Lebanese dramas capture the moral quandaries of everyday life

In Lebanon, the plotlines and predicaments on screen hold a mirror up to corrupt systems stacked against ordinary people

The cast of the Lebanese 'Al-Hayba'.
Courtesy of Sabbah Brothers
The cast of the Lebanese 'Al-Hayba'.

Lebanese dramas capture the moral quandaries of everyday life

“We are made up of a bunch of experiences. We must understand everyone’s side to come up with an answer. We must be held accountable and hold others accountable.”

These are the haunting lyrics from the opening song of the Lebanese TV series Al-Hayba.

But how do such experiences, in fact, determine how we interpret accountability? This can be an important issue in a country dealing with various challenges, highlighted in the popularity of a TV drama that offers some escapism and a melodic reminder that actions have consequences.

I was soon carried into the intricate world of Al-Hayba – a fictitious village nestled in an area that parallels the well-known Beqaa valley of Lebanon – settling down on the couch for an episode of soap opera entertainment, as is the custom of so many during Ramadan.

Earlier, as the call to prayer reverberated through the alleyways of Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood, I had joined my Lebanese friend and her family for an evening Iftar to break our fast, where dates and milk marked the beginning of this shared tradition. It is now so often followed by time in front of the TV.

I had been sceptical when I began to watch, but I was soon drawn in.

In this series, the formal Lebanese state seems distant, and the role of arbiters of justice falls upon dignitaries, tribal sheikhs, and smugglers—figures painted not as self-serving warlords but rather as modern-day Robin Hoods.

The narrative unfolds against a backdrop where traditional hierarchies clash with contemporary ideals, blurring the lines between right and wrong, justice and retribution.

Many people dismiss TV soap operas as low-quality entertainment, but in this article, I examine their potential to shape the portrayal of important themes, including social justice and the way in which some controversial—and even illegal—practices can be normalised by popular dramas regularly watched by large audiences.

As I delve into these soap plotlines, I will discuss the shows' value in reflecting societal norms, challenging conventional perceptions, and ultimately contributing to the broader public discourse on justice and morality.

Popular perceptions of justice

A native of the Balkans, I am familiar with the popular tales and romanticisation of vigilante justice. The echoes of such narratives reverberate in the classrooms where Bulgaria’s historical imagining unfurls its dark past beneath the Ottoman Empire’s shadow.

Tales of heroism take centre stage, revolving around outlawed leaders, or voivodes, who spearheaded resistant militant formations, the chest. These groups were composed of volunteered anti-state rebels, the Hayduti, who etched their stories of defiance against oppression into the annals of history.

The portrayal of these figures transcends the classroom, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural picture, resonating through songs, myths, historical novels, plays, and even finding its place in televised adaptations.

I vividly recall reconnecting with my 10-year-old self, captivated by narratives that painted a protagonist as the embodiment of courage and principled action, creating poignant personal memories for me.

This central figure navigated morally murky waters, from flouting the law to challenging the state’s already contested monopoly on exerting force.

The narrative deftly sidestepped the legality of these actions. It highlighted the character's noble if not entirely legitimate, motives. The focus artfully shifted away from the legality of his actions and towards his relatable intentions.

Many people dismiss TV soap operas as low-quality entertainment, but they can often shape the portrayal of social justice.

This created a complex interplay between justice, accountability, and the blurred boundaries separating societal norms from individual convictions.

This personal vignette serves as more than a mere illustration. It acts as a profound lens through which my engagement with broader themes unfolds

It also illuminates how my background – enriched with these historical and cultural motifs – invariably shapes my perceptions and responses to the broader implications of romanticising extra-legal practices in pursuing justice.

Lebanese drama series, including Al-Hayba, perpetuate this romanticisation.


The intricacies of Al-Hayba's plot masterfully question the applicability, morality, and legitimacy of Lebanon's justice system.

Directed by Samer Al Barkawi and produced by Ziad El Khatib, the series unfolds around Jabal Sheikh Al-Jabal and his family's tumultuous struggles within the Al-Hayba community and the internally fractured Lebanese state. This fictional Arab family controls smuggling routes connecting Lebanon and Syria.

