Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A parody of dissent

Rania Khallaf debates Adel Imam’s latest television appearance

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt as a site of social and economic change features in two of the most popular television series this year. In Haret Al-Yahud (The Jews Quarter), which documents the crucial period 1952-1956, Jews are seen taking shelter from an Israel strike alongside their Muslim and Christian compatriots in 1945.

Likewise comedy superstar Adel Imam’s latest contribution to television, Ustaz wa Ra’is Qism (Professor, Dean), written by the celebrated humorist Youssef Maati: set in Cairo University – the site of demonstrations and the crucible of political unrest, but also, prior to the 25 January Revolution, a network of corruption and hypocrisy  – it is the story of Gomaa (played by Imam), a left-wing professor of agriculture well-known for his hard-line opposition to the regime.

In the first scene he appears, a dapper gentleman, badly beaten by police and abandoned off the desert highway. Barely two days at the public hospital where the passers-by take him, he is already inciting the nurses to revolt and call for a rise in their salary. The first word he utters – in response to a question about who had attacked him – is al-nizam (“the regime”).

And from that point on, with an annoying narrative naiveté, Gomaa is portrayed as the direct cause of every protest that ever occurs anywhere in the country. Gomaa was behind the students uprising in 1971 and the “Bread Crisis” in 1977. He was responsible for the 1981 crackdown on leftists, the April 2008 demonstrations and the Kefaya movement. It is as if 30 years’ worth of political activism is due to a single person. Gomaa also reportedly drove Colonel Gaddafi crazy and brewed trouble in Syrian and Iraqi universities. His house has gradually turned into an asylum for political activists and university students running away from the police...

It does not help that Imam’s performance is completely unoriginal, with the same tired jokes and the same persona he has been performing over again for decades.

Gomaa is of course a fictional character separate from the actor Adel Imam, though it may well be argued that Imam is once again performing the Adel Imam persona on the pretext of an unconvincing character, but one significant irony is that, while he was to all intents and purposes a symbol of the Mubarak regime, Imam now takes it upon himself to portray – or perhaps, more truly, parody – the struggle to bring down that same regime.

Nor does the unexpected return to the screen of the beautiful anchor-actress Nagwa Ibrahim as Gomaa’s ex-wife Karima add much to the drama. More germane is Haitham Zaki, the late legendary actor Ahmad Zaki’s son, whose spontaneous and strong performance as a young revolutionary, together with the story of Gomaa’s student Metwaly (whose appointment as a university teacher is blocked because of a corrupt professor who gives the post to his own son) lends the action some depth; hence, the “revolutionary” concept of social justice as the show’s principal, recurrent theme.

Social justice is emphasised in a number of contexts but in a somewhat forced and superficial way. Down with the Prime Minister, for example, is the shallow title of a book Gomaa writes, which infuriates the Prime Minister and drives him to commit a series of violent acts against Gomaa. In ten episodes we have yet to know anything about the content of the book, or indeed the basis of Gomaa’s opposition. Gomaa is moreover the only oppositional figure in the university; all the other professors are corrupt and they are all involved in conspiring against him.

One of them, Nafie, seems to recall the pro-Mubarak former chairman of the board and editor of Al-Ahram Ibrahim Nafie. Played brilliantly by Ahmed Bedair, Nafie is a hypocrite professor who writes articles extolling the government’s virtues and, while ignoring the needs of his addict son, enslaves himself to the regime. Gomaa loses his job at the university when he throws his shoe in Nafie’s face in the course of quarrel, which also contributes to him becoming a public figure – the Leader whose Arabic title, Al-Zaim, Imam has long been called in real life.

This idea is further reinforced when Karima asks him to intervene in a workers’ strike only to have him incite the workers further.

In the absence of any substance, however, Gomaa’s newly established leftist political party – the organisation is called “Them or Us” – comes across as little more than another jaded joke. “It is a message to the regime which weighs down our chests and will not go away,” says one party member, portrayed as a fool, “a scream against the thefts of businessmen who devour the country’s resources.”

Here as elsewhere Al-Zaim is the womaniser and the witty master of sexual innuendo. When he bumps into Hassona, Karima’s present businessman husband at a night club, he introduces his prostitute companion, Comrade Lula, a pillar of the struggle. Thus the comedy throughout: verbal slapstick that, if anything, is an insult to the subject. Gomaa’s proteges are foolish jokers. Shehata, the chauffeur who writes extremely bad and unfunny vernacular verses, is a case in point.

The Minister of Interior describes Gomaa as “a vocal phenomenon”, but in a departure from the overriding silliness he also has to face his own son’s revolutionary tendencies – illustrating the generational gap. When he is finally arrested, the minister screams, “I did not kill anybody”, echoing the police’s assertion that they never hurt the 25 January demonstrators.

When he ends up in jail following his refusal to let the Prime Minister’s son marry his step daughter, Gomaa is discussing the situation of the country with a Muslim Brotherhood member when he says Egypt is like a dying plant, in need of air, water, sunlight – and revolution. Scenes from 25 January follow in which Gomaa’s students are seen protesting his imprisonment – and once again at Tahrir Square he oversees the protests, a true spiritual and political leader – in the most ludicrous way possible.

The only positive thing about the Tahrir Square scenes is that they show how in the Muslim Brotherhood camps violence and murder were committed in secret.

Months after the start revolution, Gomaa – by now himself a hypocrite himself – is appointed a minister in the new government, and the students are chanting against him – to his face. Will the script now turn in on itself?

Directed by Wael Ihsan, a commercial filmmaker well-known for the young comedian Ahmad Helmi’s vehicles Zarf Tari’ (A state of Emergency) and Zaki Shan, however, this series is unlikely to enrich Adel Imam’s career in any way. As the series unfolds one cannot help wondering whether this is all Al-Zaim has to offer.

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