Syrians are “Media Commodities” on Arab Screens
Enab Baladi Investigative Team
This season, Syrians are missing from their usual starring role on Arab television screens. Instead, their appearance has taken on a different shape. Whether in soap operas, entertainment programs or satire shows, Syrians make an appearance as promotional “commodities” or objects for experiments and pranks, who Arab producers are competing to hire.
Various Arab art and drama productions have had a Syrian as the lead character, but in novel ways. These productions have tried to attract the largest audiences and interaction by using methods ranging from “insults” to “distortion”. These methods are used to obtain attractive content that sends a specific message shaped within the entertainment and comedy industries.
The reasons behind the use of Syrians in this way are many. A section of the Arab public, and especially the Syrian public, consider this to be aimed at relaying coverts message to fulfill what “the director wants”. Others attribute it to an atmosphere that coincides with the developments and hot issues currently in the media and to the need to tackle and address these issues as was previously the case in several Arab societies. Syrian drama was the first to address and present such content because it is unthinkable for drama productions to turn a blind eye to what the audience is experiencing in their daily life, whether positive developments or catastrophic ones due to war or other reasons.
Programs and soap operas exploit the conditions of Syrians
In this report, Enab Baladi tries to examine the phenomenon of using Syrians in Arab media and presenting them as promotional commodities for Ramadan productions. We discussed this issue with art critics who pointed out that media programs and soap operas during the month of Ramadan this year have addressed subjects that draw on people’s concerns and are close to current affairs. However, these programs sought to convey messages mainly to their audience, ignoring the reasons behind the phenomenon of Syrian refugees or the deterioration of security and economic conditions in Syria.
Al-Sadma program humiliates Syrian refugees
Al-Sadma, a program broadcast on MBC, was promoted as an entertainment show. However, it was neither entertaining nor humorous as described, but rather sought to enhance the image of a society at the expense of Syrians and their suffering. The show’s insulting nature in social and humanitarian terms was overlooked by the production company so that the program could be pushed onto this year’s Ramadan television listings.
In the fourth episode, titled “Dealing with Refugees”, the program contained a number of scenes that were insulting to Arab refugees in their countries of asylum, including Syrians. The scenes showed them being kicked out of restaurants and portrayed them as being “dependent on their host society and incapable of exercising the same rights as natives”. At the end of the scene, the narrator clarifies that this is a joke or a kind of prank.
The introductory scene at the beginning of the episode was a clear indicator of what was to come. The director presented his vision and used an Arab proverb, “When you leave your home, you leave your dignity behind”. He went to ask, “How should we deal with these people? … Should we include and integrate them in our country? Or go hard on them?”.
According to the promotional advert for the program, the program is “hard-hitting and impressed many viewers, achieving high ratings last Ramadan as well as in Ramadan this year, since the program exposes audiences to humanitarian and social cases that touch them”.
The first episode was filmed inside a restaurant in Egypt. The customers were surprised when one of the employees insulted a Syrian family and kicked them out of the restaurant on the basis that they were protecting the rights of native Egyptians, who had more right to be fed than Syrian refugees. People were very sympathetic towards the Syrian family. Some got into a fight with the employee and all the customers left the restaurant before the prank was revealed.
The same situation was filmed in Germany and the outcome was not very different. Many Germans in the restaurant said that Syrians were welcome and that there was no law banning them from leading a normal life. Their reaction did not differ much from that of Egyptians, and many decided to leave the restaurant if the family was kicked out.
The idea is taken from the Turkish candid camera program, which was broadcast two years ago on the official Turkish TRT channel. The program broadcast the same scene of a Syrian family being kicked out of a restaurant, with many Turkish customers taking their side.
The al-Sadma program was met with very negative reactions among the Syrian public, as seen on social media, because of the way in which Syrian refugees were treated as “inferior people in need of compassion and sympathy” instead of highlighting the problems they face in asylum countries, such as residency issues and visas. Covering these kinds of issues would be genuinely hard-hitting, since “Syrians need to have the right to residency like all other nationalities. We do not want people’s pity”.
Critics of the program backed up their arguments by pointing to many examples of Syrians who were able to integrate into their new societies and excel in various scientific, medical and economic fields.
Hidden aspect of the Zain advert
Criticisms of the Ramadan advertising video by the Zain Telecommunications Company spread like wild fire after the advert contained a scene showing the child Omran Daqneesh in front of a suicide bomber who wants to blow himself up. The child insists that the ethics of the Prophet Mohammed are based on forgiveness, mercy and not doing any harm to others.
