The Thin Red Lines: Censorship, Controversy, and the Case of the Syrian Soap Opera Behind Bars
By Marlin Dick

Ramadan television in the Arab world is a showcase for “family values” as production companies and advertisers make huge efforts to attract millions of viewers gathered for the post-Iftar time slots. Inevitably, controversies arise. Complaints come from both producers and viewers, either condemning the broadcast of glitzy vaudeville programs starring scantily clad women during the holy month, or raising more serious concerns about Arabic-language dramas and their problematic treatments of ancient and modern Arab-Islamic societies. When a drama or comedy series (musalsal) is set in a specific city or region, the locals might object to being portrayed in an unflattering light. The same goes for specific religious groups or members of certain professions. Meanwhile, writers, directors and producers lament the lack of freedom to say what they want, constrained by censors at state-run television stations or executives at private channels, which often finance production. The exceptions certainly prove the rule, namely that television drama and comedy should not overstep certain “red lines,” such as criticism of actual politicians, and negative takes on national heritage, religion, and moral values.

When the Syrian production of Behind Bars (Khalf al-Qudban) premiered during Ramadan 2005, one might have expected some fuss because the 30-episode series contained the following elements: high-class prostitutes with no regrets about their profession; lots of alcohol consumption with no downside; Islamic teachings parroted by unimaginative believers or unscrupulous “bad guys, rape, masturbation, dope-smoking petty thieves portrayed as sympathetic or charismatic protagonist, and a Christian boy-loves-Muslim girl romance. But no such luck. In the satellite age’s vibrant climate of Syria-based television production, Behind Bars aired in 2005 to a largely receptive Syrian audience. (1) When controversy did arise, it was from an unexpected direction, recalling Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir’s famous comment about the Israeli surprise attack in the June 1967 War: “We expected them to come from the east, but they came from the west.”

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Free Expression

Censorship and the related taboos for television musalsals have undergone several phases and producers today observe that the lines are becoming increasingly blurry. In the 1970s, for example, when Syrian production was state-financed and produced for local television, alcohol consumption by characters was not a problem. A sea change occurred in subsequent decades, when private companies emerged that sought to sell their programs to state-run stations in the Gulf, principally Saudi Arabia. Things like alcohol, revealing clothing, private moments between couples (always keep the door to a room open), and the “good guys” smoking cigarettes now were off-limits. Arab producers were obliged to conform, since they were paid for the amount of content aired after the censors’ cuts. Few had an interest in spending to produce material that would not be broadcast.

Many supposedly taboo topics are not apparent before shooting begins. Producers and directors cite lists of banned content, such as violating “public mores,” but they complain that such terms are vague enough to make every season an adventure. They remain unsure of what is problematic and what is not. In the mid-1990s, the Syrian private production of Khan al-Harir (The Silk Caravansery), set in the politically turbulent climate of 1950s Aleppo, was rejected by Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom wanted no part of a show in which characters mentioned Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir. “They didn’t want anything about him, whether good or bad—just avoid him,” said the show’s director, Haitham Haqqi.

Regarding the same show, officials at Syrian state-run television objected to characters referring to the political parties of the time by their actual names. Haqqi was obliged to modify the official titles: the Communist Party became the “reds,” the Ba’thists became the “nationalists” (al-qawmiyyun), etc. Haqqi said that the following year, Syrian state television produced what he called “a clear response” to his show. It was a series set in roughly the same time period called Hammam al-Qishani, which glorified the struggle of the Ba’th Party. Ironically, the political parties’ actual names were used and their flags and paraphernalia were featured prominently, even though this had been “taboo” just one year earlier. (2)

According to Haqqi and others, today’s satellite industry is often amenable to controversial treatments, such as poking fun at the mukhabarat (secret police) in the Syrian sketch show Buq’at Daw’ (Spotlight), or the shows examining the motives and consequences of terrorism in the last few years. Regimes may want to relay certain political messages, while the industry’s growth has led to competition and pressure to take chances rather than play it safe. (3) As for daring social content, today’s leading satellite stations (almost all privately-owned and linked to Gulf money) have little problem with, for example, female characters in sleeveless attire and “risqué” items like nightgowns. Haqqi noted that this is acceptable when the actors/characters are Egyptians and Syrians, who now seem to be treated as non-Arab foreigners. Saudi stations broadcast Western movies with women wearing skimpy clothes and it appears okay for Syrians and Egyptians to don such clothing as well, provided that Saudi characters do not engage in such objectionable practices.

