I decided to forge a new vice in lieu of drinking alcohol during the holy month. Instead of the booze, I would plunge into the festivities with the intention of watching several Ramadan TV series. Having grown up in the States, I missed out on decades of jingly commercials, Egyptian prank shows and melodramatic soap operas that 80 percent of Egyptians are said to watch during Ramadan.
Every year friends talk of Kito or Bisco Misr commercials, gag shows like “Al-Kamera al-Khafiya” (Hidden Camera), or Yousra’s role in the hit show “Raafat al-Hagan,” while I sit awkwardly, half-laughing but always missing the punch line.
So this year I chose to binge on nights of manic, depressing plot lines and diabolical characters, soaking in the omnipresent melodrama that fills the hours between fitar and sohour. I’d relish in scenes of men and women wailing and conniving their way through life.
And after nearly 140 hours of systematic TV consumption I have no illusions about the salacious content and commercialization of a month meant to uphold charity, empathy and self-control. Ramadan TV is, as they say in many of the shows, “over-awy” (over the top).
All I see is comically cheap productions filled with gender degradation, rape, prostitution, classism, corruption, and lots and lots of crying and drugs. In one scene, a young man snorts lines off what looks like a holy book, and there’s enough hash, booze, and pills to make even the most devout wonder about those substances. (Like when you watch a McDonalds ad, you can’t help but imagine the taste of the meat even if you’re vegetarian — and you may find yourself ordering it later that day).
The endless debauchery and vice on Egyptian TV during the Muslim holy month seems designed to terrify its audience into mass consumption as well as religious submission and societal obedience by means of horrid scenes depicting cruel consequences of such “sins.”
Almost every female character I’ve come across is a victim, prostitute, snob or sociopath.
I’ve persevered through the month’s junk, believing that there must be one or two valuable characters to meet along the way. In hopes of better understanding my Egyptianness, pop culture and the colorful space in between, I’ve been comparing some of this year’s leading actresses. Several colleagues who have regularly watched one or many shows over the past decade agreed that it would be fair to limit the “Best Actress” contestants to four nightly shows.
Each has been ranked out of six for her performance, but also for her character’s relationships with friends and family, career or level of independence, integrity and modus operandi. The leading actress is thus chosen both for her ability to act and for the value of her chosen character.
Name: Yousra Show: “Sarayaal-Abdeen” (Abdeen Palace, by Amr Arafa) Role: The khedive’s mom Real-life age: 59 Modus operandi: Being the khedive’s mom Favorite phrase: “Hathra-tona” (a grandiose way of saying “me”)
Yousra plays the role of Khedive Ismail’s mother in what we discover to be a fictional intervention into the story of his life and reign, with particular attention to her relationship with the khedive (Kosay Al Khouly).
The show has been criticized by many for fabricating history and not providing a disclaimer about this. A Facebook friend posted an agitated rant that pointed out that though the series takes place in 1860, Abdeen Palace was not built until 1872, Prince Fouad (the khedive’s son) was not born until 1868, and Quartz, the brand of clock in the palace, was not yet introduced; she also decried the decision to have the characters speaking Arabic in Turkish accents, and suggested that the show is a bad remake of the Turkish soap “Hareem al-Sultan.”
Despite many failed roles and Adel Emam face-offs, Yousra has one of the more respectable careers of the contestants. This might be due to her age, lucky timing with certain directors, like Youssef Chahine, and her incredible performance in Yousry Nasrallah’s “Mercedes.”
That said, I had to take Yousra out of the “Best Actress” running early on. It was too difficult to carry on watching her in that oversized wig tilted too far forward, and her robotic “Turkish” accent made it almost impossible for me to decipher her words. Her acting, as usual, was stiff, unbelievable, almost like a parody of someone trying to play a khedive’s mother. And the fact-bending was distorting my historical memory — every morning I’d wake with a fact-versus-fiction-hangover, which was no good.
Although the serial is said (by Daily News Egypt) to have had the second-largest production budget (LE55m) after “His Excellency” (LE65m), it wasn’t just the historical accuracy but the set design and costumes that felt cheap and absurd, like a school play starring weird old people. After only one week, I sadly let Yousra go. Watching her made me very uncomfortable because her lines didn’t make sense and she looked pretty scary. And the idea of an entire month being sober and scared was too much.Acting: 1 Character’s relationships: 1 Integrity: 1 Career: 1 Modus operandi: 1 TOTAL: 5/30
Name: Hend Sabry
Show: “EmbratoreyetMeen” (Empire of Who?, by Mariam Abou Ouf) Role: Westernized Egyptian mom and moralist Real-life age: 35 Modus operandi: Elitism Favorite phrase: “Balash kalam faregh” (stop saying nonsense)
Probably the newest of the four to TV is Hend Sabry in this modern, classist family comedy. It travels from the UK to Egypt, following Amina Mourad (Sabry) and her family back to a post-Mubarak Cairo after 13 years abroad. It chronologically depicts the family’s engagement with the revolution and the various events or social trends that followed it.
Director Mariam Abou Ouf unabashedly replicates the character types, directorial style and format of the successful US comedy “Modern Family,” although often failing miserably at it. Particularly uncomfortable moments involve segments in which Amina and her husband Samy sit on the family couch and talk to the camera, in an attempt to break down the fourth wall. It’s not that I mind the talking-to-the-camera approach, but the contrived nature of these couch confessionals which feature a drawn, cartoon-like window frame behind the actors.
But overall, the show is significantly less melodramatic than the others, which is a welcome after the sobbing scenes and frequent wife-beating found in 90 percent of this year’s line up.
