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No business like Ramadan business
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 07 - 2013

In the opening titles of the television series Le'bet Al-Mawt (Death Game), directed by Elith Heggo and starring the Lebanese actress Cyrine Abdel-Nour, we are told the work is “based on a foreign novel”. From the first episode, the viewer can effortlessly jump to the conclusion that the series is an adaptation of the Hollywood 1991 film Sleeping with the Enemy, starring Julia Roberts. The story was also made into an Egyptian film, Khalig Neama (Neama Bay), in 2007. Le'bet Al-Mout is about Naya (Abdel-Nour), a beautiful woman married to business tycoon, Assem (Abeid Fahd), and living in a gigantic house overlooking the sea in Lebanon. On the surface it looks like a happy marriage, but the truth is that Assem is an abusive husband, obsessively jealous and controlling. In the second episode Naya is taken to hospital after miscarrying due to a brutal beating, where she is told she will no longer be able to have children. All the details of the American film are unfalteringly reproduced, with strong acting from the main characters despite weaknesses in direction and storyline: the couple living by the sea; their neighbour, Jubran, has a boat; Naya is unable to face her fear of swimming, but leaving Assem (who will never divorce or let her go) depends on her training in secret. One day, while on their neighbour's boat with a number of people, Naya has a fight with Assem and her friends interfere; as Assem physically fends them off she jumps into the water. Everyone thinks she is dead, knowing that she cannot swim, but in fact she is faking suicide.
Naya, an architect by training, arrives at Cairo Airport elegantly dressed to be picked up by a driver from her new job, the large company owned by Karim (Maged Al-Masri); she is conveyed to her new company-owned house. It is never explained when or how she made that connection, but the viewer can engage with Naya's new life in Cairo — where, predictably enough, she falls in love with Karim — adjusting to the quick pace and the clichéd dialogue. In the meantime Naya's friends are moaning her suicide while Assem falls into clinical depression. One of Naya's friends is heading to Sharm El-Sheikh for a vacation with her husband, and it is of course expected that she will be shocked to see Naya — whom she thinks is dead — who just happens to travel there from Cairo to accompany Karim on business at the same time…
The second season of the actress Ghada Abdel-Razek's Ramadan hit, this year named Hekayet Hayah (The Tale of Hayah, whose name means “life”), has more or less the same cast as last year's Maa Sabk Al-Israr (Premeditation), both directed by Mohamed Sami. Aside from even more lavish residential décor than last year, this year includes a remarkable amount of verbal obscenity, prompting a warning in the opening titles. For 15 years Hayah (Abdel-Razek) has been in an expensive mental asylum where she is subjected to electroshock therapy and abuse by a male nurse. Thanks to the love of her psychiatrist Hisham (Tarek Lotfi), she manages finally to leave. In flashbacks the viewer gains insights into Hayah's story with her rich dysfunctional family before they had her committed. Hayah was married to Yehia (Khaled Selim), with whom she had a son, Adham (Ahmed Malek) while her husband was cheating on her with her sister Nada (Rogina) — who is constantly shouting throughout the series — while on the other hand her mother used to cheat on her father during his business trips. For some reason, after a fight between Hayah and her mother, the mother fell from the second floor of the house and died, and so Hayah was charged with killing her and confined. Afterwards Yehia marries Nada and Adham is raised as their son, while Hayah's share of the family fortune is appropriated by her brother Youssef (Ahmed Zaher).
Free of confinement, Hayah confronts her sister, setting off a relentless attempt the family to have Hayah confined again and take revenge on Hisham. She rents a house facing the family house the better to interact with Adham — who has a penchant for older women — with whom she starts an ambiguous relationship, hiding the fact that she is his mother. At one point, having failed to engage her sexually, Adham insults Hayah, telling her she picks men up from the balcony. Hisham has been brutally beaten and, while with him in hospital, Hayah is persuaded by the asylum director Salwa (Nahla Salama) to return to the asylum, but she manages to escape on the way there with help from a former inmate, Ekram (Razan Maghrabi), who spends time at the asylum on and off to avoid what seem to be prostitution charges. Hisham loses his job and eventually his family (after his wife catches him alone with Hayah, though they are not doing anything), and the action seems to be picking up momentum…
Soha Hesham
Ramadan is here, and religious programmes go hand in hand with television drama. Two over-promoted shows that illustrate the possibility of combining both genres are Al-Da'eya (The Preacher) and Khutuwat Al-Shaytan (The Devil's Footsteps), both screened on CBC, one of the most popular satellite channels established since the 2011 revolution.
Khutuwat Al-Shaytan is a new genre of docudrama directed by Mohamed Shaker, in which Adam (a modern-day stand-in for the prophet who was the first man) embarks on a corporate career with almost no prior experience while commentary on the Devil's plan to destroy humanity and reproduce himself by the preacher Muiz Massoud cuts through the action. In November 2011, The Economist named Massoud, whose work focuses on the connection between Islam and the contemporary world, one of the five most influential preachers in the Islamic world. Yet the lavishly ultramodern look of the studio in which Massoud is supposed to live, where Adam comes to seek advice, belies Islam's call for modesty. Adam being the naïve young man who has come to Cairo from the city of Ismailia to face conspiracies and struggle not only to establish himself but also to preserve his morals places Massoud in a somewhat excessively high moral position.
