Television and the Ethnographic Endeavor: The Case of Syrian Drama
Now art and money are intertwined. We used to think good art should not be dependant on money. That idea is over. If I create a company and make good muslasalat, but do not make money, how can I go on?
The Syrian television industry parallels, intersects and reflects the transformations occurring with Syria’s own deBacthification process. Throughout most of its history, Syrian television was state-owned as well as state controlled; its employees uniformly low in status, socially marginal and relatively impoverished. Economic liberalization has brought the rise of a star system, and increasing differences between the haves and the have nots within the industry. Regional recognition is both the product of and the precondition for raising production costs. This has little to do with audience ratings, as both Syrian and GCC television stations operate without reference to viewership research. Gulf stations provide funding for series, and receive exclusive right for Ramadan broadcast in return. One significant development is the emergence of the star/executive producer, the actor with enough name recognition and industry clout to attract large-scale funding from sources in Saudi Arabia or Dubai, who then, informants argue, pockets much of the budget. “This affects their acting performances”, argued an advertising executive, “they become larger than life, literally fat”. Tales of price undercutting and other cut throat tactics abound.
Dissatisfactions and disappointments are often expressed through sectarian and regional idioms, as group affiliations are often perceived to determine access to positions of power and influence, and consequently to be the cause of all that is wrong with the TV industry in particular and Syria in general. These agonistic discourses form a mode of sociability common among elite groups in Syria, which I have referred to elsewhere as a “poetics of accusation” (2004). For instance, a Damascene screenwriter attributes the state’s indifference to the rural origins of those at its helm:
The state is not interested. They have a military mentality, and they have not been able to develop culture. Most of those in power (al-mascoulin) come from peasant backgrounds. They are neither cultured, civilized nor urbane. I’m a daughter of the city, we used to go to the cinema, but not them. They like food money and power, but they don’t like ideas.
A shift in the content of serial dramas reflects the pressures of regionalization.
Perhaps the most salient theme emerging throughout the 1990s was an exploration of local resistance against imperial powers. Series such as Damascene Days and Brothers of the Earth may have been intended as nation building celebrations of community united against oppression; yet they often provoked fierce discursive battles among both producers and viewers over depictions of collaboration with the Ottomans and the French. For instance, Damascene screenwriter Fouad Sharbaji wrote Abu Kamil, Part Two (1994) as a tribute to the city’s valiant struggle against French Mandate forces, but audiences who value their association with Damascus objected to characters shown working with the occupation against fellow Syrians.
Such issues engage Syrians, but often fail to enamor Gulf audiences who share a very different recent history. The last few years has produced a movement away from series set in the early nationalist period—the late Ottoman and French mandate periods—and towards those set in the Golden Age of Islamic empire. Big-budget epics combine elaborate period sets and costumes and extra-filled battle scenes with themes of good and evil, Muslim community against foreign enemy. Dramatic biographies of heroic figures of the past such as Saladin and Omar al-Khayyam have largely replaced treatments of the more recent, more sensitive, and more local Syrian past.
The ambiguous messages encoded in these distant historical narratives can be ignored by censors and denied by producers. They avoid the social complexities of the contemporary world, gliding past conservative GCC censors, and appealing to GCC buyers. A story of medieval heroism is simply more marketable than a contemporary urban tale featuring a policewoman, as one recent series did.
For many “have nots” in the industry, Golden Age themes pander to two dreaded enemies: the Syrian regime, and the Islamist movements. Themselves largely secular Muslims, Syrian cultural producers argue that heroic biopics work to bolster these two seemingly opposed forces, both united by non-urban orientations. A cinema director argues:
These works reviving the glories of the past amount to indirect support for the Islamists. The project is to make money, but the results play into the hands of the Islamists: look to the past, look to our own values, which should be revived. Their major crime is that they glorify the past, falsify the present, and ignore the future. This trend goes along with the Arab regimes. Tribal relations and values are promoted. Islam provides a framework for this: “obey those who are leading you”. It promotes regressive social values. This is all very much blessed by the people in charge, who want everything to remain as it is. This is why we see that there is no effort to deal with the actual lives of people. This is society as expressed by the ruling system, not society as it really is.
The move away from resistance narratives parallels the emergence, however fitfully, of a more Western-oriented tendency within the new regime. When resistance is invoked, it takes a surprisingly conciliatory turn. Script writer Fouad Sharbaji, who enraged audiences with depictions of Damascene collaboration with the French in Abu Kamel, has rewritten the colonial narrative with the recent al-Daya, (The Midwife).
As the story unfolds, street battles rage against Mandate forces, the French general’s wife goes into a difficult and dangerous labor. Unable to reach the French doctor, the commander’s maid calls in a traditional Damascene midwife, who attends the birth successfully. Mutual respect between the two sides of the conflict flourishes, and each side begins to perceive the other in more human terms. According to Sharbaji, this series marks an important shift in Syria’s view of itself and its relationship to the world beyond:
I believe the time for emphasizing resistance has passed. That was a very important phase for us to go through, but now I think we have to move on. History is not black and white. We refused French control, but we respect the principles of the French revolution. With “The Midwife”, we moved beyond the issue of resistance, and began to introduce the notion of dialogue.
Television is a ubiquitous feature of modern life in much of the world. In contemporary Syria, the TV industry’s centrality renders it a particularly revealing site of ethnographic endeavor. It provides a valuable point of access to a complex and rapidly changing society. Although is some ways set apart by their social liberalism, Syria’s media producers are very much embedded within their wider national community. They are also in the midst of a newly invigorated regionalism, driven by the spread of satellite technology, that is producing a new set of winners and losers. They experience acutely the failure of the modernist and nationalist projects they once participated in, some reluctantly, others enthusiastically. The disjunctures and contradictions produced by internal policies and global forces affect them much as they do their fellow citizens, as a handful become wealthy and famous, and many more struggle. The demise of socialism—globally and locally—and the promise of democracy produce a sense of ambivalence and uncertainty that media people share with other Syrians. Treating television makers as a social field worthy of ethnographic investigation requires intensive fieldwork within the industry as a community, and careful attention to the ever broadening contexts in which it operates. Such an endeavor promises insights into both the lives of television producers, and to the broader issues and processes they both experience and affect.
Christa Salamandra is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Lehman College, CUNY. She has been a Research Associate at the University of Oxford, a Visiting Lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a Fulbright Scholar at the Lebanese American University, Beirut. She is the author of A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria, Indiana University Press 2004, and several articles on the Syrian television industry. She is grateful to Walter Armbrust and Marlin Dick for insightful comments and suggestions.
 In Lebanon, with a population of approximately four million, leading authors rarely sell more that 200-300 copies of their books (Wilson-Goldie 2004).
 In the epilogue to her detailed study of Indian television, Mankekar makes a similar point regarding the proliferation of both production and access (1999).
 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).
 Peterson points to the value of treating media producers as consumers (2003).
 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).
 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.
 I am grateful to Walter Armbrust for suggesting this formulation.
 This can be compared to the current nostalgia for the Nasserist project among Egyptian intellectuals.