The Syrian Soap Opera
February 14, 2023
by production Dramaturg Rayya El Zein
The premise of the Wilma’s latest production, Kiss, is that a group of American actors find and stage a “Syrian soap opera” out of interest in and solidarity with Syrian artists in the context of that country’s civil war. After they put on a production of the play, they discover they had misunderstandings about the intention of the Syrian playwright.
A central part of the challenges and misinterpretations of the American troupe in the play revolve around understandings and interpretations of “melodrama.” Given this, some exposition of “melodrama” might be helpful.
In Arabic, mousalsal (pronounced: moo-sal-sal) refers to a popular form of television, the serial drama, which may be set in the present or a historical past. Mousalsal is often translated into English as “soap opera” but this can limit ways of understanding the aesthetics and social function of these programs. The mousalsal does not have the exclusive association with female audiences, midday television, or trashy romance often conjured by the phrase in English. Also in contrast to the US soap opera and the political economy of its production, Arabic-language mousalsal in Syria in particular have played obvious and significant political functions due to the role of state media in the country.
Central features of the mousalsal:
- The genre is serial melodrama but the aesthetics are not necessarily American soap opera. English-language parallel examples might be Downton Abbey (as a historical example, compare with Bab Al-Hara ) or This Is Us more than Days of Our Lives.
- The most important feature of the mousalsal as a social phenomenon is that it has wide demographic appeal: whole families sit down to watch ~30 episodes released nightly during the month of Ramadan when families gather to break their fast every evening. AS such they have been important fora for Syrians and the wider Arab world to consider and debate identity, politics, and shared understandings of history.
- Like all melodrama, mousalsal serials tend to simplify good and evil and push realism to achieve emotional climax and catharsis (long lost lovers who return, etc).
- Due to the popularity of the mousalsal, actors and directors have reputations and associations that precede and often outshine the specific roles they play in a given series. For example an actor or director’s political position (support for or critique of the ruling party) may be well known and so casting them will allow for the interpretation of politics in ways US audiences tend not to interpret significance.
- Syria has a long tradition of state-run media and censorship. The mousalsal and various genres of live theatre that preceded it (and from which the televised serial drama draws) have developed and flourished within this political economy. Some have benefited from declaring allegiance to the regime, others have gained popularity by finding ways to bypass the censor and critique it. The modern history of theatre in Syria, including of the televised mousalsal, includes directors and actors in favor of the ruling regime who were afforded opportunities to produce as well as directors, actors, and designers who voiced opposition to the Assad family and were disappeared, imprisoned, tortured, forced into exile. The role of the state in the production of Syrian media and the role of the secret police in the censorship of performance is another piece of context and background that the troupe in the play is ill-positioned to immediately understand just from reading the script.
In light of the last point, it may also be helpful to review recent political events.
- In December of 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of the economic conditions in which he found himself. His act sparked wide-spread popular protest across Tunisia that led to the fall of the ruling regime in that country in early 2011. Similar protests spread across the region. These became known as the Arab Uprisings or the Arab Spring.
- After an exhilarating revolutionary period during 2011-2013, most countries that saw what appeared to be paradigm-shifting popular protests saw brutal counterrevolutionary crackdowns. Egypt has seen authoritarianism take a new hold over that country while Syria, Yemen, and Libya have spiraled into civil war.
- Bashar al-Assad, the current leader of Syria, has been in power since 2000. His father Hafez al-Assad ruled before him from 1971.
- Since 2012-13, events in Syria have been characterized as a civil war with numerous domestic and international players.
- The humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees dominated media headlines in the second half of 2014 but the situation has continued to deteriorate since then.
Exhibition with online resources: The World is Watching Mousalsalat
January 18-May 13, 2023 The Media Majlis at Northwestern University in Qatar.
Article: Omar Al-Ghazzi, “Nation as Neighborhood: How Bab al-hara Dramatized Syrian Identity” Media, Culture and Society Vol 35 (2013).
Monograph: Donatella Della Ratta, Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria Pluto Press (2018).
Article: Christa Salamandra, “Moustache Hairs Lost: Ramadan Television Serials and the Construction of Identity in Damascus, Syria” Visual Anthropology Vol 10 (1998).
Interview/podcast: Christa Salamandara, “Syrian Musalsalat during the ongoing conflict” Status September 20, 2019 https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/40004.
Monograph: Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria University of Chicago Press (2019).