And Sabry is not a bad actress. In fact she’s quite believable and not so difficult to watch.
Her character is also dressed the part of the Egyptian upper-class woman perfectly, and can even be spotted wearing last year’s “it-bag” by Egyptian design house Horreya. The family lives in a massive villa in Maadi, with a house decorated in Ikea. It’s all consciously targeting an upper-class audience.
Sabry’s character is inherently good. She’s a good mother, friendly neighbor and champion of the poor. The episodes usually follow her attempting to help those less fortunate or to propagate rational political thought, empathy and the new-found patriotism so many of us felt in the early days of 2011. In other words, jobless Amina and her family set out to educate their lowly Egyptian peers with their Westernized, upper-class educations and rationale.
The recreation of the political events, including the constitutional referendum in March 2011 and the arrival of the Morsi regime in 2012, is likewise patronizing. The show highlights Egyptians’ political naivety over the past three years, and instead of offering insights, it pats us all on the back for our cute, failed attempts at democratization.
“Embratoreyet Meen” is funny at times, with endearing moments and spurts of positive reinforcement, but the narrative is too moralistic, Amina’s character too banal, and worst of all, each episode ends in a condescending preachy tone.Acting: 3 Character’s relationships: 5 Integrity: 4 Career: 0.5 Modus operandi: 2.5 TOTAL: 15/30
Name: Ghada Abdel Razek
Show: “Al-SayedaAl-Oula” (The First Lady, by Mohamed Bekir) Role: The president’s power-hungry (second) wife Real-life age: Unknown Modus operandi: Sex is power Favorite phrase: “Maslahty” (my benefit)
In this contemporary political drama, “Al-Sayeda Al-Oula,” Ghada Abdel Razek plays Mariam, a manipulative woman who salivates at the sight of power and is willing to stop at nothing to realize her political ambitions. She double-crosses every close family member and friend, including her Islamist mother, trashy best friend, and president husband. Only her father is safe from her treachery, although in certain scenes it almost looks as though he’s in love with Mariam and not in a paternal way.
The story follows her as she runs away from her coastal town to the big city where she quickly meets presidential candidate Hasham al-Rayess (Mamdouh Abdel Alim). This average girl becomes the president’s wife and later runs the show from behind the curtain of his hospital bed after an assassination attempt leaves him in a coma. By the time he wakes up, she has wreaked enough havoc to destroy his career and the entire nation. Throughout, Mariam never hesitates to remind us that sex is power and that sexualizing situations is how she gets ahead.
Many viewers have speculated that the characters might be loosely based on deposed president Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne, who insisted on putting her name on almost every school house, hospital and governmental library in Egypt. With the exception of a few ludicrous outfits that a president’s wife would never wear (like a bubble skirt), Ghada does a believable job of performing Mariam’s character development from power-hungry young girl into dubious first lady. Her character also makes an impressive career for herself, but ultimately it seeks to show us that women can never again be in power in a post-Suzanne Egypt, because women are all conniving, over-sexualized sociopaths.Acting: 4 Character’s relationships: 1.5 Integrity: 1 Career: 5 Modus operandi: 1.5 TOTAL: 13/30
Name: Nelly Karim
Show: “Segnal-Nessa” (Women’s Prison, by Kamla Abu Zikry) Role: Prison warden turned prisoner Real-life age: 40 Modus operandi: Playing the victim Favorite phrase: “Irhamouny” (Please spare me)
Nelly Karim brings victimhood to a whole new level this Ramadan with her role as Ghalia. It’s hard to imagine that so many bad things can happen to a single person over a few years. First, her prison-warden mother dies. Ghalia takes over the post and spends her time stealing lingerie and curling irons from the inmates, while chasing probably the biggest deadbeat ever, Saber, in a series of pre-marital sexual encounters. After Saber coerces her into giving him her life’s savings to buy a microbus, he runs off with another woman, only to return to Ghalia empty-handed after his new wife dies. Ghalia is too weak to resist his totally un-charming ways — she takes him back with open arms and pockets, but then he stabs a man in her house and leaves her to take the rap.
Ghalia goes to jail but this time as a pregnant prisoner. In the meantime Saber has run off with her best friend, who conspired with him to frame Ghalia. Ghalia gives birth only to lose her child to illness a year later, while she remains behind bars, growing increasingly unstable.
Reminiscent of the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” which also follows several lives in a women’s prison, “Segn al-Nessa” is full of social commentary and critique. It takes drama to an entirely new level, with nearly nine out of 10 scenes involving hysterical crying, a man and woman beating each other, or a terrible crime. Particularly difficult scenes involve 1990s Egyptian pop star Ruby as Reda, who burns her employer’s daughter alive after being fired. (Were I also giving a supporting actress award, Ruby would be top of the list.)
The show has received some major backlash, even agitating the prison workers at northern Cairo’s Qanater prison to protest against the show’s directors, claiming it to be a false representation of their job and thus damaging their reputation.
But Nelly Karim does quite a remarkable job of portraying a digression into despair as a result of the evils in society and a poisonous punitive system. While this show is not nearly as good as last year’s series “Zaat,” an adaptation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s book of the same name, Karim comes out on top (by half a point) over her contemporaries by picking both a substantial role and portraying many valuable lessons: 1) Jail in Egypt is an awful endless cycle, no matter how friendly you are with the prison guards. 2) Don’t trust men who are clearly deadbeats. 3) Don’t mess with Ruby, or she will set you on fire. 4) Freedom is agency.Acting: 5 Character’s relationships: 2.5 Integrity: 3 Career: 2 Modus operandi: 3 TOTAL: 15.5/30