Rebecca Joubin, The Politics of Love: Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Television Drama. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Rebecca Joubin (RJ): Despite the mass media attention that the most prolonged crisis of the “Arab Spring turned Winter” has generated, Syria remains an enigma. In order to attain a small modicum of understanding, one must sift through biased information from all sides of the uprising. In The Politics of Love: Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Television Drama, I contend that Syria’s television industry provides insight into the political and cultural climate of Syria prior to and following the uprising. During my preliminary fieldwork in 2000 and 2001, my extended residence in Damascus from 2002 through 2008, and fieldwork there during the summers of 2010 and 2011, I was privileged to have known leading Syrian drama creators who were dedicating their lives to transforming society and politics from within.
Although the research and writing of this book has been an important part of my life for years before the uprising, I wrote with a greater sense of urgency during the past few years. As I beheld a bleeding country that is a second home to me, it became all the more imperative to document this rich aspect of Syrian cultural history. Many of these intellectuals have suffered grave health issues, some have died, some have been imprisoned, while others have been dislocated and are no longer able to work in the domain of drama. Images of war, violence, and bloodshed have dominated the media, essentializing Syrian society. During these past few years, a sudden media interest in Syria has arisen. Yet as we all know from the horrific Iraq experience, this appeal is ephemeral. Indeed, we can already see the attraction dimming as Syria falls into a deadly stalemate. It appears that the sad realpolitik is that the world’s politicians are comfortable watching the fighting on all sides of this proxy war intensify, even fueling the flames of the conflict.
This book is a tribute to televisual Syrian culture, which has managed to survive despite the odds. I do not hide my admiration and respect for these intellectuals who allowed me into their homes and family life and entrusted me with their deepest concerns and self-critiques. Not once did they evince self-censorship, even though they knew I was using the material for my book. Not once did they ask me not to share the information, however controversial and critical. As I wrote this book, I knew that I, too, owed it to my readers, as well as these intellectuals, not to engage in self-censorship. I do not present Syrian drama through rosy-colored glasses, but rather aim to delineate the industry’s greatest challenges such as money-laundering, co-optation, and corruption. Yet I feel my approach is fair. The challenge scholars of Syrian culture now face is how to portray the beautiful aspects of Syrian culture and society even though some may conclude that this is defending the regime. Some—blinded by political agendas—have objectified these intellectuals and have only shown negative aspects of drama prior to the uprising, because, after all, how could anything good come from a society with such a heinous regime? However, I disagree with these colleagues and friends. I believe that showcasing the subversive dramatic arts does not defend the regime. For years, many worked from within and outside the system to make changes—some managed to stay independent; some could not withstand the benefits of co-optation. We need to see the whole picture and avoid transforming drama creators into a monolithic group. Indeed, my study shows the conflicting discourses and counter-narratives in the same periods, all serving to show the presence of healthy debates on the direction of society within Syria from the 1960s until the present. I hope that this book, which gives multifaceted voice to these drama creators as they debate each other, will contribute to showing another side of Syrian society.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literature does this book address?
RJ: Through a close viewing of over two hundred and fifty musalsalat (miniseries) spanning from the 1960s to post-uprising, analysis of hundreds of press reports, Facebook pages, and comprehensive interviews with drama creators over the years, my research aims to show that Syrian intellectuals have crossed over the red lines, questioned the foundation of regime legitimacy, and actively subverted the regime’s grand narratives. At the same time, most dismiss Western cultural paradigms as a guiding example of societal or political change. I argue that in order to prompt change, Syrian drama creators have used the lens of sexuality, gender, and marriage as major tropes. The construction of the qadaday (tough man), its evolving relationship to femininity, and its inextricable link to political critique, is one of the central aspects of analysis in The Politics of Love.
