AMMAN: The scene begins as many in this web series do, with two young men relaxing on a farm, flanked by fruit trees, stalks of corn and a clutch of chickens pecking at the dirt.
The first, Amer—round-faced and balding—stretches out on a makeshift bed. His toes poke through holey socks, and a pair of glasses hangs neatly beside him on the bed’s metal frame. His dusty blue t-shirt reads: “Storm 5 - Freedom.”
The other, Subhi—lankier than his companion—sits on the earthen ground, his back against the bed and legs extended outward. A brimmed sun hat sinks low over his eyes, shielding them from the summer sun while leaving just enough room for a slow-burning cigarette to perch casually from his mouth.
Amer turns toward his friend. “The besieged cities are like any canned food,” he says.
Subhi puffs on his cigarette silently, listening.
“They have an expiration date,” Amer continues. “The human capacity to endure a siege is a year or two at most.”
Subhi, left, and Amer, right, in a scene from the webseries. Image courtesy of From Ghouta.
Amer and Subhi’s brief exchange is part of an episode of “Khodni Jeetak,” a Syrian sketch comedy web series that is produced and filmed inside the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs just east of Damascus.
A Syrian government siege of East Ghouta is approaching its fifth anniversary this coming April—well past Amer’s hypothetical expiration date. In the enclave—home to an estimated 400,000 people—food is scarce, pro-government bombings take lives on a daily basis and bitter infighting between local rebel factions separates residents from relatives, medical care and crops.
Members of the team behind “Khodni Jeetak,” which was originally launched in 2016 under the name “Cigarette,” tell Syria Direct that they aim to show a different side of East Ghouta through dark comedy about the realities of life under siege. The show’s title, “Khodni Jeetak,” roughly translates to “give and take.”
“When you talk to anyone about Ghouta, they’ll tell you about grief, pain, the siege and hunger,” says Hakeem al-Qwatly, who directs many of the episodes. “We have all of those things,” he confirms.
“But we also have people who are very much alive,” al-Qwatly tells Syria Direct.“They laugh, sing and joke.”
Each roughly five-minute episode of “Khodni Jeetak” portrays a conversation between the characters Amer and Subhi—played by East Ghouta residents Amer Almohibany and Ahmad Hamdan, respectively. Their banter—about the large and small in the Syrian war—often takes place at a family farm in East Ghouta’s agricultural central sector.
The sound of gunfire and airstrikes occasionally filters through the farm’s concrete walls, a reminder of the scenes of despair that are the current focus of local and international media coverage of East Ghouta. In the news, images of the besieged pocket show bombed-out markets, bloodied bodies and rising smoke.
“Khodni Jeetak,” which today is backed by Turkey-based Syria TV, does not ignore those bleak realities. Instead, the series discusses them by way of dark humor and an unwavering friendship between two young men.
“I’m trying to get [the viewer] to see our suffering,” says screenwriter Mudar Adas, “and, despite all the pain, to laugh.”
“Do you think the crisis will be solved with the ninth round of Geneva?” Subhi asks Amer in a recent clip of “Khodni Jeetak,” referencing the city where UN-brokered peace talks collapsed last December.
The question comes as the pair plays chess by candlelight, using black and white cookies as pieces.
“Why? Have we reached the ninth round?” Amer asks.
“I really don’t know,” Subhi replies. “I stopped counting after the fourth.”
“Man, things will never be solved,” Amer says, chewing on a captured cookie. “Look at us here, still under siege.”
Trying to produce a professional series from within that siege—where electricity is inconsistent at best and even medical supplies have become a rarity—has been a challenge, says director al-Qwatly.
Subhi and Amer discuss international negotiations over a game of chess. Image courtesy of Syria TV.
When the web series launched as “Cigarette” in 2016, the actors had no experience, equipment was limited and funding non-existent. Sound and lighting technicians were nowhere to be found.
Instead, the team of volunteers managed “with the resources available,” says the director. That meant filming with one camera, in one location and with hand-made equipment.
“There was nothing ready-made,” he recalls.
The team built a camera dolly from scratch using wood scraps and window frames. Actors and activists fabricated studio-style lights by attaching bulbs to paper plates. They took online courses and read manuals on acting, camerawork and lighting.
“We’re working with actors who have never been in front of the camera before,” says screenwriter Adas, who communicates with the actors and director via Skype from Qatar, where he now lives.
Adas is the only participant who isn’t from East Ghouta’s central sector, hailing instead from the Qudsaya suburbs northwest of the Syrian capital. He became involved in 2016 through photojournalist Amer Almohibany, a friend and one of the actors.
“It’s very important to produce artistic work from within the siege,” says Adas. “The message is deeper, and more significant, since the people who are suffering are the ones doing the acting.”
The screenwriter says all members of the team contribute rough story ideas, which he then transforms into dramatic material.
“Do you think your brother’s crew has missiles that can reach Aleppo?” Subhi asks.
“I don’t think so,” Amer replies, in an exchange from the first episode of “Cigarette,” which was posted online in May 2016 as battles raged between the opposition and government forces in Syria’s second city.
