Every Ramadan is more or less the same. People are tired, traffic is bad. Every day at dusk, thankful families gather at home to break their day-long fast. And afterwards, they indulge in another holiday tradition: Ramadan soap operas. This year saw the usual glut of such entertainment, produced in time to take advantage of captive, digesting audiences. About a 100 of the 30-episode TV shows (one episode per night of Ramadan) were produced for the month-long holiday.
As usual, critics and audiences bemoaned the overall low quality of the Ramadan musalsalat (TV series). Egyptian productions—long the leaders in the field—came in for particularly heavy criticism. But every year there are a few shows that jump out as “controversial” or at the very least “serious.” This year, these happened to be shows about terrorism.
These programs certainly were more engaging and more thoughtful than most. But far from breaking the mould, they are part of a well-established tradition in which Arab governments use the medium of the Ramadan soap opera to educate the public about issues they deem important. Ramadan musalsalat, which reach audiences of millions in the Arab world, are monitored carefully by Middle Eastern authorities. The popular “terrorist” theme of this year’s musalsalat reflected an eagerness on the part of governments facing problems with Islamists to spread an anti-terrorism message.
One of the serials to get the most attention was the Syrian production Al Hawr Al Ayn(Maidens of Paradise). The title refers to the 72 virgins the Koran promises to martyrs and the series portrays the 2003 bombing of a residential complex in Saudi Arabia from the point of view of the victims. The real-life bombing led to 17 Arab deaths, including seven Lebanese, four Egyptians, two Saudis and two Sudanese. More than 122 were wounded.
Al Hawr Al Ayn focused on a number of families from across the Arab world (Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi, Lebanese, Jordanian and Moroccan) who the audience knew would fall victim to the attacks by the end of the series. The show juxtaposed detailed accounts of these families’ lives, relationships and troubles with sequences from camps in which rigid fundamentalists indoctrinated the young terrorists who later carried out the attacks. The story was narrated in flashbacks by a Syrian woman maimed in the fire, and focused in particular on a young Saudi man who was torn between the teachings of two different Sheikhs, one moderate and one militant.
Al Hawr Al Ayn was directed by the famous Syrian director Nagdat Anzour. One of the show’s three scriptwriters, Abdullah Al Otaybi, is a former member of Al Qaeda who repented and now educates the public about the dangers of extremism. The show provoked controversy in Saudi Arabia, where it was attacked in the press and especially on Islamist Web sites. Some imams reportedly warned the faithful against watching it. Islamists also petitioned the king to ban the show, to no avail. In fact, it appears the show’s scriptwriters benefited from the cooperation of Saudi authorities, as they were given access to archive documents and information from the actual 2003 investigation.
Because of the controversy, the Saudi satellite channel MBC, which aired the show, ended up releasing a statement, reading in part: “Our choice of this title from the Koran in no way aims to ridicule the Maidens of Paradise but rather to show how religion is diverted from its initial mission and [to show] that the attacks committed in its name are nothing other than acts of terrorism, which are prejudicial to it [religion].”
Another show, Tariq Al Waer (The Difficult Road), also dealt directly with terrorism. It revisited the fraught territory of last year’s cancelled Tariq Ila Kabul (The Road to Kabul), a show on mujahideen (religious warriors) in Afghanistan in the 1990s that managed to anger both the US government and Islamists and was subsequently taken off the air. Tariq Al Waer told the story of a journalist in Afghanistan who is at first supportive of and then disillusioned by the cause of the mujahideen. The Emirati show, written by Gamal Abu Hemdane and directed by Shawui al-Magri, aired exclusively on Abu Dhabi TV.
