“Don’t bother yourself with the truth,” says Sabreen’s Halima al-Kabsh to her son, Abbas Youness (Mohamed al-Sharnouby). “Our creator alone knows the truth.”
If one line of dialogue could sum up the essence of this Ramadan’s TV series “Afrah al-Qobba” (Wedding Song), as well as the 1981 Naguib Mahfouz novel it was adapted from, this piece of advice from Halima to her son would be it.
“Afrah al-Qobba” is the story of several individuals whose lives are inextricably linked by the place where they work, a theater in downtown Cairo’s Emad Eddin Street in the 1970s. It captures the intricacies of their relationships as they unfold on stage and in reality, between the theater and an old two-story house in nearby Bab al-Shaareya.
Mahfouz’s novel, structured to tell the same story in four contrasting chapters, each from the point of view of one main character, weaves a web of uncertainty and disappointment through its unreliable narrators. The author revisits common incidents and recounts them through the eyes of each protagonist, allowing a different view of the events every time.
The series (directed by Mohamed Yassine and scripted by Mohamed Amin Rady and Nashwa Zayed) tries to follow suit, but mostly fails. Some scenes are repeated exactly as they are, with no apparent modifications, making some episodes irritatingly redundant, while other scenes are shown with major changes. It is never clear which character’s perspective each version is supposed to be from, which defies the purpose of this multi-perspective mode of narration, turning it into little more than a gimmick.
This isn’t the only aspect where the series distorts the novel’s evocative appeal. In the novel, the main characters are Tariq Ramadan, a bitter secondary actor in the theater troupe, Karam Youness, the troupe’s prompter, Halima al-Kabsh, Karam’s wife, and Abbas Youness, their son. Tahiya, the love interest of both Tariq and Abbas, is barely present; she is rather a very potent absence. The novel takes place at a particular moment in a fictional present, with minimal flashbacks.
In the series, meanwhile, the flashbacks are heavily expanded to include often unnecessary backstories for every character, many characters are added — most notably Tahiya’s mother, father and sisters, who are all nonexistent in the book — and the love story between Tariq (Eyad Nassar) and Tahiya (Mona Zaki) takes center-stage, and is moreover highly idealized.
It is of course acceptable to make changes to a work of art when adapting it to another medium, and in the case of “Afrah al-Qobba,” those massive alterations could have worked had they played into the main conflict of the story, serving the spirit of the narrative. However, while Mahfouz’s text is sharp and precise, the screenplay — reasonably solid during the first few episodes — becomes increasingly unfocused, almost tattered. Because of the manifold and divergent storylines, the conflict is diluted, and we lose the essence of it all: the threads multiply, and in the end nothing ties them together.
Worse, the moral implications of the struggle change, which becomes problematic. In both the novel and the series, Karam and Halima’s marriage is rife with tension — but in the novel this tension is multi-layered, and in the series it is one-dimensional. In the novel, Karam’s problem with Halima is that she acts like a devout person, berating him for his opium addiction, when her own past is not devoid of sin — he sees her as a hypocrite, while he views himself, the son of a woman proclaimed a whore by the neighborhood, as an honest man, content with the reality of who he is. In the sheer loudness of the spectacle that is the series, however, such nuance dissolves and disappears. Karam seems to simply resent Halima because he knows that long ago, before she got married to him, she slept with the theater’s manager (Jamal Soleiman), and because he suspects at some point that she has done it again, he morally condemns her for having extramarital sex.
“Afrah al-Qobba” is a story about the impossibility of truth, but it is also about prejudice: What happens when people judge one another based on a series of misunderstandings, and act accordingly? Halima, disillusioned with what she views as the decaying morals of her husband — the opium, the gambling he insists takes place in their house to bring in extra income — raises her son to “be an angel,” teaching him he is better, purer than all his surroundings. The result is a deeply disturbed boy who grows up to be a coward in the book and a psychopath in the series.
Believing he is morally superior to his family and powerless to change their lifestyle because of his young age, Abbas feeds on the quiet, seething anger that grows within him, fantasizing about the day he can escape. Tahiya, trapped in an abusive relationship with Tariq, gives him a chance to be a savior, and so he marries her. Does he kill her? It doesn’t matter; he probably wants to anyway — in the book because he views himself as an agent of virtue and art, too precious to be tied down to earthly burdens like a wife and a child, and in the series because she never gets over her old lover, Tariq, and so becomes “one of them.”
In both cases, Abbas’s only redeeming quality is his devotion to his art, his love of the theater — and yet, in his first, and probably only, successful work, he manages to betray and disgrace his family. With Tahiya’s death, art had become his only chance at catharsis through portraying reality as he sees it — his father as a miserable addict, his mother as a whore, their house as a brothel — but inevitably altering it in the process.
The series uses Abbas’s play as a framing device for its flashbacks, which is very effective at times, not only because it anchors the viewer but also because it furthers the question of the truth, extending it to include the divide between fiction and reality. The flashbacks, however, start to become inconsistent. There are certain incidents, between Tahiya and her family for instance, that Abbas could not have witnessed, so we can’t be seeing them through his play. In addition, some flashbacks take place in the form of monologues where the character directly addresses the audience, which also doesn’t make sense in the context of how the story is being told. Because of such irregularities in the screenplay, the nonlinear narration doesn’t strengthen the story, but does it a disservice.
Even the series’ undeniable assets are often used to a disadvantage. The exquisite soundtrack by Hesham Nazih — poignantly tender at times, frantically tense at others — plays incessantly. It is in the background of so many scenes that it often becomes an intrusive nuisance, losing its haunting effect. The attention to detail apparent in the production design and set decoration gives way to distracting excess when coupled with oversaturated color grading and the almost ceremonial movement of the camera.
It is probably thanks to a number of exceptional acting performances that “Afrah al-Qobba” was one of the most popular series this Ramadan. The obvious example is Sabreen, whose portrayal of Halima al-Kabsh perfectly captures the evolution of the character, from wide-eyed innocence to tentative disappointment to staggering heartbreak.
Yet to me, the characters of Um Hani and Am Borgol (Salwa Othman and Sami Maghawri, respectively) stand out even more, because unlike Halima, who — along with the other main characters — is already a rich, vibrant presence in the book, providing the writers and the actors with a ready source of inspiration, both Um Hani and Am Borgol are pretty marginal in the original text, their names mentioned almost in passing. Yet both characters come to full, pulsating life in the series, in fact creating some of its most remarkable moments, which — in a story where two of the protagonists are struggling supporting actors — seems quite satisfyingly fitting.