Syrian television industry aims to reclaim its former glory following presidential summit

Following a meeting with President Bashar Al Assad, the industry has returned to the country and new series are gaining regional acclaim

Taj, now airing on MBC Shahid, is one of the biggest hits from the latest crop of new Syrian dramas produced in the country. Photo: MBC
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After a tumultuous decade of instability, fragmentation and security concerns, Syrian television dramas are re-emerging with bold themes and renewed spirit for Ramadan 2024.

The nation's television sector, long renowned for dynamic performance style and regionally-resonant series, had been in decline.

Syrian shows were produced in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Egypt for years, but the industry is now returning to its roots. As the environment in Damascus improves, local filmmakers are able to overcome logistical and bureaucratic challenges.

It is no coincidence that, earlier this month, senior industry figures met Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to discuss removing the obstacles that had impeded TV productions.

Among those in attendance for the milestone moment were industry luminaries Abbas Al-Noury, Bassam Kousa, Taym Hassan, Bassem Yakhour, Qusai Khawli, Suzan Najmeddine and Nadine Tahseen Beyk. For many, it was their first meeting with the president for years.

Director Rasha Sherbatji was also among those who attended. “The meeting was really aimed at seeing which ways Syrian drama productions could be supported,” he tells The National. “Syrian television is a big part of our lives and something the country is famed for. Its role in society is crucial.

“We spoke about some of the problems we are facing, including censorship and the stages that any filmmaker has to go through to get a production done in the country.”

With a focus on enhancing drama production efficiency, Syria is now aiming to reclaim its role as a major player in the Middle East TV industry. Sherbatji continues: “Syrian shows are popular and in demand. There needs to be a logistical ease to make them, so we presented our concerns because this is an important time for Syrian television drama.”

The outcome of the meeting is already bearing fruit. Ramadan 2024 has been a rejuvenation period for Syrian dramas, with fresh bold concepts and many successful productions captivating audiences.

Top of the list comes Badea’s Children. Sherbatji’s show is currently being shown regionally through streaming site MBC Shahid. It delves deep into the Damascene underworld, following an epic series of confrontations with the four children of a street beggar named Badea (played by Emarat Rizk) who marries a wealthy tannery factory owner.

The gritty drama unfolds with lead actor Sulafa Memar (who plays Sugar – Badea’s only daughter) in a violent, greed-driven struggle for the inheritance of Badea’s tannery tycoon. Sugar is a dancer who lives in an abnormal atmosphere. She stands at odds with her three brothers over money, who view her behaviour as problematic.

Sherbatji tells us: “This kind of work is something different. It reflects the street and characters. In every person there is good and bad, dark places and light places. Life takes us to places we don’t want to go, to unexpected situations and circumstances.”

Ali Wajih, who wrote Badea's Children with fellow screenwriter Yamen Al-Hajali, has become one of the sought-after names in region's drama landscape. In the series, Wajih also takes on an acting role, playing Yaseen, Badea’s youngest child.

Wajih says: “Badea’s Children is the culmination and a new milestone on the writing journey myself and Yamen al-Hajali have been on for the past three years. We are completing our survey of Syrian society. We are documenting the psychological, social and economic changes in the country and its impact on broader society.

“That includes the fall of social norms and values, relationships and principles, even the change in how love is shown or lived. All of that is central to our themes. We wanted to depict this to the maximum.”

Even outside of Badea's Children, this year's Syrian Ramadan season appears to be all about shaking things up and moving away from tired stereotypes of life in Damascus.

Wajih adds: “Syrian drama this season has seen a sharp development, especially in terms of distribution. There are several high-quality shows that are in the top spots. They have been well received by the Arab masses.”

Taj, meaning crown, has been one of the most acclaimed shows thus far. It is set in Damascus during the French colonial period, with lead actor Taim Hassan playing the role of a boxer in a time of local resistance, split loyalties and betrayal.

The programme has received plaudits for its accurate depiction of Damascus in the 1940s. The show has been praised for tackling the time period with more realism than the long-running series Bab Al-Hara. With an overwhelming visual presence of the city and its architectural characteristics in that time period, director Samer Barqawi, who gave the Arab world popular Lebanese drama Al-Haybeh, excels at presenting an unseen history of Damascus.

Constructing entire neighbourhoods took five months and preparations before that had taken over a year and a half. Female characters are characterised by the classic looks of the 1940s, a decade renowned famous for distinctive hair accessories. The character Nouran, played by popular Syrian singer Faia Younan in what is her first acting role, is especially consistent with that style.

Another series that has depicted the Damascus underworld is Qabban’s Money. Directed by Saif Al-Sibai and produced by Ahmad Al-Shiekh, it is also written by Ali Wajih.

The word qabban denotes the scale used by fruit and vegetable merchants. Here, it specifically refers to when a merchant manipulates or falsifies the weight of materials to cheat the customer.

The series revolves around a judge called Fares, played by Khaled Al-Qish, who married a woman named Raghad (Sulaf Fawakherji) before she becomes jailed. After her release, she finds herself confronted by the fact that her daughter is being raised by his second wife.

Audiences across the region have responded positively to each episode, welcoming the clear departure from previous themes that had left Syrian drama in a state of paralysis, both logistically and creatively. From now on, the Syrian film and television industry aims to build on that momentum and reclaim its central role in the region's cultural imagination.

Updated: March 26, 2024, 3:46 AM