Girls gone wild, parties gone bad
 
 
هانيا في مسلسل تحت السيطرة
 

If asked to visualize an addict, many people would imagine a man. So I was pleased to find that the protagonists of this summer’s much-talked-about, much-loved Ramadan series, “Taht al-Saytara” (Under Control), were women. And for once, they weren’t just side characters, but the multifaceted focus of our attention in a show that had a well-written script.

The series was produced by the powerhouse El-Adl Group, which was also behind last year’s Ramadan hit “Segn al-Nessa” (Women’s Prison). Like “Taht al-Saytara,” that show also brought together scriptwriter Mariam Naoum and lead actress Nelly Karim, and was similarly praised for the way it dealt with social issues and put the spotlight on women’s stories. Given El-Adl Group’s vested interest in using the Ramadan serial format to tell complicated, difficult and under-represented stories, “Taht al-Saytara” was poised not just to become a breakaway success, but to embrace all the risks that come with portraying the realities of such a stigma-laden social issue.

As I watched the show, however, the way the three women addicts were represented didn’t sit right with me. I thought it was a shame – they could have done better; but at least we have addicts with three-dimensional characters for a change. I should be happy with that.

But the more I’ve thought about it since the show’s end, the more bothered I have become.

The way the show’s three women protagonists — Mariam, Hania and Injy — were depicted didn’t just make me uneasy because of how unconsciously tied up with sexism that depiction was, but also because of how it forms the understanding of addiction that the show offers us. While on the surface “Taht al-Saytara” promotes a view of addiction as a disease, the way that both plot and characters develop undermines this view.

I think we should hold a 30-episode series to a higher standard than “it’s not stereotypical — the addicts aren’t presented as villains, so it must be good.” A multi-million pound show like “Taht al-Saytara,” which had invested the time and effort to research addiction and consult with Narcotics Anonymous (NA), had the opportunity to do better.

The show might “just” be a Ramadan serial, and there are limitations as to the nuance and complexity that kind of cultural vehicle can offer, but the enormous response to the series shows the profound impact this cultural form has on millions of people. Any form of media inherently serves to provide a range of experiences, in ways that can either enrich or constrain empathy, alienate or bring us closer together, provoke shame or give us the relief of recognition.

That is clearly what “Taht al-Saytara” sought to do. But if before you watched the show, you thought that drug addicts were selfish people and that women addicts in particular were loose women, or if you thought that addiction was caused by drugs, you’d probably still think the same afterward.

Good girls and bad girls

Any narrative about getting clean has to differentiate between what a character is like when they are using, and what they are like when they are clean. For the women of “Taht al-Saytara,” there is an association between using drugs and being sexually loose, and conversely of being clean and being a respectable woman.

As it is a soap opera, there is quite a cast of characters whose lives intersect in multiple and surprising ways. There are six addict characters, all of whom are addicted to heroin and all of whom are upper-middle class — three men and three women, each in different stages of their drug use.

We meet the main protagonist, Mariam (Nelly Karim), when she has been clean for nine years, and she later relapses for a period of three weeks. A woman she used to use with, Injy, is still using, and it is to her that Mariam goes when she relapses.

Injy and Mariam in Taht al-Saytara

Injy and Mariam in Taht al-Saytara

We encounter 16-year-old Hania, meanwhile, as she starts experimenting with drugs other than hash for the first time with her new boyfriend, Ali. Hania meets Ali when she is in a nightclub with a group of friends, including her current boyfriend. Ali starts eyeing her across the dance floor and she responds by dancing suggestively.

Hania from Taht al-Saytara

Hania from Taht al-Saytara

Injy, who has apparently never tried to give up drugs and has been using for years, is married but sleeps with other men. Mariam is clean, and she is the good, married woman who becomes a doting mother. There is an implication, however, that when she was using she was more similar to the other women – she tells Hania she used to be like her, and she talks about breaking up with one boyfriend and getting with another. From early on, this pair of associations gets established: using drugs (the state we want to get away from) and sexual looseness, while abstinence (the desired state) is linked with sexual modesty and respectability.

