London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Over the past few years, Ramadan television series—a well-known phenomenon in the Arab and Islamic world—have begun to witness significant changes.
The Ramadan television phenomenon has always been a unique fixture in the Arab world. The older generation will say that this tradition began on major radio stations like The Middle East, Cairo, and Voice of the Arabs. Even if that were the case, the Arab celebration of Ramadan through television sitcoms and dramas has added a unique element to the holy month of Ramadan that is unmatched in most other parts of the world.
This is a unique phenomenon to celebrate the Islamic holy month, and there are no parallels with other religious or secular festivities. Of course, television channels designate special programs for New Year’s Day, Christmas, Easter, and so on, showcasing religious or historic films or documentaries. However, there is no other example of television series’ being produced specifically to be aired consecutively over one month, as is the case with the Ramadan television phenomenon today. In addition to this, there are also the special Ramadan quiz shows and other programming, making it clear that Ramadan occupies a unique space in Arab viewers’ hearts.
Since most television channels do not publish statistics regarding their viewership during Ramadan, or indeed any other month, it is difficult to determine which channels or programs are the most popular. However, it is clear that there are certain series that dominate the viewing figures year after year, and these must be considered the most successful.
Perhaps the biggest success story of last Ramadan was the TV drama “Omar,” which boldly tells the story of Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, played onscreen by Samer Ismail. Breaking the tradition of avoiding religious subjects, MBC faced a lot of opposition for airing this TV series, which depicts the early days of Islam. Despite the initial controversy, MBC ultimately triumphed and now have a huge success on their hands. “Omar” features figures from the Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet), in addition to some of Islam’s early caliphs.
It must also be noted here that while this subject matter is deemed permissible for television, a film version would never have gotten off the ground. The Arab media, religious figures and indeed a majority of the audience, use two different scales to evaluate television and film. There is also the question of cost, and one cannot expect a historical drama series of this production quality and cast size to be produced every year without a drop in production values. As the situation stands today, the cost of a single series ranges between USD 50,000 for a limited number of episodes and USD 200,00 for a more large-scale series.
There is certain;y exceptional Ramadan programming, like the forthcoming television series “Al Araf” (The Fortune Teller), starring Egyptian comedian Adel Imam, not to mention “Omar.” Television series such as these have budgets of USD 10 million and above. Since such large and expensive projects cannot be produced often, they are usually alternated with a succession of cheaper-to-produce sitcoms and dramas.
Sitcoms are easier to produce and easier to sell. In the Gulf, for instance, there are a large number of sitcoms currently in production, including “Al-Bayt Bayt Abuna” (This is Our Father’s House) starring Hayat Al-Fahad, Saad Abdullah, and Ibrahim Al-Salal; “Abu Al-Malaleen‘ (The Father of Millions) with Nasser Al-Gosaibi and Abdul Hussain Abdul Rida. There are also dramas like “Ay Doma Hozn La” (Tear of Sadness) starring Zahra Arafat and Khalid Ameen; and “Tawali Al-Layl” (Passing the Night) starring Saad Al-Faraj and Ibrahim Al-Hesawi.
However, television series such as this do not break out of the region, and they have a very limited audience outside of the Gulf due to demographic realities. That is not the case with Syrian and Egyptian series which are able to cross borders and markets easily.
The production value of Syrian television series has increased significantly without affecting the market for Egyptian programming. This year there are a number of series produced by Syrians, including “Sukar Wast” (Medium Sugar), written by Mazen Taha and starring Abbas Al-Nouri and Sabah Al-Jaza’ir; “Sarkha Ruh” (Spirit’s Scream), written by Fadi Foshaqji and starring Bassem Kousa and Abbas Al-Nouri); and “Tahoun Al-Shar II” (Mill of Evil II), also starring Bassem Kousa with Asad Fedda and Wafa Mosuli. All of these series are marketed towards Gulf broadcasters like MBC, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
These examples and the success of Syrian Ramadan series like “Yasmine Atiq” (Ancient Jasmin), “Qumar Al-Sham” (Levant Moon), and “Laaba Al-Mawt” (Game of Death), not to mention other Syrian dramas. This is even more impressive given the painful situation that Syria is experiencing today.
“Laaba Al-Mawt” is one of the more artistic of these series. It is an emotional drama centered around the idea that love leads to death starring Lebanese actress Cyrine Abdelnour and Syrian actor Abed Fahad. Given the current political situation in Syria, many of these Syrian-produced shows are now being filmed outside the country, including in the Gulf. It is the fact that these Syrian-made shows are being produced outside of the country that has ensured the survival of Syrian television series this Ramadan.
The most controversial religious–historical series this Ramadan is “Khaybar,” written by Yasri Al-Jendi and directed by Muhammad Aziziya. The series focuses on the conflicts between Muslims and Jews in the Arabian Peninsula at the dawn of Islam and how the attempts to divide the Arabs led to the end of the Jews of Khaybar. Initial advertisement does not indicate a particularly high artistic or production value. Rather, the series seems to depend on conventional practices in acting and direction. This does not mean, however, that the series will not be a success.
In Egypt, the heated situation over the past two years has affected the number of shows in production for this Ramadan. In 2012, sixty-five shows were in production, while this year that figures stands closer to thirty. Contrary to expectations, there has been scant desire to produce shows that directly address events in Egypt. Most shows are content with simple references to what is going on.
Perhaps this is explains the many scenes featuring bearded men in Egyptian series without explicitly referencing the current political and religious situation in the country. In the sitcom “Nazriya Al-Guava” (The Guava Theory), Ilham Shahin takes on the role of a psychologist. The series contains a number of implicit, and indeed explicit, references to outward religious appearance and the troubles that these can cause.
On a related note, there are at least two TV series that are consciously addressing current events. One such series is “Al-Da’ie” (The Preacher), written by Madhet Al-Adl and directed by Muhammad Al-Adl. This series focuses on a young bearded man (played by Hani Salama) in a transitional period in his life. He becomes more religious, but not religious enough for the extremists group that pressure and threaten him, saying, ‘You are either with us or against us.’
Adel Imam’s new television series “Al Araf” is expected to pull no punches, particularly given this actor’s considerable fame throughout the Arab world. Further, there has been friction between Imam and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have accused him of being anti-religion. The series will be directed by his son, Rami Imam. The veteran Egyptian actor and comedian will be playing a familiar character: a wrongly accused, cantankerous womanizer. In one promo, the character is seen telling an investigator: “I serve God, but that doesn’t stop a few kisses here and there.” In another advert, we see the septuagenarian actor kissing a young woman a quarter of his age, something that Arab television viewers might find less acceptable than cinema-goers would.
Adel Imam and Ilham Shahin are not the only ones turning from cinema to television. One of the problems caused by the current political unrest across the region has been a halt in film production. Consequently, film stars are increasingly heading to television. This season they will include Egyptian actress Yusra, who is playing a lighthearted comedic role in the sitcom “Nakzib Lo Qulna Mabin Habish” (We Lie When we Say we Aren’t in Love), Egyptian actor Hussain Fahmi in “Hafa Al-Ghadb” (The Edge of Anger), and Laila Alwi in “Farah Laila” (Laila’s wedding), among others.
Granted, most of these actors and actresses have appeared on television before but there is a difference between a film presence that can be depended upon with the occasional television appearance and fewer movie roles forcing established actors to rely on the small screen. Egypt produces the most television series with more than 35 new series in production. The channels competing for these programs include Dream, Al-Nahar, Al-Hayat, Al-Qahira in Egypt, and MBC, Dubai, and Kuwait as well as Lebanon and Jordan.