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Syrian Screenplay Writer Najeeb Nseir Speaks On Breaking Taboos in Syrian Drama
By Rebecca Joubin
The bold and courageous scripts of Najeeb Nseir, a leading avant-guarde screenplay writer of Syrian Drama, deal with controversial societal issues. Editor-in-chief of Fikr Magazine, he is also a highly prolific author of numerous television drama scripts such as Al-Intizar (Waiting), Reejal wa Nissa (Men and Women), Ayamna al-Hilweh (Our Beautiful Days), Hekayet Khareef (Autumn Tale), Qabl al-Ghoroob (Before Sunset), Assrar al-Madina (Secrets of the City), and Nissa Saqhirat (Little Women). His Zaman Al-Ar (Time of Shame) was chosen as the best script of Syrian television drama in 2009.
One characteristic that stands out in your television drama is your refusal to preach or judge. On the contrary, there is a feeling of empathy with your characters.
Because of my father’s job as a weather forcaster in a government office of meteorological observation, we moved around a lot. During my childhood, we lived in Qamishle, Hassseke, Al-Bookemal, Safita, and Der-Ez-Zor before moving to Damascus. Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, Arabs, Nestorians, and Circassians populated my schools. I heard about ten different languages in the classroom. I saw that although others had the same legal rights as me, they enjoyed different folklore and culture. This instilled in me the ability to respect others as they were.
How did the constant moving around affect your sensory perception? Please speak of some of your earliest memories of the cinema.
The colors, smells, and sounds of the regions I visited gave me a rich palate of sensory perception. I learned to notice and feel everything. I remember the first time as a young child I saw a television in a garage in Aleppo in the 60s when I was traveling there with my family. The magical box mesmerized me. I stood transfixed in front of the dancing images as if time had stopped.
I loved the cinema. In Hasseke, once our class was taken to the movie theater. I stayed in the cinema even longer than the film, and my parents searched everywhere for me. They even called the police. During the 70s in Aleppo when I was about 14 years old, I would wear my pajamas, so my mother would think I was sleeping. Then, in my pajamas, I would run to the movie theater. At first it took me about 10 minutes to sprint to there, but as I gained experience it took only six minutes. But then came the Muslim Brotherhood in the 80s and cinema became increasing under attack by extremist elements. We started to buy videos to watch at home. Unfortunately that habit continues to this day.
How did your career in Syrian television drama begin?
I began critiquing cinema in the 90s, then turned to critique of television drama. From the commencement, I felt that it should not be just one person who writes a twenty-five to thirty hour television series, but rather it needed to be a collaborative effort between at least two individuals. I tried to organize a workshop to advance this idea, but writers showed little interest. Then I met writer Hassan Sami Yussef and discussed this idea with him. Together we started what would turn into years of collaborative effort in writing Syrian television drama. We worked together on “Nissa Saghirat”in 1997, at a time in which Islamicists were influential. We believed that women paid the biggest price when they deviated from accepted norms. While I began focusing on women as victims, experience later taught me that while women are weaker vis-à-vis the law, they could find a solution and use the law to their benefit. Indeed, men can also be victims. In my series now, I deal with the individual, man or woman – and how societal norms prevent them from attaining happiness.
How do you and Hassan Sami Yussef write your scripts together?
We discuss a story idea for about six months. Then I sit down on my own to write the first draft. We meet once a week as I am writing the first draft and we discuss what I have written. When I complete the first draft, I give him the notebook and he polishes the final draft. He calls me when he has questions.
When do you conduct your research?
At the time Hassan and I are discussing the story idea, I do my research. I talk to people. We focus a lot on neighborhoods in Damascus where there are no zoning laws— that are a bit chaotic. In those areas there are secrets, yet no secrets. Neighbors know about the details of each other’s lives, but pretend that they don’t. I roam these areas, observe how its inhabitants dress and behave. For example, in “Al-Intizar”, the character Bassima worked as an escort to men in cabarets in order to survive. To understand her character I needed to study escorts. Thus, I frequented cabarets and discovered how some women veiled at home and worked as escorts at cabarets. I even met a pharmacist with children, who went to a cabaret every Monday. I observed their secret lives and this gave me material. There was a character of a chauffer in “Assrar al-Madina”,so I rode a microbus for over a month and spoke to that chauffer as well as others. In “Ahlamna al-Halwa” there was a story of a man who stole a satellite dish, so I talked to a technician who installs dishes on the roof. Now I am working on the character of a butcher, so I visit a butcher’s kitchen. I work about two years on each of my scripts, exploring details.
The script of “Zaman al-Ar” (2009), the story of the repressed Buthayna, her affair with a married man, pregnancy, and scandal that arose, won prizes as well as critical acclaim in world festivals. How did the idea for the script come to you?