The continual pointing to Hania’s sensuality is underlined in how she is contrasted with Ali’s sister, Radwa, who dresses modestly, is a supportive daughter, and is religious, even asking Ali if he thinks their uncle will go to hell because he was a hash smoker. She wants to marry Ali’s friend, Anis, after she graduates university, but Ali forbids it. Confused, Hania reminds Ali that they eloped. And then it slips out; he says, “My sister isn’t like you, Hania.”

Radwa in Taht al-Saytara

Radwa in Taht al-Saytara

Mariam is the fallen woman redeemed through motherhood and self-sacrifice. After nine years of being clean, she returns to Egypt with her husband Hatem, who does not know about her past. The unravelling of their relationship is a focal point of the first half of the series.

Mariam and Hatem in Taht al-Saytara

Mariam and Hatem in Taht al-Saytara

She almost relapses, but doesn’t. It is after Hatem leaves her and it becomes clear to Mariam that he is not coming back that she relapses. She finds out she is pregnant and then works herself through to recovery, propelled by the hope and joy that pregnancy has bestowed upon her. She is hopeful that when the child is born, Hatem will return to her, but their separation turns into divorce.

Mariam and Hatem in Taht al-Saytara

Mariam and Hatem in Taht al-Saytara

Whether through a voiceover of Mariam’s thoughts, or when she shares at NA meetings, we get a number of glimpses into her inner turmoil and pain. In one particularly moving moment, she talks in a meeting about always having to run to stay alive, but being so very tired of running. She is trapped. But she follows this up with looking forward to her baby and the possible return of Hatem, saying, “I began by being negative, but actually the glass is more than half-full.” Motherhood and wifehood function as positives that cancel out the pain and turmoil.

Motherhood as joyful, as an unmitigated good, is repeatedly spoken about as if it is natural and automatic. For instance, at the halfway house where Mariam goes after detoxing post- relapse, she talks to Hania about becoming a mother, although the teenager has recently experienced a pretty horrific miscarriage prompted by her continued drug use. This narrative fails to acknowledge that motherhood is not necessarily simple and good — and this is particularly true for women addicts, given the traumas that accompany addiction. Motherhood does not save a woman, whether from addiction, herself or those traumas.

Mariam tells Hania that she was just like her, but now being a mother has completed her. Hania insists to Mariam and to everyone else, most significantly to herself, that she is fine, she doesn’t want to quit. Actually, she has gone to the halfway house to escape a dealer who Ali owes large amounts of money to, not to get clean. When she runs away, Mariam chases her to her dealer’s house, and gets arrested alongside Hania and the dealer, missing a custody hearing for her daughter.

Hania sits between the two women in the prison cell — the dealer on her right, calling to God to protect her children as they have no one but her, and Mariam on her left, despairing that she is here, helpless to stop her child being taken away from her. It is sitting between these two mothers that Hania has a moment of epiphany — she feels bad that Mariam missed the hearing, and says it is the first time in her life that she has felt guilty for anything. She continues to use after this, but her first real attempt at abstinence is not long coming. It is sitting between two mothers, those givers of selfless love, that she realizes her selfishness for the first time.

So though we have a range of women characters, including other important characters in the show who are not addicts, they are essentially a familiar cast of good girls, girls gone bad and bad girls redeemed.

Addiction as the party gone wrong

I am not sure that the representation of women can be parcelled off from the understanding of addiction that the show offers us. Cultural products expend a lot of energy both regulating women, and using women to talk about other things – like how a daughter gone wild ends up representing a society going down the drain. The script is largely pre-written when it comes to the representation of women; the use of motherhood as a foil for the selfishness of the addict, for instance, strongly underscores that point. And by relating motherhood with selflessness and Hania’s impetus to give up drugs with guilt over her own selfishness, a clear subtext emerges that equates addiction with poor choices, and with lack of concern for others.

While the show is nuanced in its portrayal of addiction, this good/bad girl dynamic ends up undermining the otherwise good work that the series is trying to do. The issue isn’t only that this is sexist, but it makes us misunderstand addiction and prompts us to ask the wrong questions.

We can go back to Hania to understand how — she’s the one we see most closely at the start of her heavy drug use (and she is played magnificently by Jamila Awad, who makes her compelling as a character). Hania is young, smart and beautiful. She is 16, and she likes to have fun. When we meet her, she drinks and smokes hash.

