- Yehia El Fakharany
To the untrained eye, Ramadan in Cairo must be terrifying. At intermittent hour-long periods, it must resemble a ghost town, though I have never been outside to check. Cars must go unparked, laundry must remain undelivered, and your bawwab must be deaf to your repeated entreaties for the latest Archie comic.
There is only one explanation. It must be mosalsal season.
If improperly explained, the concept would not seem strange to foreigners. So a few TV shows start airing at a certain time. So what? Sounds like September for CBS. A proper explanation would have to go into a little more depth.
Mosalsalat are not long-running TV shows that forge your connection to characters through seasons’ worth of subtle emotional build up. Mosalsalat are never ‘in talks for a new season’ or ‘postponing release while filming on location in Iceland’.
Ramadan for mosalsalat is rather like the gladiator arena of TV shows. Various studios compete viciously for actors and airtime 11 months of the year, filming furiously and petitioning for advertising revenue in preparation for a single 30-day period. And when that moment arrives, the floodgates are open and the warriors stream out, brandishing veteran actors and witty dialogue instead of swords and shields.
The sheer breadth of the concept is almost mind-blowing. Excluding Gulf and Levantine shows, there are almost 60 Egyptian programs airing this Ramadan (including series, talk shows, prank shows, etc). 60 programs running for 30 days each for 30 minutes each, if you factor out the roughly equal ratio of advertisements that accompany each program. It is not humanly possible to follow more than a handful, yet engage an average Egyptian in conversation and he will speak knowledgeably about each and every one. Astounding.
That is why, between the hours of 12 and 1, or 2 and 4, or any other popular mosalsal timeslot there are literally tumbleweeds rolling across the collective empty screen that is Cairo.
When watching a few of the more popular series, it is easy to see why they are so popular. Each series is carefully written to address something that is prominent in the common Egyptian personality, such as an outrageous sense of humour, a deep sense of patriotism or the eternal struggle against the ominous poverty line.
One of the most-watched series of this Ramadan is Ferqet Nagui Attallah (or Nagui Attallah’s Team). It stars Egyptian cinema legend Adel Imam as a diplomatic attaché to the embassy in Israel. When the Israelis screw him over (as Israelis are wont to do in Egyptian cinema), he decides to take vengeance by assembling an elite team and robbing an Israeli bank.
While the show is still in its infancy (six episodes have aired so far), it is proving to be a popular crowd pleaser due to Imam’s character’s defiance of Israel despite living among its residents and his knack of embarrassing those who stand against him with a certain baladi panache. A firm stance short of hatred is a popular theme with Egyptian mosalsalat. The plethora of humorous “that guy” actors that compose his bank-robbing team also provide a modicum of comic relief, especially in the case of Adel Imam’s own son, Mohammed Imam, who plays a womanising tour guide.
Another popular show is Al Khawaga Abd El Kader (or The Foreigner Abd El Kader) starring another television and theatre legend, Yehia El Fakharany. It details the travels of a suicidal English merchant during WWII who decides to seek his death in Sudan, but ends up a much-adored figure among the natives as well as in Egypt, where he protests against his own countrymen. This mosalsal contains strong undercurrents of patriotism and the popular Egyptian notion that there is no country like Egypt in the world, which is why it appeals to such large audiences.
Finally, there are terrible yet –guiltily I admit- gruesomely entertaining shows, such as Ramez Tha’alab Al Sahara (or Ramez, the Jackal of the Desert). This Punk’d-style show promises prominent Egyptian figures an interview in Sharm Al Sheikh, puts them on a bus, then stages a heist complete with assault rifles and even a bazooka. Since the bus is full of extras, the poor victim is often a complete nervous wreck, most probably due to the spectacularly-staged pyrotechnics. Were the legal system in this country any good, this show would be ripe for a lawsuit. It really says something about the human race that we find this entertaining.
To conclude, it would be tough to not speak Arabic during Ramadan. Mosalsalat are the bread and butter of Ramadan conversations, and neither being able to discuss nor follow the shows is a social burden too heavy to bear. To those able to follow, however, it is not only a month of explosions, gunfights, intrigue and romance, but also an insight into the Egyptian psyche – Egyptian desires, Egyptian fears and Egyptian realities.