Christa Salamandra and Nour Halabi (eds.), Middle Eastern Television Drama: Politics, Aesthetics, Practices (Routledge, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Christa Salamandra and Nour Halabi (CS & NH): Middle Eastern Television Drama: Politics, Aesthetics, Practices is the first edited volume of peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary, and cross-regional essays that attends to the intricacies of Middle Eastern scripted television. The project began as a Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference panel, “The Politics and Aesthetics of Middle Eastern Television,” which generated a good deal of discussion and suggested the need for a publication that brought together our diverse voices and disparate arguments. After we published contributions from the panel as a special issue of Middle East Critique, the journal’s editor Eric Hoogland suggested that we expand it into a book.
Middle Eastern Television Drama responds to a growing interest, particularly within cultural studies and media and television studies, in dissembling the linguistic silos that separate research on cultural industries. In expanding the special issue into an approachable edited volume, we embrace the current imperative to globalize scholarship and teaching, providing a balanced and yet expansive view of fictional television across the Middle East.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CS & NH: Middle Eastern Television Drama: Politics, Aesthetics, Practices comes at an inflection point for the study of Arab and Middle Eastern television, as the social movements of the early 2010s have shifted the political landscape of the region, inspiring further waves of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary mobilization and everyday political reflection. Television drama has come to occupy a unique position in speaking to the broad audiences it has attracted since the advent of satellite television in the region in the 1990s.
The volume explores the role that fictional television drama industries, aesthetics, and texts play in the ways in which the complex social and political concerns of creators and consumers across the region are portrayed, critically examined, and collectively responded to. It is the first extended examination of locally produced fictional television across the Middle East and complements existing literatures on national film, news media, and drama industries.
From the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and its connection to the democratic backsliding in Egypt, to the role that the historical memorialization in fictional drama plays in justifying government policy and retroactively framing the collective memory of war, to the work of drama distributors in exporting local drama content, the contributors to Middle Eastern Television Drama offer a glimpse into individual fictional television industries and point to a regional focus that we hope future researchers will take up and build on.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CS: I began researching and writing about fictional television during my dissertation fieldwork in Damascus of the early 1990s, when Syrians’ impassioned responses to the first “Damascene milieu” (bi’a shamiyya) serial, aired during Ramadan, revealed to me television drama’s significance. The debates surrounding Damascene Days (Ayyam Shamiyya), which touched on the sensitive terrain of Syria’s social and political divisions, became the subject of my first journal article. I have continued for much the same reason; with the spread of satellite technology, drama has emerged as Syria’s leading mass media form and cultural export. With my forthcoming book, Waiting for Light: Syrian Television Drama Production in the Satellite era, I hope to tell the story of the Syrian drama “outpouring” ethnographically, through the experience of musalsal (television serial) creators. The book draws on two decades of intermittent fieldwork in Syria, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, and offers a history of Syrian industry and its national genre.
NH: Over the course of my academic career, I have stayed true to the instinct to develop diverse interdisciplinary research projects that are inspired by my own journey as a Syrian exile who experiences much of my home country through the portal of fictional television. In a sense, I am inspired by the capacity of fictional television in the region to bring audiences in touch with their fellow countrymen and women across the diaspora, as well as to allow them to see themselves in the characters of shows set in neighboring countries. I first took an interest in fictional television as a master’s student in comparative politics at LSE. There, I convinced my then advisor David Woodruff of the importance of translating much of the theory I had learned in comparative politics into a study of the political economy of Syrian television industries. The choice turned out to be a pivotal one for my own career, as the project inspired a shift from political science to communication, leading to my later PhD in Communication at the Annenberg School. Over the years, I have continued to marry those two threads of my academic training, for instance in my articles in Arab Media and Society and The International Journal of Communication, where I examine the contentious politics and the political economy of Egyptian and Syrian television industries. I have also applied my political science background to this realm by focusing on the soft power of Syrian broadcasting in a chapter co-authored with Noha Mellor in The Routledge Handbook on Arab Media.
I never believed in the pressure within academia to restrict oneself to one area, particularly because there are two very important imperatives that drive my research; one is a mediated connection to my ancestral homeland, and another is an understanding that the media representation of immigrant minorities in their adopted countries bears an impact on their lives. Thus, alongside my work on Arab media, I continue to conduct research projects inspired by my identity as a newcomer to the countries I inhabit, mainly the United States and the United Kingdom. This work comes out in my first solo manuscript, Radical Hospitality (Rutgers University Press, 2022), and in work on racial and ethnic minorities and migration in the United Kingdom (in progress).