Hania from Taht al-Saytara

Hania from Taht al-Saytara

A lot is made of Hania’s smartness. When, exasperated with their chattiness, the teacher asks Hania and her friends what she has been talking about, Hania answers right back almost without missing a beat. She says to her boyfriend, who is in the same class, that she not only likes to excel in her schoolwork, but when it comes to hash and sex as well. The scene caused quite a stir online, and it is easy to understand why. It encapsulates how there is something dangerous about her; she is the rebellious sexy teenager teetering between socially sanctioned success and going wild.

Hania dumps her boyfriend for Ali, a man who appears to be almost double her age. They are in love and, to begin, they are having a wild time. She runs away from home, taking all her mother’s jewelry with her, and she and Ali move in together, later marrying without the knowledge of either of their families. We watch this party turn into something ugly, something scary in which they are lost from each other and themselves.

The implication of the show, and the understanding that prevails in many conversations about it, is that drugs ruined Hania’s life. The rebellion went wrong. And indeed it was the question of freedom and social rebellion that dominated much of the online fascination with Hania and Ali’s relationship.

Hania and Ali from Taht al-Saytara

Hania and Ali from Taht al-Saytara

It’s a moralistic tale — it is as if had Hania not met Ali, had she not been out dancing in that provocative way, had she not been able to rebel against her mother so successfully, her life would be like that of her ex-boyfriend and old school-friends, and she would be studying law or medicine at university. Viewers used the show to talk about freedoms and social rebellion, and I would say the show prompted them to by presenting addiction for every single character (no matter their backstory) as a trajectory that goes from party to addiction.

This singular trajectory from party to addiction is underlined with the final episode. At the start, an NA old-timer relates how he began with wild partying and ended up losing everything before getting clean. Then at the end of that episode, Hania starts sharing in a meeting. The series closes with Hania in the early stages of recovery, and so with the hope that she would end up more like Mariam than Injy, the two potential women that the show appears to suggest Hania could become, depending on whether or not she continues to use.

Wait, addiction isn’t a party gone wrong?

Addiction is neither an escape from drudgery of daily life of the “lower classes,” which is a narrative we often see in popular media, nor a decadent party gone wrong among the “upper classes.” Drug use may be, but addiction is something else. Addiction is, among other things, an inexorable force within, something not reducible to either of these depictions. This is what NA is pointing to when it talks about addiction as a disease.

But “Taht al-Saytara” doesn’t distinguish between drug use and addiction. It is as if that is the inevitable trajectory if we let our young ones party, as if drugs themselves cause addiction, not any deeper underlying problem. Not only is this association of drugs and fun and addiction a conservative one – one presented by the show unwittingly, I think – but this is the opposite notion to the understanding of addiction as disease. If there had been a less dramatic depiction of a character who was using — for instance, a middle-aged married mother hooked to legally available prescriptions — that would have brought us away from stereotypical understandings and closer to unpacking what addiction actually is.

Many addicts suffer from mental health issues and severe depression. As we have been talking about women, we should note that a disproportionate number of women addicts have been sexually abused as children (and that is apart from the fact that women addicts are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence). It is as if there is less stigma about showing drug use and addiction than there is about acknowledging the reality of emotional and mental disorders.

It is not the case that if somebody stops partying – or is made to stop – they are saved from a life of addiction. They were probably just never going to be addicts. If we want to understand addiction — in an abstract sense, or whether it is because we know and love an addict, or we are unsure if our own drug use is problematic, or it is our line of work — we should understand that addiction itself has nothing to do with being free, or partying, or sexual looseness or social rebellion.

“Taht al-Saytara” thus ultimately reinforces traditional values. Even if it seemed to strive for authenticity, the show ended up providing a re-packaged version of a conservative moralistic tale, in which addiction (and all the traumas that come with it) is reduced to the byproduct of eschewing social norms. And thus the actual problem, the disease that is addiction, is still never really talked about. It remains as repressed as ever, allowed to silently linger within and outside the show, unidentified and unaddressed.

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Naira Antoun