- The Politics of Love: Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Television Drama by Rebecca Joubin
In this compendium of Syrian television drama from the 1960s to today, Rebecca Joubin examines love and marriage in the popular genre of musalsalat (television miniseries) as metaphors for state and society. Joubin approaches musalsalat as literary texts through which writers voice their critique of the regime and subvert its official narratives. Based on her research on over 250 dramas and extensive fieldwork in Sahnaya from 2002 to 2008, she illuminates the centrality of gender to these literary texts and argues that the power dynamics of love, sexuality, and marriage provide an “outlet for the expression of oppositional consciousness” (12). Joubin is primarily interested in the allegorical relationship between patriarchal family structures that subjugate women and an authoritarian state that oppresses its subjects. She traces this relationship through numerous plot synopses of musalsalat that she groups into successive historical periods of television drama. Recurring in these works is the qabaday, a “tough man” figure of masculinity who deals with political alienation, economic marginalization, and corruption both in the public domain and at home. By relating the qabaday to the shifting relations of Syrian femininity, female sexuality, and state politics, Joubin attests that television drama is a site for the construction of Syrian masculinity, nationhood, and political consciousness.
Of the several studies of Syrian musalsalat that were published in the past decade, Joubin’s study is the first to provide a historical survey of the genre. She begins with early political parodies of the 1960s that feature leading actors and the directors Duraid Lahham, Nihad Qalʾi, and Muhammad al-Maghut. These parodies depict women as secular, modern, and independent characters who eschew the head scarf, work outside the home, and retain power in the family. Joubin argues that their empowerment is less a statement for women’s emancipation or an embrace of egalitarianism and more a literary device that emasculates male characters. Frustrated by their marriages, which are often likened to a [End Page 224] prison, men are depicted as weak in their families. Joubin relies on plot summaries to demonstrate that this period of miniseries projects the family as a microcosm of the state. “Embattled masculinity” on the home front is symbolic of the loss of land to Israel in 1967, economic malaise, and political corruption. Suffering from the loss of dignity and honor, the manly qabaday characters fear that women’s empowerment in the public sector suppresses their masculinity, which leads them to pursue dominance at home. Joubin suggests that the domination of husbands over wives counteracts male vulnerability in ways that parallel cycles of state violence. Her lengthy accounts of character conflicts capture numerous variations in these allegorical relations between the family and the state. For instance, the inability to get married is a recurring plot twist that evokes dependency on the state and political corruption. In Hammam al-Hana (Hana Bathhouse), the protagonist Ghawwar is unable to attain financial success and “succumbs to cheating and dishonesty in order to become a ‘real man’ of means able to marry” (78).
Marriage metaphors in which the absolute rule of the family patriarch symbolized Baathist abuse of power and hypocrisy continued into the late 1980s and the 1990s. Musalsalat such as Azmet al-Sakan (The Housing Crisis) focused on the reassertion of male power through the role of protectorate. By safeguarding female purity and defending his honor at home, the qabaday compensated for emasculation in the public domain. In contrast to earlier portrayals of masculinity that were linked to women’s empowerment, these dramas signified qabaday by linking male honor to female purity. Joubin contends that conflicts over female sexuality mediated the qabaday figure in ways that presented female characters as instrumental for the production of masculinity rather than as fully developed characters. The emergence of the Biʾa Shammiyeh (Old Damascus) genre of historical fiction in the 1990s, most notably represented by the popular Ramadan miniseries Bab al-Hara (The Neighborhood...