Traditionally, Ramadan television in Syria can be compared with the Super Bowl in the US in terms of its viewing figures. However, the former, with its hectic and gruelling 31-day make-or-break schedule, has, too often in recent times, had storylines that have been cliche, with shows overall coming across monotonous in tone.
Slates have been littered with a predictable output of shows far too similar to the more-than-a-decade-old Bab Al-Hara – a popular depiction of Damascus under French rule. But, this year, a new star-studded hit series, Ala Safeeh Sakhin (On a Hot Plate), has become a clear sign that the flailing Syrian TV drama industry is vying for a comeback.
Ala Safeeh Sakhin takes a deep dive into the dark Damascene mafia underworld involved in the drugs trade – a now omnipresent feature in the war-torn country, according to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
The series is Syria’s avant-garde answer to The Sopranos, as it offers an unexplored portrayal of the world of rubbish scavenging and drugs racketeering as narcotics are sold by mobsters on waste collecting routes and hidden in dustbins.
Eccentric director Seif Sbei was drawn to the story immediately after reading a transcript by the show's writers, Ali Wajeeh and Yamen Al Hajali. Yet he wrestled with how to film it in Syria. "The most important aspect is the fact that it does not have a hero; the series itself is the hero – the normal people, their pain, lives and stories – and we try to shed light on a world we only hear about yet rarely manage to see," he says.
With about 90 per cent of Syrians now living under the poverty line, according to figures from the World Health Organisation, scavenging, and the trade and use of drugs, has increased in Syria since the onset of the 2011 conflict. Attempts to smuggle substantial amounts of drugs from the country to others in the region are regularly thwarted. In May last year, for example, Saudi Arabian authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle almost 20 million amphetamine pills sourced from Syria, while Dubai Police, in one raid last year, captured 5.6 tonnes of the stimulant known as Captagon, a substance commonly found in Syria.
In Breaking Bad-style scenarios, large portions of the storyline for Ala Safeeh Sakhin involve small-scale organised crime groups using Syrian pastry and sweets companies as guises for Captagon distribution.
“We promised 31 episodes of fire and that’s what everyone will get,” says Sbei, who is currently one of Syria’s top directors. “We couldn’t film in a real rubbish dump, so we had to make one on our own from scratch. We built an entire to-scale dump just for filming and that’s just part of having to be resourceful.”
Sbei believes this is crucial to creating a good TV series, which should offer “heavy content” in a “well-produced and attractive way”, he explains. “The storytelling aspect is important and, especially in this show, should convey the pain and suffering of a wider portion of the population.”
Ala Safeeh Sakhin has so far received rave reviews and is listed on the Abu Dhabi TV app as the No 1 most-watched series so far this Ramadan. It’s the talk of the Arab world, thanks to its sharp, quick-witted script, but also because of the many stars involved.
Syrian A-list actor Bassem Yakhour, who plays the enigmatic and vengeful Helal, brings a strong and charismatic presence to the series and has helped to increase its audience – he alone has more than five million followers on Facebook.
Yakhour's star rose in Syria’s TV industry after he played a central role in the hit comedy Deya Day’a. His character in Ala Safeeh Sakhin exacts revenge for a scam he was subjected to, and he makes his way to the top of the mafia pyramid by any means necessary, even if that entails teaming up with the charismatic godfather of the show’s narcotics underworld, Abu Karmo, played by Abdel Moneim Amyri.
Helal’s uncle, known simply as The Plague, is played by Salloum Haddad, who takes on a bold and provocative role. He is the don of the rubbish world and controls the routes.
Writer Al Hajali, who also plays the role of Ayyash Al Araj, a macho captain and enforcer in the central rubbish dump, says the series is made to show the pressures and problems facing ordinary people in the Syrian underworld who have to deal with extortion, violence and blackmail "It's a gritty portrayal of reality that not everyone sees, but that people hear about."
Wajeeh says it is an “unconventional” idea and storyline. “I like the fact that Syrian drama is promoting something new for the first time,” he says.
“Drug mafias, runaways and scavengers are not always portrayed accurately in Arab media, especially the way in which the pyramid works in getting children to do the work at the start and exploiting people in need.”
The Syrian TV industry has undoubtedly taken a battering over the past 10 years amid the conflict, yet brave and unconventional shows, such as Ala Safeeh Sakhin, prove that it is clawing back its reputation. Given the stiff competition from Egypt and Lebanon, among other countries well known for producing great dramas, this is some rare good news for the country.