During August of 2011, which corresponded with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, viewers of the state-run satellite channel Syrian TV might have stumbled upon quite a strange scene: A man watches as a crowd chants “Hurriyya, hurriyya!” This slogan — “Freedom, freedom!” — is a familiar rallying cry of the various Arab uprisings. It was heard in Syrian cities, including Damascus, when protesters first hit the streets there on March 15, 2011. But it was odd, to say the least, to hear the phrase in a Syrian government-sponsored broadcast. Until that moment, state TV had not screened any such evidence of peaceful demonstrations in Syria.

The scene goes on to show the same bystander ordering policemen to shoot at the protesters. Immediately afterwards, he seems to regret his order, muttering: “Maybe I should have….” At this point it becomes clear that this scene is no news bulletin or user-generated YouTube clip documenting an actual protest. Rather, it comes from a musalsal (pl. musalsalat), as the 30-episode miniseries that accompany Ramadan in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere are known. The grand finale of this musalsal, Fawq al-Saqf (Above the Ceiling), features the two main characters overlooking a desolate landscape. “What happened to this country?” asks one. “I am responsible for this. I knew it was going to happen…but, in the end, precaution cannot stave off destiny.” The other character replies by repeating the phrase: “Thank God, around us and not on top of us.”

Without a Trace

The credits attribute the paternity of Fawq al-Saqf to the Radio and TV Production Organization, a unit inside Syrian TV launched in 2010 with a mission to employ a “private-company mindset” in churning out dramas, according to Diana Jabbour, the former director. Over the past decade, demand for Syrian musalsalat has increased across the Arab world, with Syrian producers now clocking in right after the historically dominant Egyptians in the quantity of hours provided to the Gulf-owned networks that sit atop the pan-Arab market. The bulk of the Syrian supply comes from private producers, and the Organization, which enjoys financial autonomy and the authority to form public-private partnerships, was intended to represent the new face of government involvement in Syrian TV drama.

Fawq al-Saqf was one of the first productions commissioned by the agency. Its episodes were authored by screenwriters who had worked on Buq‘at Daw’ (Spotlight), a comedic musalsal that was considered among the most daring in Syrian history, airing in 2001 at the tail end of the “Damascus spring,” the short-lived political opening after the accession of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency. The director of Fawq al-Saqf, Samir Barqawi, is a promising young talent who is not openly aligned with the regime. The serial thus had all the components of what many Syrians would call tanfis (blowing off steam), or what Lisa Wedeen has described well as a means of allowing people “to vent frustrations and displace or relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action.” [1] Fawq al-Saqf could also have been an example of “commissioned criticism,” “an official and paradoxical project to create a democratic façade” in a period of unrest by featuring a level of dissent in official media. [2]

Neither of these classifications is persuasive, however. Had the musalsal been tanfis or “commissioned criticism,” the official media would have advertised it heavily, to say the least. But no promo spots for Fawq al-Saqf aired on the state-run channels. The daily program “Drama 2011,” which helps viewers navigate the crowded Ramadan schedule, did not even mention it. And though it is customary for Ramadan serials to be rebroadcast in later months, Fawq al-Saqf was never put back on the schedule. Even prominent dramatists who were asked about it seemed unaware of its existence. The only outside station to mention the musalsal was the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel al-‘Arabiyya, which featured it once on the daily “Drama Ramadan” program. Then the musalsal was stopped at its fifteenth episode, before the end of Ramadan, with no reason given. It simply disappeared from TV screens without a trace.

After Ramadan ended, in September, the topic of Fawq al-Saqf came up at a seminar at the University of Copenhagen. Adib Kheir, owner of the production company Sama Art Production, dismissed it as a “silly project that was done without any planning, testing or pre-testing.” Kheir belongs to a group of Syrian producers who view TV drama as a commodity: His business relies on such products as Turkish serials dubbed into Syrian dialect, which are highly popular in the pan-Arab market. From his strictly commercial perspective, Fawq al-Saqf was simply a failure.

