In search of society

Ramadan has the distinction of being the month of television dramas. Over the years, these countless productions have been among the most important lenses into a changing Egyptian society. The 2010 Ramadan season has surpassed many viewers’ expectations with over 80 shows airing on a daily basis. Television dramas have become a massive industry attracting hefty investments and drawing producers into heated competition to satisfy viewers’ desires.

Contrary to popular belief–held by intellectuals who see nothing in these television series but frivolity–the growth of this industry is in fact a blessing in disguise. Even if the genre’s original success was tied to a prevalent consumerist ethos, its development will inevitably lead to the emergence of a variety of traditions, each with its own project and unique vision of society. This diversity will surely play a role in challenging any monopolies over cultural production and will help foster alternative spheres in which artists can reflect earnestly about their society.

This year saw a number of high-quality productions, some of which broke existing taboos in a bold attempt to rediscover Egyptian society with all that ails it.

From Ahl Cairo (The People of Cairo), and Ayza Atgawwez ( I Want to Get Married) all the way to Belsham' al-Ahmar (Sealed with Red Wax), Hekayat Ben'esh'ha (Stories we Live) and Al-Gamaa (The Brotherhood), this year’s shows demonstrated a shared resolve to directly confront some of Egypt’s most vital social issues. Their success suggests they struck a chord with their audiences.

Ahl Cairo followed an intricate web of politicians, intellectuals, artists and businessmen living in Cairo and their complicated relationships to power, to each other, and to society at large. The characters are connected by the murder of a young artist, whose death reveals a network of shady links cemented by the connivance and opportunism of Cairo's elite and exposes the extent to which oppression and chaos have taken hold of society.

The makers of the TV comedy Ayza Atgawwez used the social obsession with unmarried women as a window into the problems of Egypt’s middle class. They depict a large slice of society that has lost its stature and whose lives are driven by naive aspirations and nagging worries. Gossip and envy have become its primary means of self-expression. The series cleverly hints that the “marriage crisis” of aging women actually reflects something deeper: the angst of an entire social group whose fortunes have been dramatically reversed over the past decades.

Al-Gamaa offered a critical assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood, past and present. Though some have accused the producers of being biased against the Islamist opposition group and pandering to the security apparatus, the series successfully invites viewers to think critically about their country’s history and engage with present-day political questions. In that respect, it sets a unique precedent.

This year’s dramas have made significant strides from years past, which can only be appreciated by looking back at the history of the genre.

The success of a TV drama does not necessarily reflect artistic quality, but rather how well it gauges a society's attitudes, values and biases. Since the 1980s, Egyptian dramas have become a mirror onto society, reflecting its collective mood and stimulating popular imaginations. But TV dramas also forge perceptions. They condition how people see and understand their society. Egypt’s cultural elite have generally regarded television as a less sophisticated platform for art than cinema and theater. But being the accessible medium that it is, television drama has, over the years, shaped the minds of audiences all over Egypt and the Arab world.

Renowned screenwriter and journalist Osama Anwar Okasha, considered by many to be the godfather of Egyptian drama, played a major role in transforming television drama into one of the major cultural forces molding Egyptian consciousness. With dramas like Osfour al-Nar (Fire Bird), Al-Shahd wal Dumouu (Honey and Tears), and Al-Raya al-Beida (The White Flag), all the way to Layali al-Helmeyya (Nights of al-Helmeyya) and Rehlet Abul Ela al-Beshri (Abul Ela al-Beshri's Journey), Okasha managed to create some of most enduring and popular works that both reflected and critiqued Egypt’s rapidly changing society in the final decades of the 20th century.

An ardent secularist and former supporter of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Okasha captured all of the contradictions, dilemmas, and suffering that characterized Egyptian society. He summoned old dreams and lamented the passing of a charming yet bygone Nasserist era.

Okasha attempted to criticize Egyptian society by invariably evoking a nostalgia for times passed. The battles against corruption, opportunism and moral degeneration in Okasha’s works reflected his viewers' innermost fears. The resounding success of his dramas meant there existed a social class who, faced with the same social transformations, shared his bitter feelings and lost hopes.

Other models of television drama at the time received an equally positive reception, including popular morality dramas, good versus evil epics, such as Al-Maal wal Banoun (Money and Children) and Awlad Adam (Adam's Sons), melodramas, and comic mini-series such as Mizo and Lel Regal Faqat (Only for Men). Many of these works used emotional manipulation to capture their viewers' sympathy, by eliciting strong feelings of joy, grief, and anger. Unlike Okasha’s works, however, they did not attempt to help society define its collective identity and imagine an alternative destiny.

But times have changed and 21st century Egyptian society is not like the one that preceded it. The past two decades have witnessed profound transformations, to the point where it seems like an old society has been altogether replaced with a loose assembly of different groups, each with its own values and aspirations. These changes have served to dismantle an already splintered society and further sharpen its social contradictions

As a result, no single group can be said to represent the general mood of Egyptian society.

Today, Egyptians are no longer willing to wallow in nostalgia for Nasser's time. Romantic depictions of that era have ceased to penetrate the minds and hearts of this new audience, who no longer see in Okasha's project an expression of their current crisis. Meanwhile, artists have failed to delve deep into a fractured society, to expose its contradictions, or to advance new forms of social critique because society–as an integrated whole bound together by common values and orientations–no longer exists.

Screenwriters over the past decade have instead resorted to presenting biographies of historical icons, such as legendary singer Um Kulthoum, actress Leila Mourad and King Farouk. The new genre has found success because of its ability to forge a connection between viewers and national heroes from a distant past. Audiences are made to feel nostalgic for an earlier age without ever being prompted to confront present-day realities.

Other types of TV series have also emerged, such as those which primarily seek to arouse the excitement and curiosity of audiences by discussing provocative issues such as polygamy or delving into the details of the glamorous lives of the rich. A handful of naive melodramas have also gained popularity, such as Sarah and Qadeyyet Ra'i Aam (A Public opinion Issue). Despite their success, most of these shows lack the kind of social engagement that marked the earlier work of Okasha and avoid any real interrogation of their social and political surroundings.

Against this context, this Ramadan showed some progress, as many dramas have moved beyond romantic nostalgia to engage in more serious social reflection. Moving forward, our screenplay writers must work to build a more holistic critique of Egyptian society, which can serve as a basis to envision an alternative and better future. Such a feat may require a political space that allows for more open and imaginative discussions about where our country is heading. Egypt’s current predicament and the immense anxieties and expectations that are gripping the country provide an unparalleled opportunity for new visions and creative endeavors, in which artists will play an indispensable role.

Akram Ismail is a mechanical engineer and an independent writer. He is a member of the editorial board of el-Bosla magazine and is involved in the Democratic Engineers' Movement.

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