At once professional and prescient

Khair, center, with scriptwriter Claudia Marchalian, right, at a news conference for “Ruby” at MBC4 studios, last Febuary.

BEIRUT: The late Adib Khair was an innovative Syrian television producer, perhaps best known for igniting the Turkish soap opera craze across the Arab Middle East. He was eulogized Sunday as a pioneer, dedicated to bringing professional standards to his country’s industry.The 48-year-old Khair succumbed to a heart attack Saturday during a visit to Beirut and died at Hotel Dieu hospital. His funeral took place the following day in Damascus.

Television stars from Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere expressed their shock and sorrow upon hearing the news of his untimely passing.

Writing on his Facebook page, veteran director Haitham Hakki paid tribute to his late colleague’s efforts to ensure that the emerging Syrian television production sector would not rest on its laurels, but instead move in new directions.

“He injected new blood and a new mentality into our work,” Hakki said, “based on logic, and engaging in dialogue, even if we disagreed with him.”

Khair headed the production company Sama. His most notable contribution to the television industry came several years ago, when he decided to purchase and market Turkish soap operas and dub them into Syrian colloquial, rather than formal Arabic or the Egyptian dialect.

Beyond the wave of commercially successful Turkish series, Khair’s company also branched into several television genres, leaving a distinctive mark each time.

Purely romantic tales were featured in the series “Ahl al-Gharam” (People in Love), which was picked up by regional satellite giant MBC. The show featured the self-contained episode format, which Khair was determined to promote in order to inject a new element into the 30-episode structure of most drama and comedy series.

“He was responsible for the most technically sophisticated and innovative Arab television drama going,” said Christa Salamandra, an American academic who has written extensively on Syria’s television industry.

“He was a great businessman in the Damascene tradition,” she continued, “but drama was never just a business for him; he loved it with a passion.”

Each episode of “Ahl al-Gharam” features a love story that is doomed to fail, but as Salamandra noted, instead of sappiness, the show was a forum for “daring social critique,” as it tackled problematic issues such as Muslim-Christian relationships.

In the early years of Bashar Assad’s presidency, Khair produced a five-minute sketch program, “Amal Ma Fi” (There’s No Hope), which was also very popular with critics and audiences. It featured two down-and-out characters, sitting in a small hut, who would discuss current events in a tone that veered from playful to extremely caustic.

The program’s format, in the words of Salamandra, “uncannily presages the dissident cultural production of the current uprising.”

Indeed, it has since been copied by anti-regime activists who produce YouTube material that mocks the Syrian regime today.

In the realm of comedy, Khair produced two seasons of the hit series “Lost Village” (Day’a Da’iya), set in a fictional sleepy hamlet on Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The characters speak a tangy coastal accent so thick that subtitles were used to explain some of the local turns of speech.

Lebanese audiences might recognize Khair’s impact on the sector from the recent, long-running romantic drama series “Ruby,” which starred Syria’s Maxim Khalil, Lebanon’s Cyrine Abdel-Nour and Egypt’s Amir Karara.

Khair was famous for trying to enhance the standards of Syria’s national television industry and focused especially on developing television “shows” whose individual episodes could be enjoyed by a viewer without them having to watch the entire 30 days of programming.

Najib Nseir, a Syrian scriptwriter who worked with Khair on several productions, described him as a U.S.-educated businessman who sought to apply a professional approach to television production, particularly when it came to relying on qualified consultants in the script development process.

During the second edition of “Ahl al-Gharam,” Khair hosted several sessions of screenings of individual episodes at a restaurant in Damascus. He brought together members of the cast and crew, critics and friends of the industry in order to generate suggestions for improving the show in question, or future efforts.

“He was interested in developing the concept of the ‘television show,’” Nseir said, “which is where he stood out from others who focused on merely reproducing the standard 30-days-in-a-row musalsal (series) format.”

Khair passed away while in the midst of preparations for his latest project, Nseir said.

He had been visiting Beirut to lay the groundwork for a show that would have explored the conditions of Syrians in Lebanon who have been displaced by their country’s bloody 22-month uprising.

It was a daring choice, and a response to the sudden reversal of fortune for colleagues and friends who had suddenly found themselves without work due to the drop-off in production.

“His sole concern,” Nseir said, “was to help these people out.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 14, 2013, on page 16.




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