Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 August 2012
Issue No. 1109
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Fourth Serial

Hani Mustafa samples Ramadan TV

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Clockwise from top: The Nagui Atallah Team; Red Lines; Fourth Wife; Bab Al-Khalq

For several years now Ramadan has become the sole objective of television drama making: 30 days over which dozens of programmes compete for the highest rates of viewing; for no viewer however eager can watch more than four or five out of some 70 serials on Egyptian satellite channels alone.

Khutout Hamraa (Red Lines), directed by Ahmed Shawqi and written by Ahmed Mahmoud Abu-Zaid, is the movie star Ahmad El-Saqqa's second attempt in a year to polish the image of the policeman, following the complete collapse of that image -- not because of 18 months of (purposeful) security breakdown during which the presence of the police on the street was weak and intermittent at best but because of many years during which policemen practised violence and torture against citizens. Saqqa must've thought that the way to bring back security was to improve the image of the policeman as a human being and so garner sympathy and respect for him, encouraging him to resume his duties. The first attempt was Sandra Nashaat's film Al-Maslaha (Interest), which was released at the start of the summer and is still showing; it may indeed be that the plotline of that film is more or less identical to that of Khutot Hamraa: in an extremely naïve and mawkish cinematic idiom, it tells the story of a vendetta between a policeman (Saqqa) and a drug lord (Ahmad Ezz).

Likewise the serial: Hossam (Saqqa) the policeman is pitted against a big arms dealing family in Upper Egypt, one son of whose chief Mansour (Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun) Hossam has killed sending the other son, Diab (Monzir Rihana), to jail; Diab is sentenced to capital punishment for killing an officer, but Mansour manages to arrange for his escape. (Rihana, a Jordanian actor, had played an impressive role in Al-Maslaha as the middle-man between Lebanese and Egyptian drug dealers.) A string of revenge killings takes place, with Mansour killing Hossam's wife (Youssra El-Louzi). Hence Hossam's vendetta operation: in the course of a successfully intercepted the handover of a cargo of arms, he shoots Mansour dead. With fewer extras as soldiers and less equipment, the scene was significantly weaker than its counterpart in the film -- implausibly, once you take into account the riskier nature of arms compared to drug dealing.

Here as elsewhere television drama lifts its concepts from films or previous successes, revealing a terrible lack of creative force. Such is the case with Al-Zawja Al-Rabi'a (Fourth Wife) directed by Magdi El-Hawwari and written by Ahmad Abdel-Fattah. It is practically a replica of 'Ailat El-Hagg Metwalli (Hagg Metwalli's Family), directed by Mohammed El-Noqali and written by Mostafa Muharram, which proved controversial on its screening in Ramadan, 2001: for the first time on Egyptian television it dealt in a social comedy format with the ticklish issue of polygamy, with Nour El-Sherif as the lusty merchant Hagg Metwalli marrying four women who all live in the same house. Likewise Fawwaz (Mustafa Shaaban) in Al-Zawja Al-Rabi'a, the owner of a hijab-wear shop who is very similar Hagg Metwalli: what is remarkable is that Shaaban had played the eldest son of Hagg Metwalli's. Except for a few details pertaining to the life of the grassroots rich in Cairo and their more recent adoption of surface religiosity, the present serial has absolutely nothing to add to the previous one.

Directed by Adel Adib and written by Mohammed Soliman Abdel-Malek, Bab Al-Khalq, set in the period 1985-2010 and named after a Cairo neighbourhood, would seem to have a slightly new topic. In it the turban worn by the hero, Mahfouz Zalata (Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz) looks more like a Mameluk aristocrat's than an Egyptian jihadi who spent over 25 years fighting in Afghanistan. So much so that it recalls Mohammed El-Muwelhi's early 20th-century book Hadith Eissa Ibn Hisham (Issa Ibn Hisham's Discourse), in which a character from the past retells his own future. Mahfouz managed to escape his comrades in arms with his son, arriving in Egypt in a way that drew the attention of State Security. It seems the makers of the drama were inspired by the idea of the returnee: someone who, having spent a long time away from home, arrives in Egypt to register the deterioration that has beset society -- something that is particularly obvious in the main character's attitude, who behaves as if he has returned from the Western world and is eager to spread the message about secular values.

Yet this man has not come back from a better place: he has been living in the middle of war, bloodshed and extremism. Equally strange is that Mahfouz seems unaffected by his years in Afghanistan: at least he does not espouse the extremist Wahhabi doctrine, something that becomes clear in a scene in which he confronts a sectarian battle with sticks and knives in his own neighbourhood: an all too obvious rhetorical message, naïvely conveyed. It makes no attempt at all to reconcile Mahfouz's background with the message the makers of the serial want to get across to its viewers. Social and political critique take the form of Mahfouz being shocked with behavioural transformations that have taken place in his absence. Even political corruption is dealt with in the same way: Mahfouz's brother (Tamer Hagras), a crony of the ruling party (which, peculiarly, remains nameless), exemplifies the opportunist willing to cut family links in return for upward mobility.

But lifting ideas is not restricted older serials or films, themselves often lifted from Hollywood. Last year's serial Al-Bab fil-Bab (Door to door), directed by Ossama El-Abd and written by Tamer Abdel-Hamid, is lifted from the American sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond. This year offers part two of Al-Bab fil-Bab. What is interesting about this is that, instead of being an Egyptianisation adequately transporting the concept of Raymond into an Egyptian context, Al-Bab fil-Bab is a literal translation of the American sit-com. Likewise Hikayat Banat (Girls Stories), directed by Hussein Shawkat and written Baher Dwidar: it relies on the dramatic structure and some of the techniques of the phenomenally successful serial Sex and the City. Though not an exact copy of its American model, the problem with Hikayat Banat is that this type of drama is extremely difficult: while the American makers of Sex and the City manage the tightrope walking feat of conveying the relations and desires of four young women in the context of comic and suspenseful picture of New York society, their Egyptian counterparts have not managed it.

As for the serial in which comedy megastar Adel Imam stars, Firqat Nagui Atallah (The Nagui Atallah Team), it is directed by Imam's son Ramy Imam and costars his other son, Mohammed Imam. The serial is based on Ocean's Eleven, the main character being an administrative official in the Egyptian embassy in Israel who seems to deal with Israelis with pleasant ease. The first few episodes recalled the espionage serials written by the late Saleh Mursi and aired in the 1980s: the famous Dumou' fi 'Uyoun Waqiha (Tears in Insolent Eyes, 1980), for example, also starring Imam, whose acting style has remained unchanged since. Yet the viewer soon discovers that this is a serial of a different kind that benefits from actual political details of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Nagui's work at the embassy is finished, he decides to form a highly skilled team of young Egyptians with each member outstanding in his field: the sportsman, the computer whiz, the explosives expert, the thief. They come together and train with the object of raiding a bank in Israel to steal nearly a billion dollars and transport the money to Egypt. Preparing for the task, Nagui and his team meet with various obstacles reflecting regional issues.

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