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France, Syrie et Liban 1918-1946

Nadine Méouchy

Première partie. Le mandat : savoirs, pratiques et représentations

When Television is Mandatory: Syrian Television Drama in the 1990s

Robert Blecher

Texte intégral

1History is all the rage in Syrian television drama. While Syrian critics have used the term “the return to history [al- ‘awda ila al-tarikh]” in reference to disciplines as diverse as drama, literature, music, medicine, architecture and fine arts, in no field of cultural production has this phenomenon garnered as much attention as in television. In the 1990s, the best writers and producers focused their efforts on historical works to the virtual exclusion of contemporary subjects. By the end of the 1990’s, the “return to history” had produced more than 70 historical serials, the vast majority appearing since 1991.

2Scholars and critics often interpret newly transnationalized television as a semi-autonomous sphere relatively free of the constraints of censorship. In Syria, this argument about transnationalism takes two forms. The maximalist interpretation suggests that the globalization of the entertainment industry has broken the state’s absolute grip on television broadcasting. The diffusion of satellite television has altered the relationship between the state and artists, offering the latter relative autonomy.1 In the minimalist interpretation, historical themes offer a way to circumvent government restrictions on social and political criticism. Given the limitations on freedom of expression in Syria, artists must couch their commentaries in historical allegories. Without denying the importance of globalization, this interpretation ascribes primary importance to censorship, arguing that artists are obliged to jump through hoops to communicate their messages. By adopting a historical guise, artists manage to carve out for themselves a measure of autonomy.2

3While both these explanations address important dimensions of the return to history in Syrian television, they also leave much to explain. First, neither pays attention to how viewing audiences in Syria actually watch the serials.3 Second, they place too much weight on the autonomy of cultural production, failing to address how not only the conditions of production but also the dramatic form and content are shaped by an interlocking set of local, national, regional and global factors.4 Third, and most important for the return to history, both minimalist and maximalist explanations figure history as a subterfuge, overlooking how and why notions of history are important for the contemporary Syrian cultural scene.5 Focusing on the relation between intellectuals and state, I will address here how notions of history have gained heightened importance in the post-Gulf War Middle East. I will argue that in the realm of television, regional and global changes have driven the state and certain intellectuals closer together. This does not mean that one has capitulated but rather that they are caught in an intimate dance of negotiation, compromise and occasional cooperation. While the new dramatic realism on Syrian television may seem controversial, a closer look at these productions reveals that both political and aesthetic elements work together in the service of a Syrian nationalism that is constantly redrawing the boundaries of its hegemony.


4The tendency to interpret the serials in a narrow political light is not surprising given the history of Syrian television. Television broadcasts began in 1960, when Syria and Egypt were unified into the United Arab Republic. In Syria as elsewhere, television was initially conceived as an educational tool that would advance the cause of modernization. As the former director of UNESCO’s Bureau of Public Information recalls, “It was thought that the satellites would broadcast the same television program and deliver the same message to each of the Arab citizens, that they would eliminate illiteracy,... that they would help the peasants to better cultivate their land and that they could harmonize cultures, tastes and even dialects.”6Given the continuing instability of the Syrian governments in the 1960s, however, television became a tool for the dissemination of political propaganda much like radio had been in the years following independence in 1946. The army initially distributed the scarce televisions primarily to its officers and set up televisions in the streets for public viewing at specified hours.7

5Weekly broadcast of educational serials designed to instill “civilized” habits began in the early 1960s. It was not until the late 1970s that the serials became daily fare, focusing less on social reform than on fictionalized representations of daily life in old Damascus. In the late 1970s, serials began to represent life in other parts of Syria outside the capital,8 following the example set by a group of cinematic directors who had begun to more fully represent Syrian geographic and cultural diversity in their films. Yet, as with the serials depicting life in Damascus, the serials set in villages were filmed on artificial sets that removed all traces of geographic specificity. While historical issues were part of the experimentation of 1970s, these productions played on an imagined heritage and popular memory, as opposed to specific, identifiable events that were part of the recent Syrian past.

6This started to change in the mid-1980s. Elaborate costumes and period-specific stage sets gave the serials a spectacular air. Increasingly, Syrian television began to acquire the technical equipment necessary to film outside the studio, although even today on-site filming is reserved for the higher budget productions. These innovations contributed to the growth of two new genres: historical fantasy, characterized by a “once upon a time” quality [la makan wa la zaman], and the new dramatic realism, which emphasized the authenticity of historical productions. Partially in reaction to the former, realist directors such as Haitham Haqqi began to produce serials steeped in the specifics of Syrian history and topography.

