Ramadan 2010 was the last time I visited Syria.  I have been aching to go back, but the situation there does not allow it.  For the last year, I have been sitting across the street, in a manner of speaking, talking with neighbors,  and watching the events from a safe distance.  The place where I have been observing Syria is neighboring Iraq.  Iraqi Kurdistan to be exact.  From here, I have spoken with Syrians who have left before and during the current crisis.  Some of my students are Iraqis who have spent years in Syria.  They grew up in Syria and they miss it just as I do.

In the beginning, when I first I came to Iraq in the fall of 2011, Syrian friends in Iraq (but not all of my Iraqi students who lived in Syria) univocally supported the uprising.  Many have since reconsidered their stance.  They want neither religious factions to take over, nor do they want civil war.  They were optimistic in the beginning.  They were certain the regime would fall quickly.  Today, they expect Syria to turn into another Iraq, predicting a decade or more of violence.

Among the many questions raised by the uprising is why the Syrian government has lasted this long (in contrast to the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, which fell relatively quickly).  Moreover, what has the Syrian government done (besides employ sheer force) to remain in power?  In this article, I examine two Syrian TV channels through which the Syrian government has tried to promote itself and gain support.

When I settled into my new apartment in September 2011, I browsed the satellite TV channels in search of news about Syria.  I found Syria News and Syria Drama, the usual channels.  I was, however, surprised to discover channels entitled Syria Education, Syria Medicine, Syria Love, and Syria Balad.

Syria Education and Syria Medicine simply repeated Euro-American subtitled documentaries.  In contrast, Syria Love and Syria Balad were domestic productions.  Syria Love was a nationalist and loyalist music video channel.  Syria Balad played Arab classics, such as Fairuz, and hosted call-in shows while renting out the screen.  As callers and the moderator in turn blessed and prayed for all of Syria to remain safe, pictures and messages flashed across the screen mainly congratulating children on their birthdays and displaying their pictures.

By May 2012, Syria Love and Syria Balad had disappeared.  Now, clips from these channels can only be found online, where they compete with other videos, which range from non-political patriotic songs to anti-government music.

What does the death of these channels mean?  The violence is still ongoing.  Has the government given up on its image?  Unfortunately, the task of answering these questions must be left for future research as I lack the necessary access to sources.  The questions I focus on here are:  What were the main themes that emerge?  What do they say about the kind of social images the Syrian government promotes?  And how did these channels compel support?

Syria Love

Syria Love was the shorter-lived of the two channels.  I ceased being able to watch it around February or March.  Two months later, Syria Balad was also off-air.

While on the air, Syria Love played love music.  It expressed love for the country and love for Bashar al-Asad.  There were different themes:  there were military songs, mass marching songs, songs about Syrias heritage, and strong-men songs.

Military songs mainly demonstrated the strength and dedication of the Syrian military forces.  Mass marching songs showed viewers supporters of Bashar al-Asad, casting them into the same role of supporters, albeit the masses were actively displaying their loyalty publicly, while television viewers remained passive and private.

Mass marching songs aimed to recreate effervescent moments and to compel viewers to identify with the Millions of Lovers.[1]  Heritage songs took viewers on virtual tours of the country, stopping by Roman ruins, the Umayyad mosque, crusader castles, and the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus.  They celebrated a nationalist history, claiming nativist authenticity, and equating it with loyalty to the country.  Notably, heritage songs often displayed groups of young people, many of whom played the role of university students, based on their dress and book bags.  By having university students celebrate nationalist history, the channel equated university education with stability, regime-loyalty, and authenticity.

The singers included both amateurs and professionals.  Military, mass marching, and heritage songs sung by female performers portrayed Syrian women as patriotic and even militant.[2]  These songs emphasized a moderate (and non-rebellious) form of religiosity coexisting peacefully and even cooperating with secular and non-Muslim citizens by showing women both with and without scarves, and by excluding munaqqibat (or face-veiled women).  Children occasionally sung mass marching and heritage songs.  Little boys, in particular, sung praises to Bashar al-Asad.[3]

I have categorized strong-men songs, such as those by Ali Deek and Wafiq Habib, separately because they draw on elements from other types of nationalist music, but are visually focused on the performers physical strength.[4]  These strong-men recordings invoke the abadai or strong-man system, as examined by Michael Gilsenan in Lebanon.[5] 

Traditionally, strong-men were young men who guaranteed peace in the neighborhood.  The abadai system was most recently idealized in the Syrian Ramadan series Bab al-Hara (the Gate of the Neighborhood) where abadai were depicted as defenders of local values.

