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Television and the Ethnographic Endeavor: The Case of Syrian DramaIcon indicating an associated article is peer reviewed

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Syrian television is becoming an increasingly significant symbol of national culture, transforming both the way Syrians see themselves in relation to other Arabs, and their image in the Middle East and beyond. Syrian television is more important than ever, in the sense that the industry is more powerful and prominent, and its products better funded and increasingly technically refined.  Syrian musalsalat reach ever widening audiences. For instance, President Bashar al-Asad is purported to have remarked that whenever he meets with a foreign leader, the first thing he is asked about is satirical program Maraya, (Mirrors), as the series often frank social, and gentle political, critic is often read as a sign of the new leader’s easing of restrictions on freedom of expression.   Syrian historical series are taken so seriously at to produce diplomatic tensions. For instance, the Turkish government took issue with references to the Armenian genocide in 1996’s Ukhwat al-Turab (Brothers of the Earth).

Ethnographers must develop new strategies to map this changing terrain.   I don not advocate abandoning completely the detailed analysis of particular programs.  Reception remains critical to the process, as some programs resonate more than others.[2]  But I propose moving ethnography behind the scenes, so to speak, looking more closely at the industry’s workings, at cultural producers themselves. The issues of identity, authenticity and social distinction that occupy much current anthropological interest remain salient, in discourses of industry figures, in the TV products themselves, and in how they are read by different audiences.[3]

My fieldwork combines formal analysis of key productions with in-depth fieldwork within the industry—interviews with individuals involved in all aspects of production and distribution, as well as sitting in on various stages of development.  An institution employing a significant segment of the educated middle and upper middle classes, the television industry offers a valuable point of entry into elite life in Syria.  It promises not merely an anthropology of media production, but also one of consumption, as Syria’s numerous TV makers are not only producers; they are also avid and critical viewers.[4]

Access into the television world necessitates a departure from the current trend towards “multi-sited ethnography” (Marcus 1995).[5]  Paradoxically, this form of “studying up” requires the time-consuming intensity of conventional anthropological fieldwork.  But it also involves the nurturing of multifaceted, enduring relationships, a building of what might be called thick rapport.[6]  Television makers are often powerful, busy, relatively wealthy professionals with neither the time, the inclination nor the vulnerability of more typical anthropological informants.  An ethnography of their industry calls for substantial fieldwork in a production center—in this case Damascus—and extends well beyond the moment of “return”, when anthropologists working with more marginal groups generally sever most ties through the device of departure. Successful fieldwork requires proving loyalty, seriousness and legitimacy through a multi-year, rather than a multi-sited approach.[7]  Familiarity with yearly productions and personal acquaintanceship with a burgeoning community of workers must be maintained.  Return field trips and gifts of the anthropologist’s published writings on the industry help to garner acceptance and maintain interest.  The “field” location is defined socially rather than spatially, and fieldwork extends when I meet television producers outside Syria, as often happens in this mobile, foreign educated milieu.  

In the ethnography of television producers, fieldwork associates do not merely inform, they co-create in parallel fields of intellectual endeavor.  Television projects interlace with the anthropologist’s own. Access, a dividend of returning to a previous field site, involves varying degrees of co-production.  With Ghassan Jabri, one of my primary collaborators and an industry pioneer, I am co-authoring a history of Syrian drama to be published in Arabic for the local market.  This undertaking greatly facilitates my entrée into the world of TV production.  It also provides a partial solution to one of the problems anthropologists often face: we take from the societies we study and often fail to find ways to give back.  I argue that doing fieldwork among elite cultural producers calls for a recasting of the participant side of the participant-observation process.   My educated informants see my work not as a part of an academic world beyond their concern, but something that should be first and foremost for them, should address their concerns, and be accessible.  An ethnography of their industry should tell their story, to them as well as to the world beyond.  This complicates, but I believe ultimately enriches the ethnographic endeavor.  

This dual enterprise is a particularly compelling facet of fieldwork in the Syrian context, where political sensitivities and academic fashion render scholarship on recent history scarce.  Upon hearing about my new project, one of my informants, a successful film director, told me I bore a huge responsibility, and went on to explain that given the paucity of academic work on Syria during the Bacth years, given the impossibility of doing local history in a police state, my own work on television drama would have to stand as the source on Syria’s recent past.  

This is perhaps less unlikely than it first appears.  Television drama has become the contemporary Syrian cultural form par excellence, to the detriment of all other cultural forms.  It attracts, and, to varying degrees employs, writers, directors, photographers, visual artists, designers, composers, musicians and actors, from a various sectarian and class backgrounds. Many were trained in disciplines unrelated to the industry.  The TV industry reflects the changing fortunes of Syria’s intelligentsia, and its relationship to an evolving Bacthist project.  Informants note that when political parties were banned in the early 1970s, activists became writers and journalists, but employment opportunities have now rendered them TV makers. In a sense, the Syrian television industry is tasting the bitter fruits of its own success.  Syrian television now encompasses entire local intellectual and artistic communities, and situates them in a growing pan-Arab regional market, where numerous, well-financed, private and state-owned satellite stations buy Syrian productions. 