As the example of Behind Bars demonstrates, the “red lines” are becoming increasingly blurred, as private satellite stations outstrip their state-owned competitors in importance. Industry growth has meant more competition and stations increasingly finance shows, whether directly or indirectly.

Heavy Re-write

The original screenplay for Behind Bars was written by Palestinian Hani al-Sa’di, one of the most famous writers to emerge from Syria’s satellite television production boom. Al-Sa’di anchored his screenplay on a one-hit-wonder novelist with a serious case of writer’s block. He opts to enter prison to gather material from his cellmates; each tells the novelist how he ended up in the situation indicated in the show’s title. In this version of the screenplay, the novelist spends several episodes uncovering the personal trajectory of a convict, and then moves on to the next one. The UAE-based Infinity satellite station selected Syria’s al-Arabiyya firm as executive producers and Laith Hajjo committed to directing the musalsal.

However, Hajjo decided that each character’s motivations needed considerable elaboration and wanted to ditch the Character A, then B, then C, then D format. Hajjo employed a second writer to overhaul the script. In the new version the novelist, Nadir Zihdi (played by Basim Yakhur), is approached by an unscrupulous and filthy rich businessman, Naji Sa’id (Bassam Kusa). Naji springs an elaborate trap, offering friendship and an intriguing and lucrative job: Write a novel about Naji that will be published in Naji’s name. Naji smothers Nadir with advance on the novel, gifts, an impromptu flight to Dubai for shopping, etc. Since Nadir is reluctant to accept “charity” sums from Naji, he stipulates that the advances be considered loans. The unsuspecting Nadir then accepts several complicated re-payment arrangements. The businessman’s attractive female assistant is the bait, but she ends up falling in love with the novelist. Nadir rejects Naji’s attempts to control every aspect of the lives of those in his orbit and decides to write the novel, but as an exposé of the morally corrupt and financially ruthless businessman. The mogul discovers the ploy and engineers Nadir’s imprisonment for a year on charges of passing bad checks. In this version of Behind Bars, Nadir only enters prison in the show’s final episodes, when he acquaints himself with his cellmates and records their stories, but also smuggles out his exposé on Naji and publishes it in a local newspaper in installments.

In the new version, several story-lines run in parallel to Nadir’s Faustian bargain. One follows the family of Abu Tawfiq, a lower middle-class paymaster at a private firm. Abu Tawfiq is falsely accused of robbing the company safe after being set up by the actual thieves, two of his co-workers. When Abu Tawfiq enters prison early in the show, his family (a wife and four daughters) begins to fall apart: university student Ranim becomes a high-class call-girl who travels abroad and accompanies “tourist groups,” rescuing the family financially. The oldest daughter, Rana, disapproves of her sister’s sudden and suspicious wealth and ends up marrying a rich Syrian-Lebanese émigré, also in order to help out the family. Another main character, Munir, is a petty thief who has left the family home because of his father’s harsh treatment. A third plot line follows ‘Amir, a young Damascene whose face is horribly disfigured in an industrial accident. He is shunned by society. ‘Amir’s only friend is Muwaffaq, his former co-worker and army buddy from the Syrian coast, speaking the thick dialect of that region. Muwaffaq and his bride Najwa move to Damascus and see ‘Amir regularly. During one visit, after falsely believing Najwa is making overtures to him, ‘Amir rapes her after spiking his friend’s drink. Original writer al-Sa’di said that he had not been consulted on the changes; he disapproved of them on several levels and announced that he had washed his hands of the show. (4) The new version establishes a parallel track for characters like Nadir and Ranim: both meet dominating figures, the mogul and the madam, who insist on getting their prey to enter arrangements of their own free will. They cannot claim that they were coerced or that “the circumstances” made them do it.

Many Taboos and Few Regrets

While alcohol consumption has not been absent from Syrian television production of recent decades, drinking has a particularly prominent place in Behind Bars and involves no negative repercussions for the characters. ‘Amir and his friend Muwaffaq have several drinking sessions during the series, but it is the valium in the drink that allows the rape to take place (‘Amir first tests the valium on Muwaffaq in an earlier episode, dissolving it in tea). Novelist Nadir and his friends meet at a club on a regular basis and drink; after ‘Asim, a petty thief, robs the company safe and sends the innocent Abu Tawfiq to prison, he heads to a cabaret to down whiskey and carouse. While religious conservatism has experienced a noticeable rise throughout the Arab world in the last 30 years, a Syrian show produced by a UAE station had no problem presenting viewers with characters downing glass after glass of strong drink, during Ramadan, no less.

