Series following a year in the life of four schools in Damascus. At Zaki Al-Arsouzi's writers' showcase, Ala hopes her poems are good enough for the big stage.
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Damascus, Syria. The oldest capital city on earth,
in the heart of the Arab world.
Following a year in the lives of four schools in Damascus,
we look at Syria's next generation.
What is life really like
in this high-pressure crossroads of the Middle East?
There are signs that Syria is opening up,
but it remains dominated by a single party
and Syrians have limited political freedom.
In this programme, opportunities for self-expression can be narrow,
but poetry writing is one way that girls at Zaki Al-Arsuzi High School
get to voice their thoughts and feelings.
Ala'a's hoping her love poems are good enough
for the big stage at this year's writers' showcase.
And at the primary school, it's exam time.
is to beat his nerves and his best friend
to come top of the class.
It's late autumn in Damascus.
In the affluent area of al-Mazraa,
the autumn term is well underway at Zaki Al-Arsuzi High School.
Exercise five, page 25.
Say "Why?" or "Why not?"
If you think it's true, say, "Why?" and if you don't think it's true, say "Why not?"
Zaki Al-Arsuzi is home to 1,200 girls between the ages of 15 and 18.
It's run by headteacher Amal Hassan.
I am here for the girls.
I am here to treat them like they are my family.
I love them as if they are my children.
First-year students Nour, Lemiss and Mahum
have ambitious plans for their future.
Nour and Lemiss's favourite teacher is Mr Mohanned,
who takes them for Arabic five times a week.
Most lessons in Syria are based around learning from set textbooks,
but Mr Mohanned has his own style.
Mr Mohanned teaches the rich tradition of Arabic poetry
as part of the national curriculum.
But creating their own poems isn't part of the syllabus,
so Mr Mohanned runs an innovative extracurricular poetry writers' club.
Both Nour and Lemiss are members.
In three weeks' time,
Mr Mohanned is putting on a special writers' showcase.
It's a chance for a hand-picked number of the girls
to perform their own poems in front of a panel of established Syrian writers and ministry officials,
as well as hundreds of family and friends.
Today the club is meeting
to come up with a suitably poetic title to sum up the event,
and Mr Mohanned has invited the headteacher to help.
With all the suggested titles on the board,
Mr Mohanned takes a vote for the one they think is best.
But two titles have tied with 11 votes each.
It's between Ala'a's suggestion, Tales from a Lover's Notebook,
and headteacher Amal Hassan's title, A Ray of Hope.
One of the keenest members of the poetry writers' club
is 16-year-old Ala'a Assaf.
Although Ala'a's title, Tales from a Lover's Notebook, wasn't chosen,
it's a subject that inspires her poetry.
For some sections of Syrian society,
talking to boys in person can be seen as improper,
but many boys and girls have friendships
using their mobile phones.
Over the summer, Ala'a had a telephone friendship
with a boy she had admired from afar,
but when they finally saw each other in person,
the boy said he wasn't interested in Ala'a after all.
Mleiha is a small suburb on the outskirts of Damascus.
Mleiha Rural Primary School takes boys from 6 to 11.
It's run by headteacher Soha Inglesi.
Most primary schools in Syria are mixed,
but unusually, Mleiha Rural School is just for boys.
Soha Inglesi has been working here for over 27 years
and has seen the school grow and grow.
With so many students, the school operates a double-shift system,
with half the students and teachers coming in the morning...
..and the other half coming in the afternoon.
But today, the school has gathered to celebrate the anniversary
of the National Reform Movement with a special assembly.
Learning to love your country and your rulers
is an integral part of school life in Syria.
The president is Dr Bashar al-Assad,
and once every seven years, he stands unopposed
in a national referendum to receive his people's support.
Serious opposition to the government isn't tolerated
and can lead to imprisonment.
Today's festival commemorates the country's Corrective Movement
and Bashar's father taking power in 1970.
The country's Ministry of Education sets a national curriculum
which is followed by every school in Syria.
C. Very good. D. E.
Because it's in a semi-rural area,
Mleiha Rural School has a special emphasis on agriculture,
complete with its own small farm
and a dedicated agriculture teacher, Mr Bashash.