Subhi sips his cup of tea, and continues, “Ok. How about if we combine missiles from my brother’s crew and missiles from your brother’s crew?”
“Then do you think they’d reach Aleppo?” he asks.
Amer inhales deeply on his cigarette, thinking it over.
“It’s possible,” Amer decides.
After that first episode of “Cigarette” was published by the From Ghouta media page on Facebook in 2016, the series quickly amassed tens of thousands of views, drawing the attention of Syria TV late last year.
Today, with funding and a new name for the series, the “Khodni Jeetak” team includes sound and lighting technicians, as well as a professional cameraman. Filming locations have expanded beyond the walls of the family farm, and new faces accompany those of stars Almohibany and Hamdan in weekly episodes posted to Syria TV’s Youtube channel.
Ahmad Hamdan plays Subhi in a scene from “Khodni Jeetak.” Image courtesy of Sami a-Zubeidi.
But as the team grows and the production quality develops, challenges remain. Work on the show is still on a “more or less voluntary” basis, says director al-Qwatly.
And, since the series began, the siege on East Ghouta has only intensified.
Last year, the Syrian government closed a key trade crossing into the pocket and captured a network of crucial smuggling tunnels that facilitated movement of everything into and out of East Ghouta: from people and fuel to ammunition and cigarettes.
The price of basic goods skyrocketed, food supplies dwindled and humanitarian aid deliveries grew infrequent. A Russian-backed de-escalation deal that took effect in East Ghouta in July 2017 has done little, if anything, to improve the humanitarian situation or decrease violence.
Last week alone, relentless government and Russian bombardment killed more than 200 civilians in East Ghouta and forced the “Khodni Jeetak” team to put an indefinite pause on filming.
“The circumstances are preventing us from giving it our all,” says director al-Qwatly.
Even on quieter days before the latest uptick in airstrikes and shelling, the team’s cameras rolled in the pauses between bombings, and the team took care not to film in locations where residents might not welcome their presence.
“People are afraid of the camera,” the director says. “They worry that bombings will follow in its wake.”
‘My house is your house’
In one December 2017 episode of “Khodni Jeetak,” Amer arrives to the duo’s usual hang-out spot at the farm only to be shot at by a gun-wielding Subhi.
“What’s going on?” Amer asks.
“The farm has become an autonomous area,” Subhi yells, using an unusually formal tone. “In light of the difficult situation and the current circumstances, entrance is strictly prohibited to anyone without a sponsor.”
“But I’m your best friend,” Amer pleads, to no avail. He departs, crestfallen.
In an instant, their lifelong bond—the core of the series—seems to be severed.
The clip is a commentary on Kurdish-held territories in northern and eastern Syria, screenwriter Adas tells Syria Direct, and is one example of how newer episodes of “Khodni Jeetak” aim to address topics relevant not only to East Ghouta, but also Syria as a whole.
Syrian government forces withdrew from a number of Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria in 2012, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) stepped in, declaring autonomy. Today, semi-independent, Kurdish-majority territories run along most of Syria’s northern border with Turkey, covering one fourth of the country.
Amer, played by Amer Almohibany, addresses Subhi in a scene from “Khodni Jeetak.” Image courtesy of YouTube.
The establishment of a de facto autonomous Kurdish state, and Subhi’s de facto autonomous farm, reflect the speed with which pre-existing divisions among the Syrian people—religious, ethnic, ideological—morphed into the internal borders and armed alliances present today.
Divisions and dispute are at the heart of “Khodni Jeetak,” whose title has no perfect English equivalent but which the director says is a reflection on the give and take of two friends who often disagree and yet are still always found together.
Amer and Subhi are “two contradictory characters, in both appearance and substance,” al-Qwatly says.
The two begin each episode with opposing opinions, he adds.
“It’s about dialogue and discussion that can break down the differences between them,” al-Qwatly says.
Dialogue has not brought an end to the siege of East Ghouta, let alone an end to the divisions at the heart of the seven-year Syrian war.
But in this dark comedy, divisions don’t last.
After Amer flees the now-autonomous farm, Subhi returns to the familiar metal framed bed, lights up the ever-present cigarette and closes his eyes.
As a classic Syrian ballad streams from a boombox beside him, Subhi removes the cigarette from his mouth and holds it out, blindly, to a chair where Amer would normally be sitting.
“Take a drag,” Subhi says.
When no one accepts the offer, Subhi opens his eyes to find the chair empty.
“What have I done?” he exclaims.
His friend returns the call from offscreen: “Subhi!”
The two run toward each other and embrace.
“I can’t live without you, my friend,” says Subhi.
“My house is your house.”
[Update: On March 14, 2018 Ahmad Hamdan, one of the co-stars of Khodni Jeetak, was reportedly killed by a pro-government airstrike at his home in the East Ghouta town of Hamouriya. Four days before Hamdan's death, the team behind the web series officially announced they were stopping production of the show indefinitely as a massive Syrian government assault and siege continued in the opposition-held enclave.]