Syrian soap operas as pro-Assad consensus-builders

//The image on the cover of Donatella Della Ratta's book, showing some posters of a campaign for national unity after 2011 revolts

Syrian soaps are consensus-builders for the reformist image of President Bashar al-Assad, who has always presented himself as critical of the more conservative, repressive and corrupt elements of his own regime, according to a new book by Arab media expert Donatella Della Ratta. Titled 'Syrian Soap Operas. Market and Politics in Assad-era Television' (Arab Media Report publishers, 64 pages, 10 euros), it is based on first-hand research conducted in Damascus in 2007-2011.

''There is a kind of elective affinity between a certain class made up of enlightened, secular intellectuals, artists and filmmakers, and the new political class that rose to power in 2000 with the younger Assad, with its apparently reformist and progressive stance '', writes the author, who is working as Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

''These two elites have sealed an iron pact. They want to educate a society which both hold incapable of rising above its alleged social and cultural backwardness, and the only way to do this is through a gradual process, one that is carefully monitored by enlightened minorities''. As a way to win the hearts and minds of the unenlightened masses, the ruling elites invested heavily in what has become Syria's pride and joy: its soap opera industry, whose products sweep the ratings throughout the Arab world.

Touching on taboo subjects such as political extremism, women's liberation, interfaith dialogue, and all the hottest topics in contemporary Arab societies, they even take on Syria's faults, such as the repressive role of its secret services, widespread corruption, and the 2011 protests that degenerated into an ongoing and bloody civil war. Assad himself, in keeping with his politically reformist stance, often intervened to make sure they passed censorship barriers.

In excerpts seen on the Arab Media Report website, these soaps provide glimpses into Assad's power structure: anything but monolithic, it is made up of different sectors that may or may not communicate with one another, as well as elements that can be accused of responsibility for the degeneration of the country.

Assad is never named in these narratives, as though to safeguard his image as a reformer who didn't have time to implement his reforms, as ''the only authority capable of leading Syria into the modern era'' and the sole guardian of its multicultural, multi-faith identity. Not only has the Syrian industry continued producing and broadcasting soaps in spite of the civil war, it has also kept on doing brisk business in the Arab Gulf media market, where the biggest players are countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have taken sides against Assad to the extent of arming militias against him.



by Luciana Borsatti – ANSAmed





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