11-year old Wassim is in his final year at primary school.
Once a week, he has a lesson in the field.
Wassim's dad is a tailor.
Like many people in the area, he owns a small plot of farmland near the family home.
After work, he takes Wassim, his sister and a friend with him
to the family field.
But in recent years, poor rainfall has hit the land hard.
At Zaki Al-Arsuzi, Arabic teacher Mr Mohanned
has asked the girls in the poetry club to submit their best poems
for the upcoming writers' showcase.
Being chosen for the event would allow the girls to express themselves publicly,
but Mr Mohanned will only select ten girls to perform their work.
Keen poets Nour and Lemiss are hoping to be chosen,
but they're still working on their poems.
Ala'a has handed in two poems.
Meanwhile, she's decided to put her telephone friendship behind her.
At the primary school,
they're getting ready for the mid-term exams.
SHE SPEAKS IN ARABIC
Regular testing is an important part of the curriculum in Syria.
Primary school pupils take exams six times a year.
Last month, Wassim came in joint second place
with his friend Abdullah.
This time, they're both determined to come out on top.
After school, Wassim studies with help from his mum.
Once he's finished studying, Wassim attends his local mosque,
where he's learning how to memorise the Qu'ran.
THEY SPEAK IN ARABIC
In between practice,
Wassim's teacher talks to the boys about their studies.
# We will, we will rock you... #
Today, keen poets Nour and Lemiss are going on a school trip.
The excursion has been organised
as an extracurricular activity outside normal lessons.
They are visiting a national monument on the outskirts of Damascus,
commemorating Syria's role in the October War of 1973.
In the war, a coalition of Arab nations including Syria
launched an attack on Israel to win back territories occupied in 1967.
In Israel, it's known as the Yom Kippur War.
The panorama painting at the centre of the monument
depicts a key battle at the start of the conflict
as Syrian forces retook the town of Quneitra.
It's the first time the school has visited the site.
Headteacher Amal Hassan is accompanying the girls.
It is not for the tourists.
It is for our country. They have to see everything in our country.
It is new, and they have to see what they are...
what the government is doing, what their country is doing.
So it is a very good experience for them.
DRAMATIC MUSIC PLAYS
Despite winning back some territory, including the city of Quneitra,
Syria did not regain control of the Golan Heights,
which remain occupied by Israel.
In recent years, on-off indirect talks between Syria and Israel
haven't been able to resolve the return of the Golan Heights.
They remain a key sticking point.
Outside, the tour becomes more obviously nationalistic.
The politically-charged language has made an impact on poet Lemiss.
But back at school,
writing about the October War hasn't come easily to Lemiss.
Lemiss needs to hand in her poem
if she's to be considered for the writers' showcase.
But the poetry festival isn't the only big event
in the autumn calendar at Zaki Al-Arsuzi.
With temperatures in the city dropping,
the school sports season is getting underway,
and the girls' basketball team are in training for the Damascus championships.
17-year-old Samara is a science major in the 11th grade.
The girls on the basketball team are a close-knit group.
Tonight, they're getting together on their own at a cafe
to celebrate a team member's 16th birthday.
# Set me free
# Set me free... #
They've been a group of friends for years.
After qualifying for the city finals, they're hoping to make their school proud.
At the primary school, it's exam time.
Turn the page.
For the next week, everyone from the ages of 6 to 11
will sit an exam in each of their subjects.
Friends Wassim and Abdullah
will need to perform better than everyone else
if they're to come top.
Wassim and Abdullah will be told their results
in front of the whole school in a week's time.
The Damascus city sports finals are in sight.
The school has invested in a new red kit for the basketball team.
Samara and the team are spending all their free lessons on court.
Samara lives five minutes' walk from the school
in a four bedroom apartment with her mum, dad, two younger brothers and sister.
This photo's when I was a little girl.
Here, I was in my old home.
I born in America.
My dad was working there.
I like the life there but all my friends are here in Syria.
Those are my family.
Cousins, father, mother, my grandmother, my grandfather.
This is my book.
Samara keeps a written diary but like many young people in Syria,
the internet is an increasingly important part of her life.
