Every night, as Syrian troops and tanks launch assaults on protesters during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a Syrian man named Jihad Abdo openly accuses the security forces of torture and corruption.
The government of President Bashar Assad doesn’t just tolerate his allegations, for which other Syrians have been jailed or killed. It’s helping pay for them.
The crucial difference is that Abdo is an actor, playing a character in one of the dozens of surprisingly candid, and hugely popular, soap operas that the government-backed TV industry produces every year for Ramadan, when Muslim families around the world settle in to watch the late-night dramas after the heavy meals that break their daytime fasts.
“I think they want to tell other countries, ‘Look, we are free, people in Syria are free,’ ” said Abdo, who portrays a doctor who has stumbled across evidence of torture by a member of Syria’s mukhabarat, or intelligence service. “They want to say, ‘We are flexible.’ ”
This Ramadan, the soaps are a surreal blend of escapist drama and reality TV. Fictional accounts of protests air on the small screen while Syrian tanks crush real ones.
The soap opera featuring Abdo is called “Walida min al-Khasira,” literally “Birth From the Side,” but better translated as “Torn From the Womb.” The title is intended to convey an infant who resists being born into an evil world.
“Everyone we meet in Syria is saying, ‘Thank you. You are saying what we can’t,’ ” Abdo said this week during a trip to Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
A few days ago, Abdo said, a traffic cop in Damascus, the Syrian capital, stopped him in his car to urge him to be more discreet. “You can’t say that!” the officer warned.
With the rise of satellite TV, nightly Ramadan soap operas of 30 or so episodes have become a tradition as Arab producers compete to create the most compelling TV dramas for the holiday’s captive audiences. Syria built its soap industry into one of the most popular in part by allowing its characters a degree of frankness that Assad and other Arab leaders deny their citizens.
Many of this year’s soaps began production in November and early December, said Hesham Issawi, an Egyptian American director based in Los Angeles and Cairo who closely follows Ramadan soaps. That was just before revolutions erupted in the Middle East and North Africa.
As a result, even if many of the Ramadan soaps airing now feature some of the toughest ever criticism of Arab intelligence services, they include only hastily tacked-on references to outright revolt, Issawi said.
In Abdo’s soap, for example, a sinister member of the mukhabarat is working hard to frame Abdo’s doctor character, to shut him up before he comes forward with torture allegations.
“I want his file to grow higher and higher,” the intelligence officer growls to a subordinate.
With Ramadan half over, some Egyptian film companies are rushing to get references to the revolutions into the last episodes of their soaps, Issawi said.
Makers of one Syrian soap were either eerily prescient or quick revisers: “Foq al Saqaf,” or “Up on the Roof,” features protests erupting in mosques and security forces firing on demonstrators.
“Can they really want to go through with this?” an actor playing a black-clad security official asks himself, apparently questioning an order to shoot protesters.
The crackle of guns as his forces open fire on the civilians interrupts his musing. “What is written cannot be erased,” the official tells himself, resigned.
Syrian leaders would have second thoughts about allowing that plot line today, Issawi said.
“They didn’t have in mind that something was going to happen,” he said.
Off-screen political tensions surround Syria’s Ramadan soaps this year. In May, Assad summoned some of the country’s leading actors after several signed a petition urging humanitarian aid for children in the town of Dara, then under siege by government forces. Assad urged the TV stars to stay loyal.
The director of “Walida min al-Khasira” was one of those signing the petition. Her father, a leading Syrian filmmaker, disavowed her as a “traitor” for putting her name on it, according to news reports.
Many Arab soap viewers have families caught up in areas of upheaval.
Fidda Assad, a 23-year-old Lebanese woman who has two sisters living in Syria, refuses to watch soaps featuring actors who support the Syrian government.
“The regime exploits everyone … [and] kills children. How could they support that?” she asked.
A few dozen feet away from where she sat along Beirut’s seaside promenade, Zara Shella said she was boycotting any soaps with actors she suspected of being against the Syrian regime.
“I can’t watch them,” said Shella, a 22-year-old resident of the Syrian city of Aleppo who was visiting Beirut for Ramadan. “How can they be against the country?”
The political divide extended to the sets of the soaps as well, said Abdo, the actor.
“It was all, ‘Grrrr, you are this, you … ' " Abdo said, mimicking actors swinging at each other. “‘Grrrr, you did this, don’t talk to me.’ ”
For outsiders, the cynicism with which this year’s soaps portray Arab officials is surprisingly overt. Viewers say Arab soaps get away with it by veiling the harshest accusations and by maintaining the public pretext that no criticism is meant of real-life officials.
In “Walida min al-Khasira,” for example, the plot line suggests that other intelligence officials would stop the evil intelligence agent’s torture sessions if only they knew, explained Mariam Mollaei, a 23-year-old student in Beirut. But when the soaps show the cruel mukhabarat officer, viewers understand that more than one official is being described, Mollaei said.
Hesitancy about laying bare the deeper meaning of the Ramadan soaps persists, though, even outside Syria.
One night this week, Mollaei watched Abdo and the actor playing the evil official with her younger sisters, her mother and two journalists. Mollaei’s mother was adamant that the soap leveled no veiled accusations whatsoever.
“People watch because it’s not political at all,” Hind Mollaei, 52, insisted. “It’s all social affairs and dramas.”
So there’s no political meaning to the soaps? a reporter asked Mollaei again, in front of her mother. This time, Mollaei only smiled. “Maybe,” she said.
Knickmeyer is a special correspondent.