The Arab press complimented these shows for tackling serious issues, while the Western press featured several articles on the subject of their supposedly “surprising” choice of subject. Yet this is hardly the first time that musalsalat have tackled terrorism. In fact, according to Egyptian screenwriter Mohammed Amer, “One of the most important things soap operas have done is encourage the public to condemn terrorism.” Far from considering terrorism a “new” or cutting-edge topic, Amer and his colleagues in Egypt seem to consider the subject decidedly passé. Over the years, several Egyptian films, TV series and movies have in fact dealt with this subject. These include the 1997 film Al Irhabi (The Terrorist), the 1993 comedy Al Irhab wal Kebab (Terrorism and Kebab), as well as the famous 1993 musalsal Al Aileh (The Family). Al Aileh, by Wahid Hamid, dealt with terrorism by the militant group Gamaa Islamiya in Upper Egypt, and took three years to get by the censors. Nonetheless, it clearly had at least partial governmental support or it would never have been aired on Egyptian TV at all.
Musalsalat are produced with government cooperation and oversight (both in Egypt and Syria), and subjects that aren't government-approved rarely are broached. In fact, the synergy between Arab governments and the Arab media often can blur the line between entertainment and propaganda. In 2000, for example, Egyptian screenwriter Wahid Hamed was actually asked by Information Minister Sawfat Sherif to write a show promoting tolerance between Muslims and Christians. The result was the highly controversial Awan Al Ward (The Time of Flowers), in which Egyptian superstar Youssra played the daughter of a Christian woman and Muslim man who decided to raise their children Muslim. This particular project backfired. Far from promoting “national unity” as Sherif and Hamed had hoped, it incensed Christian (and to a lesser extent Muslim) authorities with remarks such as, “We need a third religion: love.”
Despite the failure of some such government-supported endeavours, the point remains that Arab governments, who retain almost complete control over the subject of Ramadan soap operas, only allow screenwriters to broach such “controversial’ subjects as they deem necessary. It was no coincidence that a show such as Al Aileh was allowed to be aired in the early ’90s, at a time when the Egyptian government was waging a full-scale battle against terrorist groups in Upper Egypt.
Similarly, it is understandable that nowadays Syria is the country producing a show like Al Hawr Al Ayn that condemns terrorists, and that a Saudi channel is airing it. The Syrian government is one of the most secular in the region. In 1982, Syrian authorities ruthlessly crushed an Islamist rebellion in the town of Hama, and ever since, they have been overtly hostile to all Islamist groups. The Saudi government, on the other hand, has been taking pains to condemn extremism and terrorism, ever since a string of terrorist attacks took place on Saudi soil in the last few years. As Wahid Hamed, the screenwriter of Al Aileh, told the Christian Science Monitor recently, Saudi channels never considered airing his show when it was produced in 1993. But in the last few years it has been aired often, he says.
Egyptian, Syrian and Saudi media have each, at different times, resorted to similar depictions of terrorists as either tragically misguided, hateful, ignorant or simply ridiculous. Another popular Saudi Ramadan comedy, Tash Ma Tash (Whatever Comes Comes), regularly portrays Islamists as ignorant fanatics and bumbling idiots, leading Islamist groups to send death threats to the show’s producers. One episode that particularly irkedIslamists portrayed the arguments within a small Saudi village when some villagers wanted to install electricity and paved roads. The conservative village sheikhs were shown as arguing against such modernization. One religious leader warned that the paved road would be like “a huge black snake coming from hell.”
But Arab governments’ willingness to talk about terrorism should not lead one to assume that Ramadan soap operas have the freedom to discuss other controversial subjects as well. Since most soap operas are produced by, or in cooperation with, government institutions (such as Egypt’s Media Production City), TV crews need to clear government censors to be allowed to film and to be aired on any of the government-controlled terrestrial and satellite channels. Even in the case of a show that is privately produced and aired on a privately owned satellite channel, governments still exercise all manner of pressures on directors, screenwriters, actors and producers. “The problem in Egypt is that production is governmental,” explains Mohammed Hammad, a young screenwriter. “There are no freedoms. There are no new subjects … Egypt does a lot of soap operas every year because there’s advertising and money to be made, [but] any new idea is rejected.”