Most criticisms argued that the advert distorted the truth. The image of Omran, which sent shockwaves around the world, was the result of a bombing by al-Assad forces on the city of Aleppo, not a terrorist attack by ISIS, as Zain portrays it. In fact, the advert carries a hidden aim that seeks to exploit the suffering of the Syrians to further a particular media message.
Since the Gulf countries are currently focused on fighting ISIS and eliminating its ideological sources, it was necessary to create an artistic sensation by using Omran in an advert now seen by around ten million viewers on YouTube, as well as being broadcast on channels with which Zain signed sponsorship contracts during Ramadan, the season with the highest audience numbers.
The advert’s exploitation of the suffering of Syrians was not limited to the portrayal of Omran but also included a quote by another Syrian child who says, “I will tell God everything” before he is killed by an air strike. The advert changes the quote as follows, “I will tell God everything, that you filled cemeteries with our children while schools are empty, ignited sedition and left our streets dark and unlit. I will tell Him that you lied, and Allah is more knowledgeable about what is in your hearts.” This statement is repeated during the scenes where the so-called “terrorists” are planning suicide bombings.
“Superficial” treatment in Ken Fi Kol Zaman program
The first episode of the Arab series “Ken Fi Kol Zaman” began with repeated scenes taken from a number of films and sketches that are widespread on various media outlets. The series deals superficially and directly with the issues taking place in the Arab world without any deep discussion or plot that leads to a convincing outcome.
At the airport, the family of Kuwaiti star Souad Abdullah is suspicious of a Muslim sheikh holding a light-emitting device in his pocket. The children are terrified that he might be a terrorist until he suddenly helps a Christian priest who needs medical assistance, and the object in his pocket is revealed as a portable charger for his mobile phone.
At the end of the scene, Souad Abdullah states, “We are the terrorists. Terrorism is not about planting bombs but planting false ideas.” According to the Kuwaiti al-Anbaa newspaper, the scenario writer Hiba Hamada Mishari wanted to address social issues and overcome the stereotypes in our world, such as those surrounding domestic workers and street children, through stories that span two or three episodes.
However, efforts to break stereotypes sometimes lead to further consolidating these images, either because of the superficiality of the plot or the naïve way of presenting it. The issue of street children was tackled in the first episode directed by the Syrian Seif Sheikh Najib where Souad Abdullah attacks a Syrian child who wanted to help her after she forgot her bag at the airport and was left alone by her family. The boy called to her, “Auntie!” but she ignored him, so he ran after her with her bag. However, she kept repeating “God will help you, my child… Keep away from me. I already have enough problems.”
She then accuses the child of stealing her bag and asks for help from a young man passing by. The man hits the child, causing him to bleed, so she asks him, “Why are you doing that? They welcomed you here and you steal in return. My boy, there is a saying that goes ‘The foreigner has to be polite’.” He then tells her that he was trying to help her, not steal her bag.
The child’s response is abrupt. He says, “I was following you for half an hour to give you your bag back but you didn’t answer me. I’m not a beggar. If I was going to steal something I wouldn’t steal a bag. I would steal a homeland because I need one. I need a mother, a father, neighbors and friends who will stand up for me when someone hits me.”
Gharabib Sood depicts Syria as the source of terrorism
“The series is produced by O3 Productions and Sabbah Pictures includes actors from seven Arab countries – Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. The directors are Husam al-Rantissi, Husein Shawkat and Adel Adeeb.”
The series Gharabib Sood, which was broadcast by MBC and other channels, did not only carry an obscure name but also made Syria out as one the darkest places in the world in a storyline that dozens of critics agreed was wrong and misleading by all standards. The series showed “dark” or “fabricated” details over 20 episodes followed by a documentary titled “Alwen al-Dam al-Khamsa.”
Most of the extras spoke in the dialect of Eastern Syria and were portrayed as examples of what is happening to people living under ISIS rule. The scenes, set in the city of Raqqa in Syria, were shot between the cities of Aley and Tyre in Lebanon.
The series dealt with the issue of ISIS using misleading terms and concepts, according to critics, technical experts and analysts specializing in jihadist movements. It focused on women who join ISIS, presenting various examples of women searching for a new life and for alternatives to their existing lives filled with psychological and social problems.
The series also showed the common way of life in areas under ISIS control and dealt with the issue of recruitment of foreign fighters. It showed the corruption of the organization’s leaders and their involvement in sexual, financial and moral scandals. It also tackled the issue of “boys of Paradise” and how they are sexually exploited by the person who is responsible for them, called Abu al-Miqdad.
