BBC radio drama captures the essence of a literary masterpiece
News of an English radio series about the late novelist Naguib Mafouz s “Cairo Trilogy came as an unexpected surprise to many of his fans.
The idea of producing an English adaptation of a thoroughly Egyptian novel like the trilogy seemed dreadfully problematic, but what everyone thought to be practically inconceivable was the announcement that the series would consist of only three episodes, each an hour in length.
It was definitely hard for fans to understand how 1,300 pages could be squeezed into three hours. By the third week of October though, after the broadcast of the first episode, everyone realized that this obscure project is, in fact, the best adaptation of Mahfouz s masterpiece.
The idea of producing an adaptation of “Cairo Trilogy came to award winning British radio director John Dryden in 2006 after finishing a radio production in India. According to the assistant director Basim Azmy, Dryden aspired to direct an authentic Egyptian novel and record it in Egypt with an entirely Egyptian cast.
He found his muse in Mahfouz s trilogy and shortly afterwards, a script was prepared by Indian writer Ayeesha Mennon. Casting and recording started in July and was headed by Omar Sharif with actor Amr Waked and actress Caroline Khail.
The “Cairo Trilogy (“Palace Walk, “Palace of Desire and “Sugar Street ) is an epic account of Egypt spanning the period from the 1919 revolution against the British occupation to the fall of the monarchy in 1952. The novel traces three generations of the Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad family, chronicling all major social changes and drawing an enormously detailed picture of that period.
The series can be regarded as more of a re-interpretation of the novel rather than a faithful adaptation. The series tells the story of particular people, living in a particular time with particular conflicts.
The main focus of the series is its multitude of rich characters rather than the political or external aspect of that period and, under Dryden’s direction, these characters are given extra arcs to become more universally empathetic.
Each episode of the series contains a certain major theme that is distinctive, yet inseparable from the other two. “Palace Walk focuses on the double standards of Abd Al-Jawad and his overpowering tyranny; “Palace of Desire is about a family broken by grief over their son and “Sugar Street is one last look at people haunted by memories and a world that s fading away.
The production process was unusual for a radio serial. Unlike regular radio productions, Dryden recorded the series in real locations with cast members wearing costumes in order to inject the series with the uttermost sense of realism.
Mena El-Nagar, who played the revolutionary Fahmy, remembers how meticulous Dryden was, He made me change the sneakers I was wearing one day during the recording and replace them with a classical pair of shoes, as sneakers didn t exist in those days. He adds, We shot in apartments, universities, shops and even at the British Council. This sense of realism made it much easier for us to effortlessly slip under the skin of our characters.
Another inventive method Dryden used was adding Arabic expressions and slang words to the dialogue so that it was uniquely Egyptian.
Dryden used this technique in his previous Indian serial and decided to apply it again to the “Trilogy. The accent we used was neither purely English nor Arabic. It was somewhere in between, Zeinab Mubarak, who played the brothel owner Zebeida, said.
The “Cairo Trilogy is the first Egyptian serial to be broadcasted on the BBC Radio.
According to Yara Edris, the project manager of the series, the production was extensive and the casting process was very lengthy. Each member of the cast, apart from Sharif, had to play all other characters before Dryden made his final decision, she said. Apparently, Dryden s scheme paid off, as the resulting performances are simply astounding.
Sharif, who recorded his part in France, provides the narration in the character of old Kamal with a voice that bursts with warmth, wisdom and clear longing for a world that wasn t necessary kind to him.
Waked, whose Zad media production is the line producer of the series, plays young Kamal, the idealistic romantic, with gentle tenderness and overwhelming vulnerability rarely seen in his other works.
Ahmed Nour is compelling as Munim, the young fundamentalist who conceals his rapturous desires under his cold, calm façade; Mubarak impeccably captures Zebeida s rise and fall from the most sought-after courtesan to a ghost of a disappearing place.
El-Nagar s portrayal of Fahmy showcases the anger and aggravation channeled toward the British to cover his powerlessness in standing up and confronting his father.
It s impossible to pick out a best performance as all of them are equally magnificent, but there are three specific performances that are worth noting perhaps, as they are the most complex characters in the series. Zanouba, played by Mariam El-Khoshd, has always been regarded as a reckless, opportunistic prostitute with no heart or any moral code.
The other cast members saw Zanouba as this rotten woman with no virtues or any reason to sympathize with, El-Khoshd said. But I didn t want to play it that way. Zanouba has an agenda and she wants to be respected and lead a better life. There s nothing wrong with that, she added. El-Khoshd s remarkable performance relied on her ability to transform a notorious, one-dimensional character into an early feminist. Zanouba s methods are mostly unscrupulous, but her strength and determination to get married and climb up the social ladder without sacrificing her independence are hard not to admire.
The most demanding role though belongs to Tamer Nasrat who portrays Yassin. Yassin has been rendered in past adaptations as the clown of the family, sometimes even the comic relief element of the story; in this series though, Yassin becomes the most cynical, bitterest and wisest character in the story. Nasrat never shies from throwing flirtatious lines during Yassin s constant sexual quests while his few moments of quiet desperation rank among the most memorable moments of the series.
By the end of “Sugar Street, one realizes that the “Cairo Trilogy is, in fact, a heartbreakingly sad story with fleeting moments of illusory happiness. John Dryden has, without a doubt, created one of the greatest Egyptian radio dramas. So far, reviews have been dazzling with some critics calling it one of the best dramas ever made. Perhaps one of the most distinguished aspects of the series is how the scenes are created with a cinematic touch. Consider, for example, Kamal s farewell scene with Aida or his first confrontation with his father when he comments, Mother was a manifestation of ignorant tenderness while father was a manifestation of ignorant harshness; As long as I live, I d be the victim of ignorance and tyranny.
Catch Sugar Street, the last episode of the series at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/classic_serial.shtml