|Egyptian actor Nour El Sherif, centre, plays a corrupt cabinet minister in Al-Daly [EPA]|
This Ramadan, television serials depicting sex, politics and war will be beamed into Arab living rooms, raising the stakes on contentious socio-political issues and risking a backlash.
The themes have, over the years, become more brazen.
In the Egyptian programme A Case of Public Opinion (Kadeyet Ray Aam), Yousra, an Egyptian actor and former sex symbol, plays a prominent university professor who is one of three women violently raped while returning home from work.
She and the women are immediately victimised – not only by the violent act but by a society unwilling, and perhaps unprepared, to hear out their trauma and angst.
But Yousra’s character overcomes the shame and shunning associated with rape and persistently pushes the horror of the crime – and subsequently, women’s role in a patriarchal community – to the fore.
Abier el-Barbary, a psychologist and member of a local women’s rights group, believes Ramadan is an ideal time to raise awareness of issues that are otherwise ignored.
She said: “Yousra is a guaranteed role model for many generations of women. She’s not a sex-symbol anymore and her western attire gives a message that she’s easier to approach.”
“To use her as an icon to spread a direly needed message is a great idea.”
|Yousra [right] was reportedly injured
while filming a controversial scene [EPA]
The show begins airing throughout the Middle East on the first day of Ramadan (September 13) but it has already stirred controversy, as Arab satellite talk shows and the press debate whether the depiction and discussion of violent sexual trauma has a place during Ramadan.
Arab media reported that Yousra was injured during filming of the much-anticipated rape scene, and that she had suffered “psychological trauma“. The reports left people speculating about the intensity of the scene and whether it will breach any taboos.
But the theme seems designed to go for the jugular. Many Egyptian women have stories, usually branded as “shameful“ and “embarrassing“, of public harassment and even outright sexual assault in public.
A recent statistical study carried out by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights revealed that 40 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment.
In October 2006, Wael Abbas, a human rights activist, captured video images of throngs of men pulling scarves off veiled women and ganging up on two or three women at a time in downtown Cairo.
One picture even showed a group of girls taking sanctuary in a downtown store, crowds of men waiting at the door as a number of police officers seemed unable to contain the pandemonium.
“It is important that a big star like Yousra adopts such an issue,“ Wael Abbas told Al Jazeera.
But some critics have questioned whether there is a government agenda behind A Case of Public Opinion and other shows similar in tone.
Sometimes these dramas are done to produce a desired calculated reaction in Arab and foreign circles [and] Ramadan shows are used as tools”
In recent years, Arab governments have endorsed the dramatisation of several issues, particularly terrorism, as a means to raise awareness.
After Saudi Arabia endured a rash of terror attacks, notably a November 2003 attack on a compound housing Arabs in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, regional production companies rolled out serials with a distinct anti-extremism message.
Abbas told Al Jazeera: “Sometimes these dramas are done to produce a desired calculated reaction in Arab and foreign circles. Ramadan shows are used as tools.“
Noha Maarouf, a Cairo-based social psychologist, agrees, saying that many Arabic dramas propagate the political agendas of local governments.
“Some hot topics are raised in drama to keep people talking. People will be preoccupied discussing Ramadan soap operas for the next six months.”
However, she believes Arab governments prefer controversy which could divert attention as cabinets are reshuffled and inflation soars.
“There is usually a sporadic reaction to these dramas and, even if people hate them, they serve as a good distraction,“ she told Al Jazeera.
“What would the government like more? If people criticise Ramadan television or [if they] criticise their policies and actions?“
Politics, corruption, and war
Nevertheless, Ramadan viewers this year will still get their share of political intrigue, cabinet betrayals, and the topic du jour – inheritance of power.
In the Egyptian-Syrian joint production King Farouk, the producers have promised a new reading of Egypt‘s monarchy set against post-World War I colonial occupation of Arab countries and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Abbas believes the choice to produce and air the serial is itself a political gambit.
“Today in Egypt we are passing through a stage where inheritance of power – not unlike the case when Egypt was a kingdom – is a likely scenario,” he told Al Jazeera.
Opposition parties have accused Hosni Mubarak, the 79-year-old president of Egypt, of grooming his son, rising politician Gamal Mubarak, to inherit the presidency.
Mohammed Abu-Seif, a director of Arabic serials, says independent production houses are giving Ramadan audiences exactly what they clamour for – contentious political issues and scandal.
“Politics rules the state that we live in now as we have reached a point of frustration where we have nothing but words to offer,“ he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a [situation] where both the rich and the poor suffer and so politics is present in every drama.“
In one such upcoming drama, Nour al-Sherif plays the character of Saad al-Daly, a crooked businessman-cum-cabinet minister who uses his position for personal wealth and latitude.
The drama, titled Al-Daly, unfolds between 1965 and 1997 and traces Egypt‘s history through a gamut of political events that include the 1967 war and resulting defeat, the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president.
Syrian TV revisits history
If you want to pass on certain information or wittingly avoid censorship, you can always escape to history
King Farouk and Al-Daly are the latest historical re-dramatisations based on a trend which vaulted Syrian productions into the limelight in recent years.
Since the late 1990s, Syrian serials, acclaimed for their historical themes and finger-in-the-eye satirical comedies, have slowly edged their Egyptian counterparts.
This has created often fierce rivalry as both countries vie for Arab audiences.
And this Ramadan is no different.
The 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon is a common plotline in at least two Syrian soap operas, while another two dramas recount the injustices of the Ottoman rule and the French occupation of Arab states.
Syrian producers are sticking with their formulae – revisiting bloody chapters in Arab history, ones riddled with tales of injustice and occupation.
“If you want to pass on certain information or wittingly avoid censorship, you can always escape to history,“ says Mona Wasef, a Syrian actor famous for her politically-charged roles.
“Sometimes you hide behind history when you want to present forbidden thought,“ she told Al Jazeera.
Abu-Seif agrees, adding that historical dramatisations are a serial writer’s best tactics to evade censorship and avoid having their material end up on the cutting room floor.
History versus reality
Whether these themes are a subdued reminder of a poignant Arab reality, Saad al-Qassem, the Damascus-based editor of Al-Fonoun (Arts) magazine, is unsure.
“Why do certain historical shows surface at certain times? Well, it could be an undertone of the contemporary state of politics,“ al-Qassem said.
He believes Arab audiences like to compare between the political status quo and the historical dramas to examine whether history repeats itself after all.
He said: “People in Syria are more attracted now to dramas that speak of past glories. It is not a surprise that under our current political climate people derive collective strength from their history.“