22 August 2010
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is here. Cairo traffic is as jammed as ever, tempers are flaring, prices are spiralling out of control, and ‘tables of charity’ are spread for the needy all over the larger towns. But Ramadan has also become famous for entertainment and feasting. Once the fast, which begins before sunrise, is broken after sunset, Egyptians are free to pamper their senses in the most indulgent activities. They fill cafés and restaurants, they go shopping but, most of all, they sit spellbound before TV soap operas.
This year some 75 serials with topics that vary between the historical, social, tragic, and comic are being broadcast on some 15 satellite and ground channels. It does not take much guessing to realise it is impossible for anyone, no matter with how much free time on hand, to follow up on all of them. This is even hard for the critic who searches for a distinguished work to highlight, unless he or she chooses to focus on a specific actor or actress, writer or director.
Here are some notes about the few drama works I have chosen to follow during the first half of the month.
The Syrian writer Qamareddin Ghaloush is famous for his works of historical drama, and possesses the skill of weaving stories into a dramatic fabric compatible with known historical events. His latest work centres on the intriguing character of the Egyptian-Greek queen Cleopatra, played by the Syrian actress Sulaf Fawakherji. The Egyptian actor Youssef Shaaban masterfully plays the role of her father Ptolemy XII. The TV serial is grand in scenery, garments and accessories. Fawakherji is the typical moody Cleopatra, exquisite in passion, humour and strength.
Choosing a Syrian to play Cleopatra aroused the jealousy and ire of Egyptian actresses, but it is my opinion they should know better. Egyptians cannot monopolise the role; none less than Elizabeth Taylor has already played Cleopatra.
Sheikh al-Arab, literally sheikh (elder) of the Arabs, is a title given to the chief of a tribe—tribal communities in Egypt are denominated ‘Arabs’. The novelist Abdel-Rehim Kamal succeeded in capturing one such character, Sheikh al-Arab Hammam, from the depths of the lesser-known Egyptian history files. In an epic serial work which bears his name, the 18th century Sheikh al-Arab is brilliantly played by the veteran actor Yehia al-Fakharani. As Hammam leads Upper Egyptian tribes against the Mamluke non-Egyptian tyrannical rulers, the characters and events disclose the principles of traditional tribal rule, and the values tribesmen cherish. Honour, love, manhood, and vendetta all gain realistic proportions against a backdrop of suspense and humour.
A paradoxical situation arose, however, when the veiled actress Sabreen, plays Hammam’s wife. Since it is utterly unrealistic for a woman to be veiled at home, Sabreen decided to use a wig in such scenes. She claimed the wig covered her real hair, so she was virtually still veiled.
Wahid Hamed has made for himself a name on the Egyptian literary scene as a writer who courageously broaches critical topics. In his recent work of TV drama al-Jamaa’a, he tackles the history of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its foundation in the late 1920s by Hassan al-Banna. In flashback scenes which begin with the show of force conducted by the Hamas-like militias of the MB al-Azhar University students in 2006—which was instantly crushed by the security forces—the drama goes back to the days of Banna’s early childhood.
The drama candidly reveals it is the government’s shortcomings that throw Egyptians into the arms of the Brotherhood. It highlights the fact that the MB have infiltrated a large sector of Egyptian society, even the ruling National Democratic Party includes among its ranks Muslim Brothers.
But the drama is extremely unrealistic when it depicts security officials as individuals of angelic goodness. This in itself has severely harmed the al-Jamaa’a’s credibility even though the cast, led by the seasoned actor Ezzat al-Alaili, has hugely contributed to the success of the work. The director Mohamed Yassin achieved a remarkable cinematic work.
I want to get married
I want to get married is a social comedy work taken from the Internet diary of the young woman Ghada Abdel-Aal who candidly tackled online her problems with trying to get married in a community where women are expected to passively wait their turn till a man proposes. The typical social intricacies and machinations of the marriage process come into play. The difficult economic conditions, added to the characteristics a man and his family anticipate in a prospective bride show how slim the chances of any woman with a strong character are in this domain. The bride-in-waiting is played by the Tunisian actress Hind Sabry; no-one can argue with the fact that the drama successfully highlights a significant problem which preoccupies Egyptian society.
Zuhra and her five husbands and The Infamy are two serial dramas replete with indecent scenes and language. The first tells the story of a woman called Zuhra—played by Ghada Abdul-Razeq—who climbs the social ladder through marrying five men, one after the other, each of whom advances her a step further.
As to the second, it is taken from a film with the same name in which, as a man dies, his sons who strongly revered him discover he was a drug trader. The serial drama tackles the lives of the sons; will they take off where their father left or will they tread a different path?
Redundancy, boredom and silliness are the main features of most of the Ramadan talk shows. But al-Hayat satellite channel managed to introduce an exceptional show under the title The impossible interview, choosing contemporary actors or actresses to play historical characters being interviewed. These include Hitler, King Farouk, and Salah Eddin al-Ayoubi—commonly known in the West as Saladin.
ON TV channel is also airing a successful programme written by the journalist Ibrahim Eissa, in which negative practices common in Ramadan come under fire. Eissa tackles the way-too-loud prayer microphones, the rampant Ramadan idleness, and the habit of declining to perform duties on the pretext of being unable to due to the fast.