Not Ready for (post-Spring) Prime Time

The Arab world's most important TV season ended with Ramadan. Some artists found dealing with the Arab Spring more challenging than fasting for a month.

"Next time I'll tell you a different joke," the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv says in fluent Hebrew to his Israeli friend, and the two men shake with laughter. The ambassador in the Egyptian series "The Naji Atallah Band," portrayed by Egyptian actor Adel Imam, is in Israel's pocket. He has a long friendship with a fishmonger in the market, is a back-slapping pal of a restaurant-owner who goes by the name Mizrahi, he prattles on with a real estate agent and he recognizes from afar the head of the Shin Bet security service. He is also the one who takes the new Egyptian cultural attache around the city, teaching him about Jews and the custom of keeping kosher.

No, Adel Imam, the acclaimed actor and talented director who is an icon of Egyptian culture, is not particularly fond of Israel or its citizens. The Jews in the Egyptian television series "The Naji Atallah Band" for the most part resemble anti-Semitic caricatures; they have the earlocks of ultra-Orthodox Jews, thick beards and even hooked noses. The series, broadcast on Egyptian television throughout the Ramadan holiday that ended Saturday, features the Egyptian ambassador (Imam ) and the cultural attache who decide to take revenge on Israel and rob the large bank, Bank Leumi in this case, where the ambassador has an account. He recruits former students, each of whom is an expert in a different criminal field. Together they break into the bank, steal the money in the safe, escape via various countries and meet up in Egypt.

Originally the program was not intended for television. The actor's son Rami Imam began to direct it as a movie during the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But it suffered setbacks from the start. The production company backed out of the project for fear of losing money; then business relations soured between Imam and the producer, journalist Emad Adiv. Ultimately, it was decided that the film be turned into a television series. Since Imam was considered a national treasure during Mubarak's regime, Egyptian TV invested 70 million Egyptian pounds to complete the project, on the condition that it was turned into a TV series to be aired during Ramadan.

For Adel Imam, this was a difficult condition to accept. For nearly 30 years he had not appeared on television, which he considered an inferior art form to his preferred theater and film. But economic pressures are only part of the explanation for his willingness to turn to the small screen. When the Arab Spring began, Imam was considered its enemy because of statements he made against the demonstrators and his devotion to the Mubarak regime. Imam received threats and was forced to stop filming for a time. He was unable to convince the movement's leaders that he was part of their fight. The interim government that arose in the wake of Mubarak's ouster saw Imam as a remnant of the earlier period and forced him to make changes to the script that showed the Mubarak era in a positive light.

Recently, Imam was sentenced to three months in prison and was fined tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds for what were termed affronts to the Islamic religion in several of his films. The court is set to rule on his appeal this week. And if that wasn't enough, a group of young people opened a Facebook page calling on the public to boycott his new series, along with other series by artists considered to be Mubarak supporters or those who had condemned the popular uprising. Imam is not alone in this battle. Under the slogan "Enjoy the blessings of Ramadan and boycott the hypocrites," viewers are also asked to shun Talaat Zakaria, who called the demonstrators delinquents, as well as actresses Elham Shaheen, and Ghada Abdel Razek, and others big names in the Egyptian entertainment industry.

The call for a boycott did not succeed against the strong tradition in Egypt of families watching TV together following the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. Still, the fact that such a campaign existed is evidence of the great and continuing influence of the uprising, which leaves the artists in a quandary. Some of them are not certain about how to express the changes in Egyptian society. One of the issues confounding scriptwriters is how to present the army and police forces. On one hand, police were considered the enemy during the uprising; on the other hand, the army was perceived as supporting the demonstrators.

Who are the heroes?

One successful Egyptian series, Ahmed Shafik's "Red Lines," depicts the sacrifices a police officer (played by Ahmed el-Sakka ) is forced to make when his wife is murdered as revenge for his investigation of arms smugglers. In "Gate of Creation," a series named for an ancient gate in an historic neighborhood of Cairo, prison wardens are depicted as behaving decently and humanely to prisoners.