Industry discourses reflect the dilemmas facing Syria’s artists and intellectuals.  Their world has widened.  Syrian television is increasingly transnational, but must operate within the confines of a state whose attitude towards the medium remains ambivalent.  Sometimes the state embraces TV as an emblem of Syrian national culture, or a safety valve for oppositional voices.  At others it tightens the reins on television’s potential subversion.  For example, although President Asad acknowledged the significant role the television series Mirrors has played in making him appear a forward-thinking reformist, his promise to Mirrors’ star and producer Yasir al-Azmeh that the series would remain beyond the reach of state censors was recently broken; two entire new episodes were confiscated by the secret police. 

Most usually, television appears a low priority on the state’s agenda.  While government censorship persists, public sector involvement in other aspects of production shrinks.  Syrian state television produces an occasional low-budget musalsal, and also buys some privately produced series.  The state contributed only $40,000 of the $6 million spent on dramatic and satirical sketch programs in 2004. GCC satellite television stations, both private and public, finance and purchase the bulk of Syrian programming.  Producers argue that a lack of state regulation exposes them to the capriciousness of Gulf business practice.  Operating with mounting deficits, pan-Arab satellite stations rely on state or private subsidies, and owe many long-standing debts to Syrian production companies. 

All of this produces a sense of disenfranchisement within the industry.  This feeling has increased in the past three years, as Syrians have faced an Egyptian comeback.  Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has acted as distributor, marketing packages of Ramadan series to GCC channels.  The Syrians must fend for themselves in an increasingly fragmented market.  As one scenarist puts it to me:  “We have become like vegetable peddlers, selling series out of sacks on our backs as if they were potatoes.”

It is not simply an ambivalent or indifferent Syrian state that TV makers have to deal with; they must now compete for funding from, and please and even more exacting set of censors and audiences in the conservative GCC states.  Viewers and censors in these countries have very different concerns and tastes, and differing points of sensitivity.  As one industry figure noted, “with satellite television, I now have twenty two censors”.

Syrian TV makers are aware of—indeed perhaps exaggerate—the power of their medium to transform Syrian society, and often see themselves at the vanguard of a modernizing process.  They feel that GCC domination of the market has usurped this important role.  Elitist assumptions about mass culture persist in the absence of rating or viewer feedback, and TV producers see Arab audiences as unsophisticated and impressionable.   Viewers, they believe, will absorb and conform to television’s messages.  Industry figures argue that the potential for promoting progressive political or social agendas has actually decreased with regionalization.  As a pioneer director put it:

In the old days, we were poor, but our art was our own. We produced work that we felt was good for Syria. Now we have become like merchandise, slaves to a bunch of Bedouin who have no appreciation for our urban civilization.  We are reduced to doing silly comedies and fantasia.

Artists in many cultural contexts bemoan commercialism; laments over popular taste and ratings exigencies pervade media and publishing industries in America.  Yet in Syria, the enemies of art are not a generalized national audience, or even amorphous “market forces”.  Rather, they are specific group of wealthy foreigners perceived as over privileged and parochial, and out of touch with what Arab audiences need, if not what they want.  With regionalization, industry informants point to a-worst-of both-worlds situation, as economic liberalization without democratization leaves them vulnerable to both Syrian censors and Gulf buyers.   “People like me feel betrayed by authority, be it capital or the gun”, argued a well known cinema director, “We have lost the historical moment”.

Such dissatisfactions reveal a nostalgia for the Bacthist modernizing project, and the accompanying state support.[8]  They also point to an underlying faith in the benefits of a strong state, a belief that deregulation leads to disaster.  Here Syrian television industry figures employ a mode of expression akin to what Michael Herzfeld refers to as “structural nostalgia”.  In Herzfeld’s formulation, both state and non-state actors refer to an edenic age of harmonious social relations, a time before social disintegration and moral decay mandated state intervention. This imagining legitimizes accommodation with the state as a necessary evil (1997: 109-138).  Syrian television makers invoke what might be called a structural nostalgia in reverse, harkening back to a more recent era of state support for “art”, cushioning cultural producers from the vicissitudes of market forces. As one screenwriter put it:

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[1] In Lebanon, with a population of approximately four million, leading authors rarely sell more that 200-300 copies of their books (Wilson-Goldie 2004).

[2] In the epilogue to her detailed study of Indian television, Mankekar makes a similar point regarding the proliferation of both production and access (1999).

[3] Abu-Lughod promotes television production as a worthy object of ethnographic inquiry, but supplements her fieldwork among producers with the voices of more conventional subjects—working-class women (2005).

[4] Peterson points to the value of treating media producers as consumers (2003).

[5] Clifford argues that multi-sites fieldwork is oxymoronic, and notes that Marcus himself uses the term “ethnography” rather than “fieldwork” in his call for multiple localities, and thus evades issues of depth (1997, 190, 219).

[6] Marcus sees a shift from rapport to alliance in the forging of fieldwork relationships (1997, 214-215).  In fieldwork in the Syrian television industry, these questions are inseparable—mutual assistance necessarily occurs within a context of affinities and articulated differences.

[7] I am grateful to Walter Armbrust for suggesting this formulation.

[8] This can be compared to the current nostalgia for the Nasserist project among Egyptian intellectuals.