In fact, censorship of soap operas actually appears to have increased lately, at least in Egypt. Last year, Minister of Information Minister Mamdou El Beltagui instituted a new High Drama Committee to oversee the selection of Ramadan soap operas to be aired on Egyptian terrestrial and satellite channels. This year, El Beltaqui’s successor Anas al-Fiqqi renamed the group the Committee to Choose Ramadan Productions. Showing characters drinking or in sexual situations has always been discouraged. This year, smoking was also blacklisted, but of course there are much more serious no-no’s. “We don’t live in a democratic society,” Egyptian screenwriter Bashir el-Diqq told TBS. “Because of this we have to be very cautious in our subjects. [Dealing directly with] politics and religion and sex is forbidden.”
Thus Leila Elwi’s Bint Min Shubra (Girl From Shubra), produced two years ago, has yet to be aired. The serial was banned because it allegedly had the potential to enflame sectarian tensions by telling the story of a Christian woman who falls in love with a Muslim. This year, it was the turn of Al Mansouria, which was banned from all Egyptian TV channels for the bizarre reason that, according to the council, “the director did not accurately reflect the spirit of the writing.” The writer, Faiz Ghali, didn’t agree, but this didn’t matter, because the real problem was the show’s main subject, corruption. The makers of Al Mansouria filed a complaint with the Egyptian Ministry of Information, to no avail. “The real reason it was banned,” says Egyptian film and TV critic Magdi Tayyeb, “was that it exposes the corruption of businessmen and the security apparatus and other classes such as doctors.” Apparently corruption, rather than terrorism, is a truly explosive subject on Egyptian TV.
In fact, so are almost all other substantive social and political issues. As TV and film director Khairi Beshara noted, “Most serials are commercial. They don’t take a deep look at political or social issues.” Instead, the majority play it safe and deal with family and personal relationships, like this year’s hit Sara, starring Hanan Turk in a Cinderella story about a girl who is mentally retarded due to a childhood trauma . Or the Youssra vehicle Ahlam Aadiya(Ordinary Dreams) which occupied one of Egyptian TV’s prime-time slots with the story of a golden-hearted con artist in constant need of a new disguise. Otherwise, there are historical dramas that tend to highlight heroic figures and glorious moments in Middle Eastern history. Shows sometimes deal with foreign relations, notably the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they do so in ways that are palatable to the public and to ruling regimes, as in the case of the popular Rafat Al Hagan, a drama about a successful Egyptian spy in Israel.
Such uncontroversial, light fare may satisfy government censors, but it faces increasingly harsh criticism with audiences and critics. Soap operas in Egypt in particular are going through a real identity crisis as Egyptian soaps begin to lose ground to their Syrian rivals. “Egyptian TV drama becomes famous for its failure,” read a headline in the cultural newspaper Al Qahira of 1 November. “They sold out viewers to advertising agencies and those who commodify art,” added the subhead. In the last days of Ramadan, the popular Egyptian TV show Al Beit Beitak dedicated a show to analyzing and bemoaning “the problem with Egyptian musalsalat.” Unflattering comparisons frequently were drawn between Syrian shows such as Al Hawr Al Ayn and Egyptian offerings.
The Syrian superiority remains mainly one of execution rather than ideas. As argued above, their choice of subjects is not actually that innovative. But the feedback on shows such as Al Hawr Al Ayn shows that both Arab screenwriters and directors and Arab audiences are eager to tackle “serious” subjects. The reaction to this year’s dismal selection, in Egypt in particular, indicates that audiences are losing their patience with being force-fed irrelevant, mediocre dramas. The growth of satellite TV means they have more choices and are going to take advantage of them.
It is undoubtedly a good thing for Arab countries—especially Saudi Arabia—to support media that questions, criticizes and teases the most ridiculous and intransigent variations of Islam. But how effective such presentations will be with Arab audiences is another question. Long used to receiving government propaganda in one form or another, audiences may well wonder why none of the “anti-terrorism” shows hold governments themselves responsible, or address root problems of corruption, political stagnation or economic disparity. All these subjects remain resolutely taboo. Now if only Arab governments would let people talk about all “controversial” subjects—not just the ones it is in their interest to raise at the moment.