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The State of the Musalsal: Arab Television Drama and Comedy and the Politics of the Satellite Era

The Road Not Traveled

One of the most intriguing Arabic-language television dramas in recent years was The Road to Kabul (2004), which told the story of the Arab and Afghan mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Or rather tried to tell, since The Road to Kabul never made it past episode eight. The state of Qatar, the producer of this particular musalsal (television series), heeded an official American request to drop the show and not send the remaining episodes to stations for viewing by a large Pan-Arab satellite audience.(1) The 30-episode Road to Kabulfeatured Arab, Afghan, American and Soviet characters, as well as big production values, location shooting in London and Jordan, Jordanian executive production and direction, and a largely Syrian cast. Since some of the main characters were mujahideen and the show ended with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US was worried that telling the fighters’ story might encourage a new crop for this decade’s Islamist magnet. Iraq ironically, early promotional spots that portrayed the Taliban as fanatics also angered some hard-core Islamists who issued their own warning against the show’s producers and cast, adding death threats to the US ultimatum.

In fact, a number of recent shows have irritated Washington, Tel Aviv and Islamists alike, namely Egyptian and Syrian soap operas in which Jews or Israelis are nefarious evildoers, like Faris bi-la Jawad (Knight Without a Horse, 2002) and Al Shatat (The Diaspora, 2003), and Abu Dhabi’s 2001 sketch show Irhabiyyat (Terrorism Tales). A dramatic series on Yahya ‘Ayyash, the Palestinian bomb maker assassinated by Israel in 1996, remains a project-in-waiting, ostensibly stalled due to lack of interest.(2)

Arabic-language drama and comedy musalsals, usually premiered during the peak-viewing month of Ramadan and aired throughout the year at various times, might make headlines with the controversies that arise, but Western audiences have little access to such fare. Syrian State Television has completed the subtitling of some series into English, French, and Spanish but primarily airs the final group to please the Arab Diaspora in Latin America. While controversial series register, various commercial and political constraints influence production, which exhibits a diversity of messages and styles. For every show that causes a stir in the Western media, there are perhaps two dozen others that offer tame, harsh, nuanced, or otherwise interesting portrayals of contemporary topics and events, whether domestic or international. What these shows offer to Arab viewers is also discussed openly in Arabic-language media, which debates whether or not the musalsal industry and its various components are in good shape. Identifying a simple “Arab shows say X” formula is difficult, as the operative description is “Arab television industries try to say all of this.” One conclusion is that when the regional situation heated up with the Al Aqsa Intifada, the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the US-led invasion of Iraq, musalsals have reflected the Arab world’s tension, albeit in widely different ways. In this case, at least, it seems that art imitates life and not the other way around, as would-be censors of inflammatory or objectionable material would have it.

The Outpouring

For decades, Egyptian musalsals dominated the Arab television scene although industries in other Arab countries produced drama and comedy series. Egyptian shows were the staple and were sold to largely captive audiences in the Arab world, mirroring the country’s dominance in film and literature. Until the early 1990s satellite boom, Egyptian soap operas navigated the “red lines” of censorship and often produced safe treatments of well-worn themes. One infamous genre was rich girl falls in love with poor boy, or the same story with socio-economic categories switched. With its able actors and writers, Egypt also became famous for multi-layered socio-political panoramas. The writer Usama Anwar ‘Ukkasha serves as the exemplar of this school since the 1990s, when Egypt picked apart various eras of its modern history, chronicling family, neighborhood, class and regional struggles from the Khedives to the era of Gamal Abdul Nasser and post-Nasserist infitah, and the implications for society. Although the foreign “other” appeared in Egyptian drama, the pre-Internet and pre-satellite era helped contain the fuss raised by individual programs.

Egypt was securely in the driver’s seat until several factors allowed Syrian-based production to offer strong competition. During the decades of Egyptian dominance, Syrian shows were stamped by the socialist realism school(3) and the only series allowed to be filmed locally were produced by state television. Around 1986, the Syrian authorities quietly encouraged private producers to film their shows in Syria, after years in places like Greece. The subsequent appearance of the satellite market meant more encouragement and marketing opportunities. Several big companies stood out in the booming Syrian industry although dozens of firms have been created, sometimes producing only one show and then going dormant.(4) During the “outpouring of (television) drama,” or al-fawra al-dramiyya as the media termed it, the Syrian musalsal quickly became a staple in the Arab world. Syrian comedies and dramas, both historical and contemporary, gained regional followings thanks to several mid-1990s hits. 