I commence with an examination of the early political parodies of the 1960s through 1980s, which were secular in approach and narrated from a male perspective. The all-encompassing interest in these political parodies was an embattled masculinity within the family, which served as a microcosm of the state. I argue that the presence of a frustrated masculinity in marital relations governed by the wife’s unfair demands—with the recurring image of marriage as prison—was a way to comment on economic hardship, corruption, and dictatorship. When a man manifested aggression toward a woman, drama creators depicted this as a vicious cycle of state violence, rather than as an example of hegemonic masculinity. Marriage metaphors of the late 1980s and 1990s, and the persistent theme of fighting the “dictator within,” are the focus of the following chapter, which reveals the psychology of tyranny.
Then I investigate the politics of the qabadayat and the state in the early historical genre of the 1990s before the entrenchment of funding from the GCC. In these miniseries, many of which are filled with folklore, the politics of masculinity and the state combine with history as a delicate method of subterfuge. The next chapter demonstrates how by 2000, tradition, custom, and religion superseded folklore in Old Damascus tales. Here I elaborate on the phenomena of the fantasy of the qabaday toppling colonial powers. Indeed, during this time, the term qabaday is used more frequently than in prior periods. At a time when man was disempowered vis-à-vis the state, drama creators transport us to a long-gone era—usually French colonial rule, sometimes Ottoman—for the male fantasy of national empowerment. In these historical tales—as well as contemporary tales described in later chapters—we also see that as man is increasingly marginalized by the state, he becomes more and more fixated on the sexual purity of his womenfolk. Then I analyze counter-narratives, which struggle to disconnect themselves from the qabadayat genre and construct alternative masculinities—and thereby femininities.
Indeed, my concluding sections explore an emerging, more radical, voice that divests the significance of female purity in Syrian society. This new voice is not concerned with extricating modernization from Westernization, nor does it use the female body as an identity marker to set apart the purity of their society from what is perceived as the moral depravity of the West. This more revolutionary voice of Syrian musalsalat demonstrates that it is only once a softer image of man has shed the role of protector of a woman’s sexuality that a truly egalitarian relationship can exist between them—serving metaphorically of the image of citizens attaining their dignity from an authoritarian order. Indeed, for avant-garde contemporary drama creators, the sexual repression of women is symbolic of the political oppression of an entire population.
When the Syrian uprising began March 2011, many of the miniseries for that season had already been written, and in some cases even filmed. Thus, I have interspersed the miniseries of 2011 throughout the chapters of this book. On the other hand, the miniseries of 2012, produced after the commencement of the uprising, marked a departure, and I have therefore analyzed some of them at the end of each chapter. During this time, more taboos are broken, marriage metaphors become sharper, and traditional constructions of femininity and masculinity are dismantled as we see more openness in female sexuality.
In the Afterward, I examine the debates on the directions of Syrian television drama and preparation for the 2013 season. During this time, while production decreased, the power of the art form remained strong. Yet drama creators have borne the bulk of the criticism in Syria when it comes to the role of art and the revolution. The question debated back and forth among Syrians is: For whom are they writing? What is the role of drama and art in the uprising? Indeed, the divide between intellectuals has intensified since the uprising. In this book, I argue that the tensions between these artists as they accuse each other of being muwali, shabihha, and minhabekjiya reveal to us as much about the inside politics of the Ba‘th regime as about the cultural and social fabric of Syria.
J: How does this book depart from previous research in the field?
RJ: Prior to the 2011 Syrian uprising, and arguably even afterward, Syrian musalsalat proffered biting critique that subverted official political discourse. At the same time, musalsalat were expected to adhere to an invisible boundary of that which the Syrian government condoned. I contend that despite attempted government co-optation, socio-political critiques of the Ba‘th socialist project and failed Arab nationalist claims have imbued political parodies from the establishment of television in Syria in 1960.
