Ramadan TV

Every year during the month of Ramadan, dozens of new and exciting Arab TV serials are shown on the numerous satellite stations in the Arab speaking world.  They showcase the best and most innovative of Arab TV and bring back to the small screen favorite Arab actors. There were over twenty new series this year from several Arab countries, each about 30 episodes long so as to run during the holy month. Syria and Egypt still produce the most series, though there are increasingly joint productions such as the very popular Lebanese-Syrian production Al-Haybeh.

Egyptian TV series have continued to flourish and improve over the years, even with the censorship and restrictions on filming that has worsened in post-uprising Egypt.
While I could not watch all of them religiously from beginning to end, I did follow two: One was a Syrian production and the other was Egyptian.  The Syrian series was the ninth season of Bab al-Harah, a story set in the Old City of Damascus.  It was a big hit when it first aired during Ramadan 2006 and its faithful fans eagerly await each installment. I will say more about Bab al-Harah in my next post as I will dedicate this one to the Egyptian noir thriller and action series The President’s Shadow (TPS). The series was very popular in Egypt and it had much to do with the appeal of the leading actor and the good storyline.  I was on the edge of my seat with all its twists and turns. Egypt has been producing high quality thrillers and action series for some years now and TPS combined an engaging plot with great acting.  It offered veiled social commentary and subtle political criticism that did not overwhelm the show which could explain why it was popular with the audience: It was not overly didactic that it forgot its original intent, quality Ramadan entertainment.

The main protagonist in TPS is a former bodyguard to the president. Though unnamed, it is more than evident that this president was Hosni Mubarak. The bodyguard thwarted an assassination attempt on his life when he visited Addis Ababa. With his training in defense and security detail he leaves the service with the president and joins State Security, the equivalent of the FBI, and where he uncovers massive corruption in the privatization of the Egyptian economy. But he is forced to shelve his investigation because it involves high ranking individuals who cannot be prosecuted. These are the Egyptians who are too big to jail. Disgusted and discouraged with the fraud and cover up, he resigns and joins the family business.

The series starts 10 years after his resignation where he is a very successful urban developer in the firm that was started by his father and an uncle who is also his father-in-law.  The cousins are happily married and have two children.  They live in a very luxury villa with an amazing backyard complete with palm trees and huge pool in a new wealthy suburb of Cairo. Ironically, he is in the same business and leading the same lifestyle as some of the individuals he had earlier wanted jailed for corruption. Before the first episode is over, his perfect life is no more as his wife and son are killed in a shoot out. He discovers the bullets were meant for him. The gets the story rolling and perhaps this is where his life takes a decidedly different turn than those too big to jail.  Who wanted to kill him and why?  Did it have anything to do with his job as the president’s shadow?  Did it have to do with his work in State Security? As with thrillers in general, the bodies of those around him begin to pile up and suspicion hovers around those closest to him. He is attacked more than once, is seriously wounded every other episode either physically or emotionally, is pushed off a building and falls into a coma, and is shot in the chest but is able to recover and find closure at the end.

While the series was talking about the corruption of the government officials who oversee economic development in the country, the ads that aired during the broadcast were telling a different story. It should be noted that a disclaimer aired before the start of the series that it was for mature audiences only. The juxtaposition of these ads with the series was thought-provoking. Some were public service announcements like the one promoting the end of Female Genital Mutilation. In the ad, a father takes his daughter to have the surgery but has a sudden change of heart and rescues her from the cutting table. There were several ads for small business loans and others promoting individual entrepreneurship. There were also ads for private hospitals that were built from charitable donations and that can fix everything from broken bones to heart attacks to workplace injuries. They painted a very rosy picture of the private health sector in Egypt.

Yet, the ad that most closely resonated with the series was for a new development complex built outside of Cairo called Roma. The neighborhood complete with parks and fountains looked inviting for those who could afford the price tag on a luxury apartment in the new suburbs, similar to where the protagonist lived and to what his company probably constructed.

Egyptian TV series have continued to flourish and improve over the years, even with the censorship and restrictions on filming that has worsened in post-uprising Egypt. Success of the series can also be attributed to the commitment of the actors to their craft.  According to news accounts the lead actor spent a year before filming began in the gym training to look like a former body guard. The series format of 30 or more episodes reaches a wider audience than film. The noir thriller format is great for dramatizing fraud and sleaze in Egypt as it blurs the line between good and bad. Most of the series was filmed at night or in low interior lighting creating a menacing atmosphere throughout the episodes.  The actors were mostly in shadows, emphasizing their shady motives.  Perhaps the shadows and darkness reflects the mood of many Egyptians after the revolution.

Faedah M. Totah is associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Cite as: Totah, Faedah. M. 2017. “Ramadan TV.” Anthropology News website, August 24, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.581

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