Khan al-Harir, a socio-political drama set in politically turbulent 1950s Aleppo and thick with Aleppine dialect, gained mass and critical acceptance. Najdat Anzur, a Jordanian music video director, relocated north to Syria and created lavish, early 20th century period pieces like Ukhwat al-Turab (Brothers of the Soil) and Nihayat Rajul Shuja’ (End of a Brave Man). Anzur also became famous for several modern, big-budget “fantasy” historical epics, set in a vague pre-Islamic past and ignoring historical detail. Yasir al-‘Azma’s pre-satellite hit satirical sketch show Maraya (Mirrors) continued into the satellite era, joined by comedies like Yawmiyyat Mudir ‘Amm (Diary of a Director General) and ‘Aileh Khams Nujum (Five Star Family). The latter inspired several sequels and the former saw its star Ayman Zaydan cast in similar comedies—signs of success in an industry where comprehensive viewing statistics and sales figures are hard to come by.

From Socialist Realism to Riches

Comedy series and sketch shows, contemporary urban and rural drama, 19th century period pieces, older historical epics—all were being produced at a feverish pitch in the Syria-based industry, where conservative Gulf funding and audience tastes also had an impact, usually taking the form of pressure on firms to produce politically or socially conservative material. Syrian actors (and those acting in Syria) suddenly became known around the Arab world, providing at least anecdotal evidence of the fawra. Content and quality, of course, varied from show to show, but Syria’s stamp on the industry rested on three interlocking factors. First, even before the satellite age, Syrian television producers had begun outdoor and “natural” shooting, meaning a complete flight from the studio setting so characteristic of Egyptian fare. Syrian shows set in the Old City of Damascus were actually filmed there, imparting a visual “authenticity” that Egyptian musalsals largely lacked. Second, the important Gulf market enjoyed Syrian shows as an alternative to Egyptian ones; Syrian actors had been doing “bedouin” soap operas competently for decades and were accepted by the Gulfis as distant cousins from across the badiya in a way the “Pharaonic” Egyptians were not. Meanwhile, the many Levantine guest workers in Gulf countries probably rendered the Syrian Arabic dialect acceptable to Gulf audiences, whose countries’ public and private stations both funded and bought Syrian shows. Third, the competition engendered by Syria’s private firms and a new Pan-Arab satellite market produced incentives to take chances with new genres, ideas, acting and directing styles, and casts of hundreds, if not several thousand. The genre of pre-modern historical epic, suddenly jolted with big production values (thanks to regional advertising revenues) in the form of costumes, personnel, and location shooting across the Arab world and abroad, played to Syria’s comparative advantage. Scores of cadres graduated from the state theater institute, firmly grounded in formal Arabic, the language of choice in historical epics these days.

One measure of how Syria put its stamp on narrative television production is through language. Pre-satellite historical epics by Egyptians might be filmed in colloquial Arabic, something practically unthinkable today. In earlier shows, Israeli or Zionist characters would speak classical Arabic to distinguish their Hebrew, but Syrian shows have now taken to using actors speaking Hebrew, coached by university professors of the language at state universities. They have also used the same strategy with Westerners, i.e. such characters now regularly speak English and French, not classical Arabic. But most importantly, if one is looking for someone to play a medieval Arab poet or an extra who can say a few lines in classical Arabic, one goes to Syria. The Syrian and Gulf entry allowed for new creativity to spur the Pan-Arab or Arabic-language industry(5) and prompted the Egyptians to get their act together. One result has been to see the top three satellite stations (MBC, Abu Dhabi and Dubai) diversify their selections of prime-time Ramadan viewing, mixing Egyptian with Syrian and, increasingly, a “third wave” of Gulf shows. Egypt remains the leader, albeit looking over its shoulder nervously at what Syria produces.