Both of these series were severely criticized for ignoring the torture and killings of demonstrators at the hands of the security forces, as well as other suffering and insults inflicted by them. "Dozens of citizens were tortured in jails, although there was no evidence they had committed crimes," wrote television critic Ashraf Bayoumi. "This type of series is no longer relevant. It is not acceptable to the public," added critic Tareq al-Shinawy. Because how can one offer up a decent prison warden and a suffering policeman after the uprising?

Aside from the question of who the heroes should be, competition in Egypt's post-Arab Spring entertainment world involves a lot of egos. For example, scriptwriter Majid Saber asked the culture minister to postpone the screening of the series he had written until after the Ramadan holiday. Saber's "Son of the Regime" offers a rather banal description of the uprising's developments and deals with the corruption of the Mubarak family. But Saber didn't only ask for a delay, he wanted his show to be aired on October 6 - known in Egypt as Day of Victory (in the 1973 Yom Kippur War ). "The series depicts the ethos of national victory," he said, to explain why his series was worthy of being shown on such an important national day. Behind the request, however, was the deep offense he felt at the series originally not having been scheduled to air during prime time, which is when, in his opinion, a program dealing with a subject of the "utmost national importance" should have been aired.

There is grave importance to scheduling during Ramadan since the percentage of viewers determines the economic future of the actors, the director and producer. If a show is buried in the wee hours of the night, the likelihood of selling it to other Arabic stations and making a profit are greatly reduced. And how will the public become acquainted with new actors? And how will foreign Arab companies hire music composers? And if Egyptian television decides that a series is inappropriate for prime time, there is a chance it may be scrapped altogether.

The Ramadan television industry is worth a ton of money. This year, production companies spent between 20 and 40 million Egyptian pounds on each 30-part series, and it is estimated that the total expenditure reached one billion pounds. A good chunk of these expenses goes to pay the famous actors who receive between one to five million Egyptian pounds for their roles. If a series is pushed to the margins of the broadcasting schedule, the director will have trouble enlisting famous actors, who choose their work according to the amounts they will be paid and the exposure they will receive.

Syrian sensitivities

If the uprising haunted the writing desks and editing stations of series creators in Egypt, the biggest challenge to writers and directors in Syria was to produce programming that reflects the difficult reality there without offending the regime which funds most of the programs.

"How can we grant the viewer, who this year finds himself immersed in a psychological situation close to depression, a sense of a better future, and prevent him from sinking into darkness, if our dramas do not portray hope and optimism," asked writer Hanadi Ibrahim in an article in the Syrian newspaper Al Watan, owned by President Bashar Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf. The answer is that the new Syrian series refrained for the most part from showing violence, shootings or bloodletting.

In recent years, Syrian television series were highly successful and could compete with the Egyptian ones, but this year Syrian television produced only 23 series in comparison with Egypt's 70. The result is that "the actors went out of their way to amuse the audience, the content was meager and boring, the acting monotonous, and what we witnessed were more or less fashion shows by the actresses," according to Syrian critic Reeth Khamor.

Many of Syria's leading actors fled to Dubai to escape the war, and some important scriptwriters who had been critical of the regime in the past were not allowed to take part in the creation of this year's TV series. In actuality, what ended up happening is that the best Syrian dramas this year were actually aired on opposition Internet websites and on the Arab satellite news broadcasts.

In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, scriptwriters were exempted from dealing with uprisings. They continued to produce comedies and dramas about ordinary matters: family problems, the relationship of parents and children and the status of women. There were no great dramas in life or on the screen in these countries.

Back in Egypt meanwhile, as production companies have already begun preparing for next year's Ramadan TV season, a particularly fascinating question has arisen: Will the Muslim Brotherhood mimic Mubarak and institute religious censorship, or will it allow the productions to serve as a valve that allow both writers and viewers let off steam of social and economic crises.