Pop Culture and Political Critique in Syria: A Study of Khan al-Harir

Under the rule of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Syria has for decades been a highly autocratic security state. The ruling regime has attracted much-deserved criticism from human rights organizations and the international community. Before the Arab Spring, however, domestic criticism of the Assad government within Syria was largely stifled by harsh information controls. A so-called “barrier of fear” kept most dissent quiet. Some forms of media, however, did manage to make it past the censors, voicing subtle criticisms of the regime many years before the brave protestors on the streets of Dar’a and Homs made them heard throughout the world. Before 2011, television dramas played an outsized and essential role in critiquing the many flaws of Syria’s political system.

One drama in particular, Khan al-Harir, offered a particularly holistic summary of the complaints brought to the streets in the first days of what would become Syria’s terrible and tragic civil war. The series found a way to critique the Assad regime’s oppression, autocracy, and cronyism years before such a level and scope of criticism was thought to be acceptable in a heavily censored state. Moreover, Khan al-Harir enjoyed a massive domestic audience, broadcasting its message to millions of Syrians. Fifteen years before the Arab Spring and years before Bashar al-Assad would even ascend to the presidency, it presented an early version of the critique that would one day threaten to topple the Syrian regime...

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