Another taboo that has taken some battering in the last decade involves Christian characters, although this does not appear to have extended yet to all Muslim minorities. Christian characters in Arab soap operas have become increasingly acceptable, judging by anecdotal evidence. There are several such characters in Behind Bars and refreshingly, not all of them are straight arrows, since Christian characters might be used as “tokens” to show that Arab countries exhibit national unity or religious diversity, or both (5) Munir and Jabir, his partner in crime and smoking hashish, pull a scam on Sallum, a goldsmith with a nasty streak who sells stolen goods on the side. As a first name, Sallum indicates the character is Christian; names like “Tony,” “George ‘Abbud” and “Abu Gaby” are also heard in the series, indicating how Syrian production has matured to the point where referring to certain religious minorities no longer raises any eyebrows. The Alawi accent (actually that of the coast) has also been heard increasingly over the last decade, although the sect is not mentioned. In the past, Syrian shows often erased such diversity; fictional characters usually had neutral names that did not imply a specific sect. (6)

In Behind Bars, the taboo against religious controversy is broken in the form of a Christian-Muslim love story. After accountant Abu Tawfiq enters prison, his teenage daughter Nagham is approached by her classmate Samir, a Christian, who is determined to ask for her hand in marriage. When Samir’s mother discovers that her son wants to marry a Muslim, she berates him for doing something that is socially unacceptable (and legally impossible unless the Christian male converts to Islam). The father objects to the mother’s over-reaction. Nonetheless, the mother spies on her son, learns the identity of the girl and visits her mother, successfully foiling the romance. This infuriates Samir, who gets into a shouting match with his mother:

“You’d have to change your religion!” the mother screams.
“So I’ll change my religion, so what! They’re all the same! Does God have 100 faces? It’s all the same God!”
“Lord, oh Lord! Don’t be stupid! I’ll tear your eyes out! Where do you think we are, Sweden?!”
“Get off my back!”

Later, Samir approaches a sheikh in a local mosque, walking in and saying “Hello,” to which the sheikh responds, “‘Alaykum al-Salam.” When Samir says that he’s Christian and wants to convert, the sheikh sizes him up with a look of “oh, not this again,” and calmly asks, “Are you in love, my boy?” Off camera, the sheikh convinces Samir to not rush into things and in a later episode, we learn that while Samir is still interested in Nagham, he will bide his time to see if they should in fact marry. There is no hasty conversion or definitive end to the relationship. Instead, the more realistic and rewarding scenario of “cool it for a while and see what happens” wins the day.

Of course, religion, sects, and fanaticism are not new subjects in Arab television drama and comedy. However, Behind Bars takes things quite a bit further visually in several scenes. One of the most daring moments comes after the trial of Abu Shukri, the accountant. His wife and daughters are in the courtroom when he is declared guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. His daughter Ranim rushes from the courtroom and to the home of Manal, the madame who is recruiting her for work in “tourism services,” i.e. being an escort outside the country. Ranim is distraught and Manal tells her to calm down, suggesting that she dance to relieve the tension. Also in the courtroom is Abu Tawfiq’s colleague Shukri, who actually pulled off the heist with his colleague. Shukri is overcome with guilt for his role in the theft. He enters a mosque and begins handing out money to the poor who have gathered there to receive charity. Shukri hears noises from within the mosque and investigates, finding a group of Sufis chanting the name of God and swinging back and forth in a devotional dance. Shukri joins the chant and moves in rhythm with them, trying to escape his situation. For several minutes, the shots are inter-cut--Shukri swaying to the music and Ranim twisting in an oriental dance as she tries to lose herself as well. It is an equation of two very different initiates, one into prostitution, one dabbling in Sufism. In other words, one giving up body to God, the other about to give it up to men.