Sotto Voce

Fawq al-Saqf grew out of a proposal offered by Sami Moubayed during a meeting held at the presidential palace in the spring of 2011, according to the head of censorship at the Radio and TV Production Organization, Mahir ‘Azzam. [3] Moubayed teaches political science at the private Kalamoon University in Damascus and is editor-in-chief of Forward, a monthly magazine from the influential Haykal media group, which promotes the idea of a progressive, liberal Syria under the Asad family’s leadership. He is a personal friend of Bouthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Asad’s media adviser, who delivered the first official response of the state to the Syrian uprising. Moubayed’s articles on the uprising — some of which appear in American outlets like the Huffington Post — give a sense of his skill in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the presidential palace`s seemingly reformist project. [4] In a piece called “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” he acknowledges that Syrians like Saadallah Wannous and Muhammad al-Maghout were given leeway to produce meaningful art “under the watchful eye of the government, hoping that their plays or poems would ‘defuse’ public discontent.” But he consigns such arrangements to the past, and does not list Bashar al-Asad’s Syria among the countries that are facing uprisings today. He seems, furthermore, to endorse the regime’s narrative that the enemy in Syria is political Islam: He muses that the politically engaged literary works he cites will seem outdated “to a rising Arab generation that will emerge after the Arab spring, perhaps five to ten years from now. One day, they will definitely see the light, yet again, where need for them rearises, perhaps when the Islamists coming to power today turn into another Husni Mubarak or another Qaddafi.” [5]

According to ‘Azzam, Moubayed’s pitch for Fawq al-Saqf started with a simple question: “How can we resolve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way?” The Forward editor went on to describe his concept for the musalsal as a “third view that does not embrace the regime’s view or the street’s…something that the regime would not feel as a provocation when watching it, but would not anger the street or encourage people to demonstrate after the broadcast.” The presidential palace seemed to like the idea, for the Organization (where ‘Azzam heads the censorship division) was told to take the project under its wing.

Fawq al-Saqf can thus be said to exemplify a mechanism linking cultural producers to different components of the Syrian regime, one that I call the “whisper strategy.” [6] It is an example of Michel Foucault’s strategies without a strategist, a sotto voce conversation whereby priorities are negotiated and commonalities established over the content of cultural production. The metaphor of the whisper suggests a relationship based not on coercion or clashing cultural paradigms but rather on Max Weber’s “elective affinities,” a nexus of shared beliefs, interests and concerns. The ideological common ground occupied by regime and many cultural producers is a belief in the backwardness of Syrian society, which ostensibly can progress only through an enlightening (tanwiri) process led by benevolent minority rulers. When discussing their media projects, cultural producers very often mention the “culpability of society” in its own backwardness and the need to reform it through tanwiri media projects. “Drama has to criticize society,” stressed Syrian screenwriter Najeeb Nseir to a Dunya TV interviewer on October 19, 2010. Thanks to the “whisper strategy,” everyone, from dramatists to state censors, is aware of and agrees upon the specific issues to be tackled in TV drama and media productions in general.

In the case of Fawq al-Saqf, Moubayed seems to have initiated the whispering in the interest of a reformist project: National dialogue is presented as a solution to the Syrian crisis, but the dialogue is to be conducted under the regime’s auspices and its boundaries are to be fixed from the top down, in cooperation with cultural elites.

This thinking informs the title of the musalsal, Above the Ceiling, which seems to promise a national dialogue without “red lines” or upper bounds. The “ceiling” metaphor is often reiterated by Bashar al-Asad — including in the interview he gave to Syrian TV on August 21, 2011 — to suggest that media outlets already enjoy a high degree of freedom in the country, but do not exploit it. The metaphor is ambiguous, as it specifies neither who is entitled to set the standards of freedom nor where their margins lie. Asad implies that the media impose a “ceiling” upon themselves, but does not point to where this ceiling is, meaning that the media do not dare push against it. It is precisely this ambiguity that matches up with the enlightenment project of cultural elites, by definition a small group, who are deemed to have the necessary discernment to keep raising the ceiling in accordance with the times and the political opportunity. The tanwiri project should always look fair, transparent and reform-minded to the audience. As Fawq al-Saqf director Barqawi stressed in an interview: “We nurtured a form of civilized dialogue. We don’t have to present works that please one side at the expense of the other…. My goal is to invite the viewer, whatever his political orientation, to see himself and the other in the series.” [7]

