Small Screen, Big Issues

It’s Ramadan (the holy month in which Muslims fast from sunset to sundown), which means that in Cairo traffic is terrible, tempers are short, and everyone is home at about 5:20pm having the first family meal of the day. After eating, people tend to indulge in another holiday tradition: watching Ramadan soap operas. These are 30-episode TV serials produced especially for the holiday and its captive, digesting audiences. About a hundred were made this year (each serial has 30 episodes, one per night of Ramadan), and almost every major Egyptian star acted in one.

The two main countries that produce these shows (and the two fiercest competitors) are Egypt and Syria, followed by Gulf and North African countries. The serials are bought by local and satellite TV channels, and broadcast across the Middle East. In Egypt, competition for the top time slots (just after iftar, the meal that breaks the fast) and the big advertising money that comes with them, is intense. Most of the shows are fluff, but a few offer interesting insights into what’s on people’s minds in the Middle East. This year, for example, there are shows about Saudi terrorism, an Egyptian secret agent in Israel, and US prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.

With these soap operas reaching an audience of millions, it’s no surprise that they are produced by public companies and subject to censorship. Showing characters drinking, smoking, or in sexual situations is discouraged. As far as the plotlines themselves, the majority of soaps play it safe by either dealing with family and romantic entanglements or with historical dramas.

This year in Cairo, the Ministry of Culture tightened deadlines on soaps, saying they all had to be fully produced before Ramadan started. This is clearly intended to help the 70 or so censors that review the shows. It used to be the case that a soap would start airing before all its episodes had been filmed or edited. This gave the director leverage when his series was censored: he could threaten to stop filming if the censors didn’t back off.

In addition to being censored, most soap operas are poorly produced and poorly written. The lighting is bad, the sets and costumes are tacky, the dialogue is melodramatic. As one Egyptian friend of mine says, “It’s so fake.” This is changing slightly, with the advent of satellite channels and the broader access they grant, and the output of more polished, private production companies.

Egypt used to have a monopoly on the production of soap operas: their popularity across the Arab world is one of the reasons everyone understands the Egyptian dialect. The Egyptian entertainment industry is in deep denial about this, but the truth is their ascendant is over. Now, like almost everything else in the country, this industry is bogged down by governmental control, censorship, nepotism, corruption, and an aversion to new ideas and talent.

Yet despite such hurdles, a few Ramadan soap operas still manage to cause a ruckus every year, because they address serious political and social issues. There have been soap operas that tackled rape, domestic abuse, espionage, and terrorism. The soaps and the controversies surrounding them can be both depressing and uplifting, showing both reactionary and progressive forces at work.

Three years ago, for example, a Syrian soap called Rider without a Horse lent credence to the Protocols of Zion (an anti-Semetic forgery out of Tsarist Russia that posits a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world). This caused enormous indignation in Israel and the US, but Arab countries went ahead and aired it, anyway. Of course, the show is insulting and embarrassing, but the overall question it raises is how anti-Semitism has spread in the Middle East, caused in great part by and amalgamated into hostility towards Israel.

Then last year, a show called The Road to Kabul, about the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1990s, displeased both the US and Islamist groups by portraying their connections to each other. Stations eventually stopped airing the show after they reportedly received threats from Islamist groups. There was a good deal of indignation on the part of public intellectuals over the stations caving in so easily, and some speculation that they were happy to have an excuse to drop a troubling show.

Also last year, the lovely and unfortunate Egyptian actress Leila Elwi had her show, A Girl from Shubra, cancelled before it aired because of how it was said to deal with a Christian character. It’s unclear what “transgressions” Elwi’s character was guilty of, but censors were apparently afraid the show would offend the country’s Christian minority and strain sensitive sectarian relations. The Egyptian government and media maintain the myth that there are no sectarian tensions in the country, whereas Christian grievances are quick to appear, as shown by reaction to the film I Love Cinema (also starring Elwi), which supposedly cast a Christian family in an unfavourable light and prompted demonstrations in churches. (For more on this matter, see my article, “Screenwriter stirs up Christian controversy in Egypt” The Daily Star, 22 July 2004.)

This year, in what could be taken as a sign of the Arab world’s continuing preoccupation with Israel (and desire for vindication), Egypt produced a remake of a show about an Egyptian spy in Israel. The original show, Rafat Al Hagan — about a spy who led a double life in Israel — was enormously successful. Egyptians claim the show is based on the exploits of a real secret agent, whereas the Israelis deny that any such Egyptian 007 ever existed.

However that may be, the remake, entitled Agent 1001, wasn’t aired on any of the state-owned channels (which is why I haven’t been able to watch it). There has been speculation that in the end the show was deemed too controversial (Israeli watchdogs are quick to find evidence of anti-Semitism in the Arab media and pummel them for it, often through the US Congress). Now the show’s screenwriter has apparently filed a complaint with the Minister of Information against the Egyptian Television Network for not including it in the Ramadan line-up.

As mentioned, there have also been several series that dealt with terrorism over the years. In fact, according to one screenwriter Mohammed Amer (one of several screenwriters I spoke with for a series of articles on the subject), one of the most important things these Ramadan soap operas have done is encourage the public to condemn terrorism. This year for the first time, the Syrian show Hur Al Ayn (the title refers to the 72 virgins the Koran promises martyrs) features a suicide bombing in its storyline. It’s the story of the 2003 bombing of a residential complex in Saudi Arabia, told from the point of view of the victims.

Yet the most interesting Egyptian soap this year maybe be one called Places in the Heart. It tells the story of an Egyptian woman in post-9/11 America, who is falsely accused of murdering her American husband. The show addresses attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims in the US, and shows them as deeply prejudiced. The woman is shown standing trial (in a courthouse conspicuously bedecked with many American flags). In a voice-over, her lawyer says the American media is portraying her “in the most ugly manner, and not only her but her culture and country and religion.” In another scene, an American woman yells at her estranged Egyptian husband that she doesn’t want their child to become “a terrorist” like him.

While Places in the Heart caricatures some Americans, it also seems to carry a message of tolerance. I haven’t watched that many episodes, but the Egyptian lawyer has a Jewish colleague (with whom he has a heartfelt conversation about Israel) and there are plenty of people cast as helpful Americans.

Mohammed Hammad, another young screenwriter I talked with, told me that Places in the Heart was the best soap this year. he called it “brave”. Twenty percent of the show was filmed in the States. At least the team behind the show went to and saw with their own eyes the place and people they were talking about — which is more than can often be said for the usual representations of “others”, nowadays.