Monday, February 22, 2010

'syrian school' series on bbc tv

‘Syrian School’ TV series aims to challenge stereotypes
by Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette, 21 February 2010

The “Syrian School” series, currently being screened in weekly episodes on UK TV digital channel BBC Four, gives viewers an unprecedented insight into life among Syrian secondary schoolchildren. The five one-hour programs focus on the pupils and staff of four schools in Damascus over the course of one year.
The fly-on-the-wall approach takes the viewer into the schools, homes and streets of the Syrian capital as it follows the youngsters and tracks their lives. The teenagers come across as lively, good-humored, ambitious and independent-minded. The series, made by Lion Television, is a joint production of the Open University and the BBC and follows previous OU-BBC series on schools in Africa, India and China.
Anthropologist and filmmaker Max Baring directed and filmed the series. He says: “What excited me about working on ‘Syrian School’ was the possibility that we could un-pick some of the stereotypes that we in the West hold about the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.”
For example, while the number of Damascene girls wearing the hijab is rising, at the same time “young Syrians are eagerly exploring Western tastes and fashions, without compromising their closely-held Arab heritage.”
The series introduces viewers to an array of memorable characters. The headmistress of Zaki Al-Arsuzi Girls’ School, Amal Hassan, is a dominant presence in the first episode. She wants her pupils to see “how strong I am, and how I am proud of myself, and how I am free from inside... To face all the problems of life they have to be like this.”
The school’s pupils extend an ecstatic welcome to the elegant first lady of Syria, Asma Al-Assad, wife of President Bashar Al-Assad. She visits the school to talk to girls working on a newly-introduced innovation, which she is supporting, to prepare young Syrians for work in the private sector and to develop entrepreneurship.
The first episode is centered around two pupils starting the school year in new schools. Du’aa, a girl from a devout Muslim family, has transferred from a Sharia School to Zaki Al-Arsuzi School for her final year of studying for the Baccalaureate exams.
Du’aa, who memorized the Qur’an at 14, stresses that there is no contradiction between religion and a desire for education. “God urged us to seek knowledge and we prize knowledge a lot” she says. As a child she dreamed of space travel, and longed to be an astronaut.
Fifteen-year-old Iraqi Christian refugee Yusif Androus is beginning his first term at Jaramana Boys’ School. Some two million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Syria provides them with, among other things, free school education.
The influx of Iraqi pupils puts a strain on Syrian schools. Jaramana School, for example, has 500 pupils, including 200 Iraqis, but was built to take only 300. Yusif is a talented footballer, and when he was in Iraq it had been planned that he would play in front of a group of Dutch talent scouts. But after his eldest brother was murdered in sectarian violence the family fled to Syria.
Yusif is still affected by the violence and bombings he witnessed as a young child in Baghdad. Even now he finds it hard to tolerate loud bangs, such as those produced by firework displays.
The program shows a playground scuffle between two of Yusif’s Iraqi friends, who are reprimanded by a school supervisor. The supervisor later says that things are difficult for children from Iraq. “After what they’ve been through we can’t expect their nerves to be normal. They are under a lot of psychological pressure.”
The first episode coincides with the month of Ramadan. It shows pupils at the end of Ramadan going to Eid prayers and excitedly buying Eid presents, visiting family and going to the funfairs that spring up in parks.
The second program focuses on pupils at Yarmouk Girls School in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp established more than 60 years ago.
The Palestinian issue is never far from the pupils’ minds; when the TV crew visits in February 2009 it is a time of particularly strong feeling, just after the Gaza war. Girls express their responses to the war via art and poetry.

Two pupils want to become the first girl rappers in Yarmouk camp. Sixteen-year-old Shaza likes the music of American rappers Eminem, T-Bone and Akon and her love of rap is shared by Rahaf in the year above her. The girls visit the studio of Refugees of Rap, a successful local Palestinian-Syrian-Algerian rap group. The group members listen to the girls’ live performances and give them positive feedback.
Shaza and Rahaf hope to perform at the school prize giving. But this puts them on a collision course with their traditionalist Syrian headmistress Ghada Daloul who declares: “I don’t believe that rap music serves the Palestinian cause.” She is also unhappy that they went to the studio of the male rappers. The two girls’ families also turn against the idea of their becoming rappers. Rahaf confides to the camera: “Girls suffer a lot while looking on at boys enjoying a lot of freedom and going out: a lot of girls wish they were boys.”
Another Yarmouk School pupil, 18-year-old Safa’ Kiwan, is the Damascus girls’ discus champion. She is encouraged by the school sports mistress to train for the national schools championships, but she keeps her training secret from her strict father. Her paternal grandmother clandestinely accompanies her to training sessions.
A poetry writing club run by Muhannad at Zaki Al-Arsuzi School is a highlight of the third program. One club member, Ala [pictured], presents a poem inspired by a thwarted romance that began with an exchange of texts. Meanwhile at a boys’ primary school on the fringes of Damascus, two ten-year-olds compete to come top in class exams. In the following program the Syrian Junior Chess Champion travels to Beirut to take part in the Asian International Championships.

The series ends with preparations by twin sisters for the Baccalaureate exams. Farah dreams of studying English and exploring the world, inspired by her satellite TV heroine, British TV chef Nigella Lawson. Her twin sister Rahaf has more practical aspirations, hoping to study engineering.
Following its run on BBC Four, “Syrian School” is due to be shown on BBC World News in August. At the same time schools in the UK are being invited to twin with schools in the Arab world via an application form on the BBC website.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just saw the episode featuring Yusif, last night. I wonder if he ever got to play football somewhere? I can't imagine living through what his family did, to begin with, but it makes me sick to think that he may have lost his opportunity to play football at a high level, as well.