Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2011
Issue No. 1063
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Back street lovers

The soap opera The Back Streets, screened during Ramadan, was a love song to the Egypt of the 1930s, says Rashda Ragab

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The television soap opera Al-Shawarei Al-Khalfeya, or "The Back Streets," adapted from a story by famous Egyptian writer Abdel-Rahman al-Sharkawi, draws a beautiful picture of the Cairo of the 1930s, with the series's location in Aziz Street, a middle-class district of Cairo, standing in for Egypt as a whole.

The close relationship between neighbours, something often absent today, is something that was highlighted in the series. When Abdel-Latif, a communist law- student, is arrested, for example, Souad, a beautiful and kind neighbour, manages to free him with the help of an aristocratic lady and an important army officer.

All the street's inhabitants visit Abdel-Latif's father to calm him during his son's imprisonment. Army officer Shoukry and some other neighbours also go out late at night to help their civil servant neighbour Amin, who they think is under threat of arrest by the police. Both medical student Abdel-Aziz and Souad, other characters in the Street, are brave enough to stay with their neighbour Ragaa, a young artist with tuberculosis, a very dangerous disease at the time.

Through the family of Coptic worker Abdullah, one of the Street's main inhabitants, al-Sharkawi manages to portray the relationship between Egypt's Muslims and Christians. We later on discover that Abdullah shot the British officer who had threatened his neighbour Amin, the latter being involved in illegal transactions with the British. Moreover, Abdullah is the one responsible for circulating illegal political flyers. Abdullah's family congratulate Shoukry's family during Ramadan and are invited to the first iftar.

Many romantic elements also enrich the drama. Due to family problems on both sides, the relationship between Souad and Shoukry is hindered, though this is the main romantic interest of the series. The most important of these problems is the refusal of his older daughter Samira and her brother-in-law Alaa to agree to the couple's marriage.

Souad's atelier for haute couture also poses problems to the couple's relationship, and the many problems faced by the couple are enough to mitigate any sense of boredom at the sometimes rather saccharine presentation of romantic themes. Other romantic elements include the Platonic loves or crushes of teenagers in Cairo society at the time. Saad and Doreya and Shawki and Mervat are examples of this kind of thing, with letters being hidden between the pages of books and secret assignations carried on after school being some of the few ways available for such students to express their love at the time.

Other love stories are not fully depicted in the series. The relationship between Abdel-Latif and Mimi is not developed, and the relationship between Samira and Abdel-Aziz also needs to be thought out. More needed to be done to indicate Samira's shock when she finally realises that Abdel-Aziz is not in love with her.

As well as dealing with romance, the soap opera deals with politics, since the Egypt of the 1930s, like that of today, was full of political demonstrations and debate. The political debates that take place in the Khedeweya secondary school in the series are a good example of such debates, particularly when in one episode a fight erupts between the students and their headmaster, an Egyptian who claims to be patriotic, but always tells the police about the students' political activities.

In the same vein, in-door meetings are often held to prepare for the youm al-jihad, or day of struggle, demonstrations against the British occupation of the country. Egyptians who deal with the occupation troops are threatened by the attendees at such meetings, and the assassination of British soldiers is in some cases their result.

The communist Abdel-Latif and the member of the Muslim Brotherhood Abdel-Hai, both residents of Aziz Street, are imprisoned for their political activities. On his release from prison, Abdel-Latif tells his brother Abdel-Aziz, "Egypt makes the martyr more powerful than his killer," one of the most memorable lines contributed by scriptwriter Medhat al-Adl.

The death of Saad, an excellent student at the Khedeweya school, is a very sad moment in the series, though it is one that also manages to engage the theme of tolerance since the school's headmaster and the police attend the funeral. In the same spirit, the army officer Shoukry refuses to shoot at the demonstrators, some of whom are his neighbours, and he stands side by side with them.

In this, al-Adl has been particularly successful in choosing al-Sharkawi's story of the 1930s for present broadcast, since the Cairo of the thirties, dreaming of revolution and getting rid of the British occupation, is rather like that of today, dreaming of a better era than that before the 25th January Revolution. The discussion of martyrdom in the series, as well as of corrupt and noble soldiers, also lends pertinence to this parallel theme.

Also the writer of the song used as the theme music for the series, al-Adl is able to make the point in a particularly expressive way, using the words Qahira al-Mo'iz wa halawet zaman, wa afandi wa sabeya wa ghenwet hanan (Cairo, built by Mo'iz and the good old days, and a man and a girl's song of love).

The soap opera, supposed to be made last year, was fortunate enough to be postponed until after the Revolution. However, it was only broadcast on the CBC channels CBC, CBC Drama, and CBC+2. Less attractive and important works were screened on other channels.

Director Gamal Abdel-Hamid made use of the series shown during Ramadan last year, among them Asmahan and Laila Murad, to develop his work. The result was a colour image that somehow looked as if it were black and white, summoning up the atmosphere of the thirties and giving the audience a sense of the past. One of the best Egyptian television directors, Abdel-Hamid avoided his usual style of close-up shots, for which he became famous in the drama Zizinya, choosing instead to give more attention to the scene as a whole.

The fact that the series was filmed mainly indoors made it difficult to get a real sense of Aziz Street, and the school scenes should have included rather more teachers. It does not seem likely that the school would only have had two teachers. There should have been more people in the street demonstrations. And the set, made up of buildings on the film lot at Media Production City in Cairo, are not relevant to the architectural style of Cairo in the thirties.

Nevertheless, Abdel-Hamid revealed himself to be a master when it came to casting. The performance of Syrian star Gamal Suleiman was marvelous as Shoukry Abdel-Aal, an officer caught between following orders and patriotism. Suleiman played a difficult character whose feelings are usually hidden but who cares a lot about the respect of others. Superstar Laila Elwi was also wonderful as Souad, an independent widow who has left her late husband's family to live in Aziz Street.

Mahmoud al-Guindy, Mohamed al-Sawi, Samy al-Adl, Gihan Fadel, Laila Gamal, Sanaa Shafei, Amira Naif, Gihan Salama, Yasmine Gamal and Al-Shahat Mabrouk all gave their best. New stars Horeya Farghali, one of the characters in the series Opera Dawaran Shubra, also broadcast during Ramadan. and Mariam Hassan were also amazing. Young actors Mayar al-Ghity, Ahmed Malik, Mohamed al-Sharnoubi, Ahmed al-Shabrawi, Ahmed Yehya and Sara Ibrahim gave of their best.

Composer Ammar al-Sherei produced an unforgettable musical score for the series, and he made Lo'ai, who sang the series's theme tune, a kind of second edition of superstar singer Ali al-Haggar. Costume designer Reem al-Adl, and set designer Mona Sadek also contributed their skills to bring the Cairo of the thirties to life.

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