An Ethnography of Syrian Television Drama
Since the rise of pan-Arab satellite stations in the 1990s, Syria has become the Arab world’s leading producer of the wildly popular dramatic miniseries, or musalsal. Private production and the rise of satellite technology converged in the early 1990s, producing what has become known as the Syrian “drama outpouring” (al-fawra al-dramiyya). An average of 30 Syrian musalsal-s air on consecutive evenings during the Ramadan prime season, when streets empty and families gather around television sets in homes, restaurants and cafés. Dramatic depictions of past and present, culture and society, customs and values are discussed and debated in conversation and in the transnational Arabic language media. Musalsal-s have opened a unique space for social critique. Their creators now contend with a new set of dictates imposed by religiously and socially conservative markets in an expanding Arab public sphere. Despite—indeed, in response to—these conditions and constraints, Arab television creators continue produce critical depictions of society and politics in a key genre: the contemporary social drama. It is a form similar to British social realist television series such as Coronation Street.
Syrian musalsal-s were once produced for, and largely consumed by, a national audience (see article here). Now dramas set in the most circumscribed of Syrian settings must please buyers and audiences in the pan-Arab market. My current project looks at Syrian musalsal production in the satellite era. The analysis forms a series of concentric yet fluid circles, centering on a single series, al-Intizar, (Waiting) of 2006, filmed on location in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Damascus. Here I explore both the work of cultural production, and interactions between television makers and their hosts. I then move outwards to interviews with directors, writers, actors, producers, composers, designers, and technicians. Through archival materials I trace historical and social context of a transforming industry. Finally, I discuss programming decision-making with producers, advertisers and station executives in the United Arab Emirates.
Syrian contemporary dramas reflect an enduring tradition of social realism. They address, often daringly, the challenges many Arabs now face. Drama creators continue to critique the conditions of neoliberalism, in which they believe collective welfare gives way to individual ambition, and the disrupted social relations and frustrated ambitions of the informal settlement become ubiquitous. Here social drama provides a valuable point of access not only into Arab popular cultural production, but also into the wider complexities and contradictions of Middle Eastern modernity.
Christa Salamandra (Lehman College, City University of New York)
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