In Egypt, Ramadan TV causes some real-life drama

As Ramadan drama series and talk-shows take over evening TV programming in Egypt this month, the religious and political backlash provides more than enough material for a real-life soap opera.
Ramadan Behiri Bana hosiny
Three characters from the real-life drama behind the TV programs. From left to right: Muslim cleric Jamal Al-Banna, actress Dalia Al-Bahari, and Muslim Brotherhood MP Saad Al-Huseini. R.R.

CAIRO, September 10, 2008 (MENASSAT) – There is much that goes unnoticed behind the scenes of the soap operas and dramatic series that are produced every season for Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month – issues that are often more strange than the love triangles and battle sequences portrayed in the soaps themselves.

These issues are often at the core of whether or not a drama series gets aired or not.

Take the Egyptian drama, The Day Has Passed, which portrayed the life of the main character, Jalal Arif, fictionalized to be one of the corrupt leaders responsible for Egypt's military defeat by Israel in the 1967 war.

The show's producers had to change the name of a character in the series, Sha’rawi Juma’a, because it happened to be also the name of an Interior Minister under former Egyptian president Jamal Abd El-Nasser. 

Although series writer Muhammad Amer has said that the characters are entirely fictional, it didn't stop producers from altering the character to avoid any real-world drama.

Or imagine a series based on the former Egyptian president Nasser being killed by programmers at Egypt's public TV station because it might cause too many comparisons with what is generally seen as a corrupt regime under the current president, Hosni Mubarrak.

Syrian director Bassil Al-Khatib has suggested this is what programmers did with his TV series Nasser, originally scheduled to be on Egyptian public TV.

Officially, sources told MENASSAT, the reason for killing the series had to do with the fact that the main actor for Nasser was not big enough to attract advertising, driving home the reality of commercial broadcasting.

Veteran Egyptian actor Mohammad Subhi said he would not work with Egyptian television again "until those in charge realize the artistic value of the work, and stop turning it into a commodity."

"Oil and butter ads have ruined Arabic drama," Subhi said.

Religious pressure

And then there is religion.

Last year, four series aired on public television in Egypt featuring lead actresses with veils. Sabreen, the lead actress in the series Al-Fanar, began wearing a veil some three years ago. But the series was canceled this season because, as the official version goes, Sabreen put a wig over the veil and a flimsy scarf on top of the wig.

Al-Fanar dealt with the lives of Egyptian families living in the Suez Canal region that witnessed two wars with Israel. Yet, it was the wig that stirred debate, angering more conservative viewers who commented to forums on line, asking, "Can a wig replace the veil since it covers the actresses' hair?” or, "Is it acceptable to show artificial hair?"

Art critic Tarek Al-Shinnawi said, "Sabreen's fans, pro or against the wig over the veil, would forget her wig because they want the ideas beyond the wig, or the veil."

But religion can olso be a factor of success in Egyptian television.

The controversial Islamic preacher Jamal Al-Banna, for example, is a frequent guest on many talk shows.

Al-Banna’s views have made headlines in the Egyptian newspapers for the past four years – from allowing die-hard smokers to light up during Ramadan to showing tolerance and acceptance for public kissing among unmarried couples.

Naturally, this has earned Al-Banna many enemies among conservative Muslims,

Nabih Al-Wahish, a lawyer, has pleaded with the Minister of Information and the CEO of Egytp's Dream channel, which features Al-Banna, to ban him from making TV appearances during Ramadan.

[Al-Banna's] Fatwas contradict the principle of Islam, and create confusion and contradict the spirit of the holy month of Ramadan," Al-Wahish said.

In fact, Al-Wahish is trying to get Al-Banna banned from TV altogether with a complaint based on the Egyptian constution, which makes defaming Islam a punishable offense.

At the same time, bland commercialism is allowed to creep into the holiest of rituals.

The televized daily call to prayer before the sunset Koran reading by the Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Jum'a – a widely watched segment as it signals the break of the fast – is being sponsored by a major chocolate company this year.

Muslim Brotherhood

Religious pressure has had some strange effects on TV programming, like when Ramadan series are censored because Koranic text has been mispronounced, or when characters are made to change their outfits because they too closely resemble those associated with the government's enemy number one, the Muslim Brotherhood.

And what of the Muslim Brotherhood itself?

They can also be counted on to add some real-life drama to the Ramadan TV season.

MP Saad Al-Huseini, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood block, has recently questioned the use of government funding to produce Ramadan programs that are anything but religious.

"I question those in charge of spending the money of millions of Egyptians on programs that waste their time and spoil their fasting," Al-Huseini said.

"I mean, why is the government throwing away millions of dollars on actresses and dancers when so many people can hardly afford to buy food for breaking their daily Ramadan fast – [instead] seeking charity from the rich in a month known for compassion and based on compassion for the poor?

“Why is Ramadan flooded with these lame programs, movies and series?”

Al-Huseini specified that Islam does not exclude entertainment for the people but only as long as it comes at the right time and within a proper frame of ethics and morals. And current Ramadan TV programming, according to Al-Huseini, does not provide such a frame.

Religion is not always to blame.

This year, Egyptian TV canceled the series A Girl Of These Times, about the lives of marginalized people in Egypt's shantytowns, because it was considered too racy for Ramadan.

The move has angered the show's leading actress, Dalia Al-Buheiri, especially since the series she starred in last year was also canned.

That particular series, A Female's Cry, told the story of a disturbed young man who undergoes a sex-change operation.