Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 December 2000
Issue No.512
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Everyone's a critic

By Tarek Atia

I couldn't believe myself. I was risking life and limb, tearing down the street in a desperate attempt to get home in time for -- no, not iftar, but that night's episode of Awan Al-Ward (Flowers Bloom). I was shopping and suddenly overheard the music of the show's opening credits and went into a panic. If that isn't must-see TV, I don't know what is.

The Ramadan serial has been consistently keeping its audience hanging on the edge of their seats, despite increasingly over-the-top and far-from-subtle lessons on national unity. Subplots and dialogue have all been conspiring to surprise: the kidnapping of baby Ahmed from the hospital, the ex-girlfriend who'd had an abortion, the desert sex scene. Traditional values are being turned on their heads and astonished audiences have been blinking in disbelief, wondering "What is this? Where are we?"

Frank discussion of premarital sex and other topics is sure to be a windfall for new scriptwriters eager to follow suit, but this daring approach has had its share of supporters and detractors. One prominent columnist complained that he couldn't watch the show with his daughters and some have said this is evidence of pop culture sinking into the gutter. But even those who criticised seemed unable to ignore the events taking place.

Halfway through the month, Awan Al-Ward has become this Ramadan's big hit. It's far from the only thing on television, however and during Ramadan, everyone's a critic. For one thing, the usual gripes have appeared, perhaps more vociferous this year, questioning the television union's policy of focusing all its attention on one month of programming. And even then, why the same old shows, the same old faces and themes, as if they'd become "rituals like the iftar and suhour," as one columnist put it.

Certainly the most talked about show after Awan Al-Ward is the Faten Hamama vehicle Wagh Al-Qamar (Face of the Moon). Critics have really been sharpening their claws on this one, with one critic likening the extensive use of soft focus in scenes where the veteran actress appears to the kind of fog that causes car crashes. Despite the validity of this critique, Hamama herself shines in her role as the iron lady with the frayed nerves, constantly being put in tough situations and surviving. One hopes she can keep her chin up amid the offensive things being written about her. One nasty headline in Sawt Al-Umma announced, "Face of the Moon: the Expiration of a Big Star."

Wagh Al-Qamar is also being criticised for being far too preachy, trying to teach us a lesson in every episode. The same Sawt Al-Umma article called it an "educational channel show that had gotten lost along the way and ended up on Channel 1." People have also been talking about Ahmed Ramzi, the hunk of yore, who plays Hamama's long-lost husband. I've heard so many people say they "feel sorry for him," that the comment seems to have been put in people's moloukhiya at iftar. "He shouldn't act the Romeo at his age," they say. "He has no teeth, he can't even talk." Come on, the guy isn't doing too bad.

The variety and talk shows Hiwar Sarih Gidan (Honest Conversation) and Asrar Al-Negoum (Movie Stars' Secrets) have been getting their fair share of criticism as well, mainly for lack of variety in guests. "Why are all the guests either belly dancers or singers?" one man remarked in disgust. Hiwar episodes with businessman-turned-politician Rami Lakah and leftist poet Ahmed Fouad Negm are the only stand-outs. Even Fifi Abdou's appearance with her husband just had people shaking their heads at the depravity of it all.

Meanwhile, this year's Al-Camera Al-Khafiya (Candid Camera), has inspired the same old questions. Is this for real? Are they acting? Host Ibrahim Nasr, still dressed as the phenomenally ugly Zakia Zakaria, continues to deadpan the most outrageous of claims, driving unwitting victims to madness and mayhem. The only difference this year is that he usually decides to reveal his guise before things get violent. With the exception of the clothing store episode, there haven't really been any standout tricks, like those of years past. Who, after all, can forget the classic beggar with a mobile phone gag?

As for the other soaps, the third of the "big" series Khayal Al-Zill (Shadow Play) is far too confusing. Attempts to mesh events from 20 years ago and today are far from seamless and require a different set of actors. (And by the way, why are so many shows featuring young girls falling in love with older men these days?) Although it's being aired at some pretty weird times, a lot of people have been preferring Yehia El-Fakharani in Opera over Yehia El-Fakharani in the far-more-hyped Zizinia. This despite Opera being on early in the afternoon on Nile TV. Does that mean they'll show it again at a more reasonable time and on a more popular channel after Ramadan is over?

And what about the ads? We're certainly sick of all the spots hawking ghee and turbo TVs, and could use more ads like the one for the carpet store where an older woman reminisces about 25 years with her carpet, and how both she and the carpet have retained their looks over all those years. After all these years, though, you'd think Ramadan programming would be different, for a change.

Three of this year's top Ramadan soap operas, from top: Wagh Al-Qamar, Awan Al-Ward, and Khayal Al-Zill

What the press has had to say:

Rose Al-Youssef:
On the month's TV in general: "Those in charge of programming seem to be unaware till now that the problem in Ramadan is not just one, two or 10 poor quality programmes, but the screen's policy as a whole." On the variety shows: "The problem is not with any of the particular hosts...It is that these programmes have worn out their purpose and expired a long time ago, failing to attract or excite the audience." On Al-Camera Al-Khafiya: "Everybody goes along with this lie and nobody minds that it goes on ... It's a game that's been quite well produced, but we laugh only because there's no other choice."

On the religious series: "From one low-brow show to the next actresses and dancers appear nearly naked and all this is shown during the day and after iftar, whereas the religious series have been scheduled by the brilliant organising committee in the wee hours of the night, when no one is watching." On Awan Al-Ward: "Despite our qualms about the skimpy clothes and the phone calls in the bathtub, which we see no excuse for, we watch because it's a show that discusses our issues away from the fears of the censor." On Wagh Al-Qamar: "There's a cloud, or maybe it's fog, that appears every time Faten shows up, to the extent that a lot of people thought there was something wrong with their TVs."

Sawt Al-Umma:
On Wagh Al-Qamar: "Faten Hamama is like a soccer player who has been away from practice for a long time ... the muscles have gone so stiff and the knees so rickety and the chest so weak that he can no longer score goals except in his own net."

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