Egypt has a very long art history. The role of cultural production in this society and the respect given to it has shaped Egypt’s personality over hundreds — if not thousands — of years. Living on a massive stockpile of cultural details, Egyptians have responded in a distinctive way to world-changing events like new religions, mass migrations and colonialism. But in the last couple of decades, constant hollow bragging by officials and politicians about Egypt’s culture and its history has failed to cover up a big slump in culture-making.
For a really long time, it was a feudalist society in which only very few people — most of the time non-Egyptians — enjoyed the privilege of trying new out things in life, new stimulating sensations and thrills, while the majority were expected to only endure and get by.
Very shortly after the first Lumière brothers’ screening in Europe, as early as 1897 in fact, films were being screened in rich people’s restaurants and mansions in Cairo and Alexandria. It started as an elite-only pleasure, and the industry’s interest in Egypt was initially mainly as an exotic, charming filming location. But very soon, the country became one of the largest markets for film production and cinema-going, and it produced very early cinematic experiments that cared about how people lived and the hopes they had for themselves.
The experience places like Egypt, India or even the United States had with filmmaking and the entertainment industry is a good example of how art can provide a chance for social mobility. The fact that a movie star can rise all the way from the bottom of society to the peak of wealth and power is inspiring for many, and enables movies to infect us with hope. The fact that a bunch of people can, for two hours, be seated in identical seats in a dark room sharing feelings about what’s happening on a screen in front of them, regardless of class, religion or background, helps the gaps created by these differences get a little bit smaller.
Naturally, entertainment’s money-generating capacity has inspired some people to invest in other people’s dreams to make their own come true.
Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted Egypt to change, and a TV set in every house is a very effective way to make people believe they are. The Americans helped Nasser broadcast for the first time in 1960, after a couple of pushed-back deadlines because of the Tripartite Aggression, in which England, France and Israel attacked Egypt (that name is epic and exciting and would make a very good name for a TV series — the whole world was changing at that time, not only Egypt, and war names changed accordingly).
The television’s stimulating and sensationalizing powers were distributed all across Egypt. Everybody wanted a television, and entertainment morphed into something new. Before, there had been a long history of radio plays, preceded by a longer history of theater plays. Tharwat Abaza, who wrote the first-ever Egyptian TV series, “Harib min al-Ayam” (Fugitive of Time, 1962), wrote 40-odd radio plays before being given that opportunity.
Looking at how TV shows have evolved since doesn’t just reveal Egypt’s reaction to the way the world has changed and is still changing — it also says a lot about those changes, and in which direction they’re taking us.
The 1960s was a big moment for Egyptian television, and Egypt generally. It was the beginning of a new era, and the 1952 revolutionary discourse enjoyed as much power as it wanted — internally — to shape society the way it thought would work. Egypt’s sophisticated cultural scene and media production ability was paving the way for Nasserism across the Arab region, too. Even though television itself, as a rather capitalist invention, didn’t really fit in the socialist environment Nasser was hoping to create, Egyptians loved television, and Nasser himself moved his socialist speeches to it from the less-capitalist medium of radio.
Soap operas made in this time were extremely invested in literature, specifically novels, written a couple of decades earlier. The work of writers active in that period, like Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris and Ihsan Abdul Quddos, or similar works by writers strongly inspired by them, shaped the soaps’ storylines and characters. Directing styles and acting were theatrical and static. It was probably the dawn of the most kitsch directing trick ever, one that has since been mocked so many times: During a confrontation, two actors or actresses talk as one has their back to the other. Extreme symbolism, fatalism and moralistic preaching was thought to be soap operas’ role.
The vibrant theater scene had suddenly found better opportunities in television. Instead of this being a positive development, television was flooded with talent prepared for theater, and that influenced its character in those early years and many to follow. Indeed, theatrical taste and storytelling methods became a salient feature of Egyptian soap opera tradition, and arguably still is. Had there been more money in the country generally, people wouldn’t have had to switch careers just to follow the money.
Although there wasn’t much exposure to international culture, there was inevitable competition with American models of TV entertainment. Yet the meaning of adventure, thrills and exoticism for Egyptian viewers was very different from that enjoyed by American viewers. Their type of adventures reminded Egyptians of colonial pains that were still too fresh.
In this decade, the dilemma of art versus money faded, Egypt moved West and nobody seemed to have a plan. The country’s long filmmaking history was going through one of its worst periods. War and economic crisis were suffocating culture-making. The Soviet Union’s voice grew fainter, and a lot more Egyptians started to believe in money.
Soap operas made then reflected the period’s most prominent cultural struggle. We can say that this generation of culture makers were divided into two teams: Nasserists and anti-Nasserists.
Nasserists — like Osama Anwar Okasha and Ismael Abdel Hafez, who will become important later in this article — were starting their careers, careers that gained most of their importance from a focus on classism, the wealth gap and social shifts. They were a type of artist nourished on Nasser’s values and promises, which would disappear by the time they matured.
