15 August 2010
Those were exciting times in the 1960s. Egyptian living rooms welcomed a new guest, a guest who had come to stay. Branded “the little charmer”, the TV set carried Egyptians to an entirely new wide world just a press of a button away. Audiences would sit mesmerized at the virtual reality that unfurled before their eyes. TV presenters, news announcers, and show hosts or hostesses were bigger than life; admirers were fascinated by what was no less than the star quality they possessed. Those who witnessed the first years of Egyptian TV can never forget the strong yet eminently attractive Himmat Mustafa, the gentle Salwa Higazy, the widely-read Amany Nashed, and the all-time star of TV hostesses Laila Rostum. Among the male announcers were Hamdy Qandil—to this day a star on Arab satellite channels—and Salah Zaki.
Predictably, drama found a special niche among TV shows. It has to go to the Egyptian TV’s credit that it spearheaded a movement of theatre renaissance. When insufficient drama works were found, the TV Authority decided to set up theatre groups of its own. These groups produced some of the best works of Egyptian theatre in all genres: classic, modern, tragedy, comedy, and musicals. It also introduced Egyptian audiences to world theatre. Sponsored by the State, it had the means to focus on the very best without being at the mercy of profits. Today, critics and audiences alike complain of the vulgarity and inferior quality of commercial theatre, and recall the splendid productions of the 1960s and 1970s when the box office was not king.
Running from the days
On the small screen, especially popular were serial drama works; audiences would plan their activities around the time of the drama, and the protagonists would be the focus of conversations nationwide. Audiences would sympathise with them or hate them outright, they may find them glamorous or dull, but they definitely could not ignore them. Families who were not sufficiently lucky to own a TV set would see the serial drama at their neighbour’s—TV sets had not become common enough to invade sidewalk cafés.
Audiences felt as though the cinema theatre had come to their doorstep. This seemed almost true since TV drama stars were the same film actors and actresses Egyptians would flock to the theatre to see. But unlike cinema, television drama was free of charge and was, especially for non-working women, a saviour from boredom.
Among the first serial dramas shown on Egyptian TV, and among the most widely-viewed, was Harib minal-Ayam (One who Ran away from the Days). Originally a novel by Tharwat Abaza, it featured Abdullah Gheith who played the village simpleton humiliated and harassed by many, but who ends up the all-powerful head of a gang of thieves and avenges himself of all who ever mistreated him. The suspense of the plot is only broken at the very end; all through no-one could have imagined that the person who was wreaking havoc with all the village was the village simpleton. Gheith masterfully played the double role of simpleton and powerful gangster; the role skyrocketed him to his brilliant acting career.
Your next-door neighbour
There were also the comedies and the musicals. Egypt’s top comedian Fouad al-Muhandiss played the leading role in 1966 in Troubles of the Profession, playing a different professional every day, and depicting the troubles he faces on account of this profession.
Treasure, screened in the 1960s, was the title of one of the most interesting adventure serials, telling the story of digging up a Pharaonic treasure; it starred Salah Mansour.
Among the most successful social comedies, and one of the first, was Customs and Traditions in 1966, in which Aqila Rateb played the typical Egyptian housewife whose mission in life is to get her two daughters married. Once she does, she embarks on the sacred duty of guiding them through life as she sees proper. In the process, the everlasting—and all but unbridgeable—generation gap imposes itself, and a collection of social ills are exposed. Also unforgettable is Cairo and its People, screened from 1968 until 1972, which catapulted the then new face Nour al-Sherif into a luminous acting career that is to this day splendid. Cairo and its People focused on contemporary social issues in an eminently realistic way; the characters and families onscreen, and the predicaments and sentiments they experienced could very well have been your next-door neighbours and their everyday quandaries.
Musicals were also very widely-viewed. Among these was the 1970s’ Naassa, played by the singer Maha Sabry, and written by Fomil Labib, editor-in-chief of Watani from 1970 to 1971. It told the tale of a love story between a gypsy girl (Naassa) and the son of one of the country’s elite.
She and the Impossible was another important serial written by Fathiya al-Assal in the 1980s, and focused on a woman’s strong will to defeat illiteracy. The singer-actress Safaa’ Abul-Seoud played the leading role.
Among the espionage serials, Raafat al-Haggan which was screened in the early 1990s and allegedly tells the true story of an Egyptian who spied against Israel when the two countries were at war, held viewers in thrall. Its music, written by Ammar al-Sherei, has become an Egyptian classic.
No talk about television drama can be complete without mentioning the landmark works written by the late Usama Anwar Okasha (1941 – 2010), who managed to make the TV serial drama a comprehensive literary oeuvre. Okasha introduced the most successful serials which depicted Egypt’s social and political modern history through the intertwined lives of different characters and generations; these included the epic Helmiya Nights and Honey and Tears.
Today, serials have become the main course during the holy month of Ramadan. This year some of 57 serials—social, historic and comic—are being screened by the various satellite and ground channels. The problem, however, is how to choose among these numerous works? And how to manage the time to watch all you wish?