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CS & NH: We hope our book will situate the Middle Eastern drama within the broader field of television studies. Its range of disciplinary perspectives will appeal to students and scholars in anthropology, cultural studies, history, media studies, performance studies, political science, and sociology. It will also serve as a reference for research on global creative industries and Middle Eastern media.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CS: I have begun exploring ways to archive key Syrian dramas and render them accessible as a teaching, research, and historical resource. Discussions of the musalsal on social media highlight how important serial television has become to notions of identity and collective memory for the generations who grew up with it, particularly among Syrians in exile.
NH: This question comes at a critical time for I think many scholars who are in my position; there is a marked sense of accomplishment and trepidation that follows the publishing of one’s first book and the development of the next. I am currently trying to be present in that moment, to reflect on how my research moves forward in fruitful directions. I am now translating my first book into research projects on journalistic ethics when it comes to the representation of minorities, as well as working on a future project on nationalism.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4)
The mass uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East in 2011, and the succession of social movements that followed, have sparked a burgeoning academic interest in the politics of Middle Eastern media. The political upheaval diverted attention from scripted television to news and social media. Yet as the contributions to this volume demonstrate, fictional television drama serves as a key site of sociopolitical commentary in the Middle East. Serials of the past decade have garnered vast audiences and critical attention, sparking lively public debate that would be unlikely to occur otherwise. Multimedia convergence has in fact intensified television drama’s reach and relevance. The Internet offers a virtual, year-round simulation of Ramadan—the long-standing TV broadcast season of Arabic-language media. Digital technologies enable binge watching, breathing new life into long-form television. Audiences watch serials through streaming services and video sharing sites. Fan cultures abound on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Media makers use these platforms to promote their works and—sometimes from sites of diaspora—communicate with each other and their audiences. Drama stills recur as memes. Viewers are themselves producing and posting mash-ups, spoofs, critiques, and homages to TV serials and their creators.
Television serials and their production worlds offer a unique vantage point from which to study political, social, and cultural life in the Middle East. As an art form, TV drama also merits consideration for its aesthetic qualities and formal innovations. Given its breadth and reach, serial television should occupy a place in academic literature that reflects its significance. Sadly, scholarly attention to this key cultural form is inversely proportional to its sociopolitical relevance. Film—particularly of the auteur variety that local audiences rarely see—retains much higher status. This may reflect lingering allegiance to Frankfurt School positions on mass cultural industries as monolithic purveyors of dominant ideologies. Decades after the British cultural studies theorists complicated the analysis of mass cultural forms and their consumption, the serials that Middle Easterners produce are too often dismissed as sophisticated propaganda. This stance not only ignores the complexities of fictional television but also underestimates the structural contingencies of art film production; highbrow cinema’s funding sources, exhibition, and reception all belie the autonomy that scholarly attention to it implies. Moreover, its highbrow register, limited distribution networks and exhibition outlets, and higher cost for filmgoers all render cinema less accessible. Television remains by far the more democratic and widely viewed medium...
Television drama reveals a varied and sometimes contradictory deployment of history as commentary on the contemporary moment. Josh Carney analyzes a war of dramatic pasts in contemporary Turkey. Comparing two highly successful Ottoman-period Turkish dramas, he argues that Ottoman revivalist serials represent nostalgic projects that reprise the past and recreate it in the process. The first, The Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyιl), with its depiction of sexual exploits and palace intrigues in Sultan Suleyman’s court, presents a narrative of history that conflicts with the aims of the conservative Turkish government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). For that very reason, Century inspired a second neo-Ottoman revivalist serial, Resurrection Ertuğrul (Diriliş Ertuğrul), which was produced by a former AKP politician. The latter show restores a more conservative view of Ottoman past.
Occasionally, drama revises national memory to align with state policy. Esha Momeni revisits Ravayat-e Fath (The Story of Conquest), an Iranian docudrama produced between 1984 and 1987, to explore the role that television played in framing the Iranian population’s impression and experience of the Iran-Iraq war. Momeni argues that although the serial was presented as a documentary, Ravayat-e Fath enters the fictional realm through its reliance on epic narratives and dramatic cinematography. The serial cultivated a culture of survivors’ guilt and a glorification of martyrdom that the Iranian government used to recruit soldiers. Ravayat-e Fath promoted a valorization of martyrdom that shamed living war veterans as failures and justified the state’s refusal to support all but the most physically disabled among them.
