more from the
May/June 2016 issue:
The Home Depot,
the Georgia Aquarium,
– Carson Chan
Two Sides of the Same Sea
– Stephanie Bailey
The School of Athens
– Despina Zefkili
– Ala Younis
Interview: Chrysanthi Koumianaki
– Iliana Fokianaki
– Jasmine Amussen
for Bethany Collins
– Buzz Spector
– Emily Wilkerson
Change is Everything
– Emily Wilkerson
+ buy issue
Text / Ala Younis
Helmy Rafla, video still from Saot El-Hobb (The Voice of Love), 1973
In the second half of the 1970s, a booming industry of Arab drama production sought out Athens for its studios and (color) TV production facilities.
Numerous series produced in Greece were aired on newly launched Arab television stations and were watched on the TV sets that were fast entering Arab
homes. Both private and state-funded Arab drama productions flew cast and crew into the Greek capital for production (the length of which was often
admirably short). Some teams stayed for 50 days at Athens' President Hotel, where they would run into casts and crews from other countries or other
productions. At times other Arabs, traveling in Athens for different reasons, would meet them in the hotel elevator, or at breakfast, and even take
souvenir photos with cast members.
Trying to find a photo that my parents took of my sister with Egyptian drama diva Mimi Gamal, taken at the breakfast lounge of President Hotel in
1986. Uninterested in the actress, and hearing of the stay of other actresses in the same venue, I refused to pose in this picture.
Wars, identity, interiors
Locally produced Lebanese dramatic television was, in its 1970s heyday, described as "The Arabs' Drama"; its popularity across the Arab world
meant that public production was joined by private firms, which brought flourishing new business to the region. The industry was so active there
that even newly recruited actors would quickly become stars. In 1974, Lebanon's income for 600 hours of drama sold to Arab television stations was
two million Lebanese liras (roughly $890,000).1 Yet in 1975, just as the country's two public broadcasting companies decided
to switch to producing and broadcasting only in color,2 the Lebanese Civil War broke out. The reality of the war stood in the
way of local production; as the market tightened, the two private Lebanese television stations merged to become the public Télé Liban in 1977.
The state granted Télé Liban a 25-year monopoly in nationalbroadcasting—a measure taken to prevent the militias from using television
to further fraction the populace.
In Greece, Enterprise Studios opened in 1975, and by 1977 it had begun to operate as the first Greek color-television-production studio. The civil war
and subsequent bombardments shut down Télé Liban's Beirut headquarters, sending directors, their casts, and their crews to Athens. (Soon, they would go
to new production studios in Jordan and in the Arabian Gulf region, namely to Ajman and Dubai.) Among the earliest to leave was Lebanese Director Rachid
Alameh, who moved to Greece in the mid-1970s to produce his classic Arabic historical drama series in studios there. Lebanese Director Wajih Radwan went
to Athens to produce several popular television shows adapted from international literary classics; on one occasion, he moved a team of 50 Lebanese
professionals to shoot one of his drama series.3
Kids coming upstairs alone in the hotel elevator have always enjoyed pressing all of its buttons just as they leave, so that those left in the elevator
have to stop at every floor. Having stepped into one of these "directed" trips, instead of going up to my floor, I was taken down to the basement levels.
The elevator doors opened to the hotel's kitchen, where a man stood wearing a full white cook's costume. He stretched his head into the elevator to see all
the illuminated buttons, and started to scream at me in Greek. I was terrified—not just of the unfamiliar world outside the open elevator door, but mostly
of the limits of language. I remember I was screaming back, in Arabic and with tears, that it was not me. But, surely who did it did not matter to the chef.
Albert Kilo, video stills from Life's Journey, 1985
Among the Arab television dramas produced in Athens in the 1970s and subsequent decades is Albert Kilo's series Life's Journey (1985), in which the central
villain character comes back to life to find his lover about to marry another man, then takes revenge by forcing himself into their lives. The series
featured an all-Lebanese cast, except for one Jordanian actor playing in the role of a doctor, to which he might have been assigned while working in Athens
on a Jordanian production. Or perhaps this listing was a mistake, and he played in that role in the other Life's Journey (1981): a drama of the same name
that was also produced in Athens, but by the Jordanian director Hasib Yousef.4
Until the information on the exact names, credits and dates of production for these works is researched or listed, and until we manage to watch these series
online or at their professional or amateur archives, or speak to any of the people who were involved in this process, any link between incidents in this
research is speculative fiction.
