Narratives of Dissent and Conformity

Perhaps more than prayer, television series (musalsalat) have become the single most distinguished feature of Ramadan for the past few years. If you miss the TV ads, a drive through Cairo is enough to acquaint you with the faces of this season’s soaps. And just as this is hardly a new phenomenon, the same old and tired questions continue to be probed with every beginning of the holy month.

How obscene are the topics?

How can we adapt the content to the spirit of the holy month?

Of course, the range of series available each year will always provide one answer or the other to these queries. And yet it is a third question that appears to be more relevant now than ever.

Are we projecting reality?

For several years now, the answer has been, for the most part, a hesitant yes. The “realist” trend in Egyptian art found its precedents in the work of Taha Hussein and Tawfik El-Hakim’s establishment of colloquial Arabic in the 1930s and later in Naguib Mahfouz’s literature and was in turn, inherited by directors such as Salah Abu-Seif, Youssef Chahine, Tawfiq Salah and later Shadi Abd el Salam as well as critics such as Samir Farid and Sami Al-Salamony, who come together in constitution of a politically conscious cinema that continues producing films conscious to the reality of the Egyptian street.

Whether Abdel Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak, the production of art has continued to influence and be influenced by power dynamics. And thus while the inclination towards politics in film production is nothing new, it is the musalsalat that have noticeably taken a similar turn towards politics since January 25.

In 2011, we saw that several series sought to present narratives at the heart of, and favorable to the Egyptian uprising. And yet thousands of users called for the boycott of many of these soaps. Two examples include Samara, whose lead actress, Ghada Abdel Raziq, has publicly condemned the revolution and Adam, starring Tamer Hosni, who was famously kicked out of Tahrir Square.

What is interesting here is that as opposed to settling for the mere notion that reality was being represented; viewers were interacting with and questioning the very representation of that reality. Whether it is questioning the figures that seek to represent it or the very ideals and concept being projected, we find this a concurrent trend since Jan 25.

One of the biggest hits last year was Al-Da’eya (The Preacher). The series narrates the story of Youssef (starred by Hany Salama), a young sheikh whose television preaching has brought him fame, wealth and a lavish villa in which the struggle between religious fundamentalism and moderate interpretations of Islam plays out. Thus for example, Youssef lashes out at his younger sister Marwa for bringing home a birthday cake (“Muslims should celebrate only religious holidays”), he rejects the man Marwa wants to marry because he’s an actor (haram) and when he discovers that another younger sister is secretly playing the violin (haram, again), he smashes it to pieces. Youssef eventually rediscovers both his love for music and moderate Islam as he falls in love with Nesma (actress Basma), a passionate activist and violinist.

Yet while the character of Youssef may arguably “be the most nuanced depiction of political Islam on the screen to date,” the series’ finale does not stray far from old and tired suggestions for outright policing of religious fundamentalism. The closing scene features Youssef attending one of Nesma’s performances at the Cairo Opera House while antagonist sheikh Ali seats himself a few meters away. Just as he whips out a silent gun and aims for Youssef, the police silently rush in time to arrest him.

Of course, these ideals coincided neatly with the events preceding and following June 30.

This year, we hear that the series Ahl Eskenderia (The People of Alexandria) has allegedly been prevented from screening by the security apparatus for its coverage of the January 25 revolution and focus on the corruption of a police officer in Alexandria. With that, and in light of everything else going on, the prospects of freedom of expression seem drastically low.

And yet at the end of the day, the production of knowledge and art will both continue to be influenced and manipulated by power. These dynamics mean that in addition to asking ourselves whether we are presenting reality, how we are presenting it and who is doing the presentation, we need to push for and create the spaces in which to share alternative narratives.