Scholars have attempted to comprehend the reasons behind this critical culture produced within state co-optation. The word tanfis in Arabic means “letting out air,” and many Syrians themselves contend that the al-Asad regime employs politically critical television productions to operate as “safety valves” to release the frustrations of citizens. There is indeed a body of literature that focuses on regime’s intent and that argues that the work of these intellectuals simply perpetuates the system. This line of argument has become even harsher since the uprising. With emotions high and the goal of exposing the criminal nature of the regime, one argument has even generalized that all drama creators under Bashar al-Asad have in the past decade worked in contrivance with the regime’s tanwiri project. In this line of thought, drama creators have been engaged in a comfortable dialogue with power, legitimizing the regime, and that it is only post-revolutionary art, such as that which is shown on YouTube, Facebook pages, and graffiti, that can be truly considered subversive art.
In The Politics of Love, however, I argue that to link the majority of drama creators with the regime is to grossly generalize, and to rob these intellectuals of agency and their remarkable power of resistance. This manner of argument transforms drama creators into passive pawns in the system rather than crafty artists who have overcome the hardships of censorship, state repression, and co-optation in order to create remarkably subversive work. In this book I turn away from the dominant paradigm that concentrates on regime intent, and instead turn my attention to the drama creators themselves. I argue that writers learn to dupe the censors by masking their protest in metaphors and allegories—innuendo and subterfuge. In my opinion it is wrong to dismiss their work as mere connivance with the regime.
J: Who do you hope will read the book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RJ: My late professor, Magda al-Nuwaihi, often discussed in her seminar classes at Columbia University the problematic of the translation of Arabic literature and culture. We frequently talked about the challenges of transporting a work of art, which is a true act of protest in its own country, to the West. For when transported to the West—where there is a power dynamic and agenda—these artistic works can be manipulated to denounce the very culture from which it emerges. As I have written this book about intellectuals who are writing to change their society and politics from within, I have been highly sensitive to this problematic. Yet I have trusted that my readers care about the Syrian people. I hoped that by giving voice to the story of these drama creators who have struggled for years to ameliorate their society, the reader will experience the beautiful humanity present in Syria. I aspired to do some justice to this remarkably cultivated and diverse intellectual capital, which current media depictions of war and bloodshed have unfortunately drowned out.
I would also like to underscore that this book is based on a close examination of Syrian miniseries that are written and produced in Syria, where the names of all cultural producers are clear. Their work stands in contrast to the post-2011 rise in politically critical sketches—with English subtitles such as Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator—written by Syrian as well as international artists mocking Bashar al-Asad. Some scholars praised Top Goon, which sought Western sponsorship, as breaking taboos, dismantling the wall of fear, and even satirizing elements of official state propaganda in a way that had not occurred in the past four decades of al-Asad rule over Syria. In this book, however, I show that Syria has a rich history of political satires that debunk official rhetoric of the system aimed for Syrian audiences in the hopes of transforming society from within. And as all side are killing each other in the current conflict, so many drama creators on all sides of the political spectrum have been writing stories begging for peace.
J: What is it like to have the book come out in the context of the current conflict in Syria?
RJ: Students and colleagues have asked me why I have been so quiet about the publication of my new book. Even though I taught a class on politics and gender in contemporary Syrian literature during the fall 2013 semester, I did not speak directly about its publication to my students. One colleague at another college grew upset with me for not mentioning the publication and sending a copy. I think that the reason I have been demure is precisely because the book did come out in the bloodiest context of the current conflict in Syria. I have not in any way wanted to be just another war profiteer as the world’s politicians watch this bloody stalemate.
I just didn’t want this book to benefit in any way from the conflict. I even avoided placing Syria in the main title. Thus it is often publicized on the internet as The Politics of Love. Readers have to search to see that Syria is in the title. I do ultimately hope that there will be an interest in this book, but I didn’t want it to ride the wave of interest due to the current Syrian crisis. Because the book was due to come out at the peak of the conflict, I chose a cover picture—a snapshot of screenwriter Najeeb Nseir’s al-Sarab (A Mirage, 2011), of a lovely couple in a serene and relatable love scene—in order to avoid further “othering” the culture.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RJ: I am currently completing an article on the politics of paternity in Syrian television drama, as well as politically critical satire. I am addicted to the study of Syrian culture and I feel as if I have only just touched the surface of the marvelous field of Syrian television drama. I also look forward to reading further studies of my bright colleagues in the field and engaging in discussions with them. There are many more topics of Syrian culture to which I aspire to dedicate my time, but I am also hoping to branch out and commence a comparative study of gender dynamics in Iranian media.