Domestic Concerns

The Western media has picked up on some controversial shows of the Arab satellite era, or those that resonate in society as they become “hits.”(6) Shows from the 1990s until the present have featured treatments and messages that have offended a number of important political actors: the state, the West, Israel, and Islamist political movements. Israel and some Jewish organizations were angered by the aforementioned The Diaspora and Knight Without a Horse, the latter also provided negative, cartoon-like portrayals of the British and the Turks. Before regional tension became focused so intensely on Israel and the US,(7) Syrian shows managed to annoy Turkey for mentioning the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans and their general cruelty (in Anzur’s Brothers of the Soil), and France, thanks to portrayals of buffoonish French officers from the Mandate Era. Ayyam al-Ghadab (Days of Anger), lived up to its name by irritating French diplomats in Damascus.(8) Saudi Arabia’s own Tash Ma Tash, a sketch show similar in form to Syria’s Maraya, earned the ire of Islamists in 2004 for portraying bombings in Saudi Arabia as the work of bumbling idiots who are clueless about their professed cause.

Purely domestic concerns, though, are the standard fare. Many musalsals either treat or at least raise issues like corruption, the role of religion and extremism in society, or the status of women. However, some critics say shows often raise issues but then back off before saying anything too relevant. A survey of leading shows and individuals over the last decade reveals a considerable emphasis on domestic settings, themes, and problems. Syria’s al-Fusul al-Arba’a (The Four Seasons, 1999), written by Rim Hanna and Dal’a Rahbi, had an ensemble cast and qualified as standard social drama; it ran for several seasons. Leading Syrian director Haitham Haqqi has dabbled in various types of story-lines. In 2004, his al-Khayt al-Abyad (The White Thread) took the state media as its setting, showing employees and executives sometimes unsure of where the “red lines” are as officials are encourage media reform and openness. In Egypt, most works by leading actors Yahya Fakharani, Nour Sharif and Hussein Fahmy have focused on domestic settings and issues, while ‘Ukkasha, with his precise sociological portraits, is the best-known of the country’s writers. One recent Egyptian show chronicled the life of the famous female singer Umm Kulthum.

In an industry with at least a dozen prominent actresses, many Egyptian shows feature female protagonists, often cast as heads of companies or professionals facing various obstacles on their way up the ladder, but producing a Dallas-like remove from most citizens’ daily concerns. While viewers might be intrigued by some political content in some musalsals, the hit Egyptian show al-Hajj Mitwally (2001) delighted some and angered others with its popular protagonist, a genial perfume merchant married to four women in contemporary Cairo.

Circle the Wagons?

Leaving aside al-Hajj Mitwally for the moment, the Al Aqsa Intifada of 2000 saw musalsalsreact in both daring and conservative ways. In 2001, not one but two series were made about Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, the famous “liberator” of Jerusalem. Right around Salah al-Din’s airing and apres came the deluge: Shows included the pre-Islamic al-Zeer Salim, Imru al-Qays and Dhi Qar (a famous Arab-Persian battle), the Omayyad-era series al-Hajjaj and Faris Bani Marwan (Knight of the Marwanids), and the Abbasid- and post-Abbasid era series al-Mutanabbi, and Abu Firas al-Hamdani (both poets), ‘Umar Khayyam (the Persian mathematician, freethinker and poet), Hulagu (the Mongol destroyer of Baghdad), and (the Mameluke Sultan) Baibars, about whom two were made in 2005. Andalusia itself has seen Saqr Quraysh (Hawk of the Quraysh), about the Omayyad Abdel-Rahman al-Dakhil, as well as Zaman al-Wasl (Time of Joining), and Rabi’ Qurtuba (Cordoba Spring). Two more, Muluk al-Tawa’if and al-Murabitun wal-Andalus (about the warring Muslim “taifa” statelets and the Murabitun, or Almoravid Islamic dynasty in Spain), were made for Ramadan 2005. A few shows set in the last 120 years or so have contained crudely racist versions of the Arab-Zionist conflict and angered the US and Israel for their portrayals of Zionist Jews. But many more have opted to lament the current imbalance in Arab-Israeli and East-West relations by putting the spotlight on Arab-Islamic history in every era except the “golden age.”(9)

These historical series have different animating themes but their common denominators include the need to overcome Arab and/or Muslim disunity in the face of foreign threats. Both Salah al-Din’s image as a winner, after the Intifada of Jerusalem broke out, and the Mongol Hulagu’s infamy as the destroyer of Baghdad, in the run-up to the American sacking of that city in 2003, are meant to comment on the region’s current geopolitical situation, the first expressing a wish and the other a lament.

