Love on the net wins Egypt hearts in Ramadan soap

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A veil-wearing widow and a school principal fall in love on the web, in a star-crossed romance that holds a mirror to the tensions wracking Egypt’s middle class, from Islamic extremism to corruption.

Broadcast throughout Ramadan, the month-long soap opera "Qisset Hob," or "Love Story," has been praised by critics as a just portrayal of the rise of radical religious ideas — and of the internet — in everyday Egyptian life.

Its main character is Yassin (Syrian actor Gamal Suleiman), a clean-living, middle-aged headmaster who battles daily with corrupt teachers and troublesome students in his struggle to run a good school.

A serious professional who put his personal life on hold to care for younger siblings when his parents died, Yassin is drawn into romance after meeting the mother of one of his students at a parent-teacher event.

Dressed in a black gown and full-face veil when in public, Rahma (Egyptian actress Basma) portrays one of a number of increasing women to don the niqab in Egypt.

Rahma’s husband died under torture by police investigating his ties to Islamist groups, and she becomes increasingly worried as she watches her teenage son Abdel-Rahman walk in his father’s footsteps.

She first strikes up an email connection with Yassin to talk about her son’s progress at school, but the conversation soon grows to take on wider topics, pitting his liberal views against her more conservative ideas.

Their online relationship evolves tentatively, eventually blooming into a romance played out on the internet, until Yassin eventually proposes, without knowing what Rahma looks like behind her veil.

But the love relationship triggers a conflict between Yassin and his brother, a state security officer assigned to investigate Islamist groups in Egypt, who opposes their courtship.

That sub-plot sheds light on the heavy-handed police system in Egypt, where security authorities have wide powers under the country’s decades-old and much-criticized emergency law.

More broadly, Yassin’s family embodies a whole section of middle class society which is being pulled in different directions in modern-day Egypt.

He himself is a liberal, his brother is a state security officer, one sister is married to a physician who performs illegal abortions while a younger sister defies social conservatism by appearing in television ads in racy outfits.

And while the net gives Rahma space to communicate with her love interest away from society’s prying eyes; it also leads her son deeper into involvement with extremist groups via Islamist websites.

"The series manages to capture the conflicts within middle class society and how extremism is able to seep into everyday life through upbringing or bad institutions," television critic Ola Shafei told AFP.

Fellow critic Ashraf Bayoumi also said the drama "intelligently" showed that the lack of a solid educational system meant youngsters had to look elsewhere for role models and mentors.

"The drama highlights the dangers of extremism in schools and later in universities. Islamic extremist groups can easily step in where the educational system has failed," he said.

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