ABU DHABI: A traditional Damascene bath comes to life in the Emirates, as a team of Syrian actors bustle around in wooden clogs on a film set built far away from war-torn Syria.
“Here’s the rose water bucket ready with a mix of ginger, cinnamon and lemon,” an actress in a traditional off-white dress and red head scarf tells Umm Sakher, wife of the owner of the hammam, or Turkish bath.
The scene is from “Hammam Shami” (Damascus Bath), a Syrian soap opera to be broadcast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in July, and for which the settings have been built for the first time outside Syria.
“I wish this neighborhood and this hammam had been created in their own natural environment, in Damascus,” said set decorator Muhanad Abu Shanab.
The series is a light social comedy set in the 1950s and takes place mainly inside a traditional Turkish bath in an ancient Damascus neighborhood, reconstructed in the Abu Dhabi desert to avoid the unrest that has left more than 94,000 people dead in Syria since 2011.
Actress Sahar Fawzy, who plays Umm Mwaffaq, a simple woman whose husband has taken a second wife, explains that in the Damascene culture, the hammam was a place for people to socialize.
Men made business deals and women discussed daily life and even found brides for their sons, she said.
Such traditional Damascene soaps, whose popularity surged in past years across the Arab world, have previously always been filmed inside Syria, where many traditional houses, neighborhoods and hammams have been preserved for decades.
However, the battles between rebels and regime troops have driven producers away from financing the country’s once-booming film industry.
“I couldn’t hold back my tears” after seeing the set built at an indoor studio in Abu Dhabi, said actress Waha Al-Raheb who plays Umm Sakher.
“I felt nostalgic, and in pain over what has happened to my country.”
The hammam has been recreated in fine detail, right down to the old copper kettles, colorful Ottoman-era chandeliers, straw stools, the black-and-white brick walls and mosaic marble floors.
Actors and actresses are dressed in traditional Syrian costumes and make a distinctive clacking sound as they walk around the hammam in old wooden clogs.
“The decoration alone was so very real that it made us feel for a while that we were back in Syria and that all our troubles were gone. It was a sweet illusion,” said Raheb.
The preparations for the daily show took around four months and all the accessories were shipped in from Damascus.
United Arab Emirates-based Issam Al-Awwa, the production manager, told AFP the costs had doubled because of having to film outside Syria.
Around 45 technicians, all brought in from Syria, and some 70 actors and actresses took part in the project. Secondary characters were mostly Syrians living in the Emirates.
Raheb said she moved to Dubai a year ago after “shabiha” (pro-regime thugs) “used to send me threats on Facebook.”
The soap aims to “put a smile on people’s faces ... while at the same time keeping Syria alive” on the drama scene, she said.
Syrian drama production has plunged since the uprising, from over 40 soap operas produced for Ramadan in 2010 to less than half of that being made now, many outside Syria — in Lebanon and Egypt as well as the Emirates.
Many artists have fled Syria, while some of those opposing the regime have been arrested and others killed over the past two years.
Last month, regime forces briefly arrested prominent actress May Skaf for the second time since she took part in 2012 in a Damascus protest referred to as the “intellectuals’ demonstration.”
In February, popular comedian Yassin Bakush was killed when a shell hit his car in southern Damascus.
Raheb acknowledges that the series has no bearing on current events but says “no producers are financing anything linked to the Syrian revolt.”
“Most producers are linked to regimes which have no interest in seeing the Syrian revolt achieve victory and become a model for the rest of the world,” said Raheb, a filmmaker herself.
“But the time will come when this legendary revolt will be written about.”