It's blockbuster season for television channels across the Arab world, which have all started the month-long battle for audience numbers with big-budget productions. And this Ramadan, despite some muted insider muttering about financial concerns, our television screens remain bursting. Over 40 special shows are being broadcast across varied channels - including brand new shows and a few much-loved favourites, such as the Syrian hit Bab Al Hara (The Neighbour's Gate) returning for a fourth series and the Saudi comedy, Ghashamsham, also returning for the fourth time.
Several of these soap operas, comedies, dramas and documentaries are broadcast immediately after iftar and later again after Taraweeh prayers, when families gather together around the television's glow and stations battle hard for their audience share. And this year, the biggest-budget show that both Arabic and English-speaking families can sit themselves down and enjoy is Seraa Ala Remal, or Struggles on the Sands.
Strictly speaking, Struggles on the Sands is not a new show, or rather "musalsalat". (The word often applied to Arab soaps or dramas). All 28 episodes of the historical epic were broadcast last Ramadan on Dubai TV, but purely in Arabic. The difference this year is that Dubai Media Incorporated is screening the drama on Dubai One with English subtitles (showing twice a day) in an effort to include the English-speaking population of the UAE in the Ramadan celebrations.
"This year we wanted to let the expat population get a flavour for what Arabic dramas are about," explains Dubai One's programming manager, Sarah al Jarman. "We want to keep the identity of the channel very clear so we don't show a lot of Arabic shows. Ramadan is the window where you get a glimpse into the local shows." The rest of the year on Dubai One is mostly given over to shows produced in America and the UK.
In comparison to usual Dubai One fodder such as Jamie Oliver and The Tyra Banks Show, the story of Struggles on the Sands is indeed a traditional one. Set in the Arabian Peninsula during the 18th century under the Ottoman Empire, it's a Bedouin drama about love and battle - part Romeo and Juliet, part War and Peace. But more significantly, the television version is based on the poetry of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
The first few episodes of the series have now been screened, setting the foundations for the ensuing drama. Pay attention because there are several strands to remember. First off is a grand battle between the two central warring Bedouin tribes - the Al Ojeil and the Al Hanzal. "It was a great battle in which we lost my father, Sheikh Hamad," imparts the grave voice-over, which turns out to be delivered by a character called Thiab, unhappily often referred to as "the speckled one" on account of his blotchy face. Will Thiab's disfigurement impair his plans to marry Hanouf, the most beautiful woman of his tribe (and daughter of Sheikh Waddah, leader of the Al-Hanzal tribe), or will he be thwarted by Jaber, another in the tribe who is in love with her? Then again, if that doesn't work out, another woman in his tribe, Bodour, is in love with Thiab. Still with us?
Meanwhile, back to matters of war. In the Al Hanzal tribe, things are shaping up nicely for a power struggle between different factions over who shall be the new sheikh. In the Al Ojeil tribe, one of the young men, Shayiesh, has been kidnapped and the Al Hanzal tribe is demanding a ransom. Off goes Fahd, one of the best warriors the tribe has, to rescue him. Interspersed are even more plot lines concerning the love lives of various tribe members, worries from the Al Ojeil tribe about the money they are paying to a local Turk in an 18th-century-style protection racket and anxious, clucking mothers fussing over their warring sons. For English speakers, the subtitles are occasionally confusing, but there is enough characterisation (the goodies, the baddies, the smouldering hero) to easily follow what's going on.
The series plays out against a magnificent backdrop of desert, mountains and castles. Shot over five months in 2007 and 2008, it was filmed in the UAE (in the desert between Dubai and Al Ain), in Palmyra in Syria and in Morocco's Marrakech. The show holds the distinguished record of being the biggest UAE drama production ever made, with initial projections set at $6 million (Dh22 million), though Sheikh Mohammed's media aide, Ahmed al Sheikh, subsequently said that the total cost could be higher because the producers were so "generous" and such advanced filming technology was used.
It employed an enormous cast of 1,000 people, with 150 jockeys used in battle scenes and hundreds of tonnes of sand taken to the desert outside Marrakech to create the perfect landscape for shooting. Brace yourselves for the opening scene in particular, because there's plenty of throat-cutting and free blood-flow for those who like their battles scenes as realistic as possible. Struggles was directed by the Syrian director Hatim Ali, who spoke particularly effusively about the project having wrapped up shooting last year. "Sheikh Mohammed not only brought about a miracle by transforming the desert into an urban destination, but also initiated a cultural and artistic giant leap in the region," he told Variety magazine. It wasn't the first time Ali had worked on a large historical epic for Ramadan television either. In 2007, he was widely applauded for his directing efforts with Al Marek Falouk (King Falouk), a drama about Egypt's last monarch who was deposed by Nasser's coup in 1952.
Working on Struggles on the Sands alongside Ali was his fellow countryman and author, Hani Al Saadi, who scripted the series, following the adaptation from Sheikh Mohammed's poetry by the author Hisham Kafarnah. A number of big names were also signed up for the cast, including the Syrian actor Taim Hassan and the Jordanian actress, Saba Mubarak, who has just been awarded honours for Best Actress in her home country and will be starring in another Ramadan show on Dubai TV this year titled Balkis, about the Queen of Sheba.
As with all Arab television stations during Ramadan, channels such as Dubai TV and Dubai One screen big, blockbusting shows to pull in lucrative advertising revenue. Ramadan's prime-time viewing hours are between 6.30pm and 3.00am, and last year spots for advertisement breaks during Struggles on the Sands attracted up to Dh55,000 each. It is revenue that is hankered after even more this year given the economic downturn and accompanying slowdown in advertisement spending. However, the good news for television stations is that regional media agencies estimate they can make up to one third of their advertising revenues for the year during Ramadan. Moreover, the Gulf is the most attractive Arab region for advertisers, with Saudi Arabia alone accounting for up to a third of total television revenue.
Consequently, the programming for Ramadan starts early. "Before summer we were starting to put our Ramadan programme together," explains Dubai One's al Jarman. "We usually have a trend of putting on Freej every Ramadan but this year we wanted to have a drama. From all of them Seraa Ala Remal was a really successful hit and the fact that it has the poetry of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed also contributed to the fact that we chose it."
Struggles on the Sands, however, faces stiff competition from the other shows on this Ramadan, chief of which is the Syrian drama Bab al Hara. The show focuses on a Syrian neighbourhood during French occupation in the 1920s and 1930s. It was first screened in 2006 by MBC and soon racked up an audience well into the millions across the Arab region. People hurry home from prayers to catch it, in East Jerusalem giant screens are erected for viewers there, it has been downloaded to tens of thousands of mobile phones in Israel, the Syrian president Bashir Assad is reportedly a huge fan. It has since become a popular name for restaurants in Syria (there is reportedly one in the UK city of Nottingham too), and, naturally, has also spawned a video game.
As with the central concerns of Struggles on the Sands, it's a nostalgic look at the past with heavy doses of romance, violence and intrigue, and it stars Wael Sharaf, the Syrian actor often referred to as a Johnny Depp lookalike. Ironically for a show that is beamed to millions of viewers via both the television and the internet, Sharaf says the show's popularity is because of its old-fashioned values. "It's a reaction to the modern age, to satellite TV and the internet, it's about nostalgia for traditions that are being lost," he told The Guardian earlier this year. "In Bab al Hara you don't ask your neighbour who he is, but how he is, and how you can help him." Worthy sentiments indeed for a television drama showing during Ramadan.
Seraa Ala Remal or Struggles on the Sands is screened daily throughout Ramadan on Dubai One at 3.00pm and 7.30pm.