DAMASCUS, SYRIA — 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.
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.
"There is a new vision, a new look, new ideas, a new generation of actors, and a real wish to do something serious on TV," he says. "It is something that has grown in Syria in the last few years."
Part of the appeal of Syrian drama is scriptwriting that is more detailed about social problems than ever before. Mr. Saad's latest series, for example, focuses on a family living in the old city of Damascus and the influence of sudden wealth on a small community.
An old cafe is transformed into a gaudy disco, and a new supermarket upsets the balance of daily life.
"It's very sensitive, because it presents many different problems in Arab society," Saad says. "It is the story of a family completely changed."
For years, Egypt was alone in the Arab drama market, and it has only grudgingly accepted Syria's growing importance.
"The new Syrian drama is soft, with elegant acting," Said says. "The Egyptians are very professional, but also very local and don't compare their experience with outside."
Observers speak of an open competition between Syria and Egypt, with the Ramadan period, when so many tune in, being the highest-profile test of the year. Until very recently, Egypt refused to show Syrian serials at all on local stations, and Egyptian cultural critics dismissed or ignored them.
But with local Arab and satellite channels snapping up Syrian work, Egypt's far more numerous offerings often just fill gaps in 24-hour-a-day programming.
"It's unfortunate, but Egyptians are always too patriotic," says one Syrian analyst. "They have been the pioneers, but to say they are deeply influential now, they are not."
Shooting on location
The popularity of Syria's dramatists is on display on location in Damascus, where Syrians strain to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars.
Al-Roumani has been acting and directing since the early 1960s, and in today's shoot at the public souk he is working hard to minimize distractions, to shoot a secret cafe rendezvous of his leading couple.
Things haven't gone quite according to plan: A dozen parakeets in a row of cages seem to chirp loudest during taping, sometimes overwhelming the voices of the actors. And in the front of the cafe, workers put all their weight into pounding vats of ice cream with heavy clubs - sending shockwaves across the set.
It takes two hours to film one scene - a job that might have taken 15 minutes in the studio. But the "live action" reality is worth it, and fans say they want more.
In one incident, an older Lebanese woman bursts through the door of the cafe, exuberant smile on her face, and starts taking pictures of the actors with her point-and-shoot camera. As production staff try to usher her away, she moves carefully placed chairs and tables to get better pictures, then spies al-Roumani.
She comes up to him like a long-lost relative, thanking him for his work. He is famous in Sidon, Lebanon, where she is from, she says. They both smile: she at the honor; he in the hope that she will not damage the set further.
"You're so important!" she raves, then adds: "You must come to Lebanon to make films."