Drama mirrors reality in a creative and entertaining way, as both an expression of societal issues and aspirations, and a powerful means of shaping perceptions. There is no doubt that drama production, when strong, is a tool of cultural and political influence across borders.
In Egypt and the Arab world, Ramadan has become the biggest season for drama production; dozens of series, soap operas and sitcoms are produced annually to capture the attention of families, especially at night after breaking the fast. Even at cafes, many ask to watch the drama series they follow while having their drinks and shisha (water pipes).
Series and soaps produced for the month usually include around 30 episodes, and discuss social, economic and political issues pertaining to Egyptian society. Last year, approximately 80 drama series were produced for Ramadan, with a budget of almost EGP 2bn, according to state-owned Al-Ahram. This year it seems political unrest, exacerbating economic conditions and financial restraints cut that number in half, to about 40 programmes and soaps.
Although those working in the industry may perceive this negatively after the boom of 2012, there is a bright side. With fewer series for viewers to choose from, each of those on offer may enjoy higher viewership; in general, the vitality of the season comes from the number of its viewers, as well as the reviews and critiques that often make or break a series. If a drama series passes the test of Ramadan and becomes popular, its chance to be rerun throughout the rest of the year increases. Thus for the industry, the holiday serves merely as a launching season for additional popularity and profits to come after the month ends.
Although many look forward to Ramadan series as an escape from politics and their daily problems, there is little escaping the former. This year several series discuss and make assertions about the political scene, which has stirred debates among viewers.
Just as religion and politics are intertwined in the political arena, several series portrayed this relationship.
In Bedon zikr asmaa (Without Mentioning Names) we watch the character of a manipulative preacher who serves a particular political faction and uses mosques to reach power. Though set in the 1980s and 1990s, the series focuses on the rise of Islamisation and political Islam.
Moga Harra (Heat Wave) depicts the character of Saad El-Agaaty, a hypocritical Salafi preacher who does not follow the Islamic values he preaches.
Amir El-Shenawy, 22, a fan of the series says: “It criticises the use of religion in the political sphere and it also shows how this mix between both would negatively affect people’s relationship with religion.”
Al-Da’eya (The Preacher) series, however, brought the intricacy of religion and politics to the forefront in an alluring plot that is still unfolding. The series discusses the rhetoric used in religious channels through the life of the main character Youssef, a preacher and popular talk show anchor on a religious channel with conservative religious views. He falls in love with Nesma, a revolutionary woman and a musician at the opera.
Viewer Jihan Mohamed, 53, thinks the series gets to the heart of the political conflict and finds the message behind it powerful and significant. “It offers a good view of how people are easily manipulated by religious rhetoric,” she says.
Medhat El-Adl is the screenwriter and producer of Al-Da’eya, which he categorises as a “social series”.
“But in our current conditions, it is impossible not to involve politics, particularly when there is a palpable rise of political Islamists and when the main character is a preacher. The core of the plot was to analyse the character of the preacher, his personal relationships with family and friends and his relationship with the media and another anchor in a religious TV channel,” he explains.
According to El-Adl, the main message in Al-Da’eya is that not everyone who speaks in the name of religion represents it.
“In Egypt, religion is inculcated in Egyptians’ consciousness, and they accidently raise preachers above the rest of the people, stripping them from their human nature and drawing a halo around them. And with the proliferation of religious channels that abuse the charisma and the conservative views of preachers to get advertisements, it was important to show how a preacher is a human after all,” El Adl says.
Another theme in the Egyptian political scene is the role of police and the demand for reform of this wing of the security apparatus.
Moga harra also portrays the life Sayed El-Agaaty (brother of the Salafi preacher Saad), a policeman working in the vice department. Sayed’s character is complex and due to his violent and aggressive nature he encounters many problems at work and in his marriage.
Like Al-Da’eya, the series features a juxtaposition of the main character with a revolutionary; Sayed’s brother Nabil holds attitudes considered radical, which are an ongoing source of conflict in the family.