Relatively few musalsals have been made about the Palestinian-Israeli struggle in recent years, compared to the importance of the issue politically. Instead, the broader West versus Islam/the Arabs motif is emerging in both historical and contemporary series, and not always at face value. In the 2003 Syrian show Ayyamna Hilweh (Our Lovely Days), the father describes a situation of being caught in a struggle between “the monstrous and the backward,” respectively the West and extremist Islamists, perhaps an echo of Arab civil society’s voice in its television industry. Despite the threats flung at such shows by both the US and Islamists in recent years, producers cannot ignore events seen on the news if they want to compete for viewers. Regardless, Zionism and the West are not overwhelming preoccupations in television drama, regardless of what those who argue of pathology in Arab societies might expect.

The 2005 crop reflects this diversity in topics and themes. One show repeated The Road to Kabul’s experience. AlHawr Al‘Ayn,(10) directed by Anzur, earned harassment from Islamists for its portrayal of jihadist bombers in Saudi Arabia. The show offered a view close to that of the Saudi establishment, namely that (armed) jihad must be agreed upon by the entire community of Muslims, and not a group of enthusiasts. Considerable space is given to opposing arguments about what Muslims should do in order to right the world’s wrongs, presented by a government imam and a jihadist sheikh who is trying to recruit a young Saudi Arabian. However, the show is set among a community of Arab foreign workers and their families in Riyadh, and the theme of parents oppressing children, and men abusing women, is also prominent.

While some post-Intifada shows like AlHawr Al'Ayn (The Virgins of Paradise) have reacted to regional and international events, there are various other concerns and settings. During Ramadan 2005, other series dealt with AIDS, the life of 20th century poet Nizar Qabbani, and a fictional Egyptian sailor, also set in the last century. The Syrian contemporary genre offered some purely domestic-oriented series, which purportedly gained favorable ratings.(11) And although industry executives believe that historical series have now peaked, at least five were made in 2005, involving at least two leading directors. If a show’s creators want to address the current regional situation, they can choose a historical allegory, portraying the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, or Mongols as menacing outsiders, or take a chance with a straightforward modern treatment. In the early episodes of 2004’s aborted The Road to Kabul, principal characters argue over whether it is more appropriate to go to Afghanistan, go to Palestine, or better one’s self through study and work as the most appropriate response to the current situation. Alas, an interesting debate was ended, thanks to Washington’s zero-tolerance policy for uncomfortable ideas from the Arab-Muslim world.

Historical Failures and Successes

Critics, observers, and industry members offer differing views on the overall impact of historical drama and other pointedly political shows. Walid Sayf, a Jordanian-Palestinian who has written both Islamic historical epics and modern ones, is identified by some as pro-Islamic, but few people are easy to label. While most producers respect the Islamic conventions required for selling their shows, writers and directors usually qualify as secularists, reformists, conservatives, Arab nationalists, leftists, or some combination of the above. Some historical series are said to glorify Islam, in a general way, elbowing aside any room for secular models. Others stress the idea that historical series, in the end, lionize rulers (or “tribal” politics) and fail to present compelling opposition to the status quo. On the other side, conservatives accuse historical series of “distorting” the Arabs’ past by focusing on rulers’ bloody and internal power struggles. Meanwhile, critics and insiders acknowledge that many shows avoid problematic issues and figures.(12) 

In 2005, Muluk al-Tawa’if (War Lords) stands out as a rare achievement, a historical tale that is gripping to watch and highlights a successful mode of inter-Arab cooperation, as it was Syrian-produced, Syrian-directed, written by a Palestinian-Jordanian, acted largely by Syrians and Moroccans and others, and shot in Morocco. The court characters’ fortunes rise and fall, the dialogue is strong, and the backdrop is intriguing. The city-state of Cordoba is about to lose its political autonomy to the austere al-Murabitun from North Africa, whose military might is indispensable in order to meet the challenge of King Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon. The militant, puritanical al-Murabitun dislodge their allies, the effete rulers of Cordoba, busy with their wine, poetry, and dancing girls, magnificent urban achievements, and court intrigue. Director Hatim ‘Ali and writer Sayf, by presenting leading actors and lush settings (made possible by satellite revenues) and flawed characters, appear set on exposing and not glorifying, which can earn either critical or popular success or both. Is the Spanish (Western) threat important in Muluk al-Tawa’if? Yes, but the series does not use Alfonso VI as a scapegoat for the woes of Andalusia and the fall of Cordoba, indicating a more mature, self-critical and perhaps resonant message.

