DAMASCUS – For as long as most Arabs can remember, the start of Ramadan has been accompanied by television dramas known as musalsalat. These dramas typically run for 30 episodes, with one episode airing each day of the holy month. Prior to 2011, Syria’s productions dominated the Arab TV networks.
In 2010, 28 Syrian series aired on roughly 26 Arabic television channels worldwide. Most channels carried more than one Syrian series, and seven aired Bab al-Hara (“The Neighborhood’s Gate”) – one of the most famous dramas in the Arab world centered on the daily happenings of one Damascene family.
This Ramadan, however, significantly fewer Syrian musalsalat aired, not because of lack of production, but because producers were unable to sell them to networks.
Instability in Production
After the first year of war in Syria, instability and violence meant many were wary of investing in long-term projects. As a result, production of Ramadan series decreased by nearly half from the previous year – only 23 series were produced, six of which were new seasons for existing dramas.
Many actors, writers and directors also became involved in political matters and increasingly became targets of violence and harassment and arrest.
On August 25, 2012, actor and writer Mohammed Oso was arrested for participating in antiregime demonstrations. Actress Samar Kokash was arrested in December 2013, convicted of “financing terrorism” and detained until February last year. Palestinian-Syrian actor Mohammed Rafii was found dead in Barzeh, a neighborhood in Damascus, in November 2013, believed to have been murdered because of his pro-regime beliefs, and Fahed Najar was shot dead in December 2014.
As Syrian artists increasingly came under fire, many fled the country. This initial drain of the country’s artists has given Egypt – Syria’s biggest competitor when it comes to drama series – the upper hand in terms of talent.
Egypt “has been able, in recent years, to take a huge artistic and technical leap, mainly because of its team of directors, photographers, writers, musicians and academics, that is not available in Syria,” Iyad Abu Shammat, a Syrian actor and TV writer who fled the country in 2012, told Syria Deeply.
The number of Syrian TV series produced has gradually increased every year since 2012, as producers and actors found more political and geographical stability, either a result of political partition in the country or displacement both abroad and inside the country.
But the war has taken a heavy toll on those in the industry who remained. “They are suffering psychologically, morally and financially just like the other Syrians,” Shammat said. “This affects their work and their artistic production in a real way.”
Plot lines and story settings began to increasingly focus on contemporary social issues, the Syrian crisis and stories of war, rather than the usual historical dramas. This saw production jump significantly – from 17 in 2015 to 30 in 2016, according to ida2at, a news outlet dealing with contemporary events in the Arab world.
Decrease in Sales
This year, however, a new set of challenges has arisen for Syria’s television industry. Before Ramadan began in late May, several directors and production companies announced that some series already in production would not air during the holy month.
Director Muhannad Qutaish told Sayidaty magazine that airing his series Hawajis ’aabira was postponed due to shooting delays that prevented adequate marketing. He added that he wanted to air the series after Ramadan for “better viewing opportunities” without the extensive TV ads during Ramadan.
For others, the challenge was getting suitable offers from networks to purchase their series. The polarization of local and foreign networks has also made getting funding for non-politicized subjects very difficult, according to Shammat.
He left Syria in 2012 to write a series named Ghadan Naltaqi (“Tomorrow We Meet”), the same title as a daily evening program that aired for many years in Syria. The show aired in 2015 and it was one of the first to tackle the situation of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. It was well received outside the country, but never aired on any local Syrian channels.
For some, the networks’ offers did not measure up to the quality of production needed. Producer Amal Arafeh announced on her Facebook page that her new show “Psycho” would not air during Ramadan because the networks offers they received did not “match its production and artistic level that we worked with to execute this series.”
Other series, such as Al Gharib (“The Stranger”), Shababeek (“Windows”), Wardeh Shamiyeh (“Damascene Rose”) and Akher Mahal Ward (“The Last Flower Shop”) did not air during Ramadan for the same reasons.
Those who did manage to get airtime during Ramadan fall into two categories. On one side of the spectrum, there are the series that ignore the situation in Syria, such as Saneh Aoula Zawaj (“First Year of Marriage”) directed by Yaman Ibrahim, where, as the name suggests, each episode focuses on a different aspect of married life for a newlywed couple.
On the other side, the series that do depict violence and military confrontation focus mainly on extremism and Islamist groups. For example, some episodes of Al Shawq (“Longing”) tell the story of Syrian lawyer and activist Razan Zaytouna, believed to have been kidnapped with her husband and other activists by Jaish al-Islam in Douma city in 2013. The plot of Gharabib Soud (“Black Crows”) – which has a cast from seven Arab countries, including Syria – dealt with the internal workings of the so-called Islamic State.
Propaganda Takes the Place of Art
The decline of Syrian TV series sales after the 2016 boost is partially due to the audience’s desire to watch certain topics, according to Shammat. Syrian series creators are finding themselves required to depict a society that is “in a state of total destruction” to an audience not keen to watch anything that is reminiscent of what they’ve seen already in the news.
However, according to Abu Shammat, the audiences’ declining interest in war-focused plots is not due to fatigue over the crisis, but rather the lack of professionalism of those new to the industry. Some of these “intruders,” as Shammat described them, use the series to distribute propaganda.
There is a lot of “stereotyping and dramas titled as though they are news headlines or similar to war propaganda movies, and naturally the audience interested in this kind of work is limited,” he added.
Like many others, Shammat is not optimistic about the future of Syrian drama and sees no way for Syria to take back its position as leader of the Ramadan television series industry until the war comes to an end and Syrian artists can “re-establish this profession on an academic basis, just like in Egypt.”
“Without this, the Syrian Drama will be lost,” he said.