On the other side, Adel Imam, Egypt’s all-time biggest, most famous, most successful comedian, was starring in his splashiest TV hit, “Ahlam al-Fatta al-Taer” (The Flying Kid’s Dreams, 1978). Incredibly popular, it tells the adventurous story of a fugitive trying to fly away with a lot of loot. Imam, with his American denim jacket and Marlboro Reds, enjoyed being a megastar after many years of humiliating side-kick and supporting roles, during which he (this was also during Nasser’s time) slowly learned that this is a country that respects nothing but appearances.
In 1979, “Al-Ayam” (The Days), which told the life story of famous novelist Taha Hussein, and the success it generated also reminded some people that fantasy-world, consumeristic art like Imam’s wasn’t going to be enough in the face of how much misery there still was.
The state’s promises had proven hollow, and its ability to do what it wanted to do was getting smaller and smaller. The vacuum created in the official culture-making scene inspired more talents to find new sources of inspiration and ways to make things happen without waiting for government guidance or support. Yet state television remained the biggest soap-opera funder, meaning more restrictions, less money and, of course, more corruption.
In the 1980s, soap opera watching habits solidified as a large-scale seasonal Ramadan production routine began to take itself more seriously. Osama Anwar Okasha and Ismael Abdel Hafez made the first season of their most important collaboration, “Layali al-Helmeya” (Helmeya Nights), in 1987, after a series of successful works had gradually paved the way for their monopoly over first-rate TV series.
“Layali al-Helmeya” is a show almost everybody alive during this period either saw, heard of, or at least became familiar with the distinctive music of its opening credits. It tells a story of social changes in Egypt from the early 19th century up to the 1990s through an anatomical panorama of characters living in the historical alley of Helmiya. A tale of class, political and cultural shifts told in an epic style, it invested as much as it could in giving itself a strong connection to what’s considered highbrow, sophisticated Egyptian literature, yet managed to be a very popular show that appealed to all sorts of audiences.
Each character in its gigantic cast was designed — in terms of script and visuals — in a very symbolic way to represent an Egyptian “type,” all weaved together through mini-plotlines reflecting a struggle or dream. It was an entrance for many actors who went on to successful TV careers, including Yahya al-Fakharany, Salah al-Saadany, Mamdouh Abdel Aleem, Athar al-Hakim and Hesham Seleem.
Much work was put into the show to deliver the aesthetics of each historical period it covered. Poor — of course — solutions were found for sets, costumes and so on, but for the time and resources available it was a massive thing. The industry was still stuck in the ruins of socialist plans for mass media-making, and shows like “Layali al-Helmeya” and “Al-Shahd w al-Domowa” (Honey and Tears, 1985) struggled to get something out of these challenges.
If you’re wondering what Adel Imam was doing, having achieved his American dreams with the flying kid, the 1980s was when he learned to play with the big guys. In 1980, he starred in “Domowa fi Oyoun Waqiha” (Tears in Shameless Eyes), in which he glorified the military’s heroism through adventurous spy stuff against Israel. Seven years later, Mahmoud Abdul Aziz would also make another such story, “Raafat al-Hagan.” Money didn’t seem to be so much of an issue in shows like these. I wonder why.
The state television monopoly was wearing out as investors put money into production, mostly Gulfie businessmen and some Egyptian adventurers. Production doubled a couple of times, and people started complaining for the first time that there seemed to be too many soap operas to watch during Ramadan. More people owned satellites, and watching habits changed as we were exposed to more diverse types of shows, both Arab and international. Numerous successful American TV shows became super popular, like “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Knots Landing” and “Hercules.” This exposure inspired Egyptian TV makers to take a new direction, encouraged by the new money being pumped into the industry.
The current relationship between the ad industry and soap operas began shaping itself. Soap opera topics focused more on the interests of the investor or even sponsor. Older shows still either reran or churned out more seasons with the same casts and stories, but they competed with new writers and directors with new ideas and realities.
In 1995, Nour al-Sherif starred in his famous “Lan Aaeesh fi Gilbab Aby” (I Won’t Live in my Father’s Galabiya), a story of a poor man who finds his way from the bottom of Cairo’s junk trade all the way up to business tycoonhood. The story, from an Abdul Quddus novel, found great reception at a time when so many people wanted to believe getting rich was possible, even through trading junk.
In the 1980s, there had been a wide social discussion around sudden social shifts caused by neoliberal policies. Movies like Al-Baih al-Bawab (Mr. Doorman, 1987), Ahl al-Qimma (The People of the Top, 1981) and Al-Baida wal-Haggar (The Egg and the Stone, 1990) told the story of the new self-made nouveau riche class and the culture it created with money. The image of a person who climbed up to squeeze himself in among the genuine bourgeois had always been negative, but with works like “Lan Aaeesh fi Gilbab Aby,” this was changing. People loved how Abdel Ghafoor al-Boraay struggled all the way up the classes until he managed to send his son to the American University in Cairo.
Of course, the show then found itself confronted with complicated questions about class authenticity and belonging, and it delivered straightforward answers to them. These answers were a bit problematic. The AUC kid ends up falling in love with an American girl who comes to Egypt and lives with his family, and gradually gets fed up by their backwardness. It reflected a problematic relationship Egypt was being dragged into with modernity, power and the Other in general, in this case embodied by America.
