Nearly every Egyptian, at some point of his/her life, has been infected with a heavy dose of local soap operas. But it wasn t always a matter of choosing between the banal, repetitive selection on screen these days. As startling as this may sound to more recent viewers, there was time when local TV serials were so rich, refined and engaging that no other mainstream cultural products could rise to the challenge.
TV broadcast officially launched in Egypt in 1960. Programming, especially after the escalation of 1967 war, leaned towards the nationalistic, the educational and the religious. Eastern European and Soviet Union countries heavily influenced the national broadcast model. Content focused primarily on Arab literature and the arts along with science and classical music.
The 70s, with the end of the war, witnessed a surge in the number of entertainment programs. High cultural content never ceased to exist from weekly broadcasting hours until this very day but they were gradually reduced.
The phenomenon of the soap opera emerged with the hugely popular El-Qahira Wil Nas (Cairo and People) starring Nour El Sherif – in his first major acting role – Salah El Saadany, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffour and Akila Rateb.
Cairo, performed live, was a lighthearted albeit genuine outlook on Egypt that stands now as a document on ordinary life in the 70s.
Many other equally great series of different genres followed. El Dwama (Vertigo) and El Hareb (The Fugitive) are notable examples. The latter, in particular, was one of the most accomplished and popular works produced at the time. Essentially an exhilarating, and terrifying, whodunit story starring the late acting great Abdullah Abu Gheith, the series featured a social and political subtext neatly embedded inside the context of the drama.
Mohammed Sobhy delivered the earliest straight TV comedy with “Ali Beih Mazhar, a hilarious attack on the country s obsession with the rich and the superficial.
TV quickly overtook radio as the country s foremost medium, and the end of the 70s witnessed a real revolution in TV dramas with the broadcast of an eclectic array of classic comedies and melodramas.
The Adel Imam starring Ahlam El-Fata El Ta’er (Dreams of the Flying Kid) showcased a depth never seen before; subtlety and bittersweet sense humor from the country s most popular film star.
Legendary comedic actor/director Abdel Moneim Madbouli became forever known as Baba Abdu with Abna’e El-A’ez’a, Shokran (Dear Sons, Thank you), a melodramatic tearjerker that heralded the disintegrating familial structure.
Other remarkable works continued to be produced despite the swelling number of lulls flooding the airwaves. Two landmark classics would make a splash near the end of the 80s, becoming the first definite epics of Egyptian TV drama: The Osama Anwar Okasha scripted Layali El Helmeya (Helmeya Nights) and the Yehia El Alami directed espionage thriller Ra fat El Haggan. Both serials premiered in Ramadan; the blockbuster TV month when the best and biggest serials are presented.
Okasha s five-part series chronicled major historical events in Egypt since the reign of King Farouk until the mid 90s. With an acute sense of the spoken word and a wide collection of characters entangled in intertwined relationships, Helmeya, for the first three seasons, was an accomplished work of peerless social, political and historical importance.
Ra fat El Haggan is, arguably, the most groundbreaking Egyptian TV serial in history. Millions of viewers from different ages and backgrounds were glued to their TV sets everyday, immersed in the Egyptian spy s fascinating world. For once, Israelis and Jews were depicted like normal, three-dimensional characters and the serial s palpable sense of patriotism was not forced, artificial or repellent.
Many remarkable dramas followed through the 90s. The gradual, sharp fall of Egyptian TV drams started nearly a decade ago for more than a few debatable reasons: chief among them was money.
With the opening of dozens new Arabic TV channels broadcasted via Nile Sat, producers were showered with millions of pounds from rich Arabic stations capitalizing on the massive popularity of Egyptian dramas.
There was only one catch: A major star is a must.
The creative minds of scriptwriters, the key engineer of any TV drama, were no longer a necessity. Serials have become nothing more than a vehicle for the stars with scripts following redundant, worn-out formulas that lack any originality, zest or weight.
The opening of more terrestrial and satellite Egyptian channels pushed production companies to produce more serials following the same exact formulas and storylines. The need for serials to fill broadcasting hours seems to have drained writers from any stimulating, inventive ideas.
Egyptian TV drama has currently reached a point of laughable awfulness. Certain features have become integral to all soaps: The overly long, pointless dialogue, lack of substantial inciting events, theatrical acting, and a nauseating amount of cheesiness.
At least quarter of the current serials are composed of some characters praising other characters with a manner that ultimately changed TV dramas to sheer soap operas.
But perhaps the most significant element these dramas have lost in the process of excessive commercialization is the sense of realism. The main attraction TV dramas offered for viewers is how they discussed social or political issues the audiences can easily relate to. But as budgets soared and demands of the stars skyrocketed, TV drama deviated further away from the reality of Egyptian streets. Alleyways have, through a mysterious magic spell, become unbelievably clean. The larger part of the serials is set in big villas with fancy cars escorting their beautiful passengers to their lavish destinations that few of audiences can dream to afford.
No justification is given for the rottenness of the villains, while protagonists (Yousra, Samira Ahmed, recent roles of Yehia El Fakharany) always appear as saints.
It s no wonder that the more complex, ambitious and edgy Syrian drama have stood out as a worthy competitor to the Egyptian one. Yet despite their growing popularity in the Arab world, they remain mostly eclipsed by the Egyptian machine and judging by the current Ramadan crop, the situation is unlikely to change in the near future.
Whether Egyptian drama will rebound from its creative slump is still questionable. Who knows though; after all, with every Ramadan comes new hope for at least one good story that would restore our faith in another crumbling cultural domain.