Not All Egyptians Are Laughing at New Comedy

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Actor Imam. Far from being a leftist in real life.Credit: Reuters

Dr. Fawzi Goma’a, a professor in the agriculture department at Cairo University, is abducted by security forces and taken to the desert, where he is beaten to the point of needing hospital treatment. A left-wing activist who is much admired by his students, Goma'a purportedly represents the secular intellectual who doesn’t shun the pleasures of life, such as nightclubs and alcohol. It also turns out that this leftist academic is an opportunist who is prepared to trade his principles for a cabinet minister’s position that the government, then controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, offers him.

Goma’a is not a real person, but rather the protagonist of the new Egyptian television series “Lecturer and Department Head,” written on the occasion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by playwright and author Yousef Muati. Goma'a is played by movie star and director Adel Imam.

Far from being a leftist in real life, Imam is receiving about 35 million Egyptian pounds (about $4.6 million) for his role. Imam is not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though his daughter Sara is married to a leader of the movement. Indeed, Imam embodies many contradictions. His important films deal with the problems of poverty and corruption in Egypt. He was dubbed “the leader” based on a play of the same name in which he ridiculed Arab regimes, and in which there is more than a hint of a reference to deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But when the revolution that overthrew Mubarak erupted in January 2011, Imam came out against it, calling the anti-Mubarak demonstrators scoundrels and claiming that they represented foreign interests. When Mubarak fell from power the following month, however, the actor-director changed his spots and issued glowing statements in support of Egypt’s “wonderful youth.”

Now Imam is again in a controversial position, ridiculing the left and, while he's at it, not sparing institutions of higher education or the mechanisms of Egyptian government as a whole. In one of the first scenes of “Lecturer and Department Head,” which depicts life in the country before the revolution, a character named Matwali, a lecturer with an M.A. who is about to start his doctoral studies, is on his way to the university to make sure that he gets the position Dr. Goma’a had promised him.

With the strains of the Egyptian national anthem playing in the background, viewers suddenly hear a woman screaming. “What happened?" a cab driver asks a fellow motorist on the street, in this scene. “A woman had her baby in a car,” came the response, to which the cab driver, who is transporting Matwali, retorted in disgust: “Look what is happening here because of the traffic jams! If traffic would move normally, we would already be a billion people. A billion.”

The driver is convinced that his passenger has a Ph.D., but Matwali explains that he’s just starting his doctoral work. The cabbie then pulls out a little plastic certificate testifying to his own education. “I have a master’s in organic chemistry,” he tells a stunned Matwali, but the doctoral student’s real shock only comes later when he sees that his name is missing from the list of people appointed to university positions.

Not by chance, on the way to the university, the cab passes the monumental sculpture “Egypt Awakening” designed by Mahmoud Mukhtar, which was dedicated in 1928, to herald a new era in Egypt. Now it seems as if it is looking on in deep sadness over what has happened to the country.

Even though the first episode in the TV series is purportedly set in December of 2010, a month before the revolution began, it is clear to the viewer that a lot has remained the same since. No less important is that there is apparently still a need to employ the same black humor that helped Egyptians get through other difficult periods in the past. That is precisely the genre in which Imam and Muati excel, but as in Israel, humor that is critical of the country or its institutions is not warmly received.

“The role played by Imam does damage to the status of the lecturer and the teacher as an example to the students,” says Mohammed Khalaf, a professor of communications at Cairo University. “True, there are good and bad things everywhere and we need to expose the bad things, but we must not destroy the good foundations.”

Khalaf adds that he himself is angered by the portrayal of the professor in the TV series as a debauched figure who runs after women and drinks alcohol. A colleague in Khalaf’s department, Mehrez Ghali, goes even further: “The series damages the status of the lecturer to the point that it harms the unity of the society, which one must not agree to.”

The highly respected author Yousef Al-Qaeed has another problem with the show: “Why is Muati [the screen writer] pickingon the left? He could have come out against the elite in general, but he chose the left instead. It seems as if he has a problem with the Egyptian left in particular and the left in general."

As in Israel, the concept of the left in Egypt is a part of national nostalgia. The legacy left behind by President Gamal Abdel Nasser is that of a socialist left, but unlike in Israel, the Egyptian left is considered a bulwark against Muslim religion and conservatism – an icon that is not to be tainted.

Perhaps it is therefore appropriate for Israel’s Culture and Sports Ministry to seek to acquire broadcast rights to Adel Imam’s TV series. It could provide a lot of pleasure to anyone seeking to unmask the Israeli left. The problem is that Imam isn’t so crazy about Israel, and it is doubtful that he would consent to selling rights to it to the Israel Broadcasting Authority, even if he were promised that it would only be used for educational purposes.

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