It is set against the backdrop of an enduring feud with the rival Saeed clan. Amid internal discord and relentless external conflicts, the story raises profound questions about survival in a lawless village where personal vendettas seem never-ending and wounds from the Lebanese past refuse to heal.

The show evolves across five seasons, introducing new characters and adversaries into its intricate web of alliances and animosities.

Jabal, the central character, consistently emphasises his noble motives. He seeks to make a living from smuggling while vehemently refusing to carry narcotics or heavy weaponry on moral grounds.

Courtesy of Sabbah Brothers
A scene from the series 'Al-Hayba' starring Syrian actor Taym Hassan

In seasons four and five, Jabal takes a bold stance against the pervasive influence of powerful warlords aligned with corrupt politicians. These nefarious figures aim to establish an illicit factory in Hayba for the production of the highly addictive drug Captagon.

Jabal becomes a resolute force against this unholy, navigating treacherous terrain to dismantle their operations and thwart the plan.

As the narrative unfolds in Season Five, Jabal extends his crusade, actively disrupting the smuggling of antiquities orchestrated by Islamic State (IS) gangs.

In an unexpected turn, Jabal finds himself locked in a fierce battle against these terrorist factions, drawing a line against the exploitation of Hayba's vulnerabilities by those seeking to profit from both narcotic production and the illicit trade in historical artefacts.

These themes intricately intertwine with real-world political and security crises in Lebanon and the region, drawing viewers' attention to the broader social conditions in the country, from corruption in politics and the media to the spread of the drug trade and terrorist activity.

This gives the series greater scope than just entertainment.


Al-Hayba is not alone in this respect, as popular dramas reflect Lebanon's social conditions to the country's viewers.  

Another TV series, 2020, features a female investigator, Captain Sama, whose pursuit of justice becomes caught up with personal vendetta and family duty.

She is motivated by a tragic incident that claimed her brother's life. He was also a policeman, in line with a tradition of law enforcement in a wealthy upper-middle-class family.

The intricacies of Al-Hayba's plot masterfully question the applicability, morality, and legitimacy of Lebanon's justice system.

Sama embarks on an undercover mission to apprehend a notorious drug lord. To do so, she adopts the persona of Hayat—a stereotype of a downtrodden woman from the lower working classes, victimised by violence and compelled to work as a cleaning lady to support her brother's destructive alcohol addiction.

Hayat adeptly infiltrates the family of Safi Al Deeb, the half-brother of Yazan, accused of shooting and killing Sama's brother, Jibran.

Notably, Safi is also the sibling of the fugitive drug dealer, Al Deeb, whose location is currently the focus of the police investigation. Sama's brother lost his life while working against Al Deeb's crimes.

However, as Sama becomes aware of the daily struggles of the impoverished community centred around Safi's vegetable shop, Sama unexpectedly discovers empathy for him.

Observing that he also takes on a role as a benefactor to the community, Sama witnesses his generosity, particularly toward single mothers burdened with the responsibility of supporting numerous children with limited prospects.

For the show's audience, the stark contrast between Safi's benevolence and the harsh reality of his double life generates internal conflict. His character's complexity unfolds as he upholds the facade of a vegetable shop while concealing his active involvement in a drug trafficking ring.

Till Death 2020 (2021)
A scene from the series '2020' brings together Syrian actor Qusay Khouli and Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim.

Adding another layer to the narrative, Safi employs vulnerable women to offer them a route out of earning a living as sex workers.

He offers them a semblance of empowerment and a chance for a new identity and freedom but is doing so by employing them in the illicit drug trade,  stuffing empty vegetables with cocaine in the basement of his shop.

As she uncovers Safi as the mastermind behind the drug trafficking ring, Sama is moved by his persuasive defence.

He portrays his actions as a response to the circumstances of his birth, emphasising the lack of protection from the state for his community and admits to choosing the life of a drug trafficker but asserts that he redistributes his profits to those forgotten and neglected by the state.

The emotional climax unfolds as Sama grapples with her dual role as a police officer and her growing affection for the Robin Hood-like drug lord.

In a tragic turn, Safi takes matters into his own hands to resolve her internal conflict, leaving both Sama and the audience with a profound sense of sympathy and understanding for choices seemingly coerced by his life's circumstances.