Soap opera productions such as Wadha wa Ibn Ajlan written by the Jordanian nationalist Ahmad Uwaydi al-Abbadi, who is himself of Muslim Bedouin origins,
and Nimr al-Adwan written by Ruks al-Uzayzi, of Jordanian Christian settled tribal origins, and produced for radio and television, were exported to the rest
of the Arab world, launching the Jordanian soap opera genre. Such programs advertising Jordan's Bedouin identity were shown throughout the Arab world from
Iraq to Morocco. The fact that Transjordanians of settled and Bedouin origins, Christian or Muslim, were active in promoting Jordan's Bedouin image attests
to the inclusive project of Bedouinizing all Jordanians as a form of nationalizing them against the Palestinian national threat that was defeated on the
battleground .... As such, the ability of the modern Jordanian and her or his European and Euro-American counterpart to observe the Bedouins and live in
their time can take place only if he outlives them, i.e., if he moves through the Time he may have shared with them onto a level on which she or he finds
Ghassan Jabri, video still from Wadha wa Ibn Ajlan (Wadha and Son of Ajlan) (1975)
Jordan's acclaimed Bedouin series Wadha wa Ibn Ajlan (Wadha and Son of Ajlan) (1975) was the country's first drama produced for color broadcast. The series
appears to have been filmed among three locations: outdoors, in the desert; indoors, on a set made to look like a piece of the desert, with bushes, rocks,
and a well; and inside a Bedouin tent. The lead actor was Egyptian and the lead actress Syrian; the Bedouin costumes and accessories for the production would
have traveled with the crew from Jordan. The cinematic exterior shots were made there, too, and a note about the outdoor filming location is included in the
production credits. Yet there is no mention of the Greek studios, where the interiors were shot in their entirety, nor are any Greek technicians named in
the title credits or final credits.
Mohamed Fadhel, video still from The Night of Fatma's Arrest (1982)
Peace, boycott, welcome
The Camp David Accords that led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979 caused a wide Arab boycott of Egypt, including its very popular national
film and television productions. This response forced Egyptian actors to find other ways of joining Arab productions. Because the boycott affected
mostly state-funded productions, and because Egyptian actors enjoyed a sweeping popularity at the time, privately funded Egyptian productions, particularly
ones made in Athens, began to be welcomed on the national televisions of even the boycotting Arab states. This coincided with a rising interest by
Gulf-based studios in dramatic productions in general. Egyptian actors also favored these working conditions: they were able to travel and paid higher
fees in hard currency, which was difficult to get in Egypt at the time. Egyptian actresses were able to shop the latest fashions.
Trying to find a photo that I once saw in my uncle's collection between 1986 and 1988. He was an actor in Jordan who also traveled to Athens to take part
in many of these dramatic productions. In the photo, as I recall, was Egyptian actor Salah Qabil, raising his glass for the shot among other actors and
crewmembers. He was wearing a brown shirt, and that stripe of hair near his forehead had already turned white.
The events of Hboub El Rih [The Blowing Wind] are set in Petra, an ancient city in the south of Jordan. The work takes place in the years around 1948—the
end of the British Mandate for Palestine, and the rise of Jewish settlements there. My uncle played the role of a Bedouin from the El Bdoul family, and
another actor played the role of the Palestinian rebel; some of the exterior shots were made in old cities, presumably in Al-Salt in Jordan, to depict
Jerusalem. The show aired on prime time Kuwait television, just before 1984, when my parents moved from Kuwait to Amman. With the advent of VCRs, it
became possible to make home copies of the episodes—to create one's own archive of favorite television programs, films, and news. At the homes of Jordanian
actors, one would see other Jordanian, Iraqi, and Arab artists, as well as modest stacks of video tapes: random collections of the actors' own work, often
received as favors from friends with VCRs. Not everyone had them at the time.
As Palestinians were expelled from Beirut in August 1982, the Greek ship Atlantis carried them to Athens, and then to the world. They were welcomed in
Athens, and PLO chief, Yasir Arafat, walked down the gangplank with future Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou as the crowds cheered on September
The chief of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and 60 aides arrived at 12:30 pm aboard the flag-decorated Greek cruise liner Atlantis at the secluded
little Flisvos yacht marina 4 miles west of the Greek capital. Security was tight with hundreds of police in the marina. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou
met the ship along with four ministers. Arafat came down the gangplank alone dressed in a light green tunic, with a pistol on his hip. He and Papandreou
Mikis Theodorakis, the well-known composer of the scores for the films Zorba the Greek (1964) and Z (1969), had written a "Palestinian national anthem,"
produced at the request of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) during its chief's visit to Greece at the end of 1981, in the aftermath of the Greek
elections that swept Andreas Papandreou and his party to power. In March 1982, Theodorakis arrived in Beirut on an official visit to Lebanon, invited by
both the Lebanese Tourism Minister and the PLO. Theodorakis had been elected a member of Parliament in the new government.
The exterior shots for the Egyptian film The Voice of Love (1973) were created in Alexandria, Egypt, and the "most beautiful countries of Europe," in
Greece, while the Al Ahram Studio in Cairo provided a setting for the work's interior scenes. The film's title credit score was composed by Omar Khorshid,
who created a mix of Greek (Zorba's) dance tunes and Egyptian traditional music. In the first third of the film, the two central characters, lovers, roam
Athens and climb the Acropolis; the lead actress sings, and a group of dancers, in casual costumes, dances with precision to her songs. The body gestures
of the male Greek dancers are much different than those of the Lebanese performers who danced behind Arab singers in entertainment programs shot in
Jordanian studios in the 1980s.
