DAMASCUS: Near the crusader castle of Krak des Chevalliers, the Suriya International television production company has built a fictional Palestinian village. There, in the heat of the day, director Hatem Ali put the cast and crew of "Al-Taghriba al-Filastiniyya" ("Palestinian Exile") through their paces.
With a special effects man tying plastic vials of red liquid under the shirts of two Zionist militiamen - about to meet their end under a nearby olive tree - the director discusses the recent achievements and challenges of Syrian television drama.
Ali's was by no means the only Syrian crew shooting a television series for the Ramadan market. In the middle of the Syrian desert, renowned director Najdat Ismail Anzur filmed scenes for his Omayyad-era epic "Faris Bani Umayya" in the town of Raqqa. The story centers on intrigues in the house of Omayya, the Islamic dynasty that had Damascus as its capital for 90 years. Raqqa was chosen because, like Anjar in Lebanon, it is one of the few purely Omayyad sites in the Levant.
On the other side of the country, on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, Salem Kurdieh directed the shooting of "Siraa al-Ashawes" ("Struggle of the Brave"), a historical-fantasy series.
Viewers might think "Syria" when they see Syrian actors performing in another show, "The Road to Kabul," but this drama is actually produced by Qatar. It will explore the allure of jihad and probably its negative side, judging by that Gulf state's ties with the U.S. Tackling the other main issue in the region, two other Syrian crews shot in various indoor and outdoor locations around Tartous and Safita on Syria's Mediterranean coast, filming 20th-century dramas dealing with the Palestinian issue.
In all, over 30 series are vying for this year's Ramadan market. More isn't necessarily better, though, and Syria's private television industry is heading into Ramadan worried about a glut of soap operas and wanting more government assistance for the sector.
Hatem Ali's recent efforts were recognized as some of the best on offer. His "Rabi' Qurduba" ("Cordoba Spring") took the top award among historical dramas at this summer's Cairo Radio and Television Awards.
"Al-Taghriba al-Filastiniyya" focuses on several generations of Palestinians from a poor agricultural village and their displacement in several countries of the region. The series was written by Walid Saif, a Palestinian resident of Amman, Jordan, and Ali's long time collaborator.
Ali said the series will examine the ways in which Palestinians have dealt with dispossession; it's not diatribe against foreign groups occupying the land, such as the British Mandate and the Zionist movement.
"It's a generational drama that stays away from sloganeering," Ali said. "It's not so much about issues as the Palestinians themselves."
"Serious" dramas during Ramadan are sometimes interpreted as commentaries on the present political situation in the Arab world, a type of analysis Ali said he rejected.
"A wider, more open reading of history is needed. I don't like the idea of reducing history down to something that is based on the present."
Though a year of high political drama and a large number of shows and series, 2004 is actually witnessing a decline in Gulf state financing for Syrian drama. Memories of last year's problems with selling the shows to regional stations made Gulf financiers hesitant. Ali and others in the industry attribute the downturn to two causes: a bad return on some investments, and pressure by the US to not air any inflammatory programs - i.e. those harshly critical of Zionism and/or Israel.
Shortly before the demise of the two Zionist militiamen on location in "Al-Taghriba al-Filastiniyya," a mobile phone call is placed to the show's Hebrew-language consultant.
Hebrew-speaking characters are a feature of both dramas on the Palestinian issue. They are coached by Syrians who might have day jobs as professors at the state-run Damascus University, where Hebrew is taught, or television employees at Syria's state-run satellite station, working in the Hebrew-language news broadcast department.
In the mountain town of Safita, a crew from Arabiyya International shot an adaptation of Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani's "Aaid ila Haifa" ("Returning to Haifa"). Directed by Basil Khatib, the production faced several challenges, including being the third adaptation of the novel.
Khatib said that one of the goals of this version, being filmed by Syrian-owned Arabiyya, was to focus on resistance as the only option for the Palestinians. Another goal involves providing more breadth to the Palestinian narrative. Khatib argued that despite a general knowledge of the Palestinian plight, individual stories like that of Haifa in 1948 merit detailed dramatic treatments to plug the gaps in the Palestine story.
"And really," Khatib added, "there' s been very little on the Palestinian issue in terms of dramatic series over the last decade."