Abadai are chosen by the neighborhood (al-hara) and are from the neighborhood.  Ideally, the characteristics of a strong man include youthful bravery, generosity, and general leadership qualities, but not wealth, education, and certainly not old age.  The abadai system evokes memories of an undifferentiated coexistence between neighbors, regardless of religion and class.

Under the Ottomans (and in the Bab al-Hara series), the abadai system was both organic and well integrated into official imperial politics.  It could facilitate rebellions against outsiders, whether rulers or enemies, or promote cooperation with external powers.

Few aspects of the abadai system have survived the emergence of the modern nation state in the Levant.  The zaim (who closely cooperates with the strong-men) is now a local clerk and administrator.  As in the past, his cooperation with the state, and especially the government’s executive branch and police, lends him not only authority, but also power.  Yet, as a mediator between the distant state and the local community, he also invokes an image of organic support.

As a part of localized structures of power and authority, the abadai system includes Muslims, Christians, and other minorities.  The system itself is not religious and hence, can be used to symbolize inter-sectarian coexistence and cooperation.

When strong-men sing about their love for Bashar al-Asad and Syria, it links local structures of power, which are tied to the government, to local guarantors of peace, as well as folk heroes.  While images of national heritage sites, military training, and mass protests flash in the background, strong-men performers symbolically tie Syria together institutionally, socially, and religiously.  They remind domestic and foreign viewers that the stability of Syrian society is at stake.

Syria Balad 

Syria Balad was more inter-active than Syria Love.  While Syria Love allowed amateur artists to submit their patriotic performances to be judged and aired,  Syria Balad allowed for more direct access to the program. Syrians could call in at almost any time to live shows and could pay for personal messages to be run on air.  The later feature attracted upper-middle and upper-class families, who would congratulate their own children and the children of other important families for their birthdays.  It was both a prestige contest and a way to create and consolidate family connections.

The shows had little thematic content. The only patriotic content was that at the beginning of each conversation, the hostess (invariably female) and the caller formulaically repeated that Syria is well (suriya bi-khayr).  Most callers were male, making interactions gendered conversations directed toward a common goal:  loving Syria and implicitly, the current regime.  This gendered aspect marked these conversations as secular or at least liberal religiously.

Callers never requested religious songs.  They generally requested classical Arabic music, such as the songs of Abd al-Halim Hafez and Fairuz.  This music invokes history, authenticity, and stability, thereby symbolically linking the current government with continuity.  By allowing Syrians to post messages and call in, Syria Balad compelled Syrians to participate in official propaganda and support the state.[6] 

Conclusion

Beyond Syria’s borders, these channels allowed the Syrian state to demonstrate it could still muster support. Considering that Iraqi and Lebanese Shii forces, in particular, have come out in support of the Syrian regime and others in Iraq and Lebanon have joined the opposition movement, it makes sense that the Syrian government would try to influence its neighbors through aesthetic and rhetorical means.  These channels are part of a larger battle.  They partake in the aesthetic, the affective, and the discursive battle for the hearts and minds of Syrians and their neighbors.

According to Walter Benjamin, modern art (or art in the age of mechanical reproduction) does not allow viewers to concentrate and truly reflect on the events, emotions, and symbols depicted.  Rather, mass produced art (or kitsch[7]), such as pro-government propaganda on television, is a distraction.[8]  It affects viewers viscerally by invoking nostalgia for and pride in Syria’s heritage, as well as by linking these to structures of power.  It affects viewers by casting them into the role of supporters, who stand (or sit) with the masses marching in support of Bashar.

Syria Love and Syria Balad elicit a kind of distracted consent.  Syria Love and Syria Balad are not unique in this approach.  Their tactics echo those of other nationalist and sectarian groups who produce and disseminate propaganda on VCDs, DVDs, and on YouTube today.[9]  

 


[1] Malayin mithatf binhabbak, accessed October 17, 2012,

[2] One of the songs which was played often in the fall was Hamak Allah ya Asad by Asala Nasri, accessed October 17, 2012.  Notably, Asala Nasri has since allied herself with the opposition.  Narmeen Ibrahim (accessed October 17, 2012) and Manal Mousa are other female singers who sing in support of Bashar al-Asad (accessed October 17, 2012).

[3] Cf. Malayin mithatf binhabbak.

[4] Ayuni rabbak Suria accessed October 17, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buL4JR14lvc&feature=related; Hayou Souria, accessed October 17, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AgOWunMKLY&feature=bf_prev&list=PL51FE7A43F026DF8F.

[5] Cf. Michael Gilsenan, Lords of the Lebanese marches: violence and narrative in an Arab society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[6] Cf. Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[7] Kanan Makiya, The Monument: Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991).

[8] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 238-239.

[9] Edith Szanto, Following Sayyida Zaynab: Twelver Shiism in Contemporary Syria (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2012), 125-132.