At home, Shukri lives a conservative life with his wife Salwa, a veiled and genuinely pious woman who suspects the evil co-worker ‘Asim from the beginning, when he visits to talk “business” with her husband. After the heist, Salwa discovers the stash of stolen money in the house, confronts her spouse, and leaves to consult her sheikha (female religious guide) about the proper course of action. However, the salient point is that Salwa’s character is domineering and abrasive. The co-worker ‘Asim uses religious arguments and his own dubious version of the life of a companion of the Prophet Muhammad to convince Shukri to help him rob the safe. Salwa’s irritating pieties and ‘Asim’s twisted religious logic are contrasted with the rational approach of the above-mentioned sheikh who discourages rushing into an interfaith teenage marriage. However, ‘Asim the thief (played with aplomb by Qasim Milhu) is easily one of the show’s most charismatic characters, and he never regrets his actions. The fact that the big fish can get away with corruption while the little ones cannot adds to the resonant plot. Viewers might be attracted to the thief rather than the two true believers.

Another daring cross-cut involves Salwa as she prays at her home in the evening. Viewers see her rise and stand to perform prayers. Then the camera cuts to the disfigured ‘Amir at his home, sitting in a rocking chair and watching (off camera) what we easily assume to be a satellite channel broadcasting something pornographic. Frustrated by his isolation from society, ‘Amir rocks back and forth and his head rolls back. The camera closes in on his face and implies is that he is masturbating. Cut back to Salwa, as she performs her prayers. Despite the risk-taking images, no controversy erupted during the first few airings of the show. The director said he wanted to portray people using their free time in the privacy of their homes in the late evening to achieve release, which can involve a complicated mixture of the spiritual, the emotional, and the physical.

Drama or Controversy?

The 30th and final episode of Behind Bars offers a masterful tying up of the series’ plot lines as it addresses a Syrian society beset by various types and levels of corruption. Abu Tawfiq, who was released from jail after the arrest of ‘Asim and Shukri, tells his wife his doubts about the source of Ranim’s piles of money. The couple argues over who was responsible for the deviation of the family during his jail time; the wife says that he had earlier run the house like a tyrant, even refusing to let the family have a telephone. In fact, this stifling environment partly contributed to Ranim’s decision to work for an escort service, in order to escape. During the final episode, the camera shows the rich Naji trapped behind the bars of a window at his palatial villa, having possibly engineered the disappearance/death of Dana, his pretty assistant. Nadir the writer, who had dumped Dana for seemingly deserting him, sits in a café, still suffering from writer’s block, like at the beginning of the series. Although he has produced the prison novel, he has once again lost his motivation to write, unaware that his Dana is now probably lost forever.

The episode reaches several peaks during scenes in the prison, whether during Nadir’s voice-over of his note-taking on his cellmates or his actual conversations with them. Nadir’s musings veer toward dry rhetoric about the state of society, but many comments are acidic and the superb direction engineers dramatically successful interruptions of the viewers’ learning process. Nadir is in awe of the total self-absorption of ‘Asim, who coldly recounts how he had no qualms about sending either Abu Tawfiq or Shukri to prison. Nadir points out that such an attitude of utter indifference to others, if adopted by everyone, would see things “fall apart.” “Let them fall apart,” ‘Asim sneers, as long as he gets what he wants. “See you in the next installment,” ‘Asim tells the writer as he walks off and immediately bumps into a prisoner in the courtyard. The scene is not played for laughs, and the touch is therefore an effective end to a dark trip through nihilism. If ‘Asim is not a thief, Nadir recounts in a voice-over, “he is a champion of words … to whom people listen, stupefied.” This is an allusion to ‘Asim’s victim, the gullible Shukri, who makes his confession to Nadir. Later, the writer comments that Shukri worries him because he can be used so easily, twisted by religious reasoning; therefore, Shukri represents a “serious danger” to society. As Nadir writes, we see Shukri out of focus in the background, wearing white and praying. There is another masterful voice-over about the negative repercussions that follow when the ‘Asim and Shukri “models” of people meet, as one exploits the other. Viewers hear Nadir’s laconically-delivered comments over silent flashbacks of earlier, tense discussions between the criminal and his stooge.