Adam's company, named Utopia, is convincing enough as a setting, but the fact that the action seems to take place nowhere else proves numbing. More to the point, why is it that abstract concepts of anger, self-constraint and lying take up all the space available in the show? In one episode, Massoud mentions the Nazi regime. “Around one million victims were killed in the 20th century,” he says, “when people avoided religions, and followed the devil's path.” Yet, far more recently and closer to home, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians have been killed for precisely the opposite reason — and Massoud has nothing to say about that. In another episode, he talks about the pointlessness of greed and the need to understand that life is short and its resources are limited — more primary-school stuff? According to Massoud, the Devil is behind every sin committed by humanity; he tempts man to indulge in pleasures of the body outside the bond of marriage, promoting “pleasure culture”: “One of the Devil's means to destroy the family institution is promoting lust constantly... This turns women into sex objects…” The Devil is even responsible for “the problem of old maids in our society”, because he persuades men to stay unmarried.
Starring Hani Salama as the preacher Youssef, Al-Da'eya — written by Medhat Al-Adl, directed by Mohamed Al-Adl, and produced by Gamal Al-Adl — tells the story of a young, handsome and popular preacher, well-known for his strict morals and strong opinions on the arts, who nonetheless falls in love with a revolutionary violinist, Nesma, played by the young and beautiful actress Basma. Though Al-Da'eya includes scenes of demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood, the action remains boring and predictable. Making up for lack of work the character of the preacher, the demonstrations seem forced in an altogether unimpressive scenario. On the one hand there is Youssef's luxurious villa, where he controls the lives of his family, smashing his younger sister's violin when she starts to take lessons with Nesma and refusing to let her marry the man she loves because he happens to be an actor. Nesma, by contrast, is profiled as a liberal; and her chants against “the rule of the supreme guide” are loud and frequent; so are the attacks by bearded young men to which she is subject. “I am amazed how ready young people are to die for their country,” Nesma tells a friend on their way back from Tahrir Square. “It's because living in humiliation is a form of death,” he replies. That same night she is attacked and beaten by Islamists.
Only in the fourth episode do we find out that Youssef's father is a jobless drunk living in a shantytown who is frequently chasing his son for money, that Youssef himself — who used to paint houses for a living — holds no university degree and that he rose steadily from the mosque to the satellite channel where he is now earning a fortune promoting Islamists' business scams and demanding more and more money. Though a handsome heartthrob, he has refrained from marriage. Now he clashes with Nesma regarding his sister's music lessons — and their romantic entanglement unconvincingly ensues. Contrary to what Massoud says, Youssef is unmarried even though he goes out of his way to avoid temptation, depriving himself and his family of music and art as well as the baser pleasures. Indeed it's as if the point of Al-Da'eya is to expose the fragile figure of the real-life preacher in Khutuwat Al-Shaytan. An old woman in the shantytown objects to Youssef's preaching, contrasting it with the late Sheikh Shaarawi's. “Sheikh Shaarawi never raised his voice,” she tells her son, who is a fan of Youssef's. The point of both programmes, it seems, as is the point of Youssef's loud voice, is money; otherwise what purpose do they serve? The young singer Amal Maher's opening and closing performances are the best thing about Al-Da'eya, with words affirming freedom about “a yearning for the sun and for water, and for memory without which we are nothing”…
Rania Khallaf
The preacher Ahmed Shoukeiri's programme Khawater 9 (Thoughts 9) takes an unorthodox approach to communicating its message. With ideas that are carefully picked and well thought out, the episode entitled Afala Yatafakaroun (Would that they contemplated), for example, focuses on how other nations managed to develop and progress through virtues like hard work, devotion and innovation. In a mere 15 minutes Shoukeiri gives the examples of how Japan and the US deal with homeless people, and how knowledgeable, and sophisticated a British citizen must be in order to qualify as a London taxi driver. He goes dumpster diving to show how much food is wasted in some countries, and on a funny note demonstrates respect for animals by citing the example of how cows have passports in Switzerland. The comparative approach is not new and can be provocative but Shoukeiri, a dashing young Saudi who nonetheless presents an Islam distinct from Wahhabism, has enough innovation, humour and diligence to make this an inspiring and objective programme; it helps that he is aware that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
On a slightly different note, Qesat Al-Andalus (The Story of Andalusia) is among those programmes that attempt to sidestep the problem that direct, conventional preaching can be off-putting, especially to the young. Whether you are a fan of the preacher Amr Khaled or someone who wants to slit their wrist every time they see Khaled's face on screen should not matter too much in this programme. It is the content that makes this worthwhile. Despite his shrill voice, Khaled provides nuggets of information on a very important period in Islamic history: Muslim Spain. I have two gripes with the programme, however: Khaled's cameraman stands still for too long, considering he is filming in one of the most beautiful places in Europe; and Khaled does not provide the modern-day names of the places he mentions. Yet it is still worth it, all things considered. Thus my 18-year-old cousin, for example: “Now I know that there is more to Spain than the Barcelona football team, partying in Ibiza and how hot Penelope Cruz is.”
Preaching is one thing, however; comedy as a pretext for nastiness, quite another. In Men Gheir Za'al (No Offence), by verbally abusing an unknowing guest until they make them hysterical, Riham Said and Saad Al-Soghayar arouse not only anger but also disgust. This candid camera-style show is pure sleaze as far as this viewer is concerned. Likewise Ramez Galal's Ramez Ankh Amun, which involves locking up famous people in an ancient Egyptian tomb in order to scare the living daylights out of them. It is very rarely funny, more often an insult not only to the guests but to 7,000 years of civilisation as well. Far more sensible is the phenomenally popular satirist Bassem Youssef's Amrika Bel Arabi (America in Arabic), which is about Egyptians in the US, in the tradition of Sheikh Hamza Youssef's post-9/11 show about the position of Arabs in the US, but with a comic twist. After the first eight episodes, I realised I couldn't see what the show had to say, regardless of language. It doesn't say much. This is better described as an audiovisual blog of Youssef's featuring bafflingly irrelevant analysis of American society from Youssef's friend the popular writer Belal Fadl.
Amira El-Naqeeb

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