I once read a story about a Syrian man who went to Denmark, became a doctor there, and got citizenship. He then returned to Syria to marry and later returned to Denmark with his wife. In Denmark, one day his wife called him and said a young man was spending time alone with his daughter in her room. The doctor immediately left his clinic and returned home in order to protect his family’s honor from shame. In reaction, I wrote an article, saying that the doctor abandoned his sick patients, and rushed home to make sure that his daughter was not having an inappropriate relationship. His sense of shame led him to compromise his professional duties.
In “Zaman al-Ar”you ask the question: Is shame in the illicit sexual encounter? Or does shame come from theft, blackmail, lying and cheating, which are so prolific in our society? As the character Tamer says: There is poverty around us, the tragedy of Palestine and Iraq, trash in streets. Is that shameful? Or is Buthayna’s action shameful? Let society take itself into account before taking others into account.
In “Zaman al-Ar”, Buthayna, has been taking care of her mother for eleven years, and thus has forgotten herself, until her neighbor’s husband, Jamil, flirts with her and her body responds. No one sees Buthayna as a human being with feelings. Even her sister-in-law, an employee who works full time, helps Buthayna for her own self-interest, knowing that one day she will need her to raise her children. When Buthayna’s affair, pregnancy and unsuccessful abortion are discovered, she faces the wrath of her family. The question I pose is: Is her sex shameful? Or the fact that her elderly father wants to get together with Suhaila, a woman in her 40s, as his wife lies on her deathbed? Or does shame lie in the cheating, lying, and deceit that goes on in daily business? Or in neighbors swindling each other?
Why did you choose for Buthayna to be veiled?
In television drama, the topic of women is a major area of battle where we break or uphold taboos. In “Zaman al-Ar”, I purposely chose a veiled woman as Buthayna, since in my opinion, there is no difference: A woman whether veiled or not, has the same hormones. Some critics got upset and said I should not have made her veiled – but I insisted on this. It is racist to say we are different and morally superior because we wear the veil. I am against depicting Muslims as somehow better than the rest.
The ending of “Zaman al-Ar”is sad. Buthayna returns home to now take care of her sick father. We feel she has lost her struggle.
Yes, the forces against her crushed her. For a while, Buthayna will ignore her needs. Later she will feel her body again, and have another affair. But this time she will manage to do it secretly as others do, in a society under the influence of ideas such as honor and shame.
In your work there is a lot of music and body language in addition to dialogue. For example, in “Al-Intizar”, in many of the scenes there is just music and no conversation. In fact, music reinforces the waiting. If the wrong director picks up your work, it could be destroyed. Do you work closely with the director once they pick up the script?
I don’t like to interfere in the work of the director, and feel they need complete freedom without the meddling of the original writer. However, I do react to the work of the director once the show is produced. Since I work on each script for two years, every detail is important. In “Zaman al-Ar”, I was disappointed that many of the meaningful and symbolic details were taken out. For example, the character Tamer, an open minded individual, faces duality in his life since he works as an educator and also as a realtor with his family. In the script I show that he teaches sex education and this important detail was left out of the televised serial. Also, Suhaila, the woman in her 40s who wants to marry Buthayna’s father for money, is shown as a horrible and manipulative woman in the serial, but in my script I show her also as victim. She was a free woman, easy prey for men, and never able to have a real loving relationship. Alone, she now lived in a tiny room with her brother. All of these details were taken out by the director, and thus we could not feel her— rather she is judged. However, the director Rasha Shabartji understands the mentality of Eastern women, and thus did a superb job inside Buthayna’s household. She felt Buthayna’s problem as a woman.
In “Al-Intizar,” however, I worked closely with director Alayth Hajoo on the music and body language. I also worked closely with Alayth’s musican, Taher al-Mamelli. To study the character of Bassima who was an escort at cabarets, Alayth and I visited cabarets together and discussed our observations.
How do you see the impact of the Gulf-state satellite channels in Syrian drama?
Since 2000, Syrian drama has been financially dependent on the Gulf-state satellite channels— and they ask for religious programming. I am against religion in series, since I think we have to look at drama today not just as art, but as media.
In the 60s, we had much more freedom for women in television than today. The message in the serials in those days was for women to be free. From the 70s, however, there was more and more movement toward religion. Influenced by the Emirates, the series these days want to educate women to cover themselves and act piously. In my opinion, the recent religiously oriented serials encourage a private –public dichotomy, the hypocrisy of being one way inside and then another way outside.
What do you think about the fact that most serials are written for Ramadan?
I don’t care about writing for Ramadan. I take two years to write each serial, and don’t like television drama in Ramadan very much. It’s like a circus.
What are some of your Future Projects?
In a script I am working on now, a man divorces his wife since he finds she’s not a virgin on her wedding night. When he takes her to her parents’ house and complains that their daughter is full of shame, her father defends her, saying: So what if she’s not a virgin? Here, the father’s reaction is different, more supportive of his daughter, than what we saw with Buthayna and her father in “Zaman al-Ar”. My next project is going to be called “Al-Awanes” (older unmarried women), and will consider the hardships of this group of repressed women in our society.