Soap operas: a Ramadan family favorite

People at Rawdah Cafe watch soap operas on large screens during Ramadan. (Photo by Mahmoud Kheir, The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: It’s the time for revolts and TV series in Arab countries. Widely popular during the month of Ramadan, this season’s TV series strive to mirror the state of political frenzy gripping large swathes of the Arab world.

During the holy month of fasting, many Arab families plan their time around television series or “musalsalat,” hailing from Egypt and Syria, but also from Lebanon and the Gulf.

As musalsalat have become dynamic sources of advertising revenues, TV channels compete to attract the largest number of viewers by showing and even producing top big-budget series.

The 2011 season, however, has been quite a peculiar one as the unrest in the Arab world and the global financial crisis have badly affected sales.

Pierre Abi Saab, an art critic and the editor of the arts and culture and media sections of the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar newspaper, argues that the state of “confusion” created by popular uprisings across the Arab world also had a considerable impact on drama production with regards to financing and storylines.

He added that the 2011 season will definitely constitute a “turning point” in Arabic drama production.

“Just as the picture in the Arab world remains blurry, the general trend in musalsalat this year is not quite clear either,” he says. “Some of the series attempted to convey the spirit of revolts but did not quite succeed.”

At least 90 series, catering to all tastes and expectations, are aired during the Ramadan season every year. Although in recent years more daring storylines have made their way into the production of musalsalat, one-dimensional traditional themes still attract a considerable portion of viewers and have yet to abandon the race.

While Egypt played a leading role in Arabic TV series production for several decades, Syria seems to have taken that mantle opting for more realistic scripts shot in real locations.

Lebanese drama, which significantly lags behind, has gained momentum this year with four series out this season, but Abi Saab explains that weak scripts are the main reason Lebanese series are not as popular as the Syrian or Egyptian ones.

Abi Saab says TV series have become an integral part of the Ramadan mood, the same way the hakawati – Arabic for storyteller – who recounted tales and myths, was the protagonist of Ramadan nights in times past.

“Ramadan has always been a time of the year closely linked to oral culture, storytelling and spectacles … we have to think of musalsalat as the hakawati of modern days,” Abi Saab said.

But Arab societies of the 21st century still yearn for a long-gone past and remain fond of stories of heroes and figures that marked their common history.

Thus, biographies have become a Ramadan tradition, with each season including at least two series from the genre. This year was the turn of Lebanese diva Sabah, whose eventful life was depicted in the series “Al-Shahroura,” and late renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in “Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab.”

“Arabs worship the past,” said Abi Saab. “They know that high-caliber intellectuals, politicians and artists no longer exist and the ideological debate that was taking place in the early 20th century is also missing so they escape to the past to compensate.”

Yet, critics and the audience seem to agree that this year’s biographies were a flop as they offered shallow depictions of their protagonists.

Several groups on Facebook called to stop the airing of Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab claiming it harms the memory of the late poet, and several lawsuits have been filed against Al-Shahroura for failing to give a genuine representation on Sabah’s life and works.

“The series on Mahmoud Darwish is a fiasco,” says Abi Saab. “Although it would be fairer to wait until the end of the season to judge it but the first couple of episodes revealed tremendous weaknesses.”

Abi Saab adds that scriptwriters borrow from the past to broadcast messages about what needs to be done to salvage modern day Arab societies.

A perfect example is Egyptian soap opera “Al-Shaware al-Khalfiah” (Behind the Scene Neighborhoods), co-starring Leila Elwi and Jamal Suleiman.

The series, which depicts the struggle of students and workers to gain their rights during the 1930s, has become widely popular among Egyptians for the parallelism drawn between Al-Shaware al-Khalfiah and the events of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Another example is big-budget Lebanese series “Al- Ghaliboun” (The Victorious), directed by Bassel al-Khatib and produced by Hezbollah- affiliated channel Al-Manar.

Al-Ghaliboun evokes the early days of resistance against Israel in south Lebanon, led at the time by one of the founding members of Hezbollah Sheikh Ragheb Harb.

Also, historical dramas, mainly ones depicting life in Damascene neighborhoods in the early 20th century, constitute another means of taking refuge in the past and have become hugely popular among Arab viewers despite advocating stereotypical and sexist themes.

Al-Zaim (The leader), starring Khaled Taja, Mona Wassef and Bassel Khayat, is among the most popular historical dramas this year.

The series’ main plot revolves around Damascene men’s struggle to elect a fair leader for their neighborhoods. It is co-directed by brothers Bassam and Maamun al-Malla, the creators of hit series Bab al-Hara which kept the eyes of Arabs plastered to the their TV screens for five consecutive seasons.

A historical drama that offers a less stereotypical and more analytical view on Damascene life during the last decade of Ottoman presence in the Levant is “Tali’ al-Fedda” starring Abbas al-Nouri and Salloum Haddad and directed by Seifeddine Sibai.

“Tali’ al-Fedda,” the name of a multi-confessional neighborhood in Damascus, thoroughly analyzes the dynamics of the relationship between the Syrian capital’s Jews, Christians and Muslims during the Ottoman era.

But Arabic drama this year is not completely drowned in the past. Several social dramas, whether Egyptian or Syrian, have succeeded in digging deep into the political and socio-economic woes of their societies as well as give blatant explanations as to why the chain of Arab revolts erupted.

In Egypt, “Al-Muwaten X” (Citizen X) directed by Othman Abu Laban , is based on the moving tale of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man allegedly killed by security forces in Alexandria and whose assassination contributed to growing discontent in the weeks leading up to the 2011 revolution.

Another series, which is winning accolades from critics and viewers alike is controversial Syrian director Racha Shorbatji’s “Al-Wilada Min al-Khasira,” (Birth in the Wrong Circumstances) starring Abed Fahd, Salloum Haddad, Qusay Khauli, Maxime Khalil and Sulaf Fawakherji.

The psychological series tells the stories of Raouf, a sadistic security official; Wassel, a masochist businessman who has a troubled relationship with his son Allam; and Jaber, whose living conditions have crushed all his hopes and dreams.

In Al-Wilada min Al-Khasira, Shorbatji who has been shunned for signing a petition calling on the Syrian military to spare their children of Deraa from further violence, faithfully scrutinizes the conditions that have led the Syrians to declare a merciless war on their government since mid-March.

Another popular series this season is “Jalasat Nisaiya” (Women Talk). Written by Amal Hanna with Nisrine Tafesh and Yara Sabri, it tackles problems faced by four Middle class women in Damascus.

Hit comedy series “Al-Khirbeh,” directed by Al-Laith Hajjo and starring renowned Syrian actors Dureid Lahham and Rashid Assaf, depicts the feud between the Bou Qaaqour and Bou Melha families to gain control in the imagined village of Al-Khirbeh in Syria’s Druze region of As-Suwayda.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 20, 2011, on page 14.




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