With Ramadan, the Drama Begins 

Syria's financial problems could mean fewer soap operas during the Islamic holy month

DAMASCUS, Syria — Soap operas have long been an integral part of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when most Muslims fast during daylight hours.

Ranging from the tacky and tawdry to culturally groundbreaking, the soap operas draw millions of television viewers every day of the month and have become a source of pride for countries producing the most successful shows.

But as people across the Arab and Muslim world gear up for this year's televisual feast, they might notice fewer dramas produced by Syria, which have in recent years dominated the airwaves.

The number of Syrian soap operas available this Ramadan, which begins today, has fallen from previous years because of a reduction in the availability of funding from other countries in the region, a consequence of the country's forced isolation following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, which Syria was widely blamed for, though has always denied.

"After the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri there was pressure on the Gulf countries to isolate Syria," said Firas Dehni, a producer and the former head of drama production at the state-run Syrian TV. "One area that suffered was drama funding and we are feeling the effects today."

It is a blow to Syria's soft power as well as its fledgling entertainment industry. With an extremely small theater and cinema scene, the Muslim dramas are the country's primary cultural export. They have sparked debate at home and are enormously popular across the whole Arab world, broadening Syria's cultural reach.

"If funding continues to drop, the outlook is bleak," said Dehni. "Syrian soap operas are the most successful arts industry here and an important way of communicating to the rest of the Arab world."

Since the mid-1990s, Syria has been at the forefront of television drama productions, eclipsing Egypt's traditional cultural hegemony. Series that have found global fame include Bassam Mualla's "Bab al-Hara," a tale of a Damascus neighborhood under French rule.

On location productions, rather than in a studio, and narratives that diverge from the classic storylines involving wealthy families contributed to the success of Syrian soaps, says Christa Salamandra, an associate professor of anthropology at Lehman College in New York and an expert in Syrian drama.

"There is an authenticity in the locations and the Syrians have dealt not only with the golden ages of Islamic empire, but also with contemporary social and political issues including government corruption, class struggle, Islamic revivalism, AIDS and child custody laws," she said.

It is this taboo-breaking role that Syrian filmmakers view as important.

Despite government censorship and a need to consider the sensitivities of the region's predominantly Muslim audience, directors and writers have been able to spark domestic debate by exploring controversial topics like extremism in "The Renegades" by Najdat Anzour, corruption in Rasha Sharbatji's "Gazelles in the Forests of Wolves" and urban poverty in "Waiting" by Laith Hajjo.

Internationally, analysts said, the Syrian dramas have also played an important part in the country's growing regional influence in the last two years.

"It is not just down to soap operas, of course," said one political commentator who asked not to be named. "But they add to Syria's influence in the region by promoting Syrian values and giving everyone, including politicians, more respect for the country."

The number of Syrian soaps, however, is falling, giving rise to fears that so, too, could Syria's cultural influence in the Persian Gulf.

According to Dehni, 35 productions were shot in Syria this year, a small increase on 27 last year but down from 48 in 2008 and 52 in 2007. Laura Abo Assad, head of Fardous, a Damascus-based production company, said she counted 27 Syrian-made dramas — fewer than last year.

It's not just political reasons. A worsened financial climate is also to blame for the reduced flow of Gulf funding, the main source of cash for production companies who generally require about $1 million to make a 30-episode series for Ramadan — with the remaining investment coming from Syrian industrialists.

The Syrian soaps have also come up against stiffer competition in recent years from neighboring Turkey, which also exports its own dubbed soap operas.

There are signs, however, that Syria's drama industry might yet recover.

The quality is still unparalleled for investors serious about drama, according to Salamandra. And Syria's Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts produces some of the best actors in the Arab world, many of whom prefer to work at home.

"There is a prestige to being in Syrian soap operas," said Dima al-Jundi, an actress who starred in "Bab al-Hara" and "Sabaya" ("Girls"), a light-hearted series about a group of women. "And the Syrian language is still the most popular dialect for television-watchers."

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