Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Looking beyond Ramadan

With Ramadan soon set to end, the country will be turning off the soap operas that have transfixed viewers to concentrate on socio-economic and political problems, write Dina Ezzat and Niveen Wahish

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Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is not keen on the idea promoted by some of his advisors to reshuffle the government, according to a well-informed government source.

The head of state, the same source added, does not want to make too many changes at this time. He would prefer to reflect on the economic and political moves he believes will bring economic advancement and renewed political vitality.

The same source said the president believes that there are many large issues pending already, including the controversial handover of the two Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia; the start of Saudi investments in Egypt; economic measures, including the introduction of VAT and possible revisions to fuel and gas prices; the possible amendment of the regulations on peaceful demonstrations; and the reactivation of Egypt’s role in the region, especially on Palestinian-Israeli and Libyan issues.

These are the things that the executive and legislative branches of government are set to work on after the end of Ramadan in July.

“I think it is essential for something positive to happen, and to happen soon, to help lift public morale. It is unfortunate that almost three years after the 30 June Revolution and some five years after the 25 January Revolution that the level of public optimism has declined so much,” said political commentator Ossama Al-Ghazali Harb.

He added that this declining energy is also visible on the intellectual front. “The political debate is receding to the point of almost disappearing, and at a time of considerable economic challenges. I am not sure how the government will get through this without intellectual debate and an efficient political programme,” he said.

This lack of serious political and intellectual debate is adding to the already acute economic challenges, he said. Ramadan is a festive season, despite the pressure it puts on the finances of many people, and allows for a few weeks off from complaints over services and prices. “But clearly the big questions will resume after Ramadan,” he said.

“Things are really hard, and they are becoming harder. I have had to take my present job because I have no other way of bringing in money,” said Sabrine, a 25-year-old woman selling hair accessories on the Cairo metro.

Sabrine sells the products she receives from a merchandiser who hires 25 women to sell products on the three lines of the underground. She packs a few drinks and diapers for her one-year-old daughter, whom she carries on her trips on the Helwan line until five in the afternoon. It’s then that she heads home for her iftar meal and watches a Ramadan TV drama “to take my mind off things,” she said.

Like many of her neighbours, Sabrine follows a couple of soap operas on TV. Her favourites are Al-Ostoura (The Legend), starring film idol Mohamed Ramadan, which tells the story of the daily fight of an impoverished man, and Al-Tabbal (The Drummer), featuring Amir Karara, about an ambitious man who lives in difficult conditions and tries to fight his way up the social ladder.

The series are just two of 30 productions aired this Ramadan across state-run and private TV channels. Last year there was almost double the number of soap operas, but the economic constraints of most producers have forced the number of productions to drop this year.

For the most part, according to novelist and MP Youssef Al-Qaid, the dramas are of mediocre quality, being in his view sensationalist and almost void of content. “They are basically just thrillers, even if they do sometimes feature leading Egyptian stars,” Harb said. “They are part of a disturbing intellectual decline. Even the productions of the 1980s and 1990s were better than these are.”

Al-Qaid argued that of the around 30 productions, only a few seemed to be of serious artistic or intellectual merit. Afrah Al-Kouba (Al-Kouba Joy), based on a script by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, was perhaps the only serious piece of drama this year, he said.

“We are talking about an original text by Mahfouz, even if the soap opera does not stick strictly to the novel. It also has a good director and good actors,” he added.

“But perhaps one reason that Afrah Al-Kouba is being so widely celebrated, by intellectuals rather than by the wider public, is that it includes complex characters who suffer from serious doubts. This reflects, I think, many people’s lives today, given the many unanswered questions — moral and political choices — that exist.”

Film director Mariam Auff agrees that the personal dramas presented in Afrah Al-Kouba touch on the main issues of today, not just on the level of individuals but also on that of a society that is nostalgic about the good old days, even as it lurches towards what may be an artificial spirituality.

The series revolves around the lives of a group of people who work in a theatre that represents a bygone Egypt. The production raises some of the issues presented in the English Renaissance dramatist Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, which portrays a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for personal gain.

There are “subtle but also spot-on messages” about the right of individuals to observe or not to observe Ramadan, and about the intentions of preachers who may abuse the cause of religion to serve their interests.

“I think these are some of the key questions we are facing in our society today, and it is very impressive that this Ramadan drama dares to approach these matters,” Auff said.