7While twenty five years had passed since the first modernizing serials, the new dramatic realism evinced a similar desire to educate viewing audiences. Realist serials initially depicted fictionalized narratives set in actual historical periods. Hijrat al-Qulub ila al-Qulub [The Journey from Hearts to Hearts], one of the earlier realist productions (1983), portrayed villagers in an undefined badiyya (desert) village during the French mandate. According to the definitions offered by Syrian dramaturge Sa’d Allah Wannus and literary critic Tayyib Tizini, these early serials were studies of heritage (turath) as opposed to history (tarikh).9 They depicted elements of Syrian popular memory, but did not refer to the specific names, places or dates on which writers and producers would later insist. By the late 1980s, serials started to include nationalist figures such as Shahbandar (notably in part one of Abu Kamil in 1990). Eventually the precision of detail would grow into a fetish, pushed to an extreme by Basil al-Khatib, whose desire for perfect French accents led him to import actors from France to play the French military officers in Ayyam al-Ghadab [Days of Rage] (1996).

8The ostensible shift from heritage to history, as Wannus and Tizini would phrase it, occurred in the mid-1990s. Writers and producers began to craft "authentic" histories, which piled up names, places, dates and events that resonated with viewers as parts of their history. Historical personages began to appear on the small screen: Jamal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Syria, appeared in Akhawat al-Turab [Brothers of the Earth] (1996); Khalid al-‘Azm and ‘Abd al-Hamid Sarraj in Khan al-Harir [The Silk Market] (1996, 1998); the rebel leader ‘Akash in Thuraya (1997); Husni Za‘im, Sami Hinnawi, Adib Shishakli in the second part of Hammam al-Qishani [The Qishani Bath] (1998). These serials were called “authentic” by virtue of the fact that they were documented. Such tawthiq (documentation, or more broadly, the process of establishing validity) became the most important criterion for determining the quality and credibility of the productions. The demand for tawthiq was never disinterested, however: it depicted only a particular “authentic” nationalist resistance. The ideology that best advanced the cause of the nation was a matter for debate, but the requirement of national resistance was never open to question.

9The decisive turning point can be dated to the second part of Abu Kamil in 1992. Many critics felt that the serial’s focus on Syrian collaborators was excessive, distorting the “truth” of national resistance during the final years of the mandate. Writer Fuad Sherbaji and producer Ala al-Din Kawkash were startled by the vituperative reaction to serial, as they intended less to criticize Syrian nationalism than to complicate the simplistic picture commonly portrayed.10 In the wake of the criticism they endured, however, serials have all offered jingoistic, nationalist visions of Syrian history. The reasons for shift, I would argue, can be found in the changes to the regional and global orders in the 1990s.


10As demonstrated by Akhil Gupta and extended into the realm of television by Purnima Mankekar, local and national practices can only be understood in relationship to regional and global processes.11 As Arab intellectuals negotiated geopolitical, intellectual and economic terrains that had been fundamentally restructured in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the space for criticizing nationalism in Syria progressively diminished. The celebrated Hijrat al-Qulub ila al-Qulub might have depicted collaboration with the French in 1983, but by the time the sequel to Abu Kamil appeared in 1992, the representation of vibrant national resistance had become “mandatory”.

11The end of the Cold War brought changes in Syria. In 1987, the Soviet Union announced that it would no longer subsidize Syrian weapons purchases, thereby undercutting Syria’s goal of “strategic parity” with Israel. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall two years later and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, Syria lost its remaining diplomatic backing. Realigning itself in the new unipolar world, Syria supported the Allied coalition in the Gulf War, after which it was cajoled into attending the Madrid Conference. Although the negotiations did not produce any notable agreements, the Oslo Accords (1993) and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty (1994) remade nationalist topography in the Middle East. As ethnic and nationalist tensions escalated elsewhere in the world, Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres sketched out a vision in which national boundaries had no place. As ‘peace’ broke out and the last remaining shreds of an Arab front against Israel disintegrated, nationalist anti-imperial resistance threatened to become a thing of the past. For Syria, which had long imagined itself at the forefront of the struggle against Israel, the old standards of national purpose seemed to apply no longer.

12Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals grappled with the meaning of these changes. The collapse of the Soviet Union forced a reconsideration, if not the wholesale abandonment, of the dogmatic Marxist positions held by many of those who published in the influential journals of contemporary Arab thought, including al-Nahaj, al-Tariq and al-Fikr al- ‘Arabi. While some thinkers such as Mahir al-Sharif urged productive engagement with globalized ideas, globalism [al- ‘awlama] was more often the target of strident attacks and occasioned the reflexive defense of an essentialized Arab identity. Francis Fukayama and Samuel Huntington, with good reason, were repeatedly bashed, although the reduction of the complexity of globalism to these triumphalist positions often led to simplistic public debate.

