A monarch rehabilitated
A new reading of the life of Egypt's last monarch is all the unimaginatively titled television serial Al-Malik Farouk (King Farouk), showing on satellite channels this Ramadan, has to offer. But in context that's quite a lot, actually. Ever since Egypt was declared a republic in 1953, there have been very few positive or humane portrayals of members of Mohammed Ali Pasha's family, Egypt's rulers since the Ottoman governor came to power in 1805 and until the 1952 Revolution. This, despite the fact the Pasha himself is often hailed as the country's greatest moderniser. Whether depicted in the cinema, on television or the radio, or indeed in books, the royal line he managed to perpetuate has been consistently portrayed as a string of corrupt and immoral tyrants whose only concern was to rob the country of its resources, subjugate its people - often through torture while squandering their money on the excesses of vanity and revel in scandalous sins. Except perhaps for one or two portrayals of Khedive Ismail, not once were the royals seen as human beings with emotions and concerns, nor was any loyalty they might have felt towards the country or the people acknowledged. In this sense Al-Malik Farouk - especially being the mega production that it is - is unprecedented: it presents an objective version of history with the full range of pros and cons.
The story starts in the reign of King Fouad II, Farouk's father, which witnessed the drafting of Egypt's first modern constitution in 1923, when the modern regime was for the first time reined in by constitutional monarchy. The serial showed how King Fouad encouraged and patronised the revival of scientific and educational societies and institutes, which he took a personal interest in establishing. Speaking of which, Fouad's personal life with Queen Nazli, mother to his heir Farouk and three daughters, is presented truthfully as a rather less successful affair. Farouk had a tough upbringing, with Fouad isolating his children, forbidding them from mixing with children of their age and keeping them within the courtly confines of the palace, with its numerous rules and regulations - all of which was abundantly compensated for by the love and affection of the charismatic Nazli, who left a deep mark on Farouk's character and to whom he would remain loyal as king even when she irreparably embarrassed him, her unbecoming blunders leaving him fuming. In this way Farouk's family, far from being portrayed as angels, are simply dealt with as human beings, with the factors contributing to the way they behaved in public explained from a humane rather than judgmental stand.
One example of this is when following the death of Fouad, an oppressive family figure, Queen Nazli manages to protect Farouk's right to the thrown in the face of numerous conspiracies, endeavouring to surround him with as many trustworthy advisors as possible since he came to power at the age of 16. Along the same lines, Nazli emerges as a woman whose unhappy marriage and years of deprivation resulted in a sense of loneliness and a thirst for passion that would propel her ruthlessly into a string of indiscriminate affairs after she failed to marry the one man she truly loved, Ahmad Hassanein Pasha, on the grounds that she was the Queen Mother. Neither Ahmad Hassanein nor Farouk could understand her repeated attempts at conveying the message that being a royal has not stopped her from having a woman's needs, or that having suffered so much with King Fouad it is now her basic right to live happily with the man she loves. This conflict will eventually rupture the relationship between Nazli and her son, leaving Farouk on the verge of breakdown as the image he had of his mother is distorted by her behaviour - which the press relentlessly condemned - deepening his insecurity and impacting his own marriage with his beloved Queen Farida.
Such troubles coincided with the many, many disputes the king was having with his political opponents and potentially fatal conflicts with those who strove to overthrow him. How difficult can life be when you have no one to trust, when you must be on your guard lest your nearest and dearest should be engineering your downfall, when your own mother fails you and the love of your life follows suit? This is what the serial seems to be saying as it blows life into Farouk the human being, encouraging a level of empathy rarely seen with characters based on the royal family. Produced by the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC, Al-Malik Farouk is broadcast not only on MBC but also on Orbit; interestingly, it remains unwelcome on national television, for which it was originally written 15 years ago, and rejected on ultimately political grounds. Written by Lamis Gabr, a medical doctor who is also an avid student of history, and edited by the well-known historian Yunan Labib Rizk, even when MBC decided to produce it Egyptian officials remained reluctant to help, refusing to give the crew permission to film on location in the royal palaces and other real-life locations which were nonetheless ingeniously substituted - and in the end Al-Malik Farouk came out brilliantly, thanks in large part to its generous budget, the meticulous direction of Syrian director Hatem Aly and the sheer talent of the cast - reaching as many Egyptians as it would have on national television and acquiring a place of prominence among a handful of well received serials in Ramadan this year. In unexpected ways, the monarch triumphs in the end.
Al-Malik Farouk is a work of art and a delightful embodiment of team spirit, with all the parties involved exerting their utmost to produce what the audience would come to see as a masterpiece. Excellent casting is perhaps best exemplified by Syrian actor Taim Al-Hassan in the role of the king: not only does he give a masterful performance - everyone on the cast does, too - but he physically resembles the king. Wafaa Amer is a perfect Queen Nazli, expressing all the pain and longing of a lonely woman whose fate as queen and queen mother will forever stand in the way of her happiness. As Queen Farida, with the mere look of her eyes, Menna Fadali brilliantly conveys the constant fear of failing to give her husband an heir, since her first born was a girl. All in all, though thanks to contemporary communications technology Egyptians did get to see the serial, it feels like a great pity that such a meticulous production should have been barred from Egyptian TV. It presents a great opportunity for younger generations to have a taste of what it might have felt to live in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as rectifying misconceptions they will have acquired from the media and history textbooks. After all, it underlines many of the country's historical virtues: the deeply rooted sense of national belonging with which Muslims and Copts lived side by side, pooling solidarity against the invader; the coming into being of the Wafd Party and its role in the formation of a political consciousness; the liberal values that were then the norm, with the right to protest and press freedom firmly entrenched and everyone feeling more or less secure about speaking their mind.
Indeed, according to one viewer interviewed on television, "Grandma always advised me not to believe that Egypt's monarchy was only about corruption, suppression and immorality. My mother seconded her opinion, urging me not to fall into the trap of reading their history as it was written by their opponents. Meanwhile, I am so grateful as are many people who have watched Al-Malik Farouk because this face of history was finally unveiled. Each day my family and neighbours wait in anticipation for the serial to start and as we follow the action we realise that our king was not as previously portrayed a ruthless womaniser and spoilt brat, but a human being who suffered."