Another exception to usually lackluster historical productions aired in 2000, the last year before the Intifada, was the acclaimed series al-Zeer Salim, written by the late Mamduh ‘Adwan, a Syrian secularist. The 6th century Al-Zeer Salim, the name of the title character, is one of the Arab world’s most popular epics, told in cafes by al-hakawati (storytellers) in the recent past and compiled in book form today. But unlike the tale’s superhero, ‘Adwan’s al-Zeer was a drunkard for the early part of the show before being compelled to avenge his brother’s murder. The popular tale ends with al-Zeer’s victory; the musalsal his defeat. ‘Adwan said the show earned detractors for allowing al-Zeer to cry excessively and exhibit other failings unworthy of a manly tribal “leader.”(13) ‘Adwan also complained that when Arabs are confronted with actual events from their history, they might find them too risqué or controversial to see on television, and acknowledged that some incidents and scenes in al-Zeer were dropped to please the producer and director’s tamer political inclinations.

‘Adwan noted that he didn’t dare introduce the religion of one of the show’s principals, the Taghlibi tribe, who were Christian Arabs. Simply mentioning such an identity would have been too problematic. Even simply telling the story of a 40-year tribal war prompted today’s members of those tribes to write to ‘Adwan, angry about being singled out for “negative” portrayal. Another criticism targeted a supposedly Jewish character who befriends al-Zeer; ‘Adwan shrugged off the criticism.(14)

While al-Zeer’s rich characters and dialogue attracted viewers, other historical shows merely catalogue events or bloody battles and palace intrigue, with little for the common man. Portraying a major hero like Salah al-Din might have sounded like a good idea right after the Intifada of 2000, for example, but enthusiasm for the character as a symbol meant the Kurdish savior’s negative sides were glossed over.(15) Glorifying the past and presenting characters without flaws are not successful tactics to retain viewers.

The Hajjaj Syndrome

One historical epic that fell into the “court intrigue” trap was al-Hajjaj, a 2003 series that followed the career of an Omayyad-era governor of the Hijaz and Iraq. The show accurately laid out a complicated three-way struggle among the Omayyad dynasts in Damascus, the Mecca-based Zubayris challengers to the caliphate, and the “ultra-orthodox” Khawarij movement based in Iran. The Omayyads were, as history and the show indicate, Machiavellian politicians happy to buy off enemies as easily as fight them. Ibn Zubayr, the challenger whose caliphate stretched from Mecca to Kufa and Basra, was portrayed as an ascetic more interested in prayer and rebuilding the Kaaba (damaged after earlier Omayyad attacks) than engaging in politics, while the Khawarij were mere cartoonish, stern religious fighters whose other aspects were ignored.(16) While the Omayyads did not come off particularly well in the series, they do (at al-Hajjaj’s instigation) Arabicize the new state’s records and create a new currency—moves aimed at reducing Byzantine and Persian influences on the new Arab-Islamic entity. A main reason for the Zubayris’ defeat, an unwillingness to purchase political loyalty, is not explored thoroughly.

With this three-way conflict outlined, a sub-text emerges: the Omayyads’ opponents put religion/ideology before state-building and realist diplomacy, and failed. The Omayyad Caliph Abdel-Malik Ibn Marwan repeatedly invokes the need to put down internal rebellion before he can confront the Byzantines. Since the show did not tell the full story of the relatively short, 90-year Omayyad dynasty, but rather its ascendancy, it appeared to promote the idea that leaders primarily interested in (religious) ideology and belief, like the Zubayris and Khawarij, are doomed to lose.(17) Tellingly, three-quarters of the show covered the siege of and battle for Mecca even though al-Hajjaj is considerably more famous for his later exploits in Iraq, where he told the people of Kufa that he envisioned them as ripe for mass decapitation unless they submitted completely to Omayyad rule. A Ramadan soap opera whose protagonist spends considerable time violently punishing Iraqis would have been an unappetizing message for the holy month, particularly after the 2003 US-led invasion. As it was, al-Hajjaj was shown summarily executing two “Iraqis” who dared to question his orders, but the show is more about his struggle with Ibn Zubayr instead of with the more fearsome Khawarij, whom he only begins to face after pacifying Iraq, in the final episodes.(18)

The case of the Khawarij movement is also instructive. The parallels with Al Qaida today, such as the group’s railing against un-Islamic rulers, probably explain why musalsals have yet to focus on this incredibly mobilized and fierce movement. In al-Hajjaj, their portrayal is cleansed of inconvenient historical facts. For instance, the Khawarij were famous for having women fighters among their ranks.(19) In the series, one Khawarij leader is accompanied by his wife in battle, but she stands out as the sole female character in the entire movement.