13The Gulf War reconfigured not only the geopolitical and intellectual but also the audiovisual topography of the Middle East. In the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, CNN emerged as the news source of choice, rebroadcast over various Middle East state television channels. Shortly thereafter, Arab stations jumped into the satellite fray. Egypt launched ESN (Egyptian Space Net) in December 1990 to broadcast to its troops in Saudi Arabia. In September 1991, the London-based MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Company) - funded by Walid Ibrahim, the brother of King Fahd - became the first independent Arab satellite television station. MBC was followed in 1994 by ART (Arab Radio and Television) and Orbit, both of which were also established by various branches of the Saudi royal family based in Europe. Threatened by the loss of control over television, Egypt banned decoder boxes12; Syria banned not only decoder boxes but satellite dishes as well. In response, the three satellite stations stopped scrambling their emissions and began to rely on advertising revenue instead, thereby offering anybody who could scrape together $300 for a satellite dish access to unlimited hours of satellite viewing. After dishes sprouted all over Syria in defiance of the government ban, the state retreated, legalizing the dishes in 1993. In order to compete with the hugely successful satellite chains, states in the Middle East launched their own satellite stations. These, however, have not met with the same success as the independent stations that enjoy significantly larger budgets.

14The resulting increase in the number of broadcast hours led to increased demand for television programming. Not only was there a quantitative increase in the number of hours to be filled, but viewers showed an interest in the specific qualities Syrian productions brought to the small screen. Since the inception of television in the Middle East in 1960, Egypt has been the leading producer of television programming. Indeed, the Egyptian dialect is understood by virtually all Arabic speakers who grew up with television, largely because of the influence of the Egyptian entertainment industry. But as Arabic speakers were exposed to Syrian drama over satellite broadcasts and state television stations, the new themes and linguistic styles attracted viewers who had been watching the same Egyptian actors on their state-run television stations for years. The quality of direction, historical themes and the use of both literary Arabic and Syrian dialects enticed viewing audiences beyond Syria and Lebanon, at least among those populations who could afford satellite dishes. Syria is today the second leading producer of television in the Arab world.

15Even before the Gulf War, however, accretionary changes in the domestic economy had positioned Syrian television producers to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the sudden expansion of the market. Thus while international considerations are important, it would be a mistake to accord them sole responsibility for the new kinds of television drama that emerged in the 1990s. Already in the mid-1980s, prompted by its deteriorating economy, Syria had embarked on its second limited infitah [economic liberalization].13 Whereas the Egyptian infitah implied a political opening to the West as part of the restructuring of the Egyptian economy, the Syrian infitah implied fewer political changes. Rather, it constituted an attempt by the government to harness the productive potential of private capital in specific realms of the economy. The infitah expanded the opportunities for the mixed sector (joint initiatives between government and private capital) and relaxed foreign trade restrictions and currency regulations. While law number 10 of 1991 is usually credited with creating the more permissive business environment of the 1990s, the smaller but substantial changes that had occurred by the late 1980s permitted a few well-placed Syrians to take advantage of the increased demand for television programming.

16Sharikat al-Sham al-Duwaliyya [Sham International] was founded in 1988. It is owned by the son of’Abd al-Halim Khaddam, the ex- Syrian vice-president. Large amounts of capital were also secretly contributed by a silent Saudi partner, although this infusion of foreign capital was kept quiet since the company was slated to become a major producer of national entertainment. Following the promulgation of law number 10, other production companies were quickly established. In truth, however, despite the significant provisions of the 1991 law, there were only a few people in the country who could muster the financial capital to fund multi-million dollar enterprises, as well as the political capital to establish production facilities in a state that tightly controls domestic communications. The three biggest production companies - Sharikat al-Sham al-Duwaliyya, Sharikat Halab al-Duwaliyya [Aleppo International] and Sharikat Busra al-Duwaliyya [Bosra International] - are owned respectively by the families of the ex-vice president, the chief of staff, and the ex-prime minister. Such a consolidation of economic power is typical in Syria, where access to capital is afforded by bureaucratic and military ties. Still largely locked out of political power, the scions of Syria have focused their attention on business. With the satellite channels of the Gulf and Europe offering lavish sums for programming, they have been well-rewarded for their efforts.

