Khawaga Abdel-Qader: A direct message to today's hardliners
Venus Fouad looks at the irrepressible force of politics on television
In the first Ramadan after political Islamist parties came to power in Egypt, a new generation of writers and directors has been striving to bring social issues to the heart of television drama. In such television serials as Al-Baltagi (The Thug), Taraf Thaleth (Third Party) and Khorm Ebra (The Eye of the Needle), viewers are treated to a critical examination of the phenomena of violence and injustice in Egyptian society.
One serial also ventures into the unexpected with the tale of a British mystic whose philosophical views and unusual ways run in the face of everything that today's Islamists try to promulgate. This serial, Khawaga Abdel-Qader starring the popular actor Yehya El-Fakharani, is perhaps the most memorable of this year's television dramas. Written by Abdel-Rahim Kamal, the show tells the story of Herbert Gobberfield, an elderly drunk who has lost the will to live. When his work takes him to Sudan, the new experiences he encounters alter his views.
The drama begins at the time of WWII and traces Gobberfield's life through to the late 20th century, by which time he has converted to Islam and become known as Khawaga Abdel-Qader, khawaga (learned) being a title that has come to be synonymous with "foreigner".
With this role Fakharani, who starred in the hugely successful Layali Al-Helmiya (Helmiya Nights), Zizinia and Nesf Al-Rabi Al-Akhar (The Other Half of the Spring), adds to his streak of world-class performances. His character Khawaga Abdel-Qader is a kind-hearted British diplomat with an alcohol problem and a keen sense of spirituality who develops a passion for the Sufi aspects of Islam. Illuminating the contrast between Sufi spirituality and the hard-line stance of the followers of political Islam, the drama takes us into a journey of spirituality and symbolism, one in which religious chanting invokes the other-worldliness of mystic devotees.
Even the choice of the name is significant, since Abdel-Qader Al-Jilani was the grandmaster of Sufism, a man whose teachings offer the backdrop of the drama. There is an underlying call for soul-cleansing and for Muslims to rise above their petty grievances and recognise the potential for reconciliation between creed and beauty.
Fakharani's interpretation of the character is extraordinarily profound. With a modulated voice and an unstable gait, his impersonation of an ageing drunk is spot on. The makeup for his wrinkled face is masterful, and the musical score by Omar Khayrat imparts authenticity to the dramatic progression of the story.
The actors playing British roles speak in classical Arabic, which is a curious way of setting them apart from the locals and one that has been adopted in other shows. As Fakharani's character becomes more familiar with Egyptian and Sudanese customs, his accent softens into more familiar variations of colloquial speech.
This is not only an exceptional show in terms of technique and content, but it tackles philosophical and moral issues without falling into crass forms of preaching.
The character of Khawaga Abdel-Qader reminded me of the Andalusian mystic Ibn Arabi, a man whose core message was about love. At a time when hardliners are distorting this message, the show is as timely as it is enchanting.