The Ramadan Soap ‘Badeea’s Children’ Is Captivating Syrians

The show details the gritty and violent underbelly of postwar Damascus

The Ramadan Soap ‘Badeea’s Children’ Is Captivating Syrians
A promotional poster for “Badeea’s Children.” (Shahid)

In Syria, there is a well-known saying that foretells the arrival of confrontation: “The scent of gunpowder is spreading.” The expression evokes Syria’s wider domestic struggles: social breakdown, economic hardship and a surge in violence. The enduring scent of gunpowder remains etched into the collective cultural memory of Syrians and the saying has returned to notoriety through its inclusion in a widely popular Ramadan TV series called “Badeea’s Children.”

Ramadan soap operas set in Syria have a long and illustrious history of presenting a marathon, month-long viewing spectacle for audiences around the Arab world. In recent times, however, Syrian Ramadan shows have been subject to warranted criticisms of predictability, unrealistic plotlines and awkwardness in their attempts at period drama, often depicting the Ottomans or French colonial rulers in a bad light. The legendary Syrian series “Bab al-Hara” (“The Neighborhood’s Gate”), which drew audiences from all around the Arab world, was the exception — even though it ran for 13 seasons and well past its prime — as it showed an unknown side of Syria. Shows such as “Khatoon,” which depicts the French colonial era through the lens of a cluttered love story, have been poorly written copycats of “Bab al-Hara.” “Badeea’s Children” reverts to a more accurate depiction of Syria, with an underground twist, and stands out as one of the most avidly followed shows, featuring superstar actor Sulafa Memar in the soul-stirring role of Sugar. The series is directed by the visionary Rasha Sharbatji, whose bold use of thought-provoking themes has turned “Badeea’s Children” into the fourth most-watched Arabic series on the popular streaming platform Shahid.

In the murky tanneries district of Damascus, the death of powerful factory owner Arif al-Dabbagh — whose last name means “the Tanner” — sparks a battle for a substantial inheritance between his four children. Three are poverty-stricken and born from an affair with a destitute beggar called Badeea. They are Sugar, Shaheen and Yaseen. The fourth, his eldest son Mekhtar, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, has deep psychological problems and hears constant voices in his head. A relentless struggle exists between the siblings over money, power and revenge, and through it we gain a unique glimpse into the Syrian underground.

The series’s overarching themes cover many of the darker elements of Syrian society, such as the illicit nightlife world. The majority of the series is set in the postwar era and aims to reflect modern Syria in a way that hasn’t been covered by contemporary dramas, focusing on the struggles facing people in their day-to-day lives and the effects of the conflict on society. Sugar spends her youth as a dancer in a shady cabaret, and her brother Yaseen assists her in gaining fame to solve their dire financial predicament, a feat he will later regret. This is a situation many impoverished young women find themselves in today, with a lack of jobs and education driving them into shadier kinds of work and the many dangers those entail. These women are subjected to myriad abuses including rape and extortion, are often paid with counterfeit notes and are forced to spy on particular clients. Like Sugar, they lack any type of agency or decision in a male-dominated environment, where they simply keep the cash flowing. With the economy reeling and avenues for legitimate income increasingly suffocated, alongside the general effects of the war and growing predatory behavior, their situation has worsened.

“Badeea’s Children” also reveals the workings of the black market, dollar exchanges, fuel racketeering and snitching on enemies to the state as a means of exacting revenge. Yaseen runs a tourism company that traffics in everything from sex workers to unsubsidized petrol, diesel and leather. He is representative of the jack-of-all-trades mentality that has taken hold among many Syrians today, learning to endure in every aspect to survive. Much of this is down to the war and the chaos that came with it, particularly the rise in the callous opportunism of eliminating a potential enemy by reporting a specific activity or fabrication to the state. This was especially true in the earlier days of the war when such actions were common, and there were even tales of wives reporting on husbands while having affairs, going so far as to invent an imagined link between their partners and militant groups.

Survival is the main theme in the series and Badeea’s children evolve to make money, connections and enemies along the way, becoming a menace to society. At a crucial turning point, the central character, Sugar, is conflicted over how to get her life on track. She becomes embroiled in a series of crimes and as law enforcement is bearing down on her, she agrees to hand herself in to the police, saying, “Maybe I should incur the punishment I deserve, and become a clean person in jail. It can get rid of the dirt I have on my hands.” Sugar’s mentality is all too common in modern Syria, symptomatic of individuals who have lived a highly chaotic and turbulent life, full of instability, and at a time of general despair her conundrum is highly relatable to the audience.

