” in Diana I. Rios and Mari Castaneda, eds., Soap Operas and Telenovelas in the Digital Age: Global Industries and New Audiences (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[8] FilmIrsad.com, October 20, 2012; AlKhaleej.ae, October 17, 2012; al-Safir, December 9, 2012; StarTimes.com, October 30, 2012.
[9] Skype interview with Iyad Shihab Ahmad, February 17, 2013.
[10] Dramiat.com, April 12, 2013.
[11] Joubin, The Politics of Love, pp. 12-21.
[12] Ibid., pp. 17, 61-112.
[13] Personal correspondence with Mazin Taha, April 30, 2013.
[14] Joubin, The Politics of Love, pp. 17-19.
[15] Drama-Net, February 12, 2012; SyriaNow.sy, February 20, 2013.
[16] Diane Singerman, “Youth, Gender and Dignity in the Egyptian Uprising,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 9/3 (Fall 2013), pp. 1, 19-22.
[17] Anazahra.com, August 10, 2013.
[18] Anazahra.com, August 11, 2013.
[19] miriam cooke, “Tadmor’s Ghosts,” Review of Middle East Studies 47/1 (Summer 2013).
[20] Sune Haugbolle, “The (Little) Militia Man: Memory and Militarized Masculinity in Lebanon,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 8/1 (Winter 2012).

How to cite this article:

Rebecca Joubin "Syrian Drama and the Politics of Dignity," Middle East Report 268 (Fall 2013).

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