Looking for an audio cassette that I saw in the drawer of my mom's dresser upon returning from our family vacation in Athens in 1986. It took me several
years to finally learn that it carried Greek music similar to Zorba's, which had been popular in the last decade.
Ahmad Tawfic, video still from Am Hamzah (1981)
One Arab currency after another was devalued in the final decades of the 20th century—with pan-Arab repercussions. During this period,
the Gulf would rise as the powerhouse in the region, backed by a stable currency and influx of investments.
The Egyptian pound was worth the equivalent of $4 in 1936, $3 in 1950, $2.50 in 1967, $1.40 in 1978, and $0.70 in the 1980s. Elsewhere,
a combination of political malaise with lack of confidence in and speculation surrounding the Lebanese pound all but stripped the currency
of its once-envied purchasing power. In the early 1980s, a US dollar was the equivalent of about 3.5 Lebanese pounds; a 1987 news article
reported a dizzying and exponential depreciation of the currency, which sank from 87 per US dollar down to 505 per US dollar in one year
(a drop of 480%). Between 1982 and 1987, the Jordanian dinar varied only slightly in value, between US$2.55 and US$3.04. Jordan withdrew
its financial support for the West Bank in 1988, however, which led to financial crisis. By 1989 the dinar had dropped another 10%, to a value
of $1.76. Jordanians—especially those of Palestinian origin—tried to exchange dinars for foreign currencies, or move their savings outside the
country. Responding to a similar effect locally, Syria passed a law in 1989—Law No. 24—that brought severe penalties for such foreign exchanges.
New import restrictions were also imposed, and the balance of payments has been "in crisis" ever since.
As I searched for souvenirs of that trip in Athens, I found some family photos and video footage, but nothing of the artifacts, photos, audio or
cassettes that stayed in my memory. I found a small plastic bag of drachmas that I had kept in my collection of world coins. One of the cultural
reactions that stayed with me from my Athens time was that, because of the Greek currency value, we paid for goods with millions.
The drama series business profited from people's appetite for modernized domestic scenes in entertainment. One hallmark of 1980s television
productions was an escalated aesthetic endorsement of pretentious interiors. Since these interiors were easy to produce inside a studio, it
remains a mystery as to which aspects or objects of a set could reveal a scene's place of production.
Mowaffaq Al Salah, video still from Ibrahim Touqan (1984)
My uncle was a popular actor, though the girls at school in Amman would not believe us when we told them. So he gave us each personal photos,
autographed starting with, "Dear niece." When he passed away in summer 2015, I couldn't find mine, but at least my sister found hers. Among the
roles he played was that of the character of Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan, which he interpreted in a drama series that was produced in Baghdad
in 1986. Touqan's poem "My Homeland" was adopted as the national anthem in Iraq after 2003.
By the end of 1980s, Arab states had managed to sufficiently equip studios to serve national and regional productions. These states split again
into two camps as a result of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which placed a new boycott on Jordanian film and television, leading to the bankruptcy
of production companies in Jordan—and in Athens. This boycott was far more severe than the one instituted against Egyptian actors and studios in the
early 1980s; in response, Jordanian actors often traveled to Baghdad, while Iraqi actors and filmmakers traveled and even settled, in Amman. The split
in 1990 would further highlight the politics of the television drama.
Between the challenged and prosperous economies of the countries that make up the Arab television and film industry, it is interesting to look at how
small Arab production capitals moved between Athens and the Arab cities. These drama series are rare on the Internet, and perhaps even rarer in books
and academic reviews, and little has been written on their intimate politics and economies—which also involved strategizing for access to studios for
interior shots, or to exchange decor. Adding to the lack of an archive are the names and places that went entirely unmentioned in production credits.
A process of elimination is necessary in creating possible lists of production sites. An understanding of this piece of cultural history, in other words,
is left to be gathered from interviews or anecdotes. What is certain is that behind the dramas and drachmas of Athenian life in the last decades of the
20th century were state and private interests moving capital, and battling for ground behind the scenes at a strategic political soundstage.
Ala Younis was born in 1974 in Kuwait City. She received a BSc in architecture from the University of Jordan, Amman, in 1997.
Working in installation, publishing, and video, she employs archival found material in research-based projects that combine personal
narratives with collective and national histories of the Middle East. The text presented here is part of Younis' ongoing work on pan-Arabism,
and the cultural relationships, recurrences, and parallels that emerge in transitional times.
1. Zaven Kouyoumdjian, "Asaad Allaho Massakoum," Annahar (June 6, 2015).
3. Basim al-Hakim, "Elsi Vernini: The Daughter of the Lebanese Drama Golden Age," Al-Akhbar 1170 (July 19, 2010).
4. On actor Ashraf Abaza's page on the Jordanian Artists Syndicate website, it states that he played the role of the doctor in the Jordanian
version of Life's Journey, and the date and location of filming are listed as Athens Studios, August 3, 1981. It also lists an earlier Lebanese
production he took part in, "The rock as it speaks," directed by Antoine Rimi and shot at Athens Studios in 1979.
5. Joseph Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (New York: Columbia University Press Books, 2001), 77.
6. New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung (September 1, 1982): 5