Another portrayal of the police appears in Esm Mo’akat (Temporary Name). The series is cinematic, thrilling and fast-paced, unlike the usual sappy and slow-paced Ramadan fare. It portrays Youssef Ramzy, a young businessman who suffers from amnesia after an accident. As he regains his memory, he is hunted down and is exposed to several murder attempts. He also discovers that he is part of an underground organisation composed of resigned policemen responsible for the assassination of political leaders.
The series puts a spotlight on police corruption, basing the story around the presidential elections after the revolution, and involving its protagonist in a plot by corrupt policemen to smear the reputation of certain presidential candidates.
Rania Abdel Aleem, 23, follows the drama eagerly. “What grabbed my attention is that the show reflects the hidden reality in [the current] political game,” she says. “It shows the dirty games involved in the previous presidential elections and how each candidate indirectly tries to tarnish the reputation of the competing candidates by getting involved in his personal life,” she says.
She believes that the principle message of Esm Mo’kat so far is “to be sceptical about political reality because it is linked to business, police, corruption and hidden agendas. [The large] part of politics is all lies and getting the largest proportion of people to believe these lies.”
Depicting the revolutionary
The character of the revolutionary youth was juxtaposed with Islamists in Al-Da’eya through the character of Nesma who is not just a musician at the Opera, but also a member in the coalition of the revolution’s youth and an activist who takes part in marches and demonstrations.
Moga Harra provides a similar comparison; Sayed’s brother Nabil, a journalist, appears in the series as a young leftist revolutionary who organises protests against the regime and is eventually arrested as a result of his opposition.
The bigger picture
Though it may be categorised as a historical series, Zat (Self) is definitely political. As one of the most popular Ramadan series so far, according to several media reviews, and based on the novel of Sonallah Ibrahim, Zat tells the bigger story of Egypt.
The series presents Egypt’s modern history through a girl named Zat. Born at the beginning of the 1952 coup d’etat, Zat lives through a myriad of political, social and economic changes; the spread of nationalism as an ideology, carrying out nationalisation under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the infitah (“open-door”) economic policy by Anwar El-Sadat. She suffers marginalisation by her family, who forced her to abide by the social norms and traditions, in the case of her circumcision.
“Honestly, the things that captured me in Zat were the language, dialogue and details of daily life,” says Reem Gehad, 21. “We’ve seen several drama series covering the pre and post-1952 [periods] and they [are] always cliche in terms of how people spoke, lived and reacted to events. Zat is different; it is beautifully written and simple and you feel at home watching it.”
Gehad likes that Zat showed the discussions in society that took place at the time and in the different stances of the characters in Zat’s life.
Gehad said he was particularly intrigued by the historical footage interspersed in the story. “I can never forget the scenes of putting up the Israeli flag at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo that I saw for the first time on the series. They were humiliating,” says Gehad.
Challenges in the making
Skimming through the drama productions this year, there are several intriguing plots unfolding, interesting issues to debate and significant messages to be delivered. However, it seems the series are still facing many challenges in reaching their audience. Some series were even met with lawsuits against their content, such as Al-Da’eya, which is being sued for its representation of Islamists.
Artists, writers and intellectuals had concerns about their freedom of expression under the government of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, which caused tension between them and Islamists; in August 2012 preacher Abdallah Badr denounced artist Elham Shahin on a religious TV channel, and in June a large group of artists organised a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture, protesting against the appointment of a new minister affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Recently many writers have said in several media channels that their works and series represent the challenges to the Islamist leadership of the country.
“Under Mubarak we [artists and drama makers] always felt empathy for the Muslim Brotherhood because they were treated unfairly even if we disagreed with their vision and political project,” El-Adl says. “Once they came to power and tried to control everything but proved to be a failure, we then worked at challenging their authority.”
El-Adl believes that this year’s series are an improvement over last year’s. “There is new blood; artists and directors coming from the cinema to the silver screen,” he says.
“I believe being under the Muslim Brotherhood for a year led us to challenge ourselves, because it is impossible to attract viewers without rich and entertaining content. Threatened by the competition from Syrian and Turkish drama, I think we’ve picked up the pace.”
“What really matters is how politics is communicated and presented. Unless it is presented in an entertaining form, it won’t be attractive, but I think many of this year’s works manage to do that.”