Egypt’s plan for social equality or path for social mobility was actually as simple as in this show: If you have no money, it’s your fault — go sell some garbage and be clever like Boraay. It’s a plan that can collapse very quickly.
Everything was getting out of control. Hosni Mubarak was getting old, and so was Gamal Mubarak. Businessmen were getting stronger, the army getting weaker, and nobody had any idea what was going on in the country’s brain. Islamism grew rapidly, benefiting from the government’s neglect of the masses of poor people and their headaches. Entertainment became a necessity more than ever, as people didn’t really know anymore who they were or what values they should use to makes sense out of what was happening in their lives. TV channels were opening every day, and the government was in need of every tax penny anybody could pay, if they could ever manage to pick it up.
Sitcoms appeared for the first time as a magical, golden-egg-laying chicken. Their short length and simple storylines that don’t really need much engagement made them an easy meal to digest in the middle of Ramadan’s horrific eating challenges. Ads were now taking up most of the valuable broadcasting hours and the aesthetics of shooting developed quickly. More and more skilled artists and crew members were moving back and forth between the ad industry, video clip production, cinema and television, and most hadn’t studied cinema or anything culture related. The outcome was a bit scattershot, but liberated from the prehistoric official understanding of art education.
“Tamer w Shawkiya” (Tamer and Shawkiya, 2006) boomed. It’s a show about a lawyer from a very rich family who falls in love with a poor teacher from a working-class neighborhood, and the funny situations that occur as the two very different families interact. The class clash was getting to the point where it was ridiculous how differently people live in Egypt, and the show launched a new genre while delivering another bunch of superstars to the market.
Among the big financial alliances behind this show were two very important names: Sherif Arafa — the famous film director who’s been active since the early 1980s and made some of Adel Imam’s most important movies, as well as a couple of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party propaganda videos — and Tarek Nour, Egypt’s ad industry pioneer and one of its most important influences. Nour’s ad agency was in charge of Mubarak’s first election campaign in 2005, in which they tried to present a more modern, democratic and cool version of Mubarak as a president running for president against people who all knew he was going to be president (there was a picture of him wearing a shirt without a jacket). It was pretty obvious that the regime had surrendered to capitalism and given its neck to the businessmen. But contrary to what many thought at the moment, the direction Egypt would go in and how power would be distributed wasn’t all in the Mubaraks’ hands.
Turkish drama invaded the market in 2006 with “Nour,” an Arabic-dubbed version of “Gümüş.” “Nour” revealed Egypt’s sexual frustration. The people in the show looked good, and so did everything else. A newly formed class of satellite-city executives’ families found it inspirational for a shinier lifestyle than their parents’. For lots of people with no money or hope, it was mind-numbing to watch all those fancy cars and houses and glamor and nothing else. People who watched the show — you know them when you see them — say that it’s very well written and the drama is pretty captivating, so you have that. It demonstrates a Turkish exercise of soft power over the Arab region that suits certain economic ambitions. Funny how similar this sounds to the 1960s in Egypt.
The 2000s was also the period when every year, there had to be a show about a thug in a slum doing thug stuff. Among the hundreds of shows every Ramadan, flipping between channels to see this collage of fancy mansions, slum stuff, fancy cars, fancy kitchens, thug saber fights and fancy hair is confusing. It’s not the job of TV shows to solve society’s problems, but shows where kitchens only get fancier and sabers only get bigger might indicate the existence of some trouble. What’s happened in Egypt since 2011 strongly suggests that more balance is needed between kitchen fanciness and saber size.
Soap operas have always been and will always be about things that people are worried about. After writing this brief history of famous Egyptian soap operas, I can’t but notice that class is an issue we’ve always been preoccupied with. The fact that since the 1960s almost all successful shows have revolved around the topic of poverty, wealth and the huge gap between them is a signal that is not easy to ignore.
At the moment, Egypt is living through a period in which the media is used excessively to influence the way people think, just like in any other democracy (just kidding). President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s epic image was mostly created through television, with help from lots of artists, intellectuals, businessmen and everybody else who wanted the Muslim Brotherhood out. The scene is changing now, and people are starting to care about their own interests. A new division of shares between the military’s financial empire and the businessmen isn’t an easy deal to close.
Last May, during the presidential elections, everybody expected the usual circus of extravagant demonstration of support for Sisi that started on June 30, 2013. But, cleverly, while keeping their clear total faith in Sisi, almost all TV presenters performed a synced disappointment in the poll results. The elections got extended for a day to make sure more people would vote for Sisi than they had done for Morsi. Many people saw that as a slight shoulder charge from the media to remind him how much influence they have on the people. Compared to the state’s classic media machine that no one believes anymore, the privately owned outlets seem to want the state to know that they’ll have to run the business the way business is run — another capitalistic battle with old military tactics struggling to survive.
In 2010, the TV series “Al-Gamaa” (The Group) aired. It did as much as it could to demonize the Brotherhood’s image, and had great financial, political and even logistic support from the government. A few months later, Mubarak was ousted! So keeping a close eye on what kind of politics the TV shows have to say this Ramadan might afford us an insight into who might soon need to leave the scene.