Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 July 2012
Issue No. 1108
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Race or no race, it is Ramadan anyway

The taste of Ramadan this year is not much different from past years; drama serials are still dull and comedy shows are down to a minimum. Rania Khallaf wallows in despair in front of her television screen

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Clockwise from top left: Nagui Attalah Squad; Sister Terez; The Slam; and Third Party

When the 25 January Revolution erupted, it was almost inevitable that the first clear impact would be felt in the economic sector. For the past 18 months, neither critics nor audiences have been surprised to see a marked decline in the production of television drama shows because of the lack of financing needed to produce a big number of drama serials to absorb viewers during the holy month of Ramadan.

On the contrary, dozens of drama series are invading the small portion of consciousness that we enjoy during the long, hot, fasting days of the month.

I wonder where indeed the money is coming from, when most production companies are suffering from a shortage of funding owing to the economic failure in the aftermath of the revolution.

The newly-created television stations such as Al-Nahar and CBC have surely contributed to this sudden explosion in the number of television series currently being screened.

Sharbat Louz on the CBC channel starring the famous film star Youssra, is one of the more traditional drama stories. It, tells the story of a poor girl who happens to find her way out of her poor alley to become a rich woman. Sharbat returns to her neighbourhood after a long time to rebuild relations with the people among whom she was raised.

Youssra was also the guest of the first episode of a daily programme on Al-Nahar entitled 7 Questions, presented by Khaled Salah. As we will witness in other programmes and serials, they obsess with the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood's policies on the art scene in Egypt now that Egypt's president represents the underground group.

"I am not personally against Mursi," Youssra says. "I am still watching what is going to change in the art scene. But I really miss Egypt, with its old traditions and its respect for art. I will never quit acting or wear a hijab, as some actresses have done," she adds in a decisive tone in response to a question about whether she was worried about a prospect change in Egypt.

Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood has spread from one show to another. In another programme entitled No Recession, No Surrender, the journalist and announcer Magdi El-Galad asks his guest Abdallah Kamal, ex editor-in-chief of Rose Al-Youssef magazine, which has long been known for its unfailing support of the Mubarak regime, if he still felt sorry for Mubarak and his situation as a prisoner?

"I only have sympathy for Mubarak, and I have never considered visiting Gamal Mubarak [the former president's son] in jail, but I have received threatening notes from the Muslim Brotherhood on a daily basis."

9 Gameat Al-Dewal Street, is one of the biggest current productions on CBC. Starring the popular actor Khaled Salah, the series centres round the struggle between two businessmen fighting to invest in the resort of Ain Sokhna. Directed by Mohamed Mustafa, the serial reflects the life of a businessman in a crazy and complicated world.

The serial Al-Baltagi (The Bully) stars the talented young cinema star Asser Yassin. It tells the story of a bully who, though homeless, manages to achieve a prestigious position in his neighbourhood and marries an older woman. The story reveals the ills of shanty town life and the abnormal relations that are part and parcel of such neighbourhoods. The first episode made my stomach turn over: the type language used, the illegal dealings and the divergent behaviour has struck my head. Directed by Khaled El-Hagar, this is the story of how to make bullies out of homeless children in our society, and it very hard to swallow.

Once again, almost on the same night, the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood surfaced agin in a programme called Kursi fi al-Kolob (Upside Down) presented by CBC announcer Lamis El-Hadidi. Her guest was the famous young singer Shirine, who spoke bluntly when she said: "I regret singing for ex-president Mubarak on national occasions, but I am ready to sing for President Mohamed Mursi, and even dance for him, if he only proves his concern for Egypt and not for political power." Which struck me as odd. "Art is not a sin," she added firmly. "I am worried about possible changes in the artistic scene in Egypt; I am not worried about myself. I present many shows outside the country anyway."

Taraf Talet ( A Third Party) is a new drama written by talented young scriptwriter Hisham Hilal. In an attempt to reflect the spirit of the 25 January Revolution, the serial tells the story of three friends: three young men, each following his own path in life and his own dream. They have one dream in common, however: each dreams of a better place in the world. The trio, played by Amir Karara, Mahmoud Abdel-Ghani and Amr Youssef, who appeared together in a popular drama serial screened last Ramadan called Citizen X, are perfectly in harmony with one another, their wit and spontaneity helping the audience to digest the speeded-up rhythm of events that take place each episode.