But she acknowledged that such questions were not seeping through deep enough in society. According to Harb, in rural areas people are not following local dramas and instead are increasingly tuning into channels airing Indian soap operas that “they find more relevant to their own stories.”

“We are not just talking about the declining quality of the dramas, which is in itself a sign of the receding capacity of the industry, but also about the failure to produce dramas that relate to the lives of all Egyptians, as we used to have at the beginning of this Ramadan drama tradition,” he said.

Sociologist Zeyad Akl argues that the time when people followed one soap opera to its end in Ramadan is also now over, indicating what he called the “excessive compartmentalisation” of society.

“The traditional Ramadan soap opera of light entertainment, the history of religion and cross-sectoral social issues has long gone with the corporatisation of Ramadan,” Akl said.

 

ADVERTISING IN RAMADAN: Akl argued that apart from some signs of social solidarity by individuals and social responsibility by companies, Ramadan is turning into “a business season when viewers are inundated with endless commercials.”

These television advertisements have been another topic that no conversation has failed to include this Ramadan. People have come to expect the coolest, most expensive and most creative ads during Ramadan, and this year has been no exception. Expensive productions packed with celebrities are the ones that catch the attention first.

This year Vodafone outdid itself by bringing together 11 highly paid stars to promote its products through the concept of uniting the family. Its ad, which had the protagonists singing to the tune of Al-Leila Al-Kebira, a famous operetta from the 1960s, stirred controversy, with viewers questioning the point of such extravagant spending and whether the money would have been better spent elsewhere.

Many advertisers spend 90 per cent of their annual budget during Ramadan, said Nagwa Al-Gazzar, a professor of communications at the Canadian International College in Cairo. They want to capitalise on the highest viewership rates during the holy month, and advertising rates rise accordingly.

A study on “Media Industries in the Middle East” by Northwestern University in Qatar, in partnership with the Doha Film Institute, has shown that in 2015 a 30-second advertising spot could cost anything from $7,000 to $12,000 on TV during Ramadan compared to around $2,000 to $8,000 at other times of the year.

Rates are highest in the peak hours of the evening, following the Maghreb prayers and breaking the fast. “That is when most of the audience is doing nothing but watching TV,” Al-Gazzar said. She added that such heavy advertising could actually hurt products, especially since viewers consider the long spells of ads annoying and switch channels to avoid them.

“I can hardly watch any programme before it gets interrupted by ads,” complained Amira Fathy, a Cairo viewer, saying she prefers to follow her favourite programmes online instead.

Mobile phone companies, real estate, home electrical appliances and some food products have dominated advertising spots this year. Filmed in plush settings, the ads promise viewers better lives if they buy the products being advertised, something which some viewers have found provocative.

“They show life in gardens and in spacious villas, which is a sharp contrast to the actual life many Egyptians are living,” said Shereen Mustafa, a housewife. Some of the ads filmed by the sea invite people to buy beach homes.

“These are all fantasies — the downpayments and monthly instalments are beyond most people’s incomes alone,” she said.

Charity ads inviting people to donate to hospitals and charitable organisations have not failed to attract criticism either. “They are hounding viewers,” said Al-Gazzar. “We do not need ads to give our annual zakat money,” she said, referring to the contribution made by Muslims in Ramadan to the poor.

This year there have been fewer ads in the food and beverages and automotive sector, reflecting some of the difficulties in these sectors, Al-Gazzar said. But while these ads have attracted criticism, they have continued to be aired, unlike others which have been removed from airtime because of their use of sexual innuendo.

The latter include ads for underwear, non-alcoholic beer and even milk. “In the ad about milk that was banned three babies tell each other they have to forget ‘al-dondoo,’ a nickname for their mother’s milk, and drink the advertised brand instead to grow,” Al-Gazzar said. Besides being seen as making a reference to a mother’s breasts, the ad was also seen as being an invitation to abandon breastfeeding.

The Consumer Protection Agency (CPA) banned the ad because it lacked “respect for public taste, customs and community traditions,” the CPA said on its website. Al-Gazzar said that such innuendos are uncommon in Egyptian ads, but having them removed was unprecedented.

“They can deliver the same message without making these insinuations,” she said, adding that airing such ads during Ramadan, a month of spirituality and prayers, was a wrong choice.

But though the ad has been removed from the air, it can still be viewed on YouTube. According to Al-Gazzar, the company has managed to produce a “buzz.” However, as soon as Ramadan is over, this buzz will probably disappear to make way for more pressing political and economic questions.

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