The disfigured ‘Amir is repentant for raping his friend’s wife, and truly regrets losing the friendship of the loyal Muwaffaq. He chillingly recounts the events that led to the incident and the rape itself but meekly and honestly swears that he did not intend for it to happen. In a voice-over, Nadir concludes that ‘Amir requires treatment and will be a time bomb if he is released without rehabilitation. In an evening scene, Nadir speaks into his tape recorder about ‘Amir, who is reclining at the other end of the cellblock. Nadir finally asks whether a person “is a merely a potential to be cared for or an individual who creates a reason for survival.” ‘Amir approaches and asks Nadir what he was saying; after a short discussion he requests Nadir to stop commenting on his situation and walks off. After a quick turn back ‘Amir demands that Nadir not forget to mention in the book that ‘Amir still refuses to marry his “ugly” cousin, a family suggestion made earlier in the series. ‘Amir then laughs, and tosses these lines over his shoulder as he walks away a second time: (They say that women are) “Half of society, huh? And I can’t even touch a single one. What kind of society is this?” The petty thief Munir is playful in his confession, asking Nadir if his interview is an episode of Hukm al-‘Adala (Verdict of Justice), the popular, long-running radio crime case show on Syrian State Radio. Munir grins while answering a mock-serious “Yes, sir,” to Nadir’s questions, mimicking the answers given by participants on the radio show. The various levels of comedy, honesty and deep cynicism blend together as the episode churns through its cast of characters, whose motivations have been laid bare for the last 29 installments.

Alternative Models

With these elements in mind, it is tempting to say that achieving a dramatic success can help ease the shock of broaching taboos. A fair hearing for a given issue, social practice, or sect, for example, can disarm critics of “distortion.” Of course, Syrian society has become so jaded that no one would seriously consider lambasting a soap opera for having a single rich businessman character, who is repellant and corrupt, as a slap against everybody in that line of work. However, in Behind Bars the one women’s NGO head happens to be the madame running the escort service, which earned criticism, made both publicly and privately. And no alternative “good” character existed, unlike the Christian or pious Muslim categories, for example.

The show is also not a glorification or sympathetic portrayal of prostitution, since the focus is on two sisters—Ranim and Rana—who stick to choices that were apparently caused by their father’s imprisonment. Even when the money is returned and the verdict overturned, they continue in their paths, of prostitution and marriage. In the final episode, Ranim and the madame’s chauffer have an extremely cynical discussion about Ranim’s view that the strong always call the shots. She receives a phone call from her university friend, who had been pressing her about how to get a job that was so lucrative. Without hesitating, Ranim tells her to ask for Manal at the café where they met. She shuts her cell phone and laughs with the chauffer at what she has done. Things do not appear to be getting better in society, with such people coming out on top in the end. Then again, Muwaffaq finally reconciles himself to the idea that his wife might be pregnant from ‘Amir’s rape, and pledges to support her, whoever the father turns out to be. Perhaps there is hope after all. After beginning with a shot of the innocent Muwaffaq and Najwa as they contemplate moving to Damascus, the final image of Behind Bars is of Naji Sa’id in his villa, from the window, behind bars, as he slowly removes his toupee for the first time in the musalsal. Who wants to worry about taboos when you have great drama?

The Fallout

During Ramadan 2005, Behind Bars was aired on three stations: Syria’s state-run satellite channel, the state-run United Arab Emirates station, and the private UAE station Infinity, which funded the production. Director Hajjo said that officials at Syrian Television objected to the many alcohol scenes but grudgingly aired all of them, except one, when ‘Amir dissolves valium in a glass of arak and offers it to Muwaffaq, to drug him just prior to the rape scene. The result was even worse, implying that the hapless husband falls asleep and fails to come to the aid of his wife screaming in the next room. Hajjo pointed out the error and convinced officials to restore the scene during the series’ second run on Syria’s terrestrial station, just after Ramadan.

The director has a theory, confirmed by others with similar experiences, that “the lower down in rank you go, the tougher the censorship.” Hajjo gave examples of low-level bureaucrats who were more zealous about cutting “objectionable” content, despite the existence of written guidelines. In fact, censorship can often be very subjective, whether due to the desire by functionaries to please higher-ups or a general climate of self-censorship. “At the initial phase, when you submit a screenplay, the first decision will be that 20 scenes have to go,” Hajjo said. In the next phase, when the decision moves upward, the number might drop to 15 or ten, and then finally, “the director-general might decide that only two should be dropped.” Hajjo also claims certain political taboos now have become “easier” to broach in Syria than social ones. Hajjo has directed the ground-breaking satirical sketch show Spotlight, and a spin-off, Al-Makshuf (In Public), where it is easier to be caustic about the formerly-taboo topics of pan-Arab nationalism and the behavior of the mukhabarat than to tackle certain “social” topics like prostitution with no regrets, or alcohol consumption with no repercussions. Hajjo said that in his earlier efforts, he encountered no problem presenting sketches such as one where an average citizen develops a case of “political spasms”—every time he hears a state-produced slogan his right hand involuntarily shoots up and gives a V-for-victory sign. This is not the kind of sketch that could have been aired a few decades ago in Syria, the “beating heart of the Arab nation.”