Although historical fare might react to current events, shows often “play it safe” and avoid treating certain topics and events (religion, sectarianism, and women, for example) in ways deemed too controversial in today’s tense political climate. The 2005 Syrian-Kuwaiti co-production of al-Zahir Baibars, for example, omits the Mameluke champion’s more worrisome exploits, like his repressing Shi’a and Isma’ilis and, after his key role in defeating the Mongols, his massacring of Damascene Christians for their disloyalty. Those involved in the show cite either the need or the desire to avoid “negative” topics under current conditions.

Comedy Channel

Historical epics occupy some prime-time viewing during Ramadan, when considerable effort and expense are put into programming and luring audiences. However, non-Ramadan viewing schedules are equally instructive, since historical series are re-run these days only rarely. The various contemporary drama musalsals, mainly Egyptian, are the kings here, but again, Syrian-produced “messages” and genres are holding their own, often promising more overtly political treatments. And comedy is no slouch when it comes to competing for viewers. Arabic-language stations re-run shows like Yasir al-‘Azma’s Maraya, as well as sketches from Buq’at Daw’ (Spotlight), a satirical sketch show similar in form.

One might also see Syrian mid-1990s satellite-era comedies like the above-mentioned Five Star Family and Diary of a Director General. Some of the comedy is well done and timely enough to be aired again a decade later. Five-Star Family was a purposefully over-the-top portrayal of a stingy widow in a “modern” but run-down middle class neighborhood in Damascus, raising three lazy, flaky kids and endlessly hatching schemes to gain influence over friends and neighbors. It was a welcome antidote to period Damascene serials of the satellite era that often featured an idealized, tradition-steeped and vacuous local society, usually class-less, where people help each other instead of scheming against them as in Five-Star Family. When the mother decides to begin smuggling goods between Beirut and Damascus by wearing 20 layers of clothes and carrying the rest in huge bags, she calls it “import-export.” Also during the mid-1990s in Syria, the broad, sometimes slapstick Diary of a Director General resonated with its protagonist, a high-level bureaucrat, donning various disguises to root out wrongdoing in the public institution he runs, a funny take on petty corruption.

While the politically sharp Maraya gradually softened in its bite, Spotlight arrived in 2000 and expressed the new (satellite) generation’s growing clout in the industry, as young actors and directors and a rotating group of sketch writers fueled the show. Some Spotlight sketches were particularly nuanced and witty and some were flat, but the winners were on the mark. In some Spotlight sketches, the mukhabarat characters that are lambasted speak the coastal dialect of the ruling Alawis, a politically sensitive act in Syria, but one that shows how different the regime can be from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where the equivalent, alluding to Tikritis, would have been unthinkable and perhaps fatal. Spotlight has offered acerbic treatment of corruption by the sons of officials and weightier matters like the fate of the Arab nation. In one sketch, after the US-led war against Iraq, a father spends his days cloistered indoors with the blinds drawn, maniacally taping the Iraq news non-stop. His wife and daughter are exasperated by his antics. He says he’s upset and taping things “for future generations.” A neighbor who observes the situation offers to put the father in touch with “the neighborhood guys,” who are soon leaving to fight in Iraq. The father turns white and asks, “Y-y-you mean, where the b-b-bombing is?” and quickly drops his obsession.

The more sophisticated a comedy, the likelier it will catch on with sophisticated Arab audiences, as evident in the contrast between the more cartoonish one-year Terrorism Tales (notorious for showing Ariel Sharon as a vampire) and the multi-year success of Spotlight and the sequels it has inspired.