Excerpts from The Politics of Love: Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Television Drama
From the Introduction
The viewing and popularity of Syrian television drama peaked during the early years of Bashar al-Asad’s presidency only to face major challenges after the uprisings, and mini-series themselves address the rise and alleged fall of this televisual cultural product. In season four of Buq‘at Daw’ (Spotlight, 2004), for instance, writer Mazen Taha presents an episode entitled Drama Ramadaniyyeh (Ramadan Drama), a satire of the Ramadan television season. This meta-critical episode demonstrates how the entertainment industry perceived its role in society during those critical years of peak in production, while imparting humorous criticism of the planning and viewing process. The episode opens with a group of television executives sitting around a table arguing about which mini-series will be designated for the popular viewing times. These executives agree that the prime time slots are post-Iftar (the meal breaking the fast during Ramadan, usually in the afternoon) and the post-Suhur (fast broken before dawn). The executives bicker about which musalsalat to relegate to the unpopular midnight slot, and they fight about which channel each will air on. They are unable to reach an agreement until one of them cries out in exasperation that the next day is Ramadan and the quickest solution is to delay the Iftar fast by thirty minutes to accommodate the musalsalat. This statement is almost sacrilegious in nature—but the idea of breaking tradition for the ease of the producers emphasizes the cultural importance of Ramadan mini-series.
The sketch then transports viewers into the home of a husband and wife, Hadi and Hadia (literally meaning “calm” in both the masculine and feminine gender), who, far from calm, are stressed as they bargain over which mini-series each of them gets to see, trading time slots back and forth with each other. As they quarrel over the schedule, they smell something burning in the kitchen. When they hear an explosion, they stop for a moment, but ultimately ignore it and resume the important matter of musalsal viewing times. Next, the sketch cuts to a scene of a crowded street as hordes of people make valiant attempts to mount taxis, with would-be passengers flinging themselves into windows in order to catch a ride. When Mas‘ud settles into a taxi, his driver curses and swerves through traffic gridlocks. Frightened, Mas‘ud cries out that Iftar is not for another two hours. The driver responds that he is not hungry since he is not fasting, but that he is in a rush to get home and tune into his favorite musalsal. Meanwhile, at the police station, the officers are more interested in watching their favorite musalsal than dealing with a recent robbery report.
Later, Mas‘ud and his wife watch television while participating in a contest sponsored by the television station. The announcer wants to know the name of the sponsor for the mini-series ironically entitled Todrab hal ‘Isheh (To Hell with This Kind of Life). The anticipation of making the phone call added to the suspenseful music from the television program, causes Mas‘ud to faint. A doctor quickly examines him, informs the couple that Mas‘ud’s heart pressure had increased from the strain of the musalsal, and warns Mas‘ud, “You have to be careful. Watch a historical mini-series before the Iftar, a social serial after the Iftar, sarcastic comedy before al-Suhur, and definitely do not watch any advertisements.” Then the doctor leaves hastily, saying he is late for his favorite musalsal, aptly called “The Time of Hysteria.”
Finally, we return to the first anxious couple—Hadi and Hadia—who are still arguing as they watch a musalsal. When their electricity goes out and they cannot watch television for another three days, they decide to visit their family even though it is the twenty-fifth day of Ramadan, still several days before the ‘id (holiday festivities). There they meet up with Mas‘ud and his wife, who are their close relatives. In uniting, the two couples finally partake in the purported spirit of Ramadan—bonding between families. The power of Drama Ramadaniyyeh resides in conveying the effect of musalsalat on the traditional meaning of the month of Ramadan. This sketch created at the height of Syrian television production, depicts hysteria in both the screening and viewing of a musalsal.
