Ramadan series rock the boat

Arab sensitivities shattered by holiday TV show.

Ramadan Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ramadan Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
An elderly man walks into an Egyptian pharmacy. “I would like a blue pill, a yellow pill and a maple-colored pill,” he tells the pharmacist.
“Isn’t that a bit much?” asks an astonished bystander.
“But I am a newly-wed, and I must party all night!” answers the elderly man with a naughty grin.
This scene, part of the popular TV series “Sugar Crisis”, was banned for broadcast by Egypt’s television censorship department. Like other immodest or violent scenes, this snippet was deemed to be too much for Arab sensibilities.    
As the stars come out at night during the holy month of Ramadan, millions around the Arab world get comfortable on their couches, switch on their TV sets, and indulge in the pleasure of Musalsalat Ramadan, or Ramadan television series.
Ramadan is considered a pinnacle of the Islamic calendar. It is traditionally a time of fast, prayer and spiritual contemplation. At night, however, traditional prohibitions are suspended and festivities prevail. A captive audience sits mesmerized before the tube, enjoying the latest Arab productions.
This year, production companies in Egypt invested over 750 million Egyptian Pounds ($130 million) in some 50 TV series produced solely for Ramadan.
“The dialogues in this year’s series are more risqué than last year’s,” reported the Arab online daily Ilaf. “Whereas last year’s dramas displayed audacity in treating Egypt’s foreign politics, this year’s series were bolder in internal Egyptian issues, as well as their treatment of touchy subjects like spinsterhood and polygamy.”
Perhaps the best example of a “touchy Egyptian issue” in this year’s programming is the treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood in the new series “Al-Gama’a” (The Brotherhood).
“Al-Gama’a” is a historic epic dealing with Egypt’s main opposition group, which was formed by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928. Critics of the show, headed by Al-Banna’s son Saif Al-Islam, blamed the series’ scriptwriter Wahid Hamed of “intentionally distorting” the image of his father by presenting him as an extremist.
Saif Al-Islam says he intends to file a lawsuit against Hamed and the Egyptian Television station that broadcast the program.
“The damage of distorting his [Al-Banna’s] history hurts all Islamic movements, as well as his family,” Saif Al-Islam told the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The Muslim Brotherhood quickly decided to retaliate by producing its own series portraying the movement’s history. “Hassan Al-Banna: The Journey Did Not End,” is a 32-episode series to be filmed immediately after Ramadan.
Sariel Birenbaum, an expert on Arab film and television from the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem, says Syrian series are gradually gaining ground over Egyptian series.
“In the past few years the Egyptian series are not so interesting,” Birenbaum tells The Media Line. “It’s the cheap production, the bad lighting, the dull humor. Syrian series, for their part, use sophisticated photography, computer simulations, and they often film outside the country.”
Muhannad ‘Anati, a Palestinian human rights worker, acknowledges the rising popularity of Syrian Ramadan series in the Palestinian street.
“The creators of the shows want them to be relevant,” he tells The Media Line. “A historical drama like ‘Bab Al-Harah’ [The Neighborhood Gate], which deals with French colonialism in Syria in the 1920s, speaks to people today because it addresses issues like collaborators, and sale of homes [to the enemy].”
Suleiman A-Tarazi, a Jerusalem lawyer, agrees that Syrian series were well liked because they deal with matters of daily-life.
“They talk about reality, about our lives: theft, drugs, love, divorce.” A-Tarazi explains. “This year there are more than 80 series on different channels. They compete with each other by starting to advertise a month in advance.”       
Birenbaum says the recent emergence of Arab satellite channels has led to a proliferation of TV series, while the pan-national nature of these channels, beyond the reach of local government, allow for the treatment of taboo issues such as polygamy and homosexuality.
One such controversial topic appears in a recent episode of the popular Saudi series “Tash Ma Tash”, which loosely translates to “No Big Deal”. The show portrays a Saudi woman marrying four men because she is “financially and emotionally capable.” This poignant critique of an Islamic precondition allowing men to marry multiple women was not well received by Saudi clerics.
A similar theme appeared earlier this year in the Egyptian series “Zahra and Her Five Husbands”, in which beautiful Zahra struggles with her marriage to four men. The Egyptian state censor reportedly removed twenty-two scenes appearing in the first ten episodes of “Zahra”.
Despite the spiritual nature of Ramadan, Muhannad ‘Anati says Ramadan series rarely deal with religious topics.
“On the contrary, the shows often criticize clergy and implicitly religion itself. I find some of these things strange,” he says. “The programs’ creators are secular, not connected to the religion, and they make series that will appeal to the public.”
This has led some Muslims to take up the cause social networking sites. For instance, a Facebook group titled “No to Ramadan Nudity Series” is calling on its members to oppose Ramadan series “which transform the month of worship into the month of desires.”