Caught in the Middle

On the American late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live, a semi-running sketch has featured a “Middle Eastern” news broadcast with a heavily-veiled female anchor (suggesting Iranian rather than Arab) who, along with her male colleague, parrot Arab state propaganda or Usama Bin Laden-ish rhetoric. Obviously, Arab news standards are usually quite better than what SNL has presented, while the world of the musalsal exhibits fairly lively debates and issues, albeit with certain taboos and risks that often cause problems and guide production choices. One theme that emerges from these shows is that the Arab and/or Muslim peoples must band together to prevent the West, and specifically the US, from exercising influence and “carving up the region,” as many fear. Some shows are focused on the modern West and Zionism and have no reason to portray them as particularly sympathetic, but it’s roughly the same story: Europeans, Turks or Zionists (and Byzantines, Crusaders, Romans, etc.) represent the outsider/occupier. Many Islamic history tales might have lavish promotional spots but when it comes to content, vary widely in how they address the past, or anything at all. Only a handful of the historical series avoid clichés and instead examine human and power relationships or tell an entertaining story.

The contemporary social drama genre accounts for the largest number of shows and in these the West is rarely a major player. They might remark on the West and current events, but usually focus on struggles over love, money, and power (ideally all three) in a private firm, government office, neighborhood or village, where the machinations of today’s Arab states are far more important for characters than direct intervention by the West. A similar message—that domestic concerns take priority—comes from most comedy musalsals and sketch shows examining local societies suffering from weighty problems and requiring reform on various levels. Spotlight, on some occasions, has reportedly angered top Syrian officials when it “pushes things too far.”

The Gulf’s impact on overall content is hard to quantify although it certainly appears in what is bought by stations and funded by companies and emirs. The Saudis and the like certainly promote generally conservative shows, both politically and socially, but some writers and directors break through against taboos. (20) The experiences of The Road to Kabul, AlHawr AlAyn, and Tash ma Tash demonstrate how producers must also take into account the moods of both the world’s superpower and Islamist groups when marketing their wares. In an age of “globalization,” or in this case regionalization with international tie-ins, Arab shows have also offended partisans of Zionism, the French Mandate and the Ottoman Empire. In the more urgently political climate of post-2000 Arab satellite television production, writers have reacted by saying that people in the region are caught between a struggle between “the monstrous and the backward,” as expressed by a character in Our Lovely Days. This tension between the West and Islam can manifest itself directly for those in the industry, as demonstrated by the fate of The Road to Kabul, caught between the anger of American diplomats and Muslim fundamentalists. We still await a musalsal set squarely on Hamas, for example, or the resistance and violence in Iraq, but there’s always next year.


1. The show’s writer, Jamal Abu Hamdan, made the accusation on Future Television during Ramadan 2004. The show was aired in a prime time slot on Saudi-owned private station MBC. The director, Muhammad ‘Aziziyya, confirmed the incident to me in an interview in August 2005.

2. According to Basil Khatib, a Palestinian resident of Syria who was slated to direct the project before it stalled.

3. For a treatment of various aspects of Syria’s satellite-era boom, see Najib Nsayr and Mazin Bilal, al-drama al-talaviziuniyya al-suriyya: qira’a fi adawat al-mushafaha (Syrian Television Drama: A Reading of the Tools of Oral Communication) (Damascus: Dar al-Hisad, 1998) and al-drama al-talaviziuniyya al-suriyya: hilm niyahat al-qarn (Syrian Television Drama: The End of the Fin-de-Siecle Dream) (Damascus: 1999).

4. In addition, Syrian State Television has continued to produce shows and purchase some private sector offerings. Around 190 Syrian firms were on the books in 2004, a figure that covers for many slow performers, since around 20-30 shows are made a year and several companies make more than one.

5. The fortunes of Pan-Arabist cultural production and Pan-Arabic culture are becoming worthier of study in television production, where individual countries’ industries, thanks to links to the wider Arab world, can reap more benefits (audiences, producers, directors, writers or actors) while facing more constraints. Few series are truly Pan-Arab when it comes to actors and settings; the historical epics are dominated by Syrians, speaking in classical Arabic. In two recent contemporary shows with characters from different Arab countries, actors spoke a stilted, uniform classical Arabic, while in another, each character spoke the colloquial dialect of his or her country.

6. Media and the internet have mentioned political controversies over anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist shows and Turkey’s outrage over a Syrian show mentioning the Armenian Genocide, and have noted non-political hits like the Egyptian show al-Hajj Mitwally.
In the absence of reliable statistics, the media usually anoints the successes, while professional critics, industry insiders, and average viewers weigh in on what’s good or bad; Ramadan musalsals are discussed for several months in the media after the fasting ends.

