Syria’s soap operas, known as "musalsalat," have a large following in the country. Donatella Della Ratta, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School specializing in the study of musalsalat, explains that they tend to last for a month through the end of Ramadan, or just until after Eid, usually 30 episodes of around 40 or 45 minutes each.

Della Ratta spent five years in Damascus and studied how the medium’s narratives changed as protests began in 2011. This is what she found:

Syrian soaps over the past decade have been characterized by neo-realism. Some drama makers refer directly to the post-World War II Italian neo-realist filmmaking movement that was inspired by real people and problems and filmed on location, not in studios. So this practice of the soaps addressing the social problems happening right now, that’s not new. We can’t say that because of the civil war they started to make dramas about what was happening in the streets. They’ve been doing this for decades. The Syrian TV series have dealt with gender issues, the role of women in society, honor killing and abuse of power by the mukhabarat, or secret services.

There is an affinity between the drama makers and Bashar al-Assad. They were sharing the same vision for Syrian society, this idea of social reform [before political reform], of gradual improvement that should be managed and engineered from above.

So he never tried to crack down on them. On the contrary, they share the same seemingly progressive vision towards enlightening the society. At the beginning of the Damascus Spring, a civil society movement that started right after Assad came to power in 2000, there was a very popular satirical drama called Spotlight (2001) that was made up of sketches mocking aspects of Syrian political life, including corruption in the secret service. It was considered to be very progressive and edgy.

Proudly progressive

The president helped this drama and similar dramas to advance in the public space even though certain powers inside the regime, like some branches of the secret service, were trying to stop it. His seemingly reformist project has really been embodied by Syrian TV drama. They have been marching on a parallel, not in contradiction. He’s always been proud to talk publicly about these dramas, and there were other Arab leaders praising him for allowing such progressive dramas to air. It was the media arm of Assad’s propaganda machine.

There is a soap that was broadcast in Ramadan in 2008 called It’s Not a Mirage. A Christian woman and a Muslim man were in love, and it shows how Christians and Muslims were living together and in peace and were part of the Syrian religious mosaic. Then they want to get married, and the message of the soap says, We can live together, but at the end of the day, we do not mix. The male character lets himself die at the end, because love with the Christian woman is impossible. It matches the rhetoric of the regime: that society is still not ready for full-fledged mixing.

Analyze the message of every musalsalat in the last decade and the message is always the same: Syrian society has a lot of social issues, so before political reform we should first solve the social issues that afflict us. And that Syrian society is “backward,” which is an expression used by many drama makers and shared by many within Assad’s reformist circle.

Screams of 'freedom'?

Since the uprising started in 2011, there have been a number of soaps dealing with it. In Ramadan 2011 there was a very interesting one called Above the Ceiling. It was dealing with the uprising directly. I was flipping channels and I saw a very weird scene on a Syrian state channel where a guy who looks like a mukhabarat, a secret service man, is in front of a crowd screaming, “Freedom, freedom,” like we were seeing in the streets. He orders his men to shoot at the protesters. Right after he orders them, he repents and he thinks, “Maybe I should not have.”

For someone unfamiliar with Syrian drama and the mechanism by which the filmmakers interact with the people in power, it’s very edgy. But when you analyze every episode, the message of this show was made to appeal to the silent majority. It was a few months after the start of the revolution and there was still room for reconciliation between the two sides. So this media project was aimed at pushing forward a political solution, backing the rhetoric promoted by the regime at the time. And it was aimed at people who were not demonstrating, but not entirely with the regime: people who were on the fence. It was calling for a political solution, saying, "Let’s sit down and talk." It was the same solution proposed by Butheina Shabaan, Assad’s media and political aide, who embodies the reformist facade of the regime.

It was likely the security-minded elements of the regime, namely the mukhabarat and the “hawks” inside the government, who pushed a different solution to the crisis, one that was lighter on dialogue and more focused on security. The soap was stopped after 15 episodes and never broadcast again. The director general of Syrian TV said that it was stopping because the episodes hadn’t been completed.

Gone too far

In Ramadan 2013, there were at least three musalsalat talking about the war. One was called Birth from the Waist. It’s dealing with the uprising and how it turned into civil war. One episode features the character of Atef Najeeb, the man responsible for the early crackdown on peaceful protesters in Deraa. The musalsalat acknowledges that some mistakes have been made on the regime side, namely by some security officers who responded to the protests with violence and repression. It tells the story of what happens from A to Z.

To a Western audience it might seem very daring and edgy. But the message is, "Yes, we shot at the protesters, yes, some guys made a mistake and used violence, but now it’s all gone too far and there is no dialogue possible if we don’t forgive each other, and even forgive the regime that made the mistake of allowing its officers to use violence as a response to the demonstrations."

The president is never mentioned in the musalsalat except when he gives amnesty to the prisoners. So it’s saying that, yes, some elements are responsible within the regime — but the president is untouchable and not responsible for the mistakes made by his regime.