The three friends are actually synonymous with "the third party", Hilal told Al-Ahram Weekly in a short telephone interview. "The third party" is the term that political analysts used to employ when they were sceptical of a third party that committed the shootings or killing of demonstrators in events such as the bloody clashes that developed between the demonstrators and the army forces in Mohamed Mahmoud Street; such events are revealed in the episodes as the background to the trio's struggle in life. Although, as Hilal explained, the trio are not killers. They are acting as smart bullies since they have no other job to do. At a certain point they realise that Egypt, and the development of the 25 January Revolution are actually threatened by outside forces, and that their dream cannot be achieved in this way; hence they decide to stand on the side of revolutionists, standing for real values and a change their lives.

There is also a tendency this year to reproduce ideas from past popular series: an example of this is El-Zouga al-Raba'a (The Fourth Wife) by Mustafa Sha'aban, screened on the Cairo Drama channel. Directed by Magdi El-HawarI, the serial is a copy and paste of Al-Haj Metwali, a comedy serial that questioned the issue of polygamy and starred the cinema star Nour El-Sherif. While Haj Metwali was produced some five years ago, and was also screened during the month of Ramadan, the only difference is that the three wives in the later serial are wearing a hijab and are less amusing than before.

Another routine feature of Ramadan drama is a discussion of the everlasting issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Two large-scale productions deal with this theme: Nagui Attalah Squad starring comedian Adel Imam and Al-Safa'aa starring Sherif Mounir. The former was shot between Egypt and Israel, and tells the story of an administrative consultant at the Egyptian Embassy in Jerusalem who stands up against the brutal crimes committed by Israel against Palestinians. As a reaction, the Israeli authorities freeze the money due to him. Back in Egypt and in a retaliatory move, he decides to return to Israel accompanied by five young men to carry out a criminal operation. After the success of the operation they try to flee Israeli territory, but the difficulties they face take a comic turn.

The serial, directed by Rami Imam, Adel's son, brings back the master of comedy to the small screen after a long absence. Nothing else is back, however. The first two episodes of the serial have left no lasting impressions.

The second serial dealing with the Palestinian issue is Alsafa'aa (The Slam), which also stars popular film and television star Sherif Mounir. The serial, which is being shown on Al-Nahar Drama channel, deals with a fairly new subject: those Egyptian Jews who formerly lived in Egypt but were forced to leave for Israel in1956, the year of the Suez War. The storyline illustrates perfectly how terrified the Egyptian Jews were of the street demonstrations sparked off by the foreign military aggression, and the desire of most of them to leave for a safer place, i.e. Israel. On another level, the serial also features Jews who refused to emigrate at the time and of the love story between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman who was stubborn enough to escape from her family on the day of their departure so she could stay in Egypt with her lover.

This kind of historical drama, I believe, deserves watching, if not for the rhythm of events which is faster than other serials, which tend to draw the story out, then for its echo of the history of our people.

Sister Terez, also screened exclusively on Al-Nahar Drama, features the story of twin babies left by their mother soon after their birth, one at the door of a mosque and the other on the steps of a church.

The twin girls -- one raised by a Moslem family and the other by Christians have never met. By featuring the lives of the twins, however, the writer Belal Fadl attempts to address some of the sensitive and complicated relations between Muslims and Copts in society; a quasi replication of last year's series Adam starring popular singer and actor Tamer Hosni. But do we, Muslims and Copts, really still need to discuss our "sensitive" relationship? Do not we need to move on?

The two new promising drama serials that I have managed to watch -- the only ones out of nearly 60 -- are Hekayat Banat (Girl Talk) and Raqam Maghoul (Anonymous Number) . The first, screened on Dream 1 channel, stars four young actresses new or nearly new to the screen, and this adds a fresh, comic flavour to their performance. The serial, using the first person narration technique, is about four friends from upper middle-class families, and their manners and reactions to different situations and difficulties with men in general. The light, comic performances of the main characters lighten up the issue of men's uncompromising attitudes to the will of women, or rather how to tame them.

The other show, Anonymous Number, is an action serial, written by Amr Samir Atef, a young scriptwriter who has become known for his action serials, and directed by Ahmed Galal. The story is based on an anonymous phone call received by a young lawyer, who will consequently have to witness -- and commit -- illegal acts that will turn his life upside down. The serial examines the validity of values and principles in our humdrum material life.

As the time for Iftar (breakfast) approaches I feel really dizzy, not because I am starved or thirsty but because of the thought that there are dozens of Ramadan serials that I have not had time to watch yet. This huge number of dramas and programmes pouring through the channels during the holy month of Ramadan makes me feel sceptical about the role of these dramas in a month tailored for tolerance, prayer and compassion for the poor.

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