Syrian actress Sulafa Mimar via
While the Western world spent the last few months debating Miley Cyrus’s right to gyrate on a teddy bear, Syrian citizens continued a three-year long discussion about Syrian actresses and soap operas' public disapproval of President Bashar al-Assad.
The discussion began in January 2011 after stage and television actress Fadwa Soliman led a nonviolent protest in Homs. After the Assad regime stifled Fadwa's acting work, she began to see Assad’s treatment of actors as an allegory for the greater suffering of her countrymen. “I became opposed to the way we work, to the humiliation, the degradation in human interaction,” Fadwa told Reuters. “Everywhere you go, even a theater or a film company, you feel you have entered a security branch.” So Fadwa used her charisma to lead protesters, encouraging the enamored crowd in Homs to chant “One, one, one. Syrian people are one!”
Although Fadwa opposed Assad’s regime during the early days of the war, soap operas' actresses and producers had a more complicated relationship with the government at the start of the war. For years, soap operas were a part of Assad’s propaganda machine. The Syrian Ministry of Culture took over Syria’s state television in the 1960s, and for decades, according to the New York Times, most Syrian TV was weird historical propaganda that focused on Syria’s history of political strife and the “triumph” of the Syrian people.
However, this changed after satellite television allowed Syrian television to air across the Arab world. Thanks to cable, Syria’s mosalsalats, short-lived soap operas that air during during the month of Ramadan, became some of the most popular television programs in the Arab world. Assad allowed the shows to discuss gender issues, terrorism, and other controversial issues, making his regime seem free of censorship. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times said Assad’s government even allowed state sponsored soap opera characters to voice their disapproval of the government.
Image of Syrian stage and television actress Fadwa Soliman via
Behind the scenes, 300 Syrian actors and artists signed the Milk Petition, which begged the government to offer food aid to the children of Daraa, a city in Syria. In response, 20 of Syria’s most successful production companies publicly blacklisted the artists who signed the petition. After the blacklist, Syrian television fans created a “Syrian Shame List”, which called out cultural figures who supported the regime. (The list has continued to be updated on social media.)
After these events, mosalsalat directors and actors no longer felt safe critiquing Assad. Last month, director Saifeddine Al Sibaii told the UN Refugee Agency that many productions moved to Lebanon, so they would be free to explore the war in this Ramadan's mosalsalats. But moving the productions outside Syria didn't mean the directors planned to change the shows' content.
The Syrian director Abeer Esber, on location in Lebanon, filming her Ramadan soap opera, 'Al Obour' ('The Transition'). Below, a scene in a not-so-oblique reference to the war. (Photos: Elena Dorfman / UNHCR)
Over the phone, Donatella Della Ratta, a post-doctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and a Middle Eastern media expert, told me that Assad sanctioned soap operas never blamed the government for Syria’s problems in the first place. “You [saw] all this edgy TV work but it [didn’t] touch the leader,” she said. For example, when a soap opera opera dealt with corruption, the program never blamed Assad for the corruption. Instead, the series showed an Assad-like figure who could solve the problem. “[In the mosalsalats], the authority of the leader is justified even more because of the fight against corruption,” Donatella said.
Although the productions moved to Lebanon, she believed they would continue to superficially discuss the war. She said, “The message [of the mosalsalats] is we do need reconciliation, not in a political way, but in a humanitarian way.”
Either way, most Syrian mosalsalats are struggling to be seen. Sakhr Al-Makhadi, a journalist who covers Syria for the Guardian and BBC, told me in an email, “Traditionally, Syrians made the soaps, while Gulf channels broadcast them to the region. Those broadcasters are often based in countries that have severed ties with the regime and are now boycotting Syrian TV programs. It's led to a resurgence in the Egyptian TV production industry–but it means that Syrian voices are struggling to be heard.”
This hasn’t stopped actresses from protesting the Syrian government. In May, authorities arrested actress May Skaf, who was arrested last year at a demonstration, while she was walking down the street in her neighborhood in Damascus. After questioning her for a few hours, the interrogators freed her. Later, May posted a YouTube video explaining her desire to flee Syria. (Unfortunately, because the government “barred” her from traveling, she was unable to seek refuge.) In the video she said, “The [interrogators] accused me of trying to make a name for myself.”
The regime refused to believe an actress would speak out for anything other than fame, but if May merely wanted fame, why did the authorities arrest her? The mosalsalats’ content wasn't revolutionary, but May’s arrest and the blacklists showed that the actresses threatened the regime. Assad’s propaganda machine built Syrian television, and actresses have become loud voices within the protest movement that could possibly bring Assad down.
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