True to form, Ramadan soaps stir controversy

During Ramadan, Arab families fast during the day and... watch TV at night. This year's crop of Ramadan soap operas, or Musalsals, has stirred the usual controversy and kept the censors busy.
By Marlin Dick, Contributor
King Farouq was the undisputed jewel in the crown of the 2007 Musalsals.
King Farouq was the undisputed jewel in the crown of the 2007 Musalsals. © R.R.

Politics, censorship and controversy showed up as the usual suspects in the television musalsal industry during the first-run frenzy and peak viewing period of Ramadan, which ended this month.

Arabic-language cultural producers presented a diverse selection of topics, settings and themes in their 30-episode series (musalsals), which generated an equally diverse group of censorship commotions and debates over provocative issues, in both comedy and drama.

Receiving the red cards in 2007 - meaning they were banned altogether - were shows like Cry of a Female (Sarkhat Untha).

This Egyptian series about a transsexual (played by a woman) was too much for the state censorship board, which rejected it for airing during the holy month.

Sins Have their Cost (Lil-Khataya Thaman), from Kuwait, was touted as containing a negative take on the Shi‘i practice of short-term or temporary marriage. 

Kuwait banned the show from airing because of this divisive sectarian topic and Saudi-owned private station MBC respected the move, keeping it off the airwaves.

The producer of Sins told the media that the show’s various episodes actually deal with a whole range of social issues, under the heading of “misinterpreting religion.”

A red card also went to the Saudi Arabian show Musa’s Sisters (Akhawat Musa), which tackles problematic issues in the Kingdom: crime, rape, homosexuality, and sexual liberation.

In Syria, the writer of last year’s runaway hit, Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves (Ghazlan fi Ghabat Zi’ab), a dark and daring tale of high-level political corruption, found trouble testing his follow-up efforts as the state television authority rejected two of his shows.

Fu’ad Humayra
wrote Narrow Corridors (Mamarrat Dayyiqa), a gritty look at inmates in a women’s prison, but its broadcast was postponed for airing on Syrian television because the topic was considered too downbeat for family viewing during Ramadan.

There have been various promises to air these shows after the month of fasting, but time will tell if stations live up to their word, and whether changes will be introduced.

Meanwhile, no detailed official explanation was given for why Syria passed on Humayra’s Damascene Grapes (al-Husrum al-Shami), an 18th century portrayal of the capital based on the famous memoirs of a neighborhood barber.

Veteran director Haitham Haqqi was the show’s executive producer, on behalf of the Orbit satellite network.

He said the decision reflected official pressure against presenting any “downbeat” depictions of Damascus and Damascene society, while the feudal family of the time, the al-‘Azms, has descendants today who might object to seeing themselves in the role of the bad guys.

While Syria passed on the show, the Orbit network aired it on one of its subscription-only stations, meaning far fewer viewers than if broadcast on free satellite television.

As for the yellow cards handed out in 2007 - those shows that were censored -, Haqqi noted that another show produced by Orbit, Time of Fear (Zaman al-Khawf), was aired without changes on the private satellite network but was subjected to “silly,” “illogical” and “arbitrary” cuts on Syria’s state-run terrestrial station, on which it also aired.

He was referring to various instances of critical political and social content in Time of Fear, which follows a group of enthusiastic Syrian volunteers who fight in Beirut in 1982 and then experience a decline in their fortunes during the following decade.

Meanwhile, the state’s censors slightly modified Letters of Love and War (Rasa’il al-Hubb wal-Harb), by writer Rim Hanna and director Basil Khatib.

The series pushes the envelope by featuring central characters such as an exploitative Syrian intelligence officer.

Another is a young man who is jailed as a political prisoner in Syria on a trumped-up charge, but then escapes and goes to Beirut in 1982, becoming a journalist and supporter of the resistance to Israel.

“The (Syrian state) censorship committees had a difference of opinion about parts of the script,” Hanna said. “One insisted on changes, but the decision was kicked upstairs, and it was dealt with a bit more flexibly.”

“In the end, I see it as positive that the authorities finally agreed to air the show – this is the good point,” said Hanna of the experience, which saw pre-shooting modification of segments dealing with the work of intelligence officers.

Letters had the distinction of containing content that prompted more than one kind of cut, as Qatar’s state-owned station, which also aired the show, dropped some scenes of Israeli military aggression and torturing of detainees, although whether this was done to avoid upsetting viewers during Ramadan, or to avoid upsetting Washington, is anyone’s guess.

In any case, people might not want overtly political statements after iftar.

In Syria, the top show in 2007 was the second edition of The Quarter Gate (Bab al-Hara).

It is a standard “Old Damascus” musalsal, set during the French Mandate and heavy on things like quaint characters, exaggerated dialects, costumes, folklore, and claims of “authenticity.”

The series aired on MBC and enjoyed a huge following in Syria and the region.

But the many scenes of patriarchal men berating and threatening their women back in the “good old days” were too much for even the most conservative of viewers.

Shaykh Salah Kaftaro
, a Syrian religious scholar and the son of the late mufti, openly criticized the negative treatment of women in The Quarter Gate, although he also said that, overall, the show “did a service to Islam” for highlighting tradition and served as a successful response to globalization of the Hollywood variety.

A scene from the immensely popular Bab al-Hara.

A scene from the immensely popular Bab al-Hara, a standard "Old Damascus" Musalsal.

In Egypt, musalsal production bounced back in 2007 with several intriguing offerings after years of mediocre efforts, compared to the chances taken in the Syrian and pan-Arab markets.

Egypt offered a mini-boom of shows in which the male protagonist marries more than one woman (consecutively or not), as more than half a dozen series contained this theme or element, whether in dramas or comedies.

But instead of sparking debate about men who have more than one wife, the matter unexpectedly became one of women “marrying” too many husbands.

Clerics at al-Azhar used the Internet to publicize a fatwa from several years ago which advised against acting out marriage and divorce scenes in the arts because a saying of the Prophet Muhammad warns against joking in such matters.