Bill Spindle of the Wall Street Journal beat the movie buffs to the punch with this great story of May 5, 2005:
Addendum (May 18 2006): Sami Moubayed just wrote me with this correction to Spindle's story:
Dear Josh,On TV in Syria: Satire, Corruption, Religious Tensions --- With Government's Blessing, New Shows Get Edgier; A Spoof on `Spotlight'
The Bill Spindle piece looks good and is an interesting read, but it has two mistakes. "Men Behind Bars" (Rijal Khalf al-Qudban) was filmed one year ago, not now, and aired last Ramadan. My fiance Nadine was a co-star in it. [Sami, the Spindle story was published in 2005. Joshua]
The Maraya series is by Yasser al-Azma, and not his prime rival over Syrian comedy, Duraid Lahham. Big difference between the two and for two decades, Lahham and Azma tried to knock each other off the throne of Syrian satire.
By Bill Spindle
5 May 2005
The Wall Street Journal
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Layth Hajo, a 33-year-old TV director, leaned forward, straining to hear the sound of apple juice.
An actress poured the juice, which substituted for liquor in the scene, into a glass filled with ice. "That's an apple-juice sound, not a whiskey sound," Mr. Hajo declared. Too fizzy, he said. Aides scrambled to replace the juice with tea, hoping that tea would sound more like the hard stuff.
Spring is the season for shooting Syrian television dramas for broadcast during the critical Ramadan holiday viewing season in October. That's when the Arab world rolls out its best new shows, and many Middle Easterners indulge in a month-long TV binge. In a major market like Egypt, as many as eight in 10 households with TV sets watch them nightly during Ramadan. "This is prime time," says Hussein Amin, head of the media and communications department at American University of Cairo.
From Morocco to Mecca, Syrian dramas are capturing a growing share of that audience. They offer exacting portrayals of real life in the Middle East, including slightly racy scenes of women drinking alone at home and some uncomfortable truths about government. This season, Syrian writers, actors and directors like Mr. Hajo say they are pushing further than ever before to explore issues rarely broached in the conservative Middle East because of social pressures and government censorship.
Mr. Hajo's new drama, whose working title is "The Men Behind Bars," deals with government corruption, political dissidence, religious and sectarian tensions, prostitution and rape -- as it follows the lives of several male characters. A sympathetic character who becomes a government opponent, gets jailed. Others, seemingly deserving of punishment, flourish. "I try to tell the truth about society," the director says.
Mr. Hajo has plenty of company this season. Surveying the dim prospects for free expression in Syria's public arts and professions, many Syrian artists who want to take on serious subjects have concluded that TV is the only place to be. "We don't have theater, we don't have newspapers," says Khaled Khalifeh, 41, who writes TV scripts. "The only way for political expression is through television programs."
Despite a series of amnesties in recent years, hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. A burst of opposition activity after President Bashar Assad came to power in 2000 ended a year later with arrests of activists, restrictions on political gatherings and threats by senior officials of harsher measures.
Some government critics suggest the relative openness tolerated on television is a calculated strategy to distract Syrians from their lack of broader freedoms and real political choice. "It lets the people breathe," one actor conjectures.
Others, however, say the government realizes that greater latitude is needed if the country's television industry, which brings both regional prestige and money to Syria from abroad, is going to succeed.
Whatever the reason, the Syrian government has encouraged the push toward the provocative on TV. President Assad himself met with a group of directors last November, telling them to keep pushing the envelope, says Mr. Hajo, who was part of the group.
That doesn't mean the censorship offices have closed down. Suheil Saleh, head of the government's Television Evaluation and Selection Directorate, says his staff is as busy as ever evaluating scripts. Programs dealing with religion, sex and criticism of other societies still get careful scrutiny, he says. He also boasts that his in-house staff translates foreign programs shown on Syrian TV, including "Seinfeld."
Still, he says that encouraging programs to delve into previously untouchable topics is part of his job. He says he can't remember the last time anything was disallowed on political grounds -- though he still expects responsible writers and directors to "practice self-censorship."
Mr. Saleh attributes the greater latitude to "a political opening in the country," started by the president. Satellite television, which became legal in Syria after the younger Mr. Assad took over, has also changed the censorship game, Mr. Saleh acknowledges. Syrians could tune into satellite broadcasts for uncensored version of shows if Syrian censors cut things out of local broadcasts. "Why remove things if everyone has satellite?" he says.
Few directors have exploited this gradual opening as well as Mr. Hajo, whose big break came a few years back with a satirical program called "Baqa Ad-Dou" in Arabic, "Spotlight" in English.
Syrian viewers had long been fans of another satirical show of his, known as "Maraya," or "Mirrors." Maraya frequently made light of government inefficiency and corruption. Even the former president, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand for three decades, liked the program and socialized with its star, Dureid Lahham.
In the new atmosphere of openness that accompanied the arrival of the younger Mr. Assad, who is now 39, to the presidency in 2000, "Spotlight" built a loyal following by poking fun at the government and Syrian society. In one skit that seemed to spoof the presidential handoff from father to son, an elementary-school teacher asks her students what they want to be when they grow up. One child says "president" -- throwing the teacher into such a panic that she tells the principal, who races to inform the parents. Before long, the entire community is trying to figure out what to do.
"Spotlight opened up a lot of doors," Mr. Hajo says.
After four years of directing "Spotlight," Mr. Hajo, like many in the industry, is now turning his attention to serious social issues. "The writers are always trying to get deeper into issues, about religion and young people and others," said Sulafa Memar, a 27-year-old actress on the set of Mr. Hajo's current production.
Mr. Hajo's producer, Wael Swedani, is responsible for submitting scripts to the censors. But with the production nearly half-taped, he said he hadn't even bothered to do it yet this year. "There's not really very much they can do," said Mr. Swedani. "If Syrian television doesn't want it, they'll want it at some other channel."
Durry Atassi wrote from California to say:
This is Durry Atassi in California (one of your subscribers in the US). Regarding the piece on the Syrian Cinema in the US, the showing in NY is part of a tour that was put together by Arte East. This tour started in NY City and it runs through September. For more information on this please, check the following link.