What’s it like to grow up in Damascus, the oldest capital city on earth, deep in the heart of the Arab world?
Syrian School does something no series has done before. The production team have been allowed a remarkable degree of access so you can follow a year in the life of four schools in Damascus, a high pressure crossroads in the Middle East. Filming real life in schools, in homes and on the street, this programme creates a unique portrait of education and family life in a city that has rarely, if ever, been seen in this sort of intimate detail.
Syrian School meets some remarkable characters, finding their way in a country that has never before opened ordinary life up to the cameras in this way. The series challenges the usual clichés of Arab life, and charts the highs and lows of the school year.
The series discovers what it’s really like to grow up in the heart of the Arab world – letting the people speak for themselves. In the course of the series we meet the young people, ambitious to make their way in a fast changing world: the religiously devout girl seeking an education that she hopes will enable her to show the world what she is capable of, the Palestinian third generation refugee rappers clashing with their more conservative head teacher, girls finding self expression through love poetry, the football mad Iraqi refugee and the young Ba’ath Party Pioneers determined to win the national championships.
For forty years, Syria has been dominated by a single party. There’s limited political freedom, but in Damascus life seems to be slowly changing, especially for the next generation. There’s still an immense hurdle for the students to cross, however, as we discover at the end of the series: the dreaded Baccalaureate Examination.
In the first episode we meet Mrs Amal Hassan, the larger than life head teacher of Zaki al-Arsuzi Girls’ School, intent on teaching her girls to stick up for themselves and ‘be free’. She has a new girl at school; Du'aa comes from a devout Muslim family. Until now she’s been educated at a conservative Islamic school, but this term she’s moved to the more liberal Zaki al-Arsuzi School. How will she get on with the big ideas of her new head teacher?
Across town at Jaramana School, Yusif is football mad. He’s an Iraqi refugee who lived through the bombs of Baghdad. Now in the relative calm of Syria, he must start to overcome his deep-seated fear of loud bangs.
Episode two introduces Yarmouk School, which sits in the heart of a Palestinian Refugee Camp that’s sat on the southern edge of the city for over sixty years. Nearly all its students are Palestinian, coming of age in a society obsessed with its Palestinian identity and right to return to its homeland.
Two schoolgirls are breaking the mould. Shaza and Rahaf dream of serving the Palestinian cause though rap music, but their plans put them on a collision course with their parents and traditionalist head teacher as they try to bring their radical rap into the classroom.
As a teenage girl it isn’t easy to find ways to express yourself in Syria, but there’s one outlet that’s releasing a wave of emotion in Zaki Al-Arsuzi School – the Poetry Society, which is explored in episode three. Under the stimulating teaching of Mr Muhanned the girls can talk freely about their dreams, of love and hope, away from the constraints of wider society. Now though, they’re going to do it in public, at the school’s Writers’ Showcase. Ala'a’s hoping her heartfelt love poems, inspired by a failed relationship she struck up by mobile phone, are good enough for the big stage. Meanwhile, a trip to the October War Museum drives Lemiss to write of the love she feels for her country.
Syria's got talent
Episode four looks at the country’s nationwide search to find Syria’s brightest and best primary school students. Thousands of pupils will battle it out in every conceivable discipline, over three hard fought rounds of competition to become National Pioneers of the Ba’ath Party – Syria’s ruling party.
At Mleiha Rural School, head teacher Soha skilfully steers her boys towards the Pioneer final, guiding her most gifted pupils into some of the less competitive disciplines. 11-year-old Imad has his eyes on the cardboard modelling prize.
Meanwhile at Jaramana School, Ward has his own challenge. He’s a gifted boy who’s been picked to represent his country in one of the toughest international chess tournaments in the world – in Beirut.
Marked for life
The whole city seems in a state of panic over the impending arrival of this year's Baccalaureate Examination, from teachers to parents and pupils and the fifth and final episode follows the students as they prepare.
17-year-old twin sisters Farah and Rahaf are twins facing the exams together – success or failure will determine their futures, but their dreams are wildly different. Farah dreams of studying English and exploring the world, inspired by her satellite TV heroine Nigella Lawson. Rahaf is more anxious, aiming for a more cautious future in engineering. We follow them from revision to results.
Meanwhile, Iraqi refugee Yusif is struggling with his education, as all his attention is focused on the visa he hopes to get that will take him away from Syria. His family is desperate to move to Canada – but can they make it out of Damascus first?
In Damascus, it’s exam season... and everyone’s futures are riding on it.
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