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Chasing crows
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 05 - 2019

Ramadan has always been the season during which Egyptians and Arabs are glued to their television screens, especially after Iftar. Satellite channels make a good half of their annual profit during the holy month. This year 15 out of 23 series were produced by Tamer Morsi's production company Synergy, which rose to prominence 12 years ago with Rabab's Morsi's 2007 series Haq Mashrou' (Legitimate Right).
One of Synergy's productions this year is Kalabsh 3 (Handcuffs 3), the third season of the action police drama initially produced by a different company called Verdi in 2017. The series is directed by Peter Mimi, a very young director who has nonetheless build a strong reputation in the action and thriller genres over the last few years. In the first season the protagonist, Selim Al-Ansari (Amir Karara), a police officer well-known for courage and honesty as well as an aggressive personality and big mustache, is accused of killing a young activist while interrogating him. Screenwriter Baher Douidar drew on many such reports to forge the story in which it turns out that a lower ranking officer committed the crime for which Al-Ansari was framed by a lawyer, a businessman and an MP in order to cover up another crime committed by the businessman's son. The second season was somewhat safer with a more conventional take on the fight between good and evil, with Al-Ansari as a superhero facing the similarly larger than life Bedouin drug and arms dealer Akef Abul-Ezz (Haitham Ahmed Zaki). An assassination attempt at the end of the season leaves everyone except for Al-Ansari's colleague Hossam (Omar Al-Shennawi) and one of his superiors thinking he was killed.
At the start of the new season, it becomes clear why this was the case. Al-Ansari has been sent to Europe as an illegal immigrant so that he can be planted within a terrorist group – but by the second episode the terrorists have been arrested thanks to the information Al-Ansari provided. The whole move does not push the drama forward, though it links the two seasons and, thanks to another attempt on Al-Ansari's life after his superior Major General Galal (Ahmed Abdel-Aziz) orders him to come home, provides an opportunity to stage a gun battle, fisticuffs and a motorcycle chase demonstrating Al-Ansari's super powers. The real story begins back in Egypt when another super villain an arms dealer connected with foreign intelligence services though he poses as a benevolent businessman, Akram Safwan (Hesham Selim), injects Al-Ansari's son with a fatal disease whose antidote only he can provide. He thus forces Al-Ansari to resign from the Ministry of Interior, then form his own security company.
As in season one, a National Security officer, Awni (Ashraf Moselhi), provides Safwan with information, but the ministry is protected by a 25-year-old scheme involving a Mission Impossible-style group now headed by Galal. It includes a streetfighter-cum-burglar who cracks safes named Bruce Lee (Ahmed Al-Awadi), a psychoanalyst named Reem (Youssra Al-Louzi) and an IT and computer hacker named Samih (Mohamed Ali Rezk) Unbeknown to Safwan, Al-Ansari joins this group following his resignation, and he is shocked to realise they are all employed in his security company. The company is contracted to secure the house of an opposition MP, Mahmoud Elwan (Nasser Seif), who as it turns out confusingly is also a National Security informer. The script is full of intelligence and conspiracy theory references with a conversation between Elwan and a visiting Arab businessman, Riad (Bassam Qahar) referring to the Arab Spring as “the first movement” orchestrated by foreign intelligence agencies to destroy the country. When Riad finds out Elwan is collaborating with National Security, he orders Safwan to assassinate him, which he does while also organising a social media campaign to embarrass the government for not identifying his assassin, something a television announcer, Shahira Al-Malakh (Heidy Karam), also does.
***
Rogue Arrows
Politics seems paramount in Ramadan TV, but in Mahmoud Kamel's Al-Seham Al-Mareqa (Rogue Arrows) there is a different approach to it. Though it calls it Ard Al-Khilafa (Land of the Caliphate) as opposed to Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya (Islamic State, IS), unaccountably changing the name, the series is set within IS territory in 2014, the year IS took over the most land in Syria and Iraq, occupying such cities as Raqqa and Palmyra in Syria, and Mosul and Sinjar in Iraq, a rather unusual development on the Ramadan TV scene. Al-Seham Al-Mareqa was actually produced last year, but since there was another series about IS — Ghrabib Sood (Black Crows) co-directed by Hossam Al-Rantisy, Adel Adib and Hussein Shawkat — it never aired during Ramadan. Created by Mohamed, Khaled and Sherine Diab, co-written by Doaa Helmi, Mohamed Al-Dabbah and Bishoy Youssef and produced by Mohamed Hefzi and Moez Masoud, the latter a theology scholar with his own religious programme, Al-Seham Al-Mareqa is finally making it on Al-Nahar TV.
In the opening scenes, while the terrorist group is invading a city, the journalist Sherif Al-Naggar (Hani Adel), the director of the TV channel he's transmitting to, is captured after his cameraman is killed. The first few episodes give a bird's eye view of life inside the IS capital, where men who refuse to join the caliphate are killed and women are placed under house arrest until they can be married to IS men. A Christian woman, Mariam (Sherry Adel), a Muslim man's widow, is sent to the slave market with her son Omar. Mariam becomes the slave of a man with four wives who lives in a small apartment with one bed, and eventually converts to Islam when Omar is bullied at school. Al-Naggar, joining the fighters, changes his name to Hudhayfah and tries to maneuvre his way to the border where he can escape. Due to the topic and the difficulty of imbuing life under IS with anything life-affirming, many episodes are extremely dark and depressing. Mariam's husband is a womaniser, which provides a little comedy, and there is a resistance group inspiring hope.
In one scene evidently inspired by V for Vendetta, an IS commander named Ammar (Sherif Salama) hears music at the market and promptly orders a search, but taken by the grandness of the idea the screenwriters make it orchestral music without asking why it wouldn't be Arabic music instead, which is far more plausible. The characters are carefully and convincingly constructed, however, and when Ammar's wife Habiba (Diamand Abu Abboud) turns out to be in the resistance group — their only work is to paint the walls with anti-IS slogans and hide art and monuments — he tries to save her. She is sentenced to death and her throat is cut right in front of him nonetheless, which will probably mark a turning point in his character.


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