May 2, 2016, by Words on Words

Drama Serial by Radio Alwan – A Lifeline for Syrians

This blog post was written by second year English student, Victoria Lorriman from the School of English.

Radio Alwan started life in 2013 in Northern Syria as a small station only broadcasting for four hours each day from an aerial fixed onto a van [1]. The radio station rapidly expanded, its independent updates on the civil war and oppression triggered by the 2011 protests providing a trustworthy source of information for the Syrian community. Despite having been exiled from Syria, Radio Alwan now operates from a secret location in Istanbul, broadcasting daily to areas around Aleppo and Idlib in Syria, and to countries within Europe [2]. Transmission to Aleppo is, however, currently suspended following an attack on the station’s offices there [3].

Each week, an episode of the station’s drama serial, Sad Northern Nights, is transmitted; a series that follows the story of a Syrian mother and her teenage son living inside the country through these devastating days. In this blog, I’d like to spend some time considering the drama serial as not just a way for those listening from within Syria to enjoy some entertainment, but also a reflection of the dedication of the Radio Alwan team in putting together a work of art that they left their lives behind in Syria to complete.

‘Alwan’ in Arabic means ‘colours’, a concept that reflects the contrasting shades of the programmes broadcasted [4]. Political updates are frequent in news bulletins, untainted by government censoring or opinion. The weekly installment of Sad Northern Nights provides a moment of relief for those living inside Syria; the difficulties experienced by the mother and son simultaneously reflecting and absorbing Syrians in shared problems deriving from political unrest. In a recent BBC News article, scriptwriter Mahmoud pinpointed the extent to which the story resonates with Syrian life:

Is it really so unbelievable that a disillusioned teenager whose father has been killed by the regime should prove easy pickings for IS? That a desperate widow should think of joining the migrant trail? Or that an educated lawyer and founding member of the free Syrian Army should think of nothing but revenge after his entire family is wiped out in an air strike? [5]

These are some of the horrific experiences Syrians have to deal with every day. By dealing with such issues, Sad Northern Nights is a moment in which the collective Syrian body can share its troubles, but is also a cathartic opportunity to become absorbed in someone else’s problems – at least for 15 minutes.

The Radio Alwan team put the drama serial together on a tight budget and it has become increasingly difficult for them to broadcast their programmes. They were forced out of Syria as political conflict intensified, in an effort to keep their news updates and dramas independent. Members of staff left their homes and families behind, uncertain of ever seeing them again. The team succeeded in finding a new base in a western suburb of Istanbul from which to broadcast uncensored information and sustain the vital weekly transmission of Sad Northern Nights.

Even soap operas are susceptible to political manipulation, and the staff’s desire to keep Radio Alwan independent from the voices of politics resulted in a brutal, physical attack on those present in the Aleppo office this March [6]. The Radio Alwan team nevertheless persist relentlessly in updating and entertaining their listeners whilst facing the continual threat of violence and loss of loved ones back in Syria. As long as broadcasting continues, their efforts will not go unrecognised, nor will the momentary relief from the challenging daily experiences of those living in war-torn Syria subside.

Radio recording

You can listen to Radio Alwan on the BBC World Service here.

There is a Between the Ears documentary, ‘Inside Radio Alwan’, available on the BBC. You can listen to it here.

Victoria Lorriman


[1] ‘Inside Radio Alwan’, Between the Ears, BBC Radio 3 <> [Accessed 21 April 2016].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Emma Jane Kirby, ‘The hard-hitting soap for a country at war’, BBC News (18 April 2016) <> [Accessed 21 April 2016].

[6] ‘Inside Radio Alwan’.

[Photo by Andréanne Germain (featured photo cropped) / CC BY 2.0]

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