And so, 2020 has similarities with Al-Hayba in its nuanced narrative that shifts the focus of blame for criminality away from the individual and toward the system in place in Lebanon, which means people have little choice but to break the law in order to survive.

2020 has similarities with Al-Hayba in its nuanced narrative that shifts the focus of blame for criminality away from the individual and toward the system in place in Lebanon.

Wa Akheeran

Two of 2020's lead actors – Nadine Nassib Njeim and Kosai Khauli, who starred as its star-crossed lovers and became known for their personal chemistry – were brought back together in another socially aware drama, Wa Akheeran, which translates to 'At Last'.

This new soap opera spotlights the struggle of marginalised Lebanese communities who are once again portrayed as being forgotten by the formal justice system or encountering prejudice from it.

In a gripping storyline, Yakout, played by Khauli, finds himself on an involuntary collision course with the police investigating the kidnapping of a group of women, including his fiancée, Khayal, portrayed by Njeim.

As Yakout unravels a web of corruption within the police force, controlled by a powerful and cunning gang leader, he takes matters into his own hands to expose the compromised detective and rescue the kidnapped women.

While Yakout faces several moral conundrums trying to locate the kidnapped women, the unfolding plot reveals their distressing fate as they are forced to operate underground, both as sex workers and as drug packagers.

In this world, Khayal, marked by her shadowy past entangled with a drug runner, showcases her formidable intelligence, strength, and resilience. Astutely, she gains the trust of a gangster who, as it turns out, was compelled into the drug trafficking realm out of desperation and coercion by the gang leader.

In an unconventional alliance with this accomplice, Khayal not only aids in the execution of drug trafficking operations but also rises in the hierarchy, earning trust and navigating her way to the pinnacle of the criminal organisation.

In a parallel arc, driven by the need to shield his family from the tyranny of a local boss, Yakout takes drastic action and forcefully enters a bank wielding an improvised weapon.

Delivering a compelling monologue that reaches both hostages and viewers, Yakout exposes the systemic flaws that compelled him to resort to such extreme measures, echoing the plight of a collectively portrayed Lebanese community abandoned and marginalized by the flawed system.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Lebanon's financial hardships, the story becomes a poignant critique of nepotism, patronage politics, and widespread corruption.

Despite, or even thanks to, their readiness to cross ethical boundaries, Yakout and Khayal's efforts work temporarily, leading to the release of the women and the arrest of the big mafia boss, culminating in the couple's long-awaited wedding.

However, an ominous sound of approaching cars and distant gunshots hints at an uncertain future, leaving audiences to presume that the couple's happiness may be fleeting and that the cyclical nature of corruption, crime, and state capture persists, with new figures emerging to settle scores and maintain the vicious circle.

Like Al-Hayba and 2020, the conclusion of Wa Akheeran feels pessimistic. It shows how difficult it is for complex characters to rise above their challenging circumstances and achieve enduring social change.

Once again, a popular narrative highlights the daunting challenge of dismantling a system stacked against ordinary people and run by an elite of politicians, officials, law enforcers, and gang leaders chasing profits while so many everyday citizens are drawn in with no other means to earn a living.

These dramas portray an intricate web of power dynamics, where the status quo serves the interests of the powerful and fuels resistance against any disruptive force that threatens the existing order.

These dramas portray an intricate web of power dynamics, where the status quo serves the interests of the powerful.

Street-wise marriage trap

The series Till Death is another example. Launched in 2021, it tells the story of three street-smart kids—Sahar, Wejdan, and Omar—who have grappled with poverty and homelessness and devised a daring plan to make money from the rich via fraud and cunning.

Sahar and Wejdan take turns luring wealthy men into matrimony. One plays the bride while the other sets out to seduce the newlywed husband. Upon his inevitable capitulation to temptation, his wife initiates legal proceedings, and once a payout is secured, she splits the profits with the rest of the gang.

But Wejdan falls for the seemingly upright businessman Hadi and aspires to distance herself from a life of crime, meaning that the trio faces a dramatic rupture.

Yearning for a fresh start away from a life of crime, Wejdan moves on. However, when her previous deceptions are laid bare, she again relies on Sahar to find a way out.

Despite her dubious morals, Sahar is a popular character, even with more religiously and culturally conservative women, who have shared with me their infatuation with her strong spirit, resilience, and loyalty to her loved ones. 