I have friends in Italy, I contact on the internet.
I go to MSN Messenger, OK,
and I get their emails
and we start talking about chatting.
Then we have a mic and webcam, everything.
This page is talking about what I'm going to do when I finish my school
and my study. I want to continue playing basketball and...
..play in the NBA.
Mr Mohanned has decided which of the girls will feature
in the upcoming writers' showcase.
He's asked the selected students to meet him in the science lab.
Both Nour and Ala'a have been chosen.
But Lemiss hasn't been asked to join them.
It's time for the girls to get some advice on how to perform their poems.
The Damascus sports finals are taking place in a private sports club in the north of the city.
Over three days, the qualifying teams are competing for trophies in volleyball, handball and basketball.
So far, Samara and the team have won two games and lost one.
Now, everything rests on tomorrow's final match.
It's eight in the morning. Before leaving school,
Samara talks the team through the tactics for the big match.
It's a 20 minute bus ride to the sports centre...
..a final chance for the team to get psyched up before the match.
The top five basketball teams in Damascus have all played each other.
Now it all comes down to this final game.
The team coach gathers the girls together.
But they're up against a school that beat them by 30 points last year.
Both teams get off to a good start and by the first time-out,
there's just a point between them.
But as the teams tire, things start to get tougher.
The opposition make good on a series of penalties and establish a five-point lead.
Zaki Al-Arsuzi's reds keep scoring baskets but can't seem to narrow the gap.
By the fourth quarter, Samara and the girls still haven't been able to catch up.
But a foul in the scoring area gives Zaki Al-Arsuzi a chance.
Hibah has got two shots at the basket.
The coach calls a time-out.
With minutes to go, Zaki Al-Arsuzi raise their game.
Now they need just two more baskets.
Seconds to go.
Zaki Al-Arsuzi need just one more hoop to take the title.
At Mleiha Rural School, the exam results are ready.
It's time for Wassim and Abdullah to find out who's come out on top.
In all, four students have joined Abdullah in second position
and three students have tied in the third spot.
But no one got as many marks as Wassim.
At Zaki Al-Arsuzi, final preparations are under way for the poetry festival.
It's the day of the writers' showcase
and Mr Mohanned is making some last minute changes.
There's also an eleventh hour reprieve for Lemiss.
The hall is filling up with parents and friends.
Nour, Lemiss and Ala'a are just minutes from their first public recital.
Both Ala'a's mum and Nour's dad have come to see their daughters perform.
The panel of ministry officials, famous Syrian literary figures and poets,
have arrived to listen and critique the girls' work.
To start things off, Amal Hassan addresses the audience with a piece of her own creative writing.
THEY SPEAK IN ARABIC
A peaceful world
No killing, no screaming
A world without wars Everyone's dreaming
A world without weapons Without fears
Without suffering Without tears
A world where everyone loves the other
No matter nationalities, countries or the colour
A world where everyone treats the other
Like a human being, like a brother.
With the performances complete, the judges offer individual feedback on the girls' writing.
Sometimes a society prevents you from expressing yourself -
the tradition, everything around you.
Sometimes it prevents you,
but nothing prevents the other girls from speaking about what they want in this life.
And their family, their parents were there,
and they were very happy to see that their girls are speaking about love,
about society, about...everything!
Next time on Syrian School -
getting the best out of the best.
Chess champion Ward represents Damascus in Beirut.
And to find out more from the Open University about life in Syria,
Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Five-part series following a year in the life of four schools in Damascus, a high pressure crossroads in the Middle East.
It concentrates on some remarkable characters finding their way in a country that has never before opened ordinary life up to the cameras in this way, challenges the usual cliches of Arab life and charts the highs and lows of the school year.
As a teenage girl it isn't easy to find ways to express yourself in Syria, but there's one outlet that is releasing a wave of emotion in Zaki Al-Arsouzi Girls' High School - the poetry society. 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 they will do it in public, at the school's writers' showcase. Ala hopes her heartfelt love poems, inspired by a failed relationship she struck up by mobile phone, are good enough for the big stage, while a trip to the October War Panorama museum drives Lemiss to write of the love she feels for her country.