Gharabib Sood, which means pitch-black in Arabic, provoked widespread Arab condemnation due to its portrayal of ISIS’ adoption of “Sexual Jihad” in its areas. This term was promoted by the al-Mayadeen channel, which is close to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime’s portrayal of events in Syria. However, others were impressed by the series’ content and described it as “the greatest work this year”, according to the MBC channel.
There were dozens of negative reviews by Arab artists, referring to the series’ unrealistic account of events, which began with terrorist attacks in France in which the Syrian actor Mohammed al-Ahmad falls in love with a Tunisian girl and then takes her to Syria to become an emir of ISIS, taking the name “Abu Talha”.
Although the series portrayed some of the “poisonous” ideas promoted by ISIS, and how some of those who belong to it work as sleeper cells that try to infiltrate society, the messages aimed at preventing extremism and combating it intellectually were not optimal. Instead, the series focused mostly on internal conflicts between ISIS leaders over control of the emirate, and Islamic appeals that criticize their actions.
The series contained inconsistencies and presented absurd fatwas while superficially presenting details that should have received greater attention, according to one perspective on which many critics agreed. In addition, it promoted the idea that Syria is the main source of terrorism, rather than calling for staying away from ISIS’ traps that it uses to target its members.
Critics’ websites wrote about the difficulties that began on the first day of filming, most notably disagreements over the title. There were proposals to call it “We Come Bearing Slaughter” and “Hearts Locked Shut”, before agreeing on “Gharabib Sood”.
Although the channel broadcast the twentieth episode of the series and said that it was the last and that the storyline had ended, entertainment magazines have reported that the show’s suspension came “under pressure”, citing that the show’s production team had “received copies of episodes 26, 27 and 28” and noting that the series “exceeded 30 written and filmed episodes but the channel received only 26 episodes.”
The series was followed by “The Five Colors of Blood”, which it considered a dramatic documentary finale. The series presented the stories of five people in the form of a docudrama (combining real stories and fictional writing by the author), highlighting the fact that they all share one goal, despite their different nationalities. The five include Dr. Iman al-Baja, currently one of the jurisprudential authorities of ISIS.
The dramatic pace and plot of Gharabib Sood are racy but this comes at the expense of addressing the most important ideas put forward by ISIS. Some of those who watched the 20 episodes told Enab Baladi that it did not manage to influence audiences so much as it was trying to discredit ISIS in the eyes of its supporters. This fully reflected the theme tune played at the beginning of the series with the chorus, “We will destroy them with the grace of God”.
What do the critics say?
The main aim is
Art critic Anas Adnan believes that “media programs and serials during the month of Ramadan dealt with topics that are commonly discussed among people and influential in the news, and which at one time topped the least of most popular topics represented in hashtags on social networks. These include, for example, the reactions to the issue of sea migrations to Europe, which was dramatically presented through the series “School of Love (Mawtini)”.
He said in an interview with Enab Baladi, “Dramas and programs now have a huge focus on refugees, some direct and some implicit. Concerning the series Gharabib Sood, it dealt with a female refugee in a refugee camp in Lebanon whose son was dying due to lack of aid. Suddenly, we find her joining ISIS.”
However, according to the theater critic Galal Serees, the current use of Syrian refugees as a drama and advertising “commodity” is not new in recent times. In previous years, there were several examples of dramas and some media adverts that used Syrian refugees as a central element of the story, either in Lebanese dramas or in some programs that define themselves as entertainment programs.
Serees told Enab Baladi, “This use is due to the widespread presence of the issue of refugees, even in conversations between families. This has pushed the Syrian refugee, as a character, into dramas and programs in a significant way.”
According to Serees, the Syrian situation and uprising can be compared to what happened in Iraq before, since Syrians before the Syrian revolution brought up the theme of the Iraq war in their dramas. He noted that “every political or military event has a public impact that is reflected in dramas but the problem is in using the wrong method in approaching and presenting the issue”.
Specific messages to various audiences
The first episode of Gharabib Sood provoked mixed feelings, according to Adnan, “particularly in terms of graphics and filming, along with the way that the series was presented and the way it played on emotions.”
He considers that “despite the amazing production, it is depicting something else. This is what we found in the story of Omran in the Zain advert, which exploited the child and provoked interaction on social networking sites. This led to reactions that later pushed the channel to stop broadcasting the advert.”
However, Serees, who is from Aleppo, pointed out that “Gharabib Sood has, so far, been a message that speaks about Daesh from the point of view of the writer. It received criticism from some critics on certain issues such as sex slavery.”
