Gluttons for Television

The holy month of Ramadan may be the most difficult, and most lucrative, for film producers

When actress Ghada Abdel Razek, the heroine of the Egyptian television series "Zohara and Her Five Husbands," searches for her mother in the vast house in which she lives, she looks lost, desperate and detached from reality. With a grim face, she looks straight into the camera and shouts, over and over, "Yama, yama" (mother in Arabic ).

It's only after making the rounds between living room and kitchen and dining room three times that she asks her neighbor what happened to her mother and learns she has been taken to hospital. Ghada is overwrought with fear. She is well aware of what goes on inside hospitals, in common with most Egyptians, who are acquainted with their gloomy situation. She, the black sheep of the family, who has been married to five men, works as a hospital nurse but is forced to steal drugs and sell them on the black market to help support the family.

Palestinians celebrating the end of the second day of Ramadan

To her and the producers' delight, the popular series, which is being broadcast during the month of Ramadan, has stirred a furor and is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the association of male and female nurses in Egypt. The association's head, Fathi El-Banna, showed the health minister, Hatem El-Gabali, scenes from the series in which the heroine is seen "humiliating and insulting our profession," as he put it.

Later in the series Zohara will also consider the marriage proposal from her elderly neighbor, who claims that only with her will he able to produce a son. This, too, is not alien to Egyptian society. The books by the Egyptian human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi are filled with similar cases. But such scenes, which harm Egypt's reputation and are broadcast on cable television across the Arab world, require the devoted treatment of the censor, especially when the government is accused of abandoning religion.

Those who did not take an interest in Zohara's fate could this week watch the fifth episode of the Syrian series "The Neighborhood Gate," which last year had record-high ratings, or zap to "The Shame," another series which has generated a scandal. National history buffs could watch the Gulf-produced series "Holiday Eve" about the impact of the Six-Day War on the Gulf states.

Egyptian television alone produced more than 50 series for Ramadan. Dozens of others were produced in Syria, the Gulf states, Morocco and Algeria. The month of Ramadan, which began in August, is also the month of the producers, directors, scriptwriters and the big stars, who toil for a year to rake in the profits in the holy month.

The series "Al Jama'a," about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, was acquired by the Egyptian Information Ministry for 24 million Egyptian pounds. In a series like this, big name actors can earn more than half that amount, particularly when the series is intended for broadcast over more than 750 Arab satellite channels, which want to hold their audience and attract commercial firms to advertise.

The month of fasting, in which families spend vast sums on food to nourish the fasters from sundown until dawn, is also the hardest month for film producers. In the evening, when families gather for the iftar meal to break the daytime fast, few people leave the house. After the meal the tussling for the remote control begins. The television set becomes an altar and most movie theaters close for the month.

Dialect and lifestyle

Like soccer matches, the television series bolster the national identity. In one visit I paid to Egyptian friends during Ramadan, an argument revolved around whether to watch an Egyptian series or a new series from the Gulf. The wife insisted that the Gulf series would be more interesting, because censorship there is less strict. She was also more interested in the theme of the series: "women who try to free themselves from dependence on their husbands," as she put it. Her husband tended to agree, even though he wanted to watch a Syrian series. "I'm fed up with the pomposity of our Egyptian series," he said. In the end it was the children who decided: "We don't understand either the dialect of the Gulf states or their way of life. We want the Egyptian series," they said.

The cultural differences between the Arab states are bridged mainly by Turkish series, which are dubbed into standard Arabic and so draw a broader audience. But outside the homes a different storm is brewing, political in character. This year, for example, Saif Al-Islam Al-Banna, the son of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, filed a lawsuit against the producers and the director of "Al-Jama'a." His argument: the Al-Banna family holds the property rights to the family's history and no one has the right to make a series about it without getting its authorization or having it take part.

Al-Banna, who was joined by Egyptian MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood, also claimed that the government "wasted public funds to buy a television series whose aim is to revile the Brotherhood movement." Moreover, he noted, all this took place just three months before the parliamentary elections. The court has so far rejected the demand to ban the series.

Politics also led to a situation in which Egyptian television series are not broadcast at all in Algeria. The tense, violent soccer match at the end of last year, in which Algeria defeated Egypt and advanced to the World Cup, caused a severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Relations have improved, but the revenge of Algerian television has not yet run its course.

In previous years, controversial series were broadcast, such as "Headless Horseman," which was purportedly anti-Semitic, or "Sheikh Mutuwali," whose critics claimed that it encouraged polygamy. No series stands out this year as particularly problematic. The Egyptian censors took severe measures to supervise the moral aspects. For example, dozens of scenes were cut from "Zohara and Her Five Husbands" and from "The Shame," which showed partial nudity as well as bedroom scenes (however circumspect ) or in which street curses were heard. The words of the hero of one series, telling his new bride, "I will now transform you from a girl into a woman" will not be heard by the viewers, nor will his declaration, "I go into training before the wedding night." In the series "The Blind Cat" a scene was cut in which the acclaimed actress who became religiously observant, Hanan Turk, refers to bribery as "an accepted way of arranging things - after all, this is Egypt."

Defending dignity

Harm to the state's status and dignity, affronts to the leadership or to the senior members of the government, slashes at religion and its institutions were all kept out of the series, whose producers must submit the scripts to the censors and a "viewing committee," which decides what is permitted and what is prohibited. When a series deals with religious content, even indirectly, the producers seek the prior approval of Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in Egypt, to avoid a later ban or a lawsuit.

One person who is not bothered by the censors' scissors or by lawsuits is Murad Masoud. A year ago he established a Facebook group calling for all the series to be boycotted because they violate the original intention of Ramadan. This year he activated the group again, under the slogan, "Ramadan is worship of God and not television series." "In the past the sons of Satan were able to spoil the fast with the series. This year we will not give them opportunity," he declares. But he is not likely to find enough supporters to scrap an industry that invested $130 million in Egypt alone.