Personal Interventions

 

The shift in the balance of power among the power centers of the Syrian regime is apparent as well in the different fates of two TV dramas produced in 2010 and 2011 by the same director, the well-known Najdat Anzour. In 2010, Anzour penned Ma Malakat Aymanukum (Those Whom Your Right Hand Possesses), a musalsal that treats Islam in contemporary Syria. The script condemns religious extremism, as manifested in suicide bombings or violence against women, and exalts the freedom, tolerance and self-determination to be found in piety when properly understood. This approach is in keeping with the regime’s long-time advocacy of secular politics in order to protect Syria’s religious minorities while at the same time proving itself religious enough not to offend the country’s conservative Sunni majority. Here again, cultural production and official discourse converge in a tanwiri project. Ma Malakat Aymanukum’s script passed through the initial stages of state approval.

But then, prior to broadcast, the viewing committee sent it to the Ministry of Information for further examination. One of the points of contention was the serial’s title, taken from a Qur’anic verse that might be read to suggest male ownership of women. The phrase “ma malakat aymanukum” appears in the Qur’an 14 times, and generally refers to slaves. The sura from which the title is taken prohibits sexual intercourse with married women, except “those whom your right hand possesses.” Given the delicacy of the matter, the Ministry of Information, which normally has the final word, decided to ask the advice of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, another power broker was reportedly very annoyed by the serial — Muhammad Hamsho, a businessman close to Bashar’s brother Mahir, commander of the Fourth Armored Division that is the core of the security forces. Ma Malakat Aymanukum features a corrupt entrepreneur who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hamsho, down to details like running for election and opening a TV production business. Anzour has never explicitly named Hamsho as an opponent of his series, speaking merely of “people with interests” and “people bothered by the musalsal.” In any case, while the Ministry of Religious Endowments was reviewing the file, a veto of the broadcast of the musalsal from prominent Sunni scholar Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti forced Syrian TV to pull it off the Ramadan grid, just one day before the scheduled premiere. Disappointed, Anzour says he “made the president aware of the issue.”

The former minister of culture, Riyad Na‘san Agha, affirms that he lobbied for the musalsal, adding that “the president himself intervened in favor of it,” too. Anzour also lays emphasis upon the positive role played by Bashar al-Asad: “When I attended the meeting with artists and producers, he mentioned the musalsal three times and said, ‘Had I not personally intervened, the musalsal would have been gone.’ He used exactly that expression: ‘Had I not personally intervened.’”

Yet the president certainly did not do the same for Anzour’s 2011 TV drama offering, Chiffon. Chiffon revolves around several portraits of teenage boys and girls wrestling with questions about sex and drugs. It features a scene where a girl protagonist, who dresses in stereotypically masculine ways and lives among men, walks toward the very conservative Sunni mosque of Abu Nour, surrounded by veiled women.

In 2010, al-Buti was forced to accept the broadcast of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, which he had previously rejected as religiously offensive. On April 5, 2011, with the uprising well underway, he renewed his attack on the miniseries in an interview with Syrian TV, attributing the spreading unrest to Anzour’s musalsal. Shortly after this episode, and in response to a call from Syrian actors and directors for humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Dar‘a, known as “the milk statement,” Anzour appeared at the forefront of producers who signed a counter-petition calling for boycotting the protesting artists in TV drama. “There was never any shortage of food or milk,” he said. “It was a political statement. The authorities were dealing with armed terrorist groups.” [10] Anzour’s blatant rush to toe the official line might have been payback for Bashar’s intervention in 2010 or a genuine commitment to the president’s political project. In any case, Chiffon was not broadcast in Ramadan 2011. Anzour has excused the cancellation as a decision taken in the “national interest.” But the incident reveals the continuous shifts of alliances within the regime. Under the palace’s auspices, al-Buti had launched an Islamic religious channel, Nour. In a time of unrest, when the security project had become a top priority, the regime probably needed the Sunni scholar’s support much more than that of secular cultural elites.