Drama creators have grappled with the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath from a variety of ideological standpoints. Walter Armbrust ponders a question that has plagued analysts of Egypt since the 2013 Rab‘a massacre: Regardless of attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, how could the Egyptian public have tolerated the brutal treatment of the al Rab‘a protestors? Armbrust’s answer turns to fictional television, illustrating how the serial drama al-Gama‘a (The Society) vilified and demonized the Muslim Brotherhood through decontextualization of the group’s history. By juxtaposing its present of 2010 with a biopic of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, al-Gama‘a painted the organization as inherently violent and alien to Egyptian society. The serial aired before the massacre unfolded and thereby paved the way for television news and talk shows to justify the murderous crackdown on Rab‘a protestors in 2013.
Egyptian commercial television’s buttressing of state policy intensified during the Sisi era. Gianluca Parolin argues that drama has supported the reinvigoration of authoritarian governance that occurred after Egypt’s 2011 Revolution. Analyzing Kalabsh (Handcuffs) of 2017, he contends that drama provided an avenue to revisit—and discredit—key revolutionary figures. The serial portrays anti-regime activists as opportunists, foreign agents, naive youths, or simple troublemakers. Kalabsh, Parolin argues, dismisses revolutionary movements as disruptive, cumbersome events that fail to generate substantial, positive political change.
Two chapters explore dramatic reflections on pre- and post-uprising Syria. Nour Halabi shows the spatially grounded, socioeconomic inequality that has fed Syria’s conflict is documented in television serials as nowhere else. Her contribution explores drama al-‘ashwa’iyat (informal settlement drama), which depicts the impoverished living conditions of an estimated 50 percent of Syria’s prewar population. Comparing two serials, al-Intizar (Waiting), aired in 2006, and Zawal, aired in 2016, Halabi argues that spatial inequality played a central—and overlooked—role in mobilizing protests. She notes that wartime television depictions of informal settlements have strayed from an earlier tendency to highlight structural inequality and state neglect and instead blame informal settlement dwellers for their own dire situation.
Christa Salamandra’s chapter explores the multilayered chronopolitics that run through key Syrian dramatic genres in which television creators pose and attempt to answer the question “What went wrong?” Historical and folkloric dramas evoke the heroism and cultural flourishing of bygone ages, critiquing the present through implied comparison. Serials set in the present invert this logic, identifying the sources of contemporary ills in errors and injustices from recent history. Through a technique of narrative allochrony, drama creators point to select practices and attitudes as lapses in national—and regional—modernizing projects. This signifying process has intensified in dramas that followed the 2011 anti-regime uprising-turned-civil and proxy wars, as dramas remain relevant by offering analyses of the conflict that draw on the past for narrative explication.
Mehdi Semati and Nima Behroozi complicate the notion that makers of state-produced dramas serve as regime mouthpieces. They situate their analysis of Gondo, a fact-inspired spy thriller, in the context of Iran’s geopolitical positioning. Here the usual object of state surveillance—the Iranian citizenry—is displaced by the nation’s enemies: foreign spies. Yet by calling attention to surveillance practices, the serial raises questions about the morality of intelligence gathering. Damning in its depiction of American infiltration into Iran’s state apparatus, it nevertheless works to reframe regime preservation measures as national security imperatives and links desires for rapprochement with the West to surreptitious foreign meddling. Semati and Behroozi show how officially sanctioned drama responds to a complex geopolitical aesthetic that invites subversive readings.
Wazhmah Osman situates Afghan serials in a media landscape dominated by foreign programs. Taking advantage of the international funding that has flooded their country since the early 2000s, Afghan drama creators have endured considerable personal danger to produce realist programs that reflect local conditions. Viewers have lauded these dramas as worthy and authentic but tended not to enjoy them. They preferred the lighter, escapist offerings from neighboring India and Turkey until a pioneering woman director hit upon a winning formula. Khate Sewom (The Third Line) unflinchingly depicts Afghanistan’s predicament; it also features agentive characters and a glimpse of a brighter future.
While most analyses of Middle Eastern fictional television focus on content analysis, creative production, or audience reception, Arzu Öztürkmen explores an intermediary stage linking these domains. Drawing on fieldwork “behind the scenes” of drama creation, she offers an ethnography of distribution. Her contribution highlights the vital, yet rarely acknowledged, role that Turkish distributors have played in the rise of dizi as a global television drama genre. These professionals do not merely sell serials; they shape them by bringing their knowledge of international market imperatives to Turkish producers. Öztürkmen’s account of their unsung contribution broadens scholarship on the transnational media environment by revealing the complex interplay between a national industry and the global marketplace.