MESA Banner
Prelude to an Uprising: Syrian Fictional Television and Socio-Political Critique
This paper demonstrates how the Syrian television drama industry, operating under strict state control, has provided activist cultural producers with a televisual language of opposition. Reports of the 2011-2012 Syrian uprising discount this legacy, suggesting instead an eruption of long-suppressed artistic energies. Observers celebrated a new generation of activist artists who challenged the regime with innovative forms of creative dissent. The wall of fear that had long curtailed artistic expression had collapsed, they argued, with youthful satirists moving beyond the despair and complaisance of older cultural producers to flood the internet with caustic caricatures and enliven demonstrations with imaginative tactics. Articulated in the international media and echoed in scholarly discussions, this notion of rupture attributes no role to Syria’s artistic establishment. The country’s “traditional opposition,” including many television drama makers, is assumed marginal to the protest movement. Through omission, accounts of dissident youth imply an older generation’s impotence. This emphasis on rupture privileges event over process, denying the history of fictional television informing the protest movement. Syrian television series, produced in commercial conditions and subject to stringent state censorship, often feature biting social and political critique. Reaching vast transnational audiences via pan-Arab satellite networks, these social dramas and comedies regularly treat issues highlighted in the protests: poverty, sectarianism, class conflict, Islamic revivalism, gender inequality, and regime corruption. Social realism brought to life Syria’s impoverished informal settlements, which slip easily from middle-class consciousness amid the veneer of neoliberal prosperity, long before these areas erupted in anti-regime sentiment. Satirical sketches lampooned the seemingly untouchable, including the security services. Often dismissed by Syrian intellectuals as part of the Syrian regime’s “safety valve” strategy, these programs reveal a striking level of thematic and formal innovation that cannot be dismissed as sophisticated propaganda. They have systematically expanded the boundaries of permissible expression. The existentialist satire No Hope (Amal Ma Fi), a dark Beckettian conversation between despairing armchair intellectuals, has leant its groundbreaking form to the oppositional Orient TV channel’s production Freedom and Nothing But (Hurriya wa Bas). Working anonymously, a pair of young activist actors transforms the former program’s somber resignation into revolutionary fervor. Examining the cultural politics of television production reveals the longue durée of struggle obscured by notions of rupture.
Geographic Area
Sub Area