Reflecting on two of the serialised dramas screened last Ramadan, Charlotte El-Shabrawy crystallises some of the principal concerns informing Egyptian public life today
Could the clash between tradition and modernity be more vivid than what was seen on TV this last Ramadan? I was both astonished and entertained by the brilliant writing, direction and acting in many of the serial dramas I saw, but I want to focus on two in particular: Khass Gidan (Very confidential) and Afrah Iblis (Satan's Festivities).
Khasa Gidan is the dramatisation of an ideally liberal vision of life in Egypt. This vision is established early on in the series and it is ultimately based on recognition of the need for freedom and confrontation with reality and oneself in order to maintain one?s dignity and find happiness. Played out around this fundamental idea, the drama evolves through conflicts and resolutions, its characters developing enough to fulfil their potential based on their abilities to ?find themselves?. Taboo topics such as HIV- AIDS, Muslim-Christian marriage, panic attacks, rape, domestic violence (both physical and verbal), drug abuse, coping with divorce, dealing with dementia, integrating the servant class into the family, are among the issues openly discussed.
Let us take some of these conflicts and note how they are resolved to further the happiness of various characters when they decide to be open and confront their own strengths and weaknesses. At the start, the main character, Dr. Sherifa, a psychiatrist, must cope with the startling revelation by her beloved husband of 20 years or more, Mustafa, that he is in love with another women. How can she maintain her dignity under such humiliating circumstances? Well, she divorces him, rather than be miserable; valiantly she suffers through traumatic loneliness, confides openly in her friends, especially her Christian friend Magda and her daughter Farida, whom she encourages to stay in touch with the father and even comes to accept Farida?s admiration and relationship with her father?s new wife, Shahd.
Magda, Dr. Sherifa?s best friend, is Christian, and for her part she is caught in the conflict between religions: a Christian woman cannot marry a Muslim man without harming her family and bringing shame to them. So she stays at home, runs a successful boutique, lives with her family as a dignified, dutiful daughter who often complains of her loneliness to Sherifa. Towards the end when she reconnects with her beloved Mohammed, who now lives abroad and sincerely hopes she will join him despite her age (45), she realises that she cannot leave her parents and thus stays with them, giving up on married life. Although not altogether happy with this solution, she is nevertheless true to herself; she recognises that her family is her first priority and resigns herself to this measure of happiness.
Another vivid conflict is that of Hussein, Sherifa?s brother, who becomes addicted to cocaine while committing adultery with his cocaine provider. Heba, his wife, discovers his transgressions and she wants out, but Hussein deals quite frankly with his problem, admitting it to his sister and his wife; and it seems that the openness and frankness of his admissions bring about the happy resolution of the forgiveness and return. This solution was somewhat facile and unconvincing but it chimes with the theme of openness and self-awareness leading to happiness. Thus new definitions of dignity: none of these characters suffer from excessive pride.
Yet pride reigns supreme in the very traditional if still modern society of Upper Egypt as presented in Afrah Iblis. Here maintaining one?s pride seems to be the only path to happiness and preserving dignity. And pride is also the cause of the tragic events that occur in the families of Zahran and Raslan.
At times I thought I was watching a Greek tragedy. Most of the male characters in this drama are concerned with maintaining their pride and dignity in the village environment in which they live. Happiness to them seems to be contained in the measure in which they can be dominant both in the village and over their women folk. Yet each character is broken, one after the other: Kamal dies a victim of revenge of the Zahran family, Hamam Raslan suffers a debilitating stroke when his son, Kamal, dies, and the younger son, Badr is forced into a corrupt business relationship and a loveless marriage (at least on his part).
Only Zein, the young man whose father is killed because he is planning to oppose a politically minded businessman in the upcoming House of Representatives elections, chooses to maintain his humanity by refusing to avenge his father?s death (a taste of Hamlet, this). He argues with his vendetta-obsessed uncle, insisting that the rule of law and government intervention should prevail and terminate the continuous saga of futile revenge. True to himself and quietly maintaining his dignity, he is, nevertheless, a victim of his environment. He may have a chance with happiness in Part II.
Zein?s approach to life is to be true to his own nature, which is sensitive and gentle, defined by humility, a desire to please his woman and an ability to love the woman he marries. There are humorous moments in Zein?s relationship with Alia, Hamam?s daughter, such as when he agrees to sleep on the floor on their first night of marriage (after proving his manhood, of course!) He is called a ?woman? by the village elders when he defies their call for him to avenge his father?s murder and thus seemingly robbed of his dignity. But he persists in his insistence on the rule of law. The other men do everything by force, have very little consideration for the women in their lives, go after anyone who contradicts them, ruin lives with no compunction.
Witness Hamam who, angry after being spurned by the maid, Dahab, arranges to have her man?s throat cut on the eve of their marriage ? and laughs when he hears that the deed has been done.
Set mainly in Upper Egypt, the drama occasionally moves to Cairo or Alexandria. This is particularly relevant in the case of Hamam?s younger son, Badr, who is forced into a marriage with a very modern young lady from Cairo, Nadine, who is the daughter of the politically minded businessman for whom Hamam kills Zein?s father. Badr is actually in love with a young singer, Hana, but his family absolutely forbids this marriage. A singer? Never. Badr, in one of the rare moments in the drama when a character is open and honest, goes to Hana?s parents and speaks frankly of his love and of the obstacles he faces. Is this honesty useful and appreciated? Not at all. In fact he is perceived as na?ve and weak. Now let us take a closer look at the character of Nadine, so different from any of the other female characters in this drama. She works out at a gym where males are also working out, plays tennis, wears modern clothing, goes dancing, drives, and so forth. Badr is horrified by some of this and forbids it. She tries to understand his mindset and is ready to compromise to some extent. She is very open and frank with him but he is unwilling to listen. Total obedience is expected from a wife. Thus an unhappy marriage.
Frankly, the only glimpse of hope for potential happiness is in Zein and Alia?s union ? will it return in Part II? Stuck in a mire of pride and total male dominance without a glimmer of self-awareness, there is little hope for all the other characters. But the drama is filled with irony and actually, especially toward the end, the woman characters turn out to be the most important agents of change. With the main male characters either dead or ineffectual, the women are perceived as strong and capable of resuming life, and possibly bringing some semblance of happiness into their lives. After all, the safe return of Kamal?s baby son is surely a symbol of happiness and hope, now in the hands of the women folk. The last scene in which Hamam leans on Kamla?s shoulder as she leads him into the house, is symbolic of this transition.
Finding yourself and being yourself as the keys to happiness are irrelevant to a society steeped in pride; abiding by the rules of tradition is enforced ? until the women step in. Revenge is presented in such a way that the viewer comes to recognise the harm inherent in this lawlessness. Is there any talk of happiness? No. Dahab?s fianc? is killed, Kamel?s wife and her family are killed, Zein?s father is killed...
Thus (while there remains much more to say about both dramas), the salient point which strikes the viewer is the degree of happiness or unhappiness achieved in each drama and the means by which this is achieved. ?To thine own self be true.? Be open and frank with yourself, keep an open mind about yourself and others and you will most likely live happily: this is portrayed positively in Khass Gidan and negatively (with a full account of the consequences of going the opposite way) in Afrah Iblis.