7. The al-Aqsa Intifada, Washington’s “war on terror” policies, the Israeli siege of Yasir Arafat, and the US-led occupation of Iraq, taking place each year in succession from 2000-2003, were the key events in this downward spiral.

8. While 2000 can be taken as a marker of the regional-international climate affecting television production, earlier controversies due to shows about the Ottomans and French prompted Syrian authorities to discourage the production of shows dealing with these eras. With this avenue closed off, going back further in history or dealing with the last few decades remained. Or perhaps making something set between 1516-1946 that doesn’t focus on occupation, like Sihr al-Sharq (Oriental Charm) (2000), the Anwar Qawadiri-directed adaptation of the true story of an Englishwoman who married an Arab tribesman in Syria in the early 19th Century.

9. Besides the sheer controversy involved in discussing the Prophet Muhammad, making shows about the earliest golden (political) age of Islam involve production drawbacks such as avoiding visual portrayals of Muhammad and the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs.

10. The show’s title refers to the maidens in paradise who are supposed to greet arriving martyrs. Anzur’s company produced the show, reportedly with Saudi funding.

11. According to directors and industry executives in the run-up to Ramadan 2005. See Marlin Dick, “Ramadan 2005: Rivalry and Controversy,” Middle East Broadcasters Journal, Issue 3, September-October 2005.

12. However, in the Syrian private production of ‘Umar Khayyam (Suriya al-Duwaliyya, 2002) the controversial Assassin leader Hasan al-Sabah is a principal character, played charismatically by Fayiz Qazaq and sending fida’iyyun to their deaths in an echo of Usama bin Laden, even if unintentional.

13. Mamduh ‘Adwan, al-Zeer Salim: al-batal bayn al-sira wal-tarikh wal-bina’ al-drami (al-Zeer Salim: The Hero and the Struggle, History, and Dramatic Construction) (Damascus: Qudmus lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi’, 2002).

14. ‘Adwan, al-Zeer Salim, pp. 9-10 on tribal complaints; pp. 9-10 and 56-61 on accusations of distorting the image of heroes; p. 63 ff. on the “Jewish” character and avoiding the Christian tribe issue; and p. 87 on criticism of excessive crying.

15. 15. Salah al-Din was a staunch Sunni who stamped out “disorder” by Shi’a while ensuring that Egypt became and remained Sunni after a few centuries of rule by the Ismaili Fatimids. Although he took Jerusalem when it surrendered to his siege, Salah al-Din’s state comprised only Egypt and Syria. After his death, the Ayyubids experienced a fierce power struggle and Salah al-Din’s sons were vanquished by his uncle and his progeny; the entire dynasty lasted only for four true sultans before being subsumed by the Mamelukes.

16. The principal Khawarij leader spends much of his time repeating “la hukm illa hukm allah,” (No rule except God’s), which while accurate, fails to tell much viewers much about who the Khawarij were, and why they did what they did.

17. In the interview mentioned above, Muhammad ‘Aziziyya, who also directed The Road to Kabul, acknowledged the controversial character of the Khawarij and said he believed the show was acceptable because they were not the principals in the series. The Khawarij practiced “takfir,” or declaring enemy Muslims to be apostates and deserving of death, a policy of certain Sunni Islamist groups today.

18. Al-Hajjaj does not find happiness, however, getting his comeuppance by dying from a painful disease.

19. Nayif Ma’ruf, al-khawarij fil-‘asr al-‘umawi: nasha’atuhum, tarikhihum, ‘aqa’idihum, adabuhum (The Khawarij in the Umayyad Era: Their Appearance, History, Doctrine and Literature) (Beirut: Dar al-Tali’a, 1977), pp. 166-67.

20. Pan-Arab censorship “red lines” are not always in line with state television guidelines; Egyptian actress Layla ‘Alwi declared that she and Arab audiences who saw her recent show Bint Min Shubra (Girl From Shubra) on private satellite stations found nothing wrong with its discussion of current Coptic-Muslim relations, even though Egyptian censors have blocked it from being aired by state TV.

About Marlin Dick

Marlin Dick is a freelance journalist residing in Lebanon. He writes on politics and culture and has translated Arabic literature and Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian films.

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