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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Sab3 Gar: the progressive series gives new view of Egyptian women

The hit television show hasn’t shied away from tough issues

The plot of 'Sab3 Gar' centres around female protagonists. Courtesy CBC
The plot of 'Sab3 Gar' centres around female protagonists. Courtesy CBC

When looking back at the past decade of television production in Egypt, few shows that fall outside of the Ramadan season have garnered as wide a viewership as progressive – albeit controversial – new series Sab3 Gar. The 48-episode, character-driven family drama just wrapped up its first season with a promised, slightly shorter second season set to air on CBC this year.

Created by Nadine Khan, Heba Yousry and Ayten Amin, the show follows the quotidian lives of several families residing in an apartment building in a middle-class neighbourhood in Cairo. Within the first few episodes, we meet most of the protagonists, all largely female. The story revolves around the family of two sisters, Lamia and Layla, respectively played by Dalal Abdel Aziz and Sherine, and their neighbours.

Both Lamia and Layla are matriarchs of sorts – in Lamia’s case, her husband passed away years ago, leaving her to run the family in his absence. Layla keeps her household afloat with her work as a government employee, while her husband, Magdy, sweeps in and out of his family’s life whenever he needs love, laughter or money.

All the characters in Sab3 Gar are dealing with their own personal conundrums. There is Hadeel Hassan as Mai, a young architect who divides most of her time between providing care for her ill mother and working in her own flat on the first floor of the building, where she struggles with a toxic romantic relationship with a neighbour.

Also on the first floor, the Major General is mourning the loss of his wife, and has been left in the care of Karima, played by Safaa Galal. Karima has a lot of baggage and bite, seeking refuge from her past as a sex worker. Then there is Layla’s daughter, Hala, played by Rahma Hassan, who has the maturity and means to rear a child, but wants to do so without a husband.

Being a character-driven show, the series mostly plays out with little plot. Instead, the hyperrealist narrative, dialogue and aesthetic challenge much established Egyptian TV. In recent years, while other hit shows such as Hatha El-Massaa (This Evening) and Tahet El Saytara (Under Control), were also grounded in realism, they were much more aesthetically glossy than Sab3 Gar. Visually, the show is minimalist. For the most part, it works, despite some weird camera angles and the fact that some scenes and episodes drag on – it is hard to know if this is a result of directorial decisions or oversight. There is plenty of humour, in addition to the captivating and comedic performance of rising star Sarrah Abdelrahman as Heba.

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While the show’s aesthetic might be minimal, the ideas presented are quite the opposite. Such representations of family dynamics and gender are rarely depicted on Egyptian TV or cinema; the women are not weak victims and the men are not heroes. On the contrary, most of the male roles are marginal, pitiful – though poignantly comedic – characters, while the women are strong, complex and highly capable. Thematically, the show tackles female issues that are rarely discussed so boldly in regional television. Topics range from marital crisis – including, in Mai’s case, adultery – divorce and sibling dynamics, to subtly addressing women’s roles in family and society. Meanwhile, Karima attempts to overcome her illicit past through the care she provides to the Major General, and thus we empathise with her. More often than not in Egyptian TV, women with one moral calamity are presented through a metaphorical black-and-white lens – if she is a sex worker, then she must also be a drug addict, a thief and so on. This is never the case with Sab3 Gar.

This approach has also garnered criticism and controversy: some viewers felt the show to be morally negligent, while inaccurately portraying women in Egypt. Angry voices on social media denied the existence of Egyptian women who curse or travel with male friends, accusing the show of westernising Egyptian women. But mainstream media coverage was much more positive, and with millions of viewers on TV and online, Sab3 Gar, remains one of the highest-viewed shows aired outside of Ramadan. Not bad for a show created largely by women, with a predominately female cast, and progressive, feminist ideas.