Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Another Casualty of War: Soap Operas

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Another Casualty of War: Soap Operas

Article excerpt

In losing the soap opera, the Syrian government has lost one of its most powerful means of spreading ideas and political messages.

In the Syrian town my family comes from, every afternoon during the holy month of Ramadan the streets were jammed with people. They were rushing home not only to escape the heat and to prepare the iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast, but also to catch the latest episodes of their favorite soap operas -- the musalsals.

This year's Ramadan is different. In the midst of a brutal civil war, Syrians are getting more than enough drama from real life.

At the same time, Syrian production companies have shelved new shows; investors with ties to President Bashar al-Assad's government have found their bank accounts frozen; and viewers throughout the Arab world have called for a boycott of Syrian satellite channels. A tax break issued by the government has failed to revive the industry.

While the outcome of the fighting is uncertain, one thing seems clear: In losing the soap opera, the Syrian government has lost one of its most powerful means of spreading ideas and political messages, both within and beyond the country's borders.

Syrian soap operas took off in the 1990s, when satellite- television access increased across the Arab world, and were watched by tens of millions of people from Morocco to the Gulf. The most successful production companies were always affiliated with the regime and toed the line of government censorship. But in the new millennium, following the second Palestinian intifada, the attacks of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Syrian soap operas became more explicitly aligned with the Assad government's Baathist -- or Pan- Arab -- ideology. They were increasingly set in the distant past, featuring Arab heroes and glorious wars.

The most prominent of these was a musalsal on the life of Sultan Saladin, the 12th-century defeater of the Crusaders and liberator of Jerusalem. The plot presented Saladin as the ultimate Arab hero, without mentioning his Kurdish origins, and the dialogue was stuffed with Baathist propaganda arguing for the "unity of the Arabs." Even the most naive viewer could not fail to associate the Crusaders with the Israelis and Americans or Sa'war -- the corrupt Egyptian leader - - with President Hosni Mubarak.

As the region's politics changed, so, too, did Syria's soap operas. Historical dramas from the 1990s, like "Damascene Days," showed Arab patriots struggling against Ottoman oppression. But in the series written after the 2003-4 detente between Turkey and Syria, the foes were no longer the Turks but European colonialists. …

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