He explained that “people so far associate Daesh with Islam, and this is wrong. This is based on their adoption of sex slavery, which is based on their undeniably evil practices. The series focused on factors that push young people from Gulf countries to join ISIS, sending a message to them to warn them against joining”.
The series “al-Sadma” (The Shock) had a special perspective, according to Adnan. He said, “It had a huge impact in its first season last year, and most people were saying that it was a new way of presenting programs that provokes human reactions in public situations, as opposed to the mocking style of some hidden camera shows”.
However, contrary to it first appearance, this year the work introduced “a new line by the editor to send a message that had a clear negative impact”.
He explained that “the public today is quick to understand and predict what is going to happen later. Hashtags on social networking sites play a big role in shaping interaction, which in turn shapes the opinion of the public at every moment. This is in addition to the constant broadcasting of news on particular contexts, which leads us to become emotional.”
Serees added, “It is not intelligent to use Syrian refugees to send political messages in these productions. Most of the programs we watch are made by people who are not cultured, whether the al-Sadma program or others, but the message they seek to send is specifically addressed to their people.”
MBC group reinforces stereotypes about Syrians
The MBC media group, owned by the Saudi businessman Walid al-Ibrahim, has continued to provide a Ramadan schedule that critics and a wide range of Arab audiences consider to be promoting the wrong stereotypes about some Arab societies. This is particularly so after the channel portrayed various groups in Syrian society in a superficial way, preferring to present a negative image over positive aspects.
A number of productions sponsored by MBC have fed negative stereotypes of Syrians during this year’s Ramadan season. The local context has become an attractive environment for, and source of, terrorism. The term has become a bestseller for drama productions this year. Gharabib Sood series is set in Raqqa, which is the capital of ISIS and the environment that incubates it, and focuses on the organization’s passageways and activities on Syrian territory. The series approaches a complex reality in a superficial way and fails to address solutions and causes.
The MBC Group was founded in 1991 in London and is owned by Saudi businessman Walid al-Ibrahim, who is close to the ruling al-Saud royal family.
Over the past few years, this media group has witnessed significant expansion and development. Today, it owns around 20 television channels in addition to a variety of other media products. It is managed by the Lebanese media professional Ali Jaber.
“Terrorism”, a great bestseller, also appeared in the famous Ramadan advert by Zain, sponsored by “the screen that brings us together” (MBC’s motto). However, it did not achieve the desired success as much as it provoked controversy on two points – using Omran Daqneesh, the child from Aleppo who was wounded by al-Assad’s barrel bombs and promoting the expression “Let’s explode”, which is now repeated by children.
The Palestinian filmmaker Nawras Abu Saleh asks in an article on the Al Jazeera blog, “Did the screen that brings us together know that it adopts the perspective of the worst regime in human history, which has carried out the atrocity of the century? On top of that, it wants to tell God about everything through a child who came out from under the rubble left behind by barrel bombs. Then it complains of the consequences, ignoring even the dust mixed with blood on the face of Omran, while our children – during the holy month – echo a quote from a television production that supposedly renounces violence, “Let’s explode”.
In addition, the Arab viewer now feels the bad manners of the Syrian context through drama, which is in reality authentic and has a long history. MBC has presented a new series of the long-running soap opera “Bab al-Hara”, which it has produced for years and broadcast exclusively on its channels. According to many critics, the series is considered one of the worst dramas that Syrian drama has ever presented and the most offensive to Syria and its ancient traditions.
“There is no way to stop Bab al-Hara than to abolish the month of Ramadan”, jokes one social media user. This expresses the level of public displeasure at the show, even reaching disgust. The harshest opinion was that of the artist Husam Tahseen Beek who said in an interview with the Rudaw channel, “Those who wrote the script of the series are ignorant of many issues and details and are similar to Daesh. ISIS destroyed history in the ancient city of Palmyra and the makers of the Bab al-Hara series are destroying Syrian culture. In addition, the series has distorted the reputation of Syrian women.”
Aside from drama, Syrians were not saved from reality television programs imported from Western media. The al-Sadma program (The Shock), a direct imitation of previous Turkish and Western programs, was produced by the MBC Media Group this year. The program dealt with Syrian refugees and many stereotypes in the countries they have moved to, which reinforces the widespread assumption that “Syrians have become a media commodity”.
There is no doubt that MBC is the biggest media group in the Arab region, which has attracted a huge public viewership compared to its rivals. This has made it the subject of sharp criticism concerning the way it addresses social issues and details, and they way it promotes them in the Arab world. This is not limited to Syria only, but even extends to Gulf countries themselves, as the episodes of Gharabib Sood clearly show.