No Longer Torn

 

The relationship binding these cultural producers to the Syrian regime is quite different from what Miriam Cooke has described regarding a previous generation of Syrian intellectuals, who were torn between the desire to criticize the regime and the obligation to compromise with it. This generation negotiated what later became forms of “commissioned criticism.” The intellectuals cooke deals with — writers like Saadallah Wannous, Muhammad al-Maghout and Mamdouh ‘Adwan — saw themselves as engaged in a continuous struggle to widen the red lines around permissible discourse. The cultural producers involved in whispering with the state, on the other hand, are committed to dialogue with power and tend to deny the existence of censorship. Instead, they rather speak about the necessity of “artistic evaluation” of their scripts.

Unlike cooke’s intellectuals, these TV dramatists do not hide their relations with the regime power centers, but show them off. They back the regime’s cultural project of treating the social pathologies — corruption, gender inequality, religious extremism, illiteracy — that make up its alleged “backwardness.” “Religious and social control are our real problems and at the origin of our backwardness,” says Laith Hajjo. “Drama can help to solve this.” The noble-sounding tanwiri label helps these screenwriters and producers to merge their work with the regime’s own awareness campaigns, by means of the well-placed whisper. “I would say I have a tanwiri mission,” asserts Nseir. “My works don’t aim to put a mirror in front of the society. I want them to discuss issues that are dealt with in my musalsalat and to progress through this discussion. I don’t want to describe; I want to provoke debates and drive social change.” The drama makers are thus not so much complicit as they are comfortable with the powers that be.

Pleasure and comfort — derived from the social status and financial privileges the new generation of Syrian cultural producers are granted — mark the relationship between them and the various power centers inside the regime. These features have in effect replaced the agreement upon “unbelief” that, as described by Lisa Wedeen, bound politics together with cultural reproduction under Hafiz al-Asad. In the Hafiz al-Asad era, cultural producers did not believe the patent propaganda they cranked out; rather, they forged a tacit pact with the regime whereby they acted “as if” they believed it. These “shared conditions of unbelief,” according to Wedeen, “actually reproduce[d] the conditions of obedience under Asad.” [11] In neoliberal Syria, where TV drama makers live in greater material comfort, the regime and its allied cultural producers are closer to stakeholders in a common investment project whereby they both define what is good and advisable for Syrian society. That society, in turn, is never addressed as made up of citizens or consumers, but is rather imagined as a backward majority that should be ruled and disciplined through practices of enlightenment accessible to a select few.

*Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Institute in Damascus, focusing her research on the Syrian television industry. You can follow her writing and work at mediaoriente.com, which is featured on Muftah, and on twitter @donatelladr. This article originally appeared in MERIP.

Endnotes

 

[1] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University o Chicago Press, 1999), p. 88.

[2] miriam cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 72.

[3] ‘Azzam was interviewed by journalist and former censorship committee member Ibrahim al-Jabin, who related ‘Azzam’s remarks at the September 2011 University of Copenhagen seminar. Unless otherwise noted, all other persons quoted in this article were interviewed by the author.

[4] See, for example, Sami Moubayed, “The Road to Syrian Democracy,” Huffington Post, June 23, 2011.

[5] Sami Moubayed, “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” Huffington Post, December 8, 2011.

[6] Donatella Della Ratta, “The ‘Whisper Strategy’: How Syrian Drama Makers Shape Television Fiction in the Context of Authoritarianism and Commodification,” in Leif Stenberg and Christa Salamandra, eds., Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Culture, Religion and Society (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).

[7] ‘Aks al-Sayr, August 26, 2011.

[8] Marlin Dick, “Syria Under the Spotlight,” Arab Media and Society 3 (Fall 2007).

[9] Ibid.

[10] The National (Abu Dhabi), July 23, 2011.

[11] Wedeen, p. 92.