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Special Section on Syrian Drama
By Rebecca Joubin
Eyad Shehab Ahmad has been a prominent Syrian television drama editor since 1997. The television dramas he has edited include: Bab al-Hara Part 1, 2, 3 (2006, 07, 08); Zaman al-Ar (2009); and most recently Assad al-Waraq (2010), La’nat al-Tin (2010), and Al-Takht-e al-Sharqi (2010). As the director of the company Version: Media Production, he also makes documentaries of leading figures in Arab culture, such as Adonis.
You’re one of the most prominent television drama editors in Syria. Tell us about your role in television drama.
I edit and provide the publicity for about four television series per year, mostly for the month of Ramadan. Usually each series requires about five months of editing, improvement of the quality of the picture, and the provision of sound effects. Each time, I do my editing with the director under different conditions. For example, when I edited Najeeb Nseir’s screenplay “Zaman al-Ar”in 2009 with Syria’s most prominent female director, Rasha Sharbatji, we worked together a lot via Internet since she had travelled to Egypt. Despite the distance I worked well with her. And when she was in Damascus, we would sit down together and discuss all the details. She always gave me a tremendous amount of artistic freedom.
Najeeb Nseir’s “Zaman al-Ar”is bold in its feminist perspective and critique of societal norms. Buthayna, the veiled woman whose sexual repression and frustration leads her to an affair, caused a lot of debate and controversy when it was first aired. In your opinion was it important that the director was a woman?
The sensitivity and understanding of the condition of women in our society was so strong in Najeeb Nseir’s screenplay that many believed that only a female director could truly understand the character of Buthayna. I believe this is true, especially since so much of the serial takes place in Buthayna’s home. We see the everyday details in the life of this woman, her quirks, longings, aspirations, and feel the depth of her anger and suppression. In my opinion, only a female director could have handled this text so gracefully. The message in “Zaman al-Ar”- that shame does not lie in a woman having extramarital sex, but rather in the cheating, theft, lying, and deceit taking place in society— was clear, yet subtle in approach.
Most Syrian television drama is funded by the Gulf-state satellite channels. How did those satellite channels affect your editing work on “Zaman al-Ar”?
“Zaman al-Ar” was originally presented as “Al-Ar” but the Gulf-state satellite committee made us change the title. Also, in “Zaman al-Ar”writer Najeeb al-Nseir had intended for Buthayna and Jamil to have extramarital sex, but the censorship committee ordered us to put it in the context of Urfi marriage. Director Rasha Shabartji and writer Najeeb Nseir did not agree, but producer Hani al-Ashi imposed this upon us. Another silly thing: they said that the Qatar license plate on a car was not accurate, so we had to change it with graphics.
The way it works is like this: the censor first sees the script and makes comments. Then the censorship committee sees the whole edited series and recommends changes. Sometimes we are forced to take out scenes or make corrections. There are other times when we don’t change what the censor has imposed on us, and the channels make their own cuts.
In Syria, we have a lenient censorship committee, but the Emirates censorship is extremely conservative and thus difficult to deal with. You can get past some really serious things, but then they focus on small, silly details. Since most producers take money from the Gulf-State satellite channels, we face a complicated problem— that the people controlling our television industry are more culturally conservative than us. They have more money than us.
For Ramadan 2010, among other series you edited “Al-Takht Al-Sharqi” (The Eastern Bed), a series about a year in the life of four friends who had gone to college together. Written by Yem Mashadi and directed by Rasha Sharbatji, it is filled with a feminist perspective. Please tell us about this series.
“Al-Takht al-Sharqi”has a lot of courage in it that Syrian television drama does not usually have. The combination of a noted female writer and director allows for a nuanced depiction of the women characters and their condition. In “Al-Takht Al-Sharqi”each character has his or her personality and quirks. The show, which overturns stereotypes about women and men, and unveils hypocrisy and dishonesty in relationships, will make a difference. For example, the hypocrisy of a girl who has 20 relationships, but manages to keep her virginity, is revealed. We see the problem that arises when Syrian women marry foreign men and can’t grant citizenship to their children. Men and women discuss relationships openly; they critique their failure to be honest with each other. In addition, there is also a lot of sexual openness. “Al-Takht al-Sharqi” will be produced by Abu Dhabi. Surely their censorship committee will take out some parts, but it will be shown in full in Syria.
You edited Parts 1-3 of “Bab al-Hara”(The Neighborhood Gate), which takes place in the 1930s in old Damascus. Tell us about your thoughts on this show, which has become the most popular series in the Arab world and started a trend of serials hearkening back to old times when men and women knew their place in society.
“Bab al-Hara”is not historical, although it is often treated as such. “Bab al-Hara”started a dangerous trend in Syrian drama. Rather than bringing us progress, these kinds of old city series inspire us to move backward. “Bab al-Hara”, for example, advocates patriarchy and women’s subordination, as well religious extremism. It portrays an inaccurate image of Damascus in the 1930s – you see no intellectuals, just ignorant people. The writer simply took from his own experiences in an orthodox neighborhood in Salhiya and transferred them to another historical time and place.
Please tell us about your Future projects.
I have been editing television drama since 1997, and now have my own company: Version: Media Production. In a few years, I plan to focus on my own documentaries. I am currently working on producing a documentary on the noted Syrian poet and critic Adonis. I have about 100 other personalities after Adonis. We have real treasures in our society whose lives need to be documented, and this is my ultimate dream.