Doreen Khoury

Syrian radio drama ‘Hay Al-Matar’

(Image via Facebook/Hay el Matar)

“We are not heroes, the days of heroism are long gone. It is not for people like us, because we are ordinary people, and at the end of the day, our only concern is to survive and make ends meet.”


These despondent and heartbreaking words were expressed by handyman Shawki to his rebellious son Nidal, in a brilliant new Syrian radio drama Hay al-Matar (‘Airport District’), broadcast 3 times a week in 15 minute episodes on BBC Arabic Radio, and also available on Soundcloud and the program’s website. Part soap opera, part realistic drama, it explores how the personal relationships in a Syrian community are being affected by war. The various subplots in the drama convey one of the main paradoxes of a long-term war; although communities seem to adapt on the surface, war is still an abnormal situation, which can change people and relationships forever.


Hay al-Matar, produced by BBC Media Action, is set in a fictional suburb, presumably in the Damascus area (my guess, since the characters are able to drive to Beirut). It tackles the myriad challenges affecting Syrian communities today: displacement, financial hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, radicalization, perceived loss of masculinity, and changing gender roles.


But Hay al-Matar is not heavy or depressing; in fact, it has just the right mix of high drama and comedy to make it truly engaging to listeners. For example, Ghaly, a character who runs the local mini-market and makes daily announcements on a megaphone, provides comic relief.


These scenes delicately offset subplots of families struggling to hold on to their dignity and unity amid financial pressures.  Traditional attitudes towards gender roles are subtly challenged by women who try their best to balance between gaining their own autonomy and submitting to the control of the male figures in their lives.


One female character, Archi, insists on reopening her restaurant that was partly destroyed in a bomb blast, against her husbands wishes, because the restaurant is a testament to her productivity and her purpose in life. Another character, Shirine, struggles to convince her traditionally minded husband Loqman that she wants to find a job, instead of wasting away at home.


Indeed, the perceived loss of masculinity and control felt by men is subtly explored in Hay al-Matar.  We see husbands, fathers and even sons frequently attempting to impose their will on their female relatives, who push back, sometimes with equal ferocity and try to assert their independence. Some of the best scenes are created by these sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle confrontations. 


On the subject of male power, one storyline that is painfully familiar to many Lebanese is the hajez or checkpoint that is run by Assaf, with the help of some local thugs, controlling who comes in and out of the neighborhood and plays the role of local strongman. He is a constant blunt reminder that the Hay al-Mattar community is living in a war; freedom of movement is restricted in wartime and those with arms are often the dominant authority.


Assaf's political affiliation is ambiguous: It is unclear whether he is a regime officer, belongs to an armed opposition group or is a freelance mercenary who seized an opportunity to set up a checkpoint during the chaos and lawlessness of war. But whether Assaf is with the opposition or with the regime is beside the point. Hay al-Matar shows us that after 6 years of war, the behavior of warring parties toward local communities becomes strikingly similar: bullying, suppression of dissent, and the arbitrary and malicious treatment of people who are unable to fight back. 


The political affiliation of the characters is also irrelevant. The producers and writers have been careful to create a show that appeals to all Syrians. But having listened to over 30 episodes so far, I can honestly say that I don’t care if they support the regime or the opposition. What I care about is whether they survive the war with their dignity, humor and ability to care for each other intact. This is the true type of heroism that Shawky is perhaps trying to convey to his son; the struggle of ordinary people to keep Syrian communities together and united in the face of a conflict that is threatening their cohesion and identity.



You can follow Doreen Khoury on @doreenkhoury 

(Image via Facebook/Hay el Matar)