The Red Lines: A Case of Hit or Miss

Behind Bars ends with a “seven years later” epilogue that tells viewers what has happened to the main characters, both those who have been imprisoned and those who have not. As it turns out, few have learned much or changed radically. The petty thief Munir now works as the assistant of Ranim, the call-girl, and their brief segment ends with them looking to recruit a new female for their stable. No regrets on the crime-prostitution front. (7) Munir’s straight arrow brother has left his state job and taken over his father’s rug repair business. He comments that he is now at ease with himself after failing to achieve anything by being an honest bureaucrat. “At least I can fix something now, even if it’s only a rug,” he says. We see Shukri vacuuming the rugs at a mosque but he has not been changed by prison. He regretted his actions even before being caught. ‘Asim, who involved the gullible Shukri in crime, has no regrets and is shot during an unsuccessful break-out attempt.

What turned out to be the most controversial aspect of Behind Bars involved only a brief shot of a magazine interview with Manal, the madame who originally recruits Ranim. The occasion of the article is the third anniversary of Manal’s founding a “Modern Women’s Association” NGO that defends women’s rights and freedoms. This is what raised hackles, associating women’s advocacy with the world’s oldest profession. Writer and activist Samar Yazbek, commenting in the Syrian daily Al Thawra, called it an example of the “media spreading poison” about the efforts of such groups, while Hajjo responded by saying that women should not be separated from the rest of society and treated as something completely independent. (8) Hajjo had expected controversy from several other items: a sheikh convincing a Christian to retain his religion; a pious family in Old Damascus producing the Munir the petty thief; the alcohol, etc., but not from several seconds of air time that mentions a women’s NGO. The show’s earlier portrayal of prostitutes who are aware of what they are getting into, with no punishment at the end of the series, did not raise a fuss.

The Syrian case exemplifies the fluctuations in addressing “social controversy,” with relative openness in both the state monopoly phase (up to 1986) and during the heyday of satellite competition generated by private firms (beginning in the latter half of the 1990s). During the middle period, when private companies sold shows to individual Gulf state terrestrial stations, a more rigid social code was in effect. Perhaps Syrian (and Arab) society has become more conservative in recent decades, but it still accepts many controversial treatments. As for political taboos, each period has seen risk-taking, albeit with varying results. Important taboos remain, while there is sometimes cynicism about the state encouraging critical material to “let off the steam” building up in society. (9) Although proving the accusation is difficult, Syria’s most respected actors and directors have been accused at various times of performing this role, whether directly or indirectly at the behest of the authorities.

How taboos are broached and the controversy generated by musalsals are broad topics. In the end, identifying the shifting red lines must come down to anecdotal information. One possible marker, in the case of Syria, is that 30 years ago it was easy for the state to produce a show mocking clergymen. Today, the industry must be wary of a public not keen to see its religious symbols ridiculed. Many were angered a few years ago by sketches on Spotlight that made fun of both male sheikhs and female religious guides, or sheikhas. Some writers are conservative by nature; Hani al-Sa’di’s original script for Men Behind Bars and his other works are seen as fairly mainstream, willing to raise a topic but lacking a controversial treatment. Behind Bars’ challenging of red (social) lines was by no means the first such attempt, but the show does stand out for going after several different taboos, often, and forcefully.

Political taboos of varying importance have disappeared during the satellite age, although easily-recognizable accusations of wrongdoing leveled at leaders remain unacceptable. The Syrian case is special in that its mid-1990s boom produced shows that angered France and Turkey with very negative treatments of their colonial representatives. The Syrian authorities directed the television industry to tone it down.

Some genres have yet to be mined fully, and taboos await breaking. Producers, directors and writers, whether they seek to smash social or political taboos, make their attempts while negotiating a complex mix of factors: competing against earlier shows, copying them, going back to history to produce analogy, addressing purely contemporary issues, and worrying about what the competition is doing. Some directors are known for wanting to get pointed messages across, which often means taking chances with the current “red lines” – directors like Haqqi, Hajjo (with Spotlight) and Ma’mun al-Bunni (the Maraya series of Yasir al-‘Azma) have pushed the boundaries. How they and others navigate the shoals of state censors, conservative publics and demanding station executives is an adventure each time out.