Safita was chosen as a location because of its architectural similarity to Old Haifa. The town's setting atop an inland mountain meant that coastal scenes were shot near Tartous, about 20 minutes away.
Earlier, the crew transformed an old government building in Safita into the offices of the 1940s-era Jewish National Agency, complete with Hebrew-language signs and Star of David flags. The effect was evidently true to life. A busload of European tourists were so intrigued by the scene they descended and took photographs in an attempt to discover why Israeli flags were flying in Syria.
Khatib, a Palestinian resident of Syria, said foreign viewers could eventually see the production after the company subtitles it. The show's message would appear to be inspired by the right to return by Palestinian refugees.
"People today are talking about a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as a goal," said Khatib, "but one can't forget the cities of 1948." The drama adds characters and events to the original novel, he added, to flesh out various aspects of the story.
As for the state of Syrian dramatic production, Khatib is certainly aware of the difficulties, having spent the summer awaiting buyers for two other completed shows. One is "Abu Zeid Hilali," a historical epic about the adventures of the Arabian tribes brought in by the caliphate to settle and stabilize rebellious areas of Libya and Tunisia. The second is a 12-episode series on Yahya Ayyash - a.k.a. "the engineer" - a bomb maker for Hamas who the Israelis assassinated in 1996.
Khatib said he expected "problems" with the airing of that series in the form of pressure from countries like the U.S. In any case, the Ayyash series does not fit the standard 30-episode-or-so series lasting the entire month of Ramadan.
Last Ramadan, U.S. diplomacy objected to Manar's airing of a Syrian-made series portraying the origins of the Zionist movement in a way that some said gave credence to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery.
Khatib defended using the Palestinian issue as the theme of his series, pointing out that Arab viewers see it regularly on their news and other shows. His work, he said, would present the "human dimension" of the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
Syria's 30-plus series are competing with industry giant Egypt and minnows like Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The three shows on the Palestinians demonstrate the lack of coordination that plagues the sector.
The industry prides itself on producing "authentic" shows filmed in actual houses, offices, streets and parks, villages and countryside locations, and places like Raqqa - filming an Omayyad story in a ruined Omayyad city. On one hand, the industry is happy to have carved out an identity when it comes to drama, characterized by its "natural" locations and single-camera shooting. On the other hand, Syrian industry figures envy Egypt's big victory sales last year, due in part to state assistance.
Although Syria produces different genres, Khatib acknowledged that the industry has fallen into a rut "and the biggest challenge is to not repeat ourselves when we need to be renewing ourselves."
Khatib said that Syrian government ministries were generally helpful in facilitating production work and renting out special equipment at low prices.
"But despite our achievements, the Information Ministry is not sufficiently concerned with marketing, and not aware of the importance" of the industry, Khatib said, citing the Egyptian example of state-supplied contracts, subsidies and markets for private producers.
The historical epics, whether from ancient times or the modern era, face competition from variety shows, talk shows, game shows, and contemporary dramas dealing with various topics.
Director Haitham Haqqi had a relatively easy task compared to his colleagues in the Syrian desert, shooting interior scenes of his dramatic series "Al-Khait al-Abyad" ("The White Thread") in the air-conditioned top floor of Damascus' Ministry of Electricity building.
"The White Thread" is a 28-episode contemporary drama set in a place understood to be the state-run television station in Syria, although specifics are kept to a minimum. Written by novelist Nihad Siris, the series deals with media and society and should provide a political take of the Arab situation in general. His star, Jamal Sulei-man, is also featured in Anzur's Omayyad-era epic and Khatib's "Returning to Haifa."
The director estimated that Syria's private television industry has at least 5,000 full-time employees, excluding the many actors who might also be members of a Baath Party-dominated actors' union.
But the sector needs to lobby effectively to get the assistance it seeks. "Last year, with Egypt, there was a price war," Haqqi said, describing the setback. "We have one of the most important industries in Syria," he continued, adding that over the last several years Syrian shows were diverse and deserved further state assistance.
Meanwhile, still filming at the Krak, Hatem Ali said he expects there will be discussions about his series. "Thank God the writer is Palestinian," he grins. Presumably he hopes this will insure "Palestinian Exile" against charges of being inauthentic. It is yet to be seen if it will also secure the success of the industry.