Violence is now part and parcel of life in Syria. As social stability declines and hunger increases, there are regular reports of chilling domestic crimes, brothers stealing from brothers and murders for goods, gold or dollars, which have risen considerably as income levels drop and inflation rises. Easy targets become justifiable targets, a phenomenon that was far less entrenched before the war, when wealth was more evenly distributed and deep societal ties limited such opportunism. The show has no qualms about reflecting this reality. Abu al-Hol is one of the standout characters in the show — a gun-runner, mercenary and militia-like figure who has a peculiar obsession with cabarets and dancers. In a daring move, he steals a fortune in gold and betrays his men once the treasure is safely stashed away in a villa. To celebrate, he throws his men a lavish barbecue, complete with hookahs and arak liquor. His men take a dip in the pool at his invitation. Al-Hol’s right-hand man cunningly plunges the main electricity cable into the water, instantly killing them all, and he continues his feast while singing merrily. This reflection of the cold-blooded type that has emerged from the war is relatable to most Syrians. The kind of mercenary who did well out of the lawlessness of the war is common, even in small villages and towns. Al-Hol is then betrayed by Sugar, whom he consorts with on a night out in the cabaret, and is later imprisoned — but only after seeing his gold stolen by another gunslinger.

Seeking revenge, he escapes and kidnaps Shaheen and Sugar’s cabaret-owner husband before Sugar comes to him with a proposal of marriage in return for his protection and forgiveness. This is on the condition that he executes her husband, whom she discovered was stealing from her. He agrees to Sugar’s offer and it marks the beginning of an abusive and predatory relationship in which she becomes a helpless victim.

“One bad apple makes the whole tree rot” was a line uttered in the early episodes, which featured a flashback scene of Sugar and Yaseen out hustling for money on the streets of Damascus. They conduct a series of petty thefts in a packed bakery as dozens queue for bread. At a time when the crime rate in Damascus has increased due to rising poverty, the upbringing of the street and a war-wearied generation have led to the country’s domestic problems multiplying.

Despite the complexity of creating shows that depict violent, degrading or provocative scenes, endeavors that bring these dark narratives to the public sphere are crucial, for they reflect what’s truly happening in real time. Although it may not always be aesthetically pleasing, it is indicative of much of the current social strife we see. In Arabic “musalsalat” (soap operas) at the time of Ramadan, it’s rudimentary to produce tried and tested period dramas, comedies or programs that deal predominantly with love or family. “Badeea’s Children” was perhaps not expected by Syrian or Arab audiences, but its popularity and the themes it portrays reveal it as the quintessential example of what is needed today from Syrian drama, a necessary dive into the controversial, to create a debate and stimulate opinions rather than play it safe.

Innovative Syrian screenwriters Ali Wajih and Yamen al-Hajali — who plays Yaseen — are making a habit of creating diverse shows in this category. “This show is a cornerstone of our efforts to define how Syrian society has become,” Wajih told New Lines. “‘Badeea’s Children’ is a collection of the extremes of tragedy, a peak melodramatic tone that is injected into the audience with a high dosage, using characters to create a mood of futility.”

“The underground world is always evident in our works,” he added. “All of these shows have a dark nuance that is essential, the underground and the darker characters who come out from the shadows, who are shady and full of ill intent, are the personalities that people love, audiences are attracted to them in so many different ways. Additionally, [there is] the economic predicament in the country, [where] over 90% of the Syrian population lives under the global poverty line, so most people in some way, shape or form live in the vicinity of the underground or are forced by necessity to deal with it in some ways.”

The country’s economic and social problems have made this show an essential requirement for Syrian drama to restore its standing. The darker themes that touch the realities of everyday citizens are the very foundation for successful soap operas. For instance, the explanation as to why crime is increasing and how these thefts are happening, and the depiction of nightlife with all its negatives, are crucial to informing public opinion.

Wajih’s scripts have managed to capture the essence of the more invisible aspects of Syrian society. The show “On a Hot Plate” from 2021 literally delves into the world of garbage, where rubbish routes are used for narcotics trafficking and conflicts grow over the money and power they bring. In “Qabban’s Money,” also out this Ramadan, the events take place in Souq al Hal, a large market, and the characters are all linked in some way to the market, which emerges as the central nucleus of the underworld.

Syrian dramas have seen declining viewers at a time when TV audiences are spiking in the region. Amid expanding viewing choices and increased regional competition among streaming platforms, productions such as “Badeea’s Children” come at the end of a fallow period for Syrian drama that has lacked the genuine storylines viewers so desperately crave.

“Society and its development today have distinct tones of futility. We wanted to recreate that sentiment to show the viewer that particular feeling, relevancy,” said Wajih. “There are personalities and undercurrents within the show that reflect the reality that we live in today. The audience instantly became attached to the show. With the style of censorship we have today, it is this expression which gives you the gateway to show the topics and details that we wanted to do.”

The marked decline of social norms and values and the increasingly transactional nature of relationships and principles, mainly exacerbated by hardship and war, make “Badeea’s Children” a compelling watch — a return to more original themes relatable to modern-day Syrians. Syrians have a yearning to understand and even document the rapidly changing society that they exist in and can relate to in the midst of hardship. Shows such as “Badeea’s Children” can repair faith in Syria drama.

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