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Syrian war takes center stage on Ramadan TV series

Wednesday - 7/31/2013, 5:40am  ET

In this picture taken on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, two Syrian women watch one of the Syrian popular series Al-wiladah men al-khasira (Birth from the Waist), broadcast on a giant screen, left, at an outdoor coffee shop, in Beirut, Lebanon. Birth from the Waist is one of several Syrian soap operas airing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year, almost all of them dealing with the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, spotlighting a conflict in which more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions of others uprooted from their homes. The series have captivated millions of viewers across the Arab world. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BASSEM MROUE
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Blasts echo in the distance as two longtime friends and neighbors sit along a narrow street in old Damascus chatting about Syria, when one of them calls the civil war raging in their home country a "crisis."

"It is called a revolution!" the other shouts. "If you are one of those who believe in a foreign conspiracy, then move away from here," roars the man, whose son has been detained by regime forces for nine months for taking part in pro-democracy protests.

The first man retorts that he is sitting in public property and has the right to call it whatever he wants.

It's a scene from "We Will Return Soon," one of at least three Syrian soap operas airing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that deal primarily with the Syrian civil war.

The shows, spotlighting a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and uprooted millions of others from their homes, have captivated millions of viewers across the Arab world. Other Syrian soap operas broadcast during Ramadan also address the war though it's not their main theme.

Some of the series are pro-regime and managed to film in Syria, while other series critical of President Bashar Assad's brutal military crackdown had to be filmed in studios in neighboring Lebanon or Gulf Arab countries. Still others tried to achieve a delicate balance between the two.

With emotions running high among Syrians, reaction has been mixed. A few have called for the programs to be boycotted, particularly those deemed supportive of the regime. But for many Syrians, and especially the hundreds of thousands of refugees in other countries, the shows are a reminder of the lives they left behind.

"These shows make me miss Syria and its people," said Shadi Attasi, a 35-year-old Syrian from the central city of Homs who fled the war and now lives in Dubai. "They also make me sad because while this is only acting, a lot of people in Syria are living this exact scenario of violence and injustice."

During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and sit down for an elaborate meal in the evening. Arab satellite channels broadcast special Ramadan programs and soap operas each night, trying to hook families who have gathered to break their fast.

Syrian soap operas have gained major popularity in the past few years, rivaling Egyptian dramas that had long dominated viewership across the Arab world. Among the most successful was Bab el-Hara, or "The Neighborhood Gate," which follows families in a Damascus neighborhood between the world wars, when the French ruled Syria and the local population chafed under foreign control and yearned for independence.

This year's Syrian soap operas mark a stark departure from the past, dealing with themes and using language unthinkable before the uprising began in March 2011 against the Assad family's decades-old iron grip rule.

The new TV series also depict some security officers as corrupt and ruthless human beings who live well beyond their means and order troops to kill with no mercy.

One popular series, "Birth from the Waist," is openly critical of security agents, even showing a security officer ordering his men to "open fire at the dogs," in reference to anti-regime protesters. The show, which airs on several Arab satellite channels but not on Syrian state-run TV, is about widespread corruption in Syria as well as the uprising and security crackdown.

Many producers have been unable to move inside Syria, forcing them to set up studios elsewhere.

Much of the country is now carved up between rebel and government-held territory. Crossing from one area to the other is often a perilous journey and may take hours if not days. Those that have been produced in Syria are approved, pro-regime series, and at least in one case, the army has assisted in providing cover.

The Syrian Village, near Damascus, where many series including "The Neighborhood Gate," were filmed in the past few years, was damaged in the fighting. Rebels took it over from government troops earlier this month.

The war has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones, polarizing Syrians into supporters and opponents of Assad. Assad's regime denies there is a popular uprising, calling it instead a foreign conspiracy backed by Israel and the United States.

In the Ramadan series this year, actors often appear to be cast as characters with likeminded views.

Syrian actress Kinda Allouch has backed the opposition since the start of the crisis. In "We Will Return Soon," which tells the story of a Syrian family that fled to Lebanon to wait out the war, Allouch's character proudly proclaims in several episodes that she backs "the revolution."

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