17While the infusion of transnational capital generated opportunities for television production, it also generated restrictions. The 1996 broadcast of Akhawat al-Turab was halted when Turkey lodged an official complaint with Kuwait (where the satellite broadcast originated), objecting to what it called the excessively violent portrayal of the Ottoman army. The rebroadcast of the serial in its entirety on Syrian state television surprised few given the tense relations between Turkey and Syria. The following year, Sharikat al-Sham al-Duwaliyya invited the French cultural attache to an advance screening of highlights from Ayyam al-Ghadab, a serial that included graphic critique of the French mandate. The company had hoped to head off a diplomatic row by securing advance French permission for the broadcast. The screening, however, did not go as planned. The cultural attache, when he realized that he was being manipulated, walked out. The heads of the company, not wanting to be responsible for damaging Franco-Syrian relations just after Chirac’s 1996 visit, approached the cultural attache’s assistant to ask what should be cut to prevent opposition from the French government. The French embassy in Damascus declined to offer advice; the series was broadcast unedited; and no official protest was lodged, although a number of detailed reports on the series did find their way back to the Foreign Ministry in Paris. Still, less than a year later, an informal directive was passed down to all producing organizations, both public and private, that television serials were to contain nothing “too” graphic or offensive to French tastes. In the 1999 sequel to Ayyam al-Ghadab, not only was the portrayal of French violence considerably subdued, but a French character was one of the serial’s sympathetic protagonists.

18These restrictions should give us pause before declaring the victory of transnational capital over the state. After all, Syrian drama is still produced in Syria, which gives the state final veto power over its content. While the flow of news is much harder to control - e.g. the news of Rifa’at al-Asad’s house arrest in 1998 was first broadcast over satellite station - the state’s ability to censor dramatic productions remains strong, but not absolute.

19While censorship still forbids the treatment of the post-1963 period, restrictions have recently lightened considerably. The noncontroversial nature of attacks on the French and the easily digestible nationalist/collaborator dichotomy may be the reasons that representations of the mandate were especially popular in the earlier years of the return to history, whereas now that the genre has matured and censorship rules have lightened, artists have begun to produce narratives in which both the good and bad guys are Syrian. By the mid-1990s, nuanced representations of the nationalist opposition began to appear, getting beyond the collaborator/armed insurgent model to include liberal bourgeois figures who were solidly oppositional. Dramatic representations of the early independence period, including Hammam al-Qishani and Khan al-Harir, were even more striking. Nasserists debated party doctrine with Ba’thists and Communists debated with the liberal bourgeoisie. Such representation of overt political debates would have been unthinkable even in the early 1990s.

20To demonstrate the changed atmosphere in Syria in the 1990s, Nihad Siris14, whose writings on occasion have been banned by the government, related the following story about the production of the second part of Khan al-Harir. Like all television drama, it was subject to both a pre-production review of the script and a post-production review of the final product. After negotiations with the head of the censorship office resulted in minor revisions, the script was approved for filming despite the production’s sometimes critical portrayal of a Ba‘thi character. In the post-production review, however, a functionary in the censorship bureau cut so many of the Ba‘thi character’s scenes that he was reduced to virtual obscurity. When the serial aired, the chief of the censorship office called Siris to express his surprise at the serial’s non-controversial nature. After hearing Siris’ explanation, the chief disciplined the functionary for abuse of authority15.

21Dismissing this story as a government ruse to placate opposition to censorship misses the point, as do uncritical celebrations of the autonomy afforded by transnational capital. The negotiations over acceptable levels of critique indicate that intellectuals and the state jointly shape a public space of dissent. More broadly, it is hard to ignore that the reinvigorated nationalist dramas send out anti-imperialist messages that largely accord with the anti-imperialist air the regime wishes to foster. Precisely because the new television is not state-sponsored and allows certain kinds of dissent, it participates in the construction of a hegemonic nationalism. As Gramsci argued, hegemony is not imposed but rather constructed through a series of continuing negotiations on an unstable terrain. When Siris says that “We’ve had progress in the conception of censorship [in Syria]”, he does not mean that he can write whatever he wants; as he himself admits, he and other writers negotiate critique with a regime that is happy to co-opt it.

22Participation, even oppositional participation, in debates over authenticity and ideology brings one into the ambit of nationalism. A resistant reading of a serial’s politics does not necessarily position one outside of the viewing community, although there are types of resistant readings that indeed might do this. Whether one professes allegiance to Nasser or the Ba‘th, to militarism or feminism, to the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, one is nevertheless a member of a community that watches and argues together. A heterogeneous viewing community is sutured together through political difference. What is controversial, in other words, is not necessarily divisive.