Perhaps the fragmentation and maturation of the television industry in the Arab world, thanks to the astounding growth in stations and programming hours, helps reduce the possibility that a given show will set the region on fire with daring content. The top stations certainly have big audiences and the shows that they broadcast will be scrutinized, but when a show occupies a less-popular time slot and is aired on a second or third-tier station, or one that is available only to paying subscribers, some of the more controversial content can remain largely hidden from the mass Arab public. From the perspective of Arab viewers throughout the region, Behind Bars was competing with other Syrian contemporary soaps (including one centered on AIDS and written by Hani al-Sa’di), successful satirical sketch programs, a handful of big-budget historical epics, the modern pan-Arab treatment of terror by director Najdat Anzur, a popular Syrian series chronicling the life of poet Nizar Qabbani, and dozens of Egyptian and Gulf offerings. Although a daring show might get noticed by the end of the month, as media coverage and word of mouth do their work, it appears easier for musalsals to get lost in the shuffle.

In an age of fierce competition over advertising revenues, the pan-Arab television industry finds itself obliged to be controversial while remaining uncertain about what constitutes controversy. The Gulf’s impact on Arab production is noted for encouraging conservative content, but the exceptions stand out. Shows like Behind Bars might even help “raise the ceiling” for further risk-taking.

Organized groups in society, such as Islamists, certainly make their impact felt as unofficial censors. In some ways, they might wield more influence than the formerly “omnipotent” state-run media institutions and ministries of information and culture. In any case, the situation is certainly in flux. In the case of Behind Bars, an original script was in effect considered too tame and was heavily revamped to make it more daring. A musalsal that featured heavy doses of “immoral” behavior and provocative content ended up sparking only two mini-controversies: the original writer’s complaints and a commotion about whether it was acceptable to say that a person who has founded an NGO might not be all that she seems. In Behind Bars, only a single scene was cut by state censors and re-inserted the very next month. In such a climate, ridding the industry of its long-standing self-censorship remains the goal for the foreseeable future, as taboos of all kinds are contested in an annual competition for viewers and credibility.

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.

NOTES

1. The show was aired on satellite stations but gauging its impact throughout the Arab world is considerably more difficult than following its local resonance. It was not aired on the region’s leading stations. Fatin Yusuf, writing in the Syrian daily Tishrin, praised the show’s technical artistry and plot, in “Khalf al-Qudban: Jur’at al-Tarah . . . wa Thura’ al-Tasjid al-Fanni,” (Behind Bars: Bold Ideas . . . and Rich Artistic Personification), 21 January 2006. A leading advertising executive in Syria said Behind Bars was one of the half-dozen hits during Ramadan, in a “second tier” just behind the top two shows: the satirical sketch program Spotlight, and a series set in a girls’ high school.

2. For the first time, viewers saw the flag of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which was banned at the time in Syria. Haqqi’s comments for this article were made in a private interview in March 2006.

3. For more on “terror” and censorship in Egypt’s industry, see Ursula Lindsey, “TV Versus Terrorism,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 15 (January-June 2006) and for a general overview of trends in musalsals, see Marlin Dick, “The State of the Musalsal,” in the same issue.

4. Al-Sa’di has written both contemporary drama and historical fantasy epics. In Layalina society magazine (issue 37, January 2006), al-Sa’di claimed that when he saw Behind Bars he suffered a bout of “high blood pressure and diabetes” due to the shock at what happened to his original screenplay. He repeated his complaints in Funun, 14 Feburary 2005.

6. When private Syrian production took off 15 years ago, the famous Syrian actress Nadine Khury, due to her obviously Christian family name that means “priest,” took the professional name “Nadine” to become acceptable in Saudi Arabia.

7. In an earlier episode, the call-girl Ranim glances at a “Center for Combating AIDS” sign on the road and flinches momentarily. However, she has not contracted AIDS or abandoned her lifestyle by the end of the show. Since we do not see the character ply her trade, we are unaware of whether she practices safe sex.

8. Al Thawra, 7 and 14 November 2005. Hajjo also said that any female activist, whatever her background, deserved the right to work for women’s causes. Hajjo’s other comments were made in a private interview for this article in March 2006. Al-Sa’di’s original screenplay was entitled Men Behind Bars but became Behind Bars, to suit the director’s desire to focus on all of society.

9. The common term for the phenomenon is “tanfiseh,” referring to the concept of “letting air out.”

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Copyright 2006 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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