The series concurrently illuminates the struggles of the marginalised Lebanese community that Sahar is from, disenfranchised from the formal state and its welfare mechanisms.

The narrative weaves tales of desperation, such as Mahmoud, an unemployed IT specialist in a dire predicament to save his ailing father.

Unable to afford a life-saving oxygen machine for his chronically ill father, he feels compelled to resort to desperate measures. In a poignant twist of irony, Mahmoud steals a car and sells its parts on the black market, hoping to obtain enough funds for the crucial life-saving equipment.

Tragically, as he is apprehended for this petty crime, the family is unable to cover the electricity bill. Consequently, the life-saving machine remains off, leading to his father's death.

Till Death (2021)
A scene from the series 'Till Death' brings together Lebanese actress Maguy Bou Ghosn and Syrian actor Mohamed Al-Ahmad.

In a heart-wrenching turn of events, Mahmoud, confined in jail, grapples with the weight of mourning his father while coming to terms with the consequences of his actions.

A poignant plotline unfolds around a seemingly widowed and hardworking mother of three who, to provide for her children, delves into the perilous trade of selling fuel on the black market.

To shield her illicit activities from law enforcement's prying eyes, she conceals the barrels under the table in her modest home. However, burdened by the substantial debts left by her abusive ex-husband, she is compelled to seek additional income by working as a belly dancer at a dubious nightclub.

One fateful night, while she is away dancing and enduring humiliation for a drunken clientele, tragedy strikes. Her children left unattended, inadvertently knock over a candle while engrossed in their homework, sparking a catastrophic explosion.

The devastated mother is forced to bury two of her kids killed in the accident. Struggling with overwhelming feelings of guilt and loss, she grapples with a system that harshly judges her life choices yet offers no support or viable way out.

The tragedy clearly echoes real-life stories of innocent victims of illegal petrol explosions in Lebanon and Syria, and the plotline reflects the daily moral dilemmas facing Lebanese and Syrian individuals engaging in illicit activities – more often coerced by their socially precarious circumstances.

Till Death also explores the plight of orphaned street kids exploited by mafia groups for various nefarious activities. As viewers grow familiar with the insurmountable challenges faced by these children, empathy deepens for Sahar and Wejdan.

The characters' attempts at redemption are thwarted by their haunting past, leaving viewers disillusioned and introspective about the apparent impossibility of leading a dignified life.

With Lebanese life having become for many a moral juggling act, in which no one escapes uncompromised, it is no surprise that large audiences can identify themselves with the complex characters caught in a vicious circle of regrets, shame and impossible choices.

Till Death also explores the plight of orphaned street kids exploited by mafia groups for various nefarious activities. 

Deeper than a thriller

At first glance, the narratives explored in Lebanon's soap operas may seem like enticing thriller stories crafted to captivate audiences during Ramadan.

And they are dramatic. But even a casual viewer can see the clear connection between the recurrent themes and struggles of the characters and the genuine grievances of Lebanon's disillusioned population.

The Lebanese are often described as resilient. As their spirit endures during dark times, our fascination with that success should not divert attention from the depths of despair experienced by many in what is a volatile political and economic landscape.

On TV screens across the nation this Ramadan, the characters' perpetual battles for dignity and survival echo the struggles of real-life individuals. The portrayal of these characters engaging in criminal activities does not insinuate that most viewers would be similarly enticed toward lawlessness.

Instead, the deliberate framing of illicit behaviour, the conscious scripting of empathy for criminal protagonists, and the attention drawn to the country's systemic problems accurately reflect the growing popular disenchantment with the overall system's chronic sickness.

Since the October 2019 revolution erupted, protestors have echoed the slogan "killun yaaani killun," translating to "all of them means all of them."

This collective anger targets not only those within the formal political system but also those contributing to how it is run or funded, be they involved in underground activities such as drug trafficking or smuggling or wielding influence in various sectors.

These drama series, therefore, reveal a heightened awareness of the system's deeply enshrined faults, which generate and enable criminal and corrupt behaviour.

The inability to break away from this entrenched system and disrupt the cycle reveals a complex geometry of sadness, underscoring the urgent need for systemic change and a collective effort to shed more light on the structures that perpetuate despair and disillusionment in Lebanon.

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