The sketch Khabar ‘Ajal (News Flash), in Buq‘at Daw’ Part Nine (Ramadan 2012) was written during the increasingly bloody war between the official government forces and the Free Syrian Army. It portrays a vastly different type of hysteria during a time of bloodshed and instability when musalsal viewership has seriously declined. In this episode, written by Hazem Suleiman, Su‘ad (Rana Shamis) yearns to watch her favorite musalsal, but her husband Hadi (Muhammad Hadaqi) reminds her that she is pregnant and should not be exposed to news flashes of death. When she threatens to leave him and return to her parent’s house, he says she can watch her musalsal on the condition that she covers her eyes when the news flashes of bombings appear on the screen. When a news flash appears on her musalsal, Hadi intervenes and covers it with black tape. As more news flashes rise above the black tape, he continues to cover them until the entire screen is black. With nothing left to see, the news flashes revert to sound, and we hear a sudden bomb explosion emanate from the screen. Frustrated, Hadi joins others in throwing their televisions from the window into the alley below the building.
From Chapter Nine: Cultural Deconstructions of Femininity and Self-Identity in Marriage in Contemporary Tales
Saby au Bint: Constructions of Feminisity and Cultural Authenticity
Judy: You have lived as a woman for thirty years. Now you’re saying you want to become a man?
Lulu: A girl has a hard time in this society. She can’t live as she wishes. Everyone is ready to pounce on her for making one mistake. And our situation is better than most women in our society.
Judy: Do you know what it means to be a man? Responsibilities toward your relatives, community. If you think that no one interferes in a man’s life you are wrong. Even we liberated women expect a lot of men. We take no responsibility for household expenses, the car….
Lulu: Yes, but you can’t deny that we live in a masculine society. More doors are open to men. You saw that at work they denied me an opportunity that I rightfully deserved just because I’m a woman.
Judy: But I feel our laws and customs for both sexes deal with positive and negative things.
Lulu: Don’t you see? I have the golden opportunity to change my life, to do away with all the nonsense I face as a woman. Do you know what will happen if I become a man. I’ll be the best man in the world, because I’ll understand what a woman loves, what she hates. Lucky be the woman who will marry me.
- “Sabi aw Bint?” in Sirat al-Hubb: Min Ajmal Qisas
The first episode of Sabi aw Bint opens with a crisis of femininity. Lulu (Amal ‘Arafeh) worked seven years without taking a vacation but one of her less deserving male colleagues receives the coveted promotion. The boss tells her she is excellent but that in the future she will marry, take maternity leave, and have other responsibilities toward her husband. Lula complains that he is treating her unfairly, since she is not even married yet. Although her boss defends his decision by offering her a pay raise, Lulu is devastated that her sex enables men to determine her destiny. She is further irritated at her feminine condition when a man harasses her as she walks outside. To make matters worse, her uncle calls and pressures her to hurry up and get married. After all, he says, she is thirty years old, and her whole family is looking forward to celebrating.
When Lulu complains to her fiancé, ‘Abed, at a restaurant that their engagement interfered with her promotion, he not only agrees that maternal duties will one day consume her time, but also recommends she wear makeup and let her hair down as other women do. Furious, Lulu rises from the restaurant table, bumps into the waiter, and faints. The next thing we know, Lulu wakes up in the hospital surrounded by her best friend, Judy (Tulane al-Bekri), and her fiancé. At the hospital, the doctor detects a mass between her legs, and she faces the choice of continuing as a woman or becoming a man. Despite ‘Abed’s protests, she informs her fiancé that she has to think of what is good for her as an “individual.” When he protests she asks, “Are you giving me orders? Am I challenging your masculinity?” Lulu reflects upon the magnitude of problems women face in the country. If a man rapes a woman and then asks to marry her in front of the judge, and she accepts, he is then judged innocent. A woman cannot pass her Syrian citizenship to her children, and thus children with Syrian mothers and non-Syrian fathers are compelled to live like foreigners in their own country. A husband may prevent his wife from traveling out of the country. Having pondered all the difficulties women face, Lulu tells her fiancé that she has decided to become a man.
