During Ramadan in 2018 a barrage of social media posts vented people’s outrage over a racist banner that was seen in the background of a scene in the Syrian-Lebanese TV series Tareeq (The Road).
“It is forbidden for foreigners to roam around until 6 am,” it read behind actress Zeina Maki, who was running through the streets. Everyone knew the banner targeted Syrians.
The TV audience found it ironic. An adaptation of a short story by Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, the series was produced by Lebanese Sabbah brothers’ Cedar Art Production, shot by Syrian director Rasha Sharbatji, while several Syrian actors took part, including Abed Fahed who played the hero.
However, the Syrians appeared in a way that was far removed from how the majority of people in Syria, and Lebanon, live. Most characters in the series belong to the wealthy upper class to which also most Syrians playing in the series belong.
To avoid confronting reality and tackling difficult issues — racism being the most prominent — the TV series of that time would mostly take stories and plots from foreign productions.
After 2011, fleeing from TV made solely to promote the Syrian regime and political battles hampering Syrian productions, many Syrian actors found a safe haven in Arab co-productions made in Lebanon, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
As expected, these efforts were rather ambiguous at first. For example, the language broke all rules of logic, as was the case for Al-Ekhwah (The Brothers). The first pan-Arab randomly distributed roles among actors. As a result, there were many dialects spoken, even within one and the same family.
The criticism following the first wave of co-productions was taken at heart for the second wave, as playwrights started justifying having both Syrian and Lebanese actors in a coherent setting, provided it remained far removed from reality and any thorny issues.
The second wave allowed for Syrian and Lebanese actors to be part of one and the same family, as long as the series explained just how the family was formed, for example, through marriages tying people together.
Many kinds of justifications were created until the 2017 series Al-Heyba (The Prestige), which found the best possible dramatic solution: a village on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Also produced by the Al-Sabbah brothers, Al-Heyba for the first time ever presents a Syrian refugee as a character
Prior to that, Syrian refugees did not have an on-screen presence apart from purely Syrian TV dramas, some of which were set in Lebanon, such as Ghadan Naltaqy (Tomorrow We Meet). The 2015 series featured no Lebanese characters, while racism only appeared as a hazy atmosphere that could hardly be touched.
Since Lebanon has been on the verge of collapse, joint Arab TV productions have seen significant changes. They became more oriented to the reality they had been avoiding for years. TV series were long limited to such places as palaces and touristic areas. Now stories were set in poor popular Lebanese neighborhoods. Even refugee camps were filmed.
Syrians and Lebanese became “partners in disaster,” as both share a very similar reality of poverty and suffering. Yet, the series did not seriously tackle any of the root causes that led to the division between the two peoples. Racism remained a red line that was not to be crossed.
That changed this Ramadan season. The racism bubble finally burst and tarnished most TV series. For example, Aqal Min Aady (Less Than Ordinary) features very explicit dialogues about racism, while Wa-Akheeran (Finally) shows several violent acts motivated by racism.
Directed by Ramy Koussa and written by Mohamed Abdel Aziz, Al-Nar Bel-Nar (Fire with Fire) appears to be a pioneer in this context. Reportedly influenced by William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the series’ scattered stories all deal with racism.
Although the series did not come without a fair share of controversy. The author claimed that the director had “manipulated” his text, after which he posted an original dialogue from the series on his official Facebook page and “disavowed” any scenes and storylines he did not “write.”
Al-Nar Bel-Nar does not just marginally refer to racism through side conversations. Several scenes considered taboo have been re-enacted, most notably the hanging of a banner banning Syrians from roaming at night – a banner very similar to the one shown in the series Tareeq.
Ironically, the main actors in the two series are the same: Syrian actors Abed Fahed and Zeina Maki. In Al-Nar Bel-Nar both play a racist character. Perhaps the strangest thing is that both series are produced by the Sabbahs.
What tipped the scales so dramatically? Is it a spontaneous artistic development related to a changed reality?
The Sabbahs’ Cedar firm is arguably betting on something that does not raise too much controversy. The wave of racism targeting refugees that has swept the Lebanese arena simply can no longer be ignored and must appear on the small screen.