23Inclusion through difference extends to geographic and ethnic diversity as well. This contrasts with other national television communities such as India, where serials of the past decade have participated in the communalization of nationalism by depicting India as an essentially Hindi entity.16 When in al-Firari [The Deserter] an Aleppine arrives in Damascus speaking with an Aleppine accent, an itinerant Egyptian merchant asks him, “You’re not from around here, are you?”. Regional difference in Syria draws a comment only from the Egyptian, someone clearly positioned outside of the Syrian nation. Unity through difference, the catchphrase of Indian nationalism in the 1950s, is an implicit watchword in Syria today. Perhaps this suggests why one of the few Western advertising campaigns imported into Syria and translated directly into Arabic is “United Colors of Benetton”.

24We should be wary, then, of equating globalization with freedom. While certain types of information flow readily over national borders, national elites still control the production of television drama, whose diffusion and content can be altered by government fiat. More important, the perception of freedom afforded by television has caught intellectuals, including some who see themselves as oppositional, in a web of negotiation with the state. With regional and global changes undermining the positions of both, they have a shared interest in recapturing moments of national glory that stand in counterpoint to the threats they face today.


1 Others who advance similar arguments in different contexts include Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, “Mass Media and Transnational Subjectivity in Shanghai: Notes on (Re)Cosmopolitanism in a Chinese Metropolis” in Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini, (eds.), Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Chinese Nationalism (Routledge, 1997); Tourya Guaaybess, “La télévision égyptienne de l’ère hertzienne à l’ère satellitaire: restructuration d’un champ audiovisuel,” Égypte/Monde arabe 29, 1er trimestre, 1997, p. 137-149.

2 Salam Kawakibi, “Le role de la télévision dans la relecture de l’histoire” Maghreb/Machrek 158, Oct-Dec, 1997, p. 47-55. While Kawakibi clearly realizes that censorship is what pushes intellectuals toward historical allegory, he never uses the term.

3 While many authors have emphasized the importance of audience reception, perhaps the most aggressive statement is offered by Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures : Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington : The University Press of Kentucky, 1997). Hayward’s book is a response to those authors, typified by Tania Moleski, whom Hayward perceives as disparaging soap operas and manifesting a lack of “respect” for the female consumers of mass culture. See Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (Hamden, CT : Archon Books, 1982). On viewer perceptions of representations of Islam in Egyptian serials, see Lila Abu Lughod, “Finding a Place for Islam : Egyptian Television Serials and the National Interest”, Public Culture 5 (1993): 493-513.

4 On the effect of national politics on the content of serials, see Lila Abu Lughod’s analysis of how Egyptian serials treat Islamic movements : "Dramatic Reversals : Political Islam and Egyptian Television" in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, (eds.), Political Islam : Essays from Middle East Report (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997), 269-282. Abu Lughod has also written on how the melodramatic form of serials is implicated in the construction of modern Egyptian subjectivity : "Modern Subjects : Egyptian Melodrama and Postcolonial Difference" in Timothy Mitchell, (ed.), Questions of Modernity (Minneapolis : University of Minneapolis Press, 2000), 87-114.

5 Christa Salamandra has begun to broach this topic, addressing how historical dramas contribute to the construction of subnational identities in Syria. “Moustache Hairs Lost : Ramadan Television Serials and the Construction of Identity in Damascus, Syria,” Visual Anthropology 10, 1998, p. 227-246.

6 Quoted in Guaaybess, p. 140.

7 Mazin Bilal and Najib Nasir, Al-Drama al-tiliflziyuniyya al-suriyya: Qira’a fi adawat al-mushafaha, Damascus, Daral-Hisad, 1998, p. 15.

8 Bilal and Nasir, chapter 1.

9 Mahir al-Sharif, “Sa’d Allah Wannus wa ‘Munamnamat Tarikhiyya’ (Hiwar),” al-Nahaj, n°4 (40), Summer 1995, Damascus.

10 Interview with Ala al-Din Kawkash, Damascus, January 1997.

11 James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta, “Culture, Power, Place: Ethnography at the End of an Era” in James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta, (eds.), Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, Durham, Duke University Press, 1997, p. 1-29; Purnima MANKEKAR, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood and the Nation in Postcolonial India, Durham, Duke University Press, 1999.

12 Guaaybess, p. 141-142.

13 See Volker Perthes, The Political Economy of Syria Under Asad, London: I.B Tauris, 1995, Eberhard Kienle, (ed.), Contemporary Syria: Liberalization Between Cold War and Cold Peace, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

14 Author Nihad Siris moved into writing for television in the mid-1990s, undertaking a series of collaborative projects with producer Haitham Haqqi.

15 Interview with Nihad Siris, Aleppo, June 1998

16 Mankekar, chapter one.


Stanford University, CA, USA/IFEAD

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2002

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