In a dream sequence, an operation—and societal customs—transforms Lulu to Luay, a “real man.” On the first day at the office Lu’ay tells Judy that “he” wishes he had been born a man—he saves time in the morning by not wearing makeup and economizes by not having to get manicures and pedicures. Judy complains about her fiancé, and Lu’ay comforts her. In the evenings “he” frequents cafés to smoke a hookah and flirt with women. He goes to cabarets, where he gets drunk and sleeps around with women. One day, Judy approaches Lu’ay crying, and tells him that after four years, her fiancé has left her. Lu’ay then asks Judy to marry him. Shortly after their marriage, if any man looks at Judy, Lu’ay, feeling his honor is violated, fights the man and covers Judy with a shawl. He accuses her of asking for harassment by wearing revealing clothes. Lu’ay is always out drinking with friends and is known to flirt with the secretary. Judy leaves him, saying, “You once said that if you became a man, you’d be exemplary. Now look around you. Dishes piled in the sink; mustiness, the smell of smoke, aggression, and jealousy. You’re doing everything you accused men of doing and worse” (Episode 20). Then the story recommences, with Lulu as a woman, sitting at the table, furious with her fiancé. ‘Abed gently calms her down and apologizes, saying that he merely asked her to take care of herself. Touched by the startling glimpse she had into her life as a man, Lulu lets down her hair and embraces her femininity.
Though the West is not referred to explicitly, there is a clear anti-Western subtext in this two-episode story. While writers Yezen Atassi and Lobna Haddad challenge traditional gender constructions by deconstructing masculinity and femininity, their deconstruction does not entail an imitation of Western individuality, but rather must be in harmony with Eastern notions of community and family. At the heart of the highly gendered nationalist discourse is the perceived role of religious tradition in society and anxiety over the West’s part in Syrian identity formation. Survival of loving marital relationships is often linked to gender constructions without reference to the West, or in opposition to Syrian traditions. These constitutions of identity speak of a moral modernity and community spirit distinct from the West and its sexual liberty and individualism. And then there is an emerging more radical voice, which aims to dismantle the notion of female purity. This new voice, which I examine in the last two sections of this chapter, is not fixated on distinguishing modernization from Westernization nor does it place women as identity markers to distinguish the purity of Eastern society from the moral depravity of the West.
 Mazen Taha, Buq‘at Daw’ Part Four (Spotlight), al-Drama Ramadaniyyeh, directed by Laith Hajjo and produced by Suriya al-Dawliyyeh li-l-Intaj al-Fanni, 2004.
 Hazem Suleiman, Buq‘at Daw’, Part Nine, Episode 5, Khabar ‘Ajal (News Flash), directed by ‘Amer Fahd and produced by Suriya al-Dawliyyeh li-l-Intaj al-Fanni, 2012.
 Yezen Atassi and Lobna Haddad, Episode 19, “Sabi aw Bint? (Boy or Girl?) Part One” Sirat al-Hubb: Min Ajmal Qisas (A Tale of Love: From the Most Beautiful Stories), directed by ‘Ammar Radwan, produced by Ghazzal Production and Art Distribution, 2007.
 Atassi and Haddad, Episode 20, “Sabi aw Bint? Part Two,” Sirat al-Hubb.
 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Feminist Longings and Postcolonial Conditions,” in Lila Abu-Lughod, ed., Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 15.
[Excerpted from The Politics of Love: Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Television Drama, by Rebecca Joubin, by permission of the author. © 2013 by Lexington Books. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]