Monday, May 27, 2024
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Monday, May 27, 2024

‘Smile, General!’: Syrian TV series raises controversy

Arab viewers in the Middle East are accustomed to watching specially produced television series during Ramadan and this year, drama production is at its height. There is a TV series that is the first work in the Arab world that focuses on a currently ruling family and has the audacity to deal with details concerning the disreputable activities and volatile relationships within this family. The daily episodes to be aired during the Holy month of Ramadan have sparked widespread controversy in Syrian circles on social media because the family it portrays is the Assad family which has ruled Syria for more than half a century.

the daily discussions aren’t confined to Twitter alone. Other forms of social media are also inundated with comments as soon as each episode ends.

Hopefully, the series will set a precedent in Syrian and Arab media as dramas in the Middle East tend to avoid dealing with these kinds of topics in a region governed by tyrannical regimes that suppress freedoms and control the media. With a new 40-minute episode airing daily throughout Ramadan, the Smile, General! hashtag in Arabic has been trending after every episode as supporters, opponents, and critics of the series engage on Twitter to regurgitate what they have just seen. And the daily discussions aren’t confined to Twitter alone. Other forms of social media are also inundated with comments as soon as each episode ends.

Interestingly enough, many Syrians inside Syria, who refer to the program as simply “that series”, are defying the regime and finding ways to follow it despite strict censorship of media and routine power outages. Nevertheless, the barrier of fear has not yet been broken.

Smile, General! is shown in Arabic without subtitles on Al-Araby TV 2 (broadcast from Qatar) and Syria TV (broadcast from Istanbul)

T.W. a student living in the residential complex at the University of Aleppo told Syriawise: “My friends and I are waiting daily to watch the next episode. At ten o’clock at night, they come to my room in the university dormitory to watch it on my mobile phone. We take great care to see that our female neighbors do not know that we are watching the series that tells the truth about the ruling family.”

Smile, General! is shown in Arabic without subtitles on Al-Araby TV 2 (broadcast from Qatar) and Syria TV (broadcast from Istanbul). The entire series is available to watch on YouTube with each new episode added shortly after airing.  

The first episode opens with a great scandal that began with invitations given to important Syrian personalities and their wives by a high-ranking military officer of the regime in the last days of his struggle with a terminal illness. Towards the end of a lavish party at a luxurious villa he had rented for the occasion, the officer reveals to his guests, most of whom were fellow officers and government officials, the scandals he had indulged in with their wives and other influential women including the sister of big boss. When he (whose name is Furat in the series) is informed of what occurred he strives to contain the scandal by seeking to confiscate all the video recordings of the military commander’s confession before they are spread and broadcast to the world, as well as the party programs in which all of the women’s names were published.

As the story progresses, the writer of the series tells us how the big boss came to power by manipulating the constitution that prohibited inheritance of the presidency, and about the struggle between the big boss and his brother (known as Asi in the series) to control power so that it does not get out of the grip of the Assad family.

this is the first Syrian drama that attracts the interest of all Syrians at various levels, despite their differences

Samer Radwan wrote the series which was directed by Orwa Mohammad and produced by the Metafora Company.  It stars a number of well-known Syrian actors such as Maxim Khalil, Abdulhakim Qtaifan, Mazen Al-Natour, Sawsan Arsheed, Reem Ali, and Azza Albahra among others. It is worth noting that the writer, the director, and all the actors, support the revolution and most of them lost everything when they left Syria. It is also worth noting that this is the first Syrian drama that attracts the interest of all Syrians at various levels, despite their differences.

“All the security services, intelligence services, and the army in Syria follow the series and even discuss its events the next day in my workplace and with smiles,” says M.A., a lawyer in Damascus. It is the first time that he has seen such boldness in a Syrian drama even though the story it tells is a minuscule portion of the reality of the horrors the Assad family has imposed upon Syria.

At the end of the credits which roll at the beginning of each episode, Radwan has included a quote from the Italian Renaissance diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli which conveys to the viewer messages related to power and a Machiavellian form of governance. Machiavellianism is a term used in the field of personality psychology to refer to individuals who are manipulative, callous, and indifferent to morality. Such people are skilled at using deception to get what they want, and for them, the end always justifies the means.

It is well known that art differs from reality and true to form this series veers from reality in a number of ways. Whereas the real-life Bashar Assad is able to smile in the face of the Syrian people’s pain, the actor who portrays him in the series (Maxim Khalil) plays him as a melancholy character who never seems to smile at anything.

it remains too early for most of us to evaluate it as it is still in its second quarter. As for the use of fictitious names, there is a market that governs all dramas and no company can deviate from it if it wants to succeed.

There are many differences of opinion about the series on the part of Syrians, and no series will be able to reconcile all these differences and expectations. Among the criticisms mentioned were dim lighting, weak sound in general, and some public places that do not reflect the Syrian environment (which is understandable because it was filmed in Turkey). Among the questions being asked is “Is this a work of fiction, or a documentary?” In truth, it would be difficult for this series, or any series, to document all of the Assad’s crimes.

While professional critics may someday weigh in on the program’s artistic merits, it remains too early for most of us to evaluate it as it is still in its second quarter. As for the use of fictitious names, there is a market that governs all dramas and no company can deviate from it if it wants to succeed.

In the end, while it is true that art differs from reality, art is also capable of presenting a story that can project a reality. As for whether or not Smile, General! is, or should have been, a documentary, documentaries require evidence and proof which is hard to come by in Syria under Assad.

Yasser Ashkar
Yasser Ashkar
Former instructor at Istanbul University. Ashkar is a Founding Member of the Association of Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Activist and Journalist. He currently lives in Michigan, USA.

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