In other words, the Al-Sabbahs are just looking to “profit” from the current crisis without delving too much into it. Al-Nar Bel-Nar therefore moves in a relatively safe space. Yes, there is the display of “racism,” but it is nothing compared to the political exploitation of migrants that is currently taking place.
It is “safe” racism, a reproduction of the widely circulated tales about inter-ethnic racism, tales that have no actual value in the street today, where Syrian refugees are being arrested and deported, and blamed for all problems in Lebanon.
Al-Nar Bel-Nar is set in a popular Lebanese neighborhood where Syrian refugees have taken up residence. Varying levels of historical, cultural, economic, and military ties between Syrian and Lebanese are reflected in this neighborhood.
The series caught the public eye due to its audacity to tackle the subject matter and the way its characters are depicted. The main plot centers on a triangle of romantic relationships.
First there is Syrian refugee Maryam (Caresse Bashar), whose papers were stolen the moment she set foot in the area. Then there is Aziz (George Khabbaz), a racist Lebanese man who is angry at all Syrians due to the kidnapping of his father at a Syrian checkpoint during the Lebanese Civil War. And, finally, the usurper Omran (Abed Fahed), a bi-national, who controls the neighborhood economically.
The relations between these three seem interesting at first, but as the series goes on, they start to lose appeal, especially when Omran turns out to be pure evil. The change has revealed many of the plot’s secrets and made the ending predictable, as it will arguably see the relationship between the racist Lebanese and the Syrian refugee be brought to a happy “utopian” end. Of course, this is just speculation, as the series has not ended yet.
Is racism towards migrants becoming a “popular” topic in soap operas, meaning the subject is no longer shunned? The daring content of Al-Nar Bel-Nar in openly discussing racism cannot be disputed. But exactly what racism?
The scene in the series that caused the most controversy deals with how the Syrians, even though they departed as an army in 2005 and only returned in 2011, had a part in the Lebanese Civil War. Yet, how did they return? As displaced, fugitives and refugees.
Here again, we can say that the racism on display in today’s soap series is rather safe and uncontroversial. It is racism that has nothing to do with the current reality.
The Syrians did not cause the Beirut Port blast, did not steal the bank deposits, and did not disrupt the municipal elections. They were not the reason for suspending the legal case of the victims of the explosion, and did not steal UN aid.
The rebirth of racism in this safe form arouses emotions without addressing the present. And perhaps we do not really expect the series to do so, as it depends on the producer who may prefer to approach the status quo without problematizing it.
We ask again: Why now? Why in 2023?
Maybe it is a coincidence. However, it cannot be denied that the series is shown following repeated news reports about the “voluntary return program” the Lebanese government introduced last year, a strategy that is “forced” rather than “voluntary.”
The refugee problem has long been used to explain “all” of Lebanon’s problems, including corruption and the banking crisis. In some of the series’ sub-plots, these problems appear as minor issues, while the refugees take center stage. They are “emotional characters” due to losses in the past, not the Assad regime. As a result, what we see on screen does not communicate with what is lived and experienced today.
This does not mean there is a complete absence of what is happening in Lebanon today. Yet, when referring to the banking crisis it is not a Lebanese but a Syrian character who is breaking into a bank to get back his deposits, as did Yaqout, played by Kosai Khauli, in the series Wa-Akheeran (Finally).
It should be noted that, despite today’s TV series’ wider range of issues, red lines still exist. For example, Al-Nar Bel-Nar only blamed the Syrian army in the dossier of the forcibly disappeared Lebanese [during the Lebanese Civil war], while omitting the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, which forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes.
The same is true when it comes to the root causes of Lebanon’s problems. Is a person (with both the Syrian and Lebanese nationality) controlling a neighborhood’s power supply really the cause of it all?
Also, it must be noted that the margin of freedom is not balanced between the Syrian and Lebanese sides. The Lebanese side always seems more daring and the level of criticism is higher.
Throughout the series phrases hint at those ruling Lebanon today are former warlords who were involved in the dossier of the forcibly disappeared. On the Syrian side the margins are narrowed down. The regime in Damascus is completely absent from any bold dialogue, which is definitely a hole that needs to be filled for any “real” drama to appear on TV in the near future.