Syrian Soaps Grab Arabs' Prime Time
The excitement begins early in the morning, when a pair of Syria's best-known television actors take their places at an ice-cream cafe just off the ancient covered souk, or market, in Damascus.Skip to next paragraph
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They are filming the final scenes of a 30-part drama that will run during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in January. Night after night, audiences across the Arab world will break their daily fast at sundown with the iftar meal and settle down for a night of television.
Egypt has traditionally led the way in Arab popular culture with such "Ramadan serials" - the Arab equivalent of American daytime soap operas, though with more substance. But Syria is now taking that mantle, enthralling viewers with livelier and more realistic scripts.
Though the abilities of Syrian writers and poets have long been highly regarded, many note with surprise that Syria - which under the 26-year authoritarian leadership of President Hafez al-Assad has yet to allow the Internet - has come to lead the region in the modern realm of sophisticated TV series.
Syrians say that their for-export, satellite-news programming is "top-notch," though it is in marked contrast to local television news, which provides dogmatic coverage that has changed little in decades.
The historical dramas, however, are rich in clever satire. Current social problems, such as corruption and bureaucracy, that trouble rulers and ruled alike across the Mideast are subtly addressed.
When airing such common issues these days, prime time has been increasingly dominated by Syrian productions.
Part of the secret is found here in the Al-Hamadieh Souk, where director Hani al-Roumani is leading his celebrity actors in a historical tale about the division of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that resulted in Israel's independence.
"Syrian drama is dealing with reality, and we have the freedom to say what we want," Mr. al-Roumani says as technicians scurry about testing the light, sound, and camera setups. "In the West and America, they think we have a totalitarian regime that controls everything, but that's not right."
He notes that his current project deals in part with personal and human complexities within Syria's Army during a turbulent period of coups d'etat and counter-coups. The Baath Party of the late 1940s - the official ruling party today - is portrayed without special favor, he says.
"I don't think in Egypt they can do it ... all the thoughts and the conflicts," al-Roumani says. "In Egypt they have a model, and all their TV series are based on this model. There is nothing new."
The Arab preference for Syrian soaps stretches from Gaza to the Persian Gulf states. During Ramadan, daily schedules are set so that viewers can glue themselves to their TVs for certain shows. Top actors and directors are followed like Hollywood stars.
Among the most widely recognized - even in Egypt, where he studied for five years, is actor Jihad Saad. He is unshaven with a handsome swarthiness the day after finishing the filming of his latest miniseries, the 40th of his prize-winning career. He co-stars with Selma Masri.