The Regime Wants…

The power centers inside the regime — the presidential palace, the different branches of secret police (mukhabarat), the various ministries — are not entirely homogeneous in outlook. They communicate, of course, but they are also capable of miscommunications, misfires and changes of opinion. It sometimes occurs that one power center pushes forward a political project that contradicts the prerogatives of another, or even that one power center supports multiple, simultaneous, mutually contradictory projects. Despite its exceptional backdrop, the 2011 uprising, Fawq al-Saqf reveals a dynamic that is routine rather than exceptional: namely, the interference of several regime components in the making of TV drama, with each power center pursuing its own agenda, or more than one agenda, at the same time.

It is instructive here to flash back to 2001, the first full year of Bashar al-Asad’s presidency and the inaugural season of Spotlight. Touted by the official press as breaking taboos, Spotlight dealt with such sensitive topics as corruption and the abuses of the mukhabarat. It initially enjoyed the open support of Bashar al-Asad himself, lending credence to the ambient hopes at the time that the new president was indeed reform-minded. “Spotlight was born in the atmosphere of the ‘Damascus spring’ and is the direct expression of Bashar al-Asad’s first phase,” says its director, Laith Hajjo. But the serial nonetheless ran afoul of the Viewing Committee at Syrian TV and its episodes were partly redacted before going on the air. “Eighty percent of Spotlight was shot this way,” said Adib Kheir at the Copenhagen seminar. “Somebody gives his blessing for a project, then it goes into production and the troubles begin.” It was only following the palace’s direct intervention that the musalsal was finally broadcast. Some of its sketches were indeed bold. Former vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was reportedly livid after one mocking episode seemed to discourage foreign investment. [8] But Khaddam did not succeed in stopping Spotlight from being aired, as the presidential palace held the balance of power at the time, and placed a priority on presenting a reformist face.

Fawq al-Saqf lacked the protective atmosphere of the “Damascus spring,” however, and its problems with the censor began even earlier than its broadcast, starting with the very title of the production. Originally, the serial was to be called al-Sha‘b Yurid… (The People Want…), part one of the anti-regime couplet then echoing in Arab capital after Arab capital. That was vetoed. The Viewing Committee was reported to have rejected several episodes as well, only to reverse itself when the palace interceded with authorization. While the serial was being broadcast, ‘Azzam recounts, “different parties” lodged complaints and “other official corners,” namely the security services, placed personal phone calls to Syrian TV personnel in order to exert pressure for cancellation. Fawq al-Saqf had become a big headache for the channel, which first dropped the promo spots and then made the decision to halt the broadcasts. Ma‘an Haydar, director-general of Syrian TV, cited non-completion of taping as the reason for stopping the serial, promising to rebroadcast every episode once they were all ready. [9] “The reaction of the palace was silence, which basically meant agreement to interrupt the broadcast,” says ‘Azzam.

At the time that Fawq al-Saqf aired, the balance of power had probably shifted to the intelligence services and the palace’s tanwiri project yielded to the security-first mindset. Or, perhaps better, the palace itself had placed the tanwiri project on hold in order to facilitate the security project in a period of unrest.

The state-run media outlets are stuck in the middle of these intra-regime battles, unwilling or unable to take responsibility for what they are airing, and compelled to abide by different and sometimes contradictory orders. Syrian TV officials initially chose the low-profile approach of declining to promote or advertise the musalsal so as not to be read as supporting one faction of the regime over another. In a situation so slippery, the eventual decision to postpone the musalsal was the only way not to anger anyone, as outright cancellation might conceivably have done. In the end, however, postponement was akin to cancellation.

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.

*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.

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