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Syria's Ramadan Soaps Aren't Bubbling This Year

Friday, August 12, 2011

Syria is famous for producing soap operas during Ramadan. But this year's uprising in the face of a brutal crackdown by Bashar al-Assad's regime is all too real. Now famous actresses play supportive roles and real-life demonstrator are the stars.

Subhead: 
Syria is famous for producing soap operas during Ramadan. But this year's uprising in the face of a brutal crackdown by Bashar al-Assad's regime is all too real. Now famous actresses play supportive roles and real-life demonstrator are the stars.



NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--When the sun sets and the Muezzin calls for iftar (the break fast), the jolly hours of the holy month of Ramadan--the 30 days of fasting, mercy and forgiveness for observant Muslims--are supposed to begin.

After living in Damascus for a couple of years, having left just this past April, I often enjoyed and observed the byproducts of the month.

In those happier times, families and friends got together for enormous meals after sunset, met in cafes for a hookah or took walks.

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People also commonly gathered around a TV set to watch a special Syrian-made Ramadan soap opera that often dared to push the envelope on social conventions.

This year I'm not there. I'm in New York, where I can assume from what I see on the news the mood must be altogether different.

More than 140 people, mostly demonstrators, were killed in Hama on July 31, the first day of Ramadan, and at least 67 in Deir az-Zour, in the east of Syria, on Aug. 7. More than a dozen protesters were killed on Aug. 10.

All told, some 2,000 people have been killed and 15,000 arrested since the revolt's start in mid-March, according to Syrian Observatory, a human rights group.

The regime in Damascus has defied growing demands to end the bloodshed, most recently from Saudi Arabia and Turkey and with continuing pressure from the Obama administration. European countries might sanction Syria's oil and gas industry this month, according to a New York Times piece. It seems like a peaceful Ramadan in Syria is now a distant hope.

In years past Syrian TV productions (musalsalat) attracted tens of millions of spectators between North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, with dramas that tackled a range of issues tinged by social taboo: religious fanaticism, homosexuality, adultery, domestic violence, pre-martial sex.

Drama Stirs Debate

Last year's drama "Ma Malakat Aymanukum" (What Your Right Hand Possesses), produced by Najdat Anzour, stirred heated discussion in the Arabic world about sex-role attitudes, Islamic fundamentalism and violence.

It told the story of four young women suffering under society's male domination. Layla, the main character, is caught in a fight between vice and virtue. She longs to raise her niqab (the black full-face veil) and live out the love she feels for one of her neighbors. But she is trapped by her family's stifling customs and opposing wishes. Her brother, a conservative sheik, plots her murder while having an extramarital affair himself.

Some viewers reacted to the drama in horror. They said it endangered the reputation of Islam and called for a viewer boycott. Others praised it for exposing religious hypocrisy.

Ramadan 2011, however, has pulled the country far beyond TV dramas.

Actors began playing real-life parts three months ago when some signed the so- called Milk Petition. Signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and TV personalities, the Milk Petition called on the government to lift the siege imposed on the southwestern city Daraa at the end of April and to provide its inhabitants, especially children, with urgently needed food and medicine.

In response, 22 production companies and producers faithful to the regime, including Najdat Anzour, announced they would boycott those who signed the Milk Petition.

One famous signatory of the petition is the Syrian actress Yara Sabri, who openly backs the protesters' demands for more democracy, political freedom and participation in the highly corrupt police state. Sabri used to appear in several soap operas but this year she can only be seen in one, "Jalsat Nisa'yiah" (Women's Gatherings), a drama about love and betrayal. The show's central idea is that every successful man is upheld by a strong woman.

Leaving the Country

Sabri, her husband, the director Maher Sulaybi, and their children are said to have left Syria for Dubai at the end of July, but no clear information is available to confirm this. Their departure--described as a vacation on her Facebook page--has stirred questions in the foreign press about whether they might actually be fleeing threats from Syria's Secret Service.

May Skaff, another well-known TV and movie actress, was arrested on July 13 during a demonstration in the Damascus neighborhood Midan, along with 39 other activists. All 40 activists have been released, but charges will be brought up against them during the next weeks.

Skaff and about 250 artists and intellectuals have joined forces to support protesters' demands to push the country in the direction of a more fair and modern state.

Razan Zeitouneh, an outspoken 34-year-old human rights advocate, went into hiding in March after the government accused her of being a foreign agent. Still, she continued to write weekly in the German news magazine Die Zeit and is regularly quoted by other overseas newspapers. On May 12 her husband, Wael Al-Hamada, was arrested by Syrian Security to silence Zeitouneh. Their efforts proved unsuccessful, as Zeitouneh continues to denounce human rights violations and writes unremittingly about the latest developments in Syria.

In the meantime, international broadcasting stations continue to deliver pictures of women tortured and raped in prison, men killed while asking for a life of dignity and children who died in the crossfire of the revolt.

With these scenes being transmitted directly into the country's living rooms, no Ramadan production is necessary this year to bring drama to everyday Syria. The demonstrators are giving the public all the real-life heroes and heroines they need.

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Nele Feldmann, a specialist in Arabic and French translation, lived for nearly two years in Damascus until the German Embassy released a travel warning for Syria on April 27. She is currently doing marketing for Women's eNews' Arabic Web site.