Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Ramadan soaps: mental illness, thrillers and nostalgia

Much of the Arab world has been gripped by the dramatic plotlines of Egyptian soap operas over the past 30 days. We cast our eye over some of this year's productions, their trends and themes.
Mohamed Shaker Khodeir’s murder mystery series, Grand Hotel. Courtesy Abu Dhabi TV.
Mohamed Shaker Khodeir’s murder mystery series, Grand Hotel. Courtesy Abu Dhabi TV.

For 30 days during Ramadan, up to 50 “tamsalayas” or soaps produced in Egypt are watched by millions of people around the Arab world. From Dream to MBC, CBC, Al Hayat and every other major player in private Arabic satellite stations, these big-budget productions have become arguably the biggest consumer event in Egypt.

From watching on black and white televisions to now being able to tune in via social media, Ramadan soaps have always reflected their times in Egypt.

The rise of the tech-savvy millennial audience (those born between the 1980s and the turn of the millennium) has required a response from most producers who can now get 400,000 views an episode on their YouTube channels.

The themes in the post-Arab Spring soaps expose some interesting insights into the social fabric of Egyptian life. For better or worse, there are more female protagonists – this year nearly half of the Egyptian shows are told through a female lead.

But it is still worrisome as to how women are represented; recently it has been through characters that are drug addicts (Ta7t El Saytara, 2015), mentally ill (Soqoot Horr, 2016) or murderous (Beyond Reproach, 2016). Conversely, women are represented as model, pious housewives (Zaat, 2012). Politics, meanwhile, has largely hit the backburner.

Tackling tough topics year after year, scriptwriter and director Mariam Naoum followed up last year’s hit show Ta7t El Saytara (Under Control), about drug addiction, with another mental health narrative. This year, Naoum presents Soqoot Horr (Free Fall), whose star Nelly Karim has become a Ramadan favourite through many of the director’s shows.

In Soqoot Horr, we open up the season entering the scene of a crime. Karim is on the bedroom floor as her husband and sister lie murdered on the mattress behind her. The murder weapon is by her side and she is seemingly catatonic.

The story unfolds, albeit extremely slowly, as we witness her character’s life in the psychiatric ward grappling with institutionalisation. But while it was a noble effort, the show did not match Naoum’s previous hits.

On a lighter note, Nelly and Sherihan was a delight to watch, as the off-screen sisters Donia and Amy Samir Ghanem have nothing but pure comedy chemistry in this sitcom. The show plays off the nostalgic “fawazeer” (Ramadan quiz show) that was hosted by pop culture icons Nelly and Sherihan in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, veteran star Yousra’s psychological thriller Beyond Reproach was one of the few shows this year that touched on the January 25, 2011 revolution. In the show, Yousra plays a politician running for parliament. But as her power grows, so does her madness as she kills and manipulates everything in sight.

But the thrillers don’t stop there – alongside Beyond Reproach there was Al Khoroug (The Exit). Starring Dorra and Dhaffer L’Abidine, the show features an honest cop struggling to save his family.

In Shehadat Milad (Birth Certificate), a police officer discovers to his dismay that his biological father was a criminal, while Sabae Arawah (Seven Souls) follows the world of a policeman who arrests a powerful man for murder. Each year these shows provide many important and often alarming insights into the social fabric of Egyptian life.

The representation of women continues to be worrying, but women in lead roles have become more frequent. More often than not, however, women continue to play the role of the anti-heroes and, love them or hate them, millions of people tune in to watch.

There are, however, rare moments where critique is lost to pure entertainment. Grand Hotel, a murder mystery set in the Cataract hotel in Aswan in the early 1950s, has been nothing but fun. Directed by Mohamed Shaker Khodeir and starring veteran star Anoushka, the show is an adaptation of the German series of the same name.

With stunning costumes, well-crafted dialogue and luscious sets, the show has succeeded in reminding you of the wonderful escapism provided by a good fictional series.

After 30 days of watching Ramadan shows, you sometimes get fed up with the characters you’ve been following day after day. But when the show airs its finale, it makes you feel a little happier having played your part.

Maha El Nabawi is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

Updated: July 6, 2016 04:00 AM

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