Ramadan is a glorious month no matter what year or season it is in. Apart from its religious significance, Ramadan has become significantly coupled with TV shows not only in Egypt but also across the Arab world. These bring back old Ramadan memories for many that can be traced back to childhood.
Celebrating Ramadan varies from one country to another, and each country has its own traditions that add a special taste to the month. In Egypt, a wide array of traditions intertwine with Ramadan: the call of the mesaharatis beating their drums to wake up sleepers for Sohour, the pre-dawn meal; the fawanees (lanterns) that are hung up in the streets; the huge tents pitched all around the city; and the Iftar cannon’s booming sound, along with breaking the fast by drinking refreshing qamardddin (apricot), carob, and tamarind juices, and tasting mouthwatering khoshaf, konafa, and katayef sweets.
Among the memories evoked at family gatherings during Ramadan are the classic TV shows that dwell in the hearts of most Egyptians, especially the fawazeer (riddles) by Samir Ghanem, Nelly and Sherihan. The sight of the decorations, the rhythm of the songs, and the light of the lanterns remind the generations of the 1960s to the 1980s of the dances, songs and costumes of their favourite characters in those old TV shows in the hope of watching them once again on today’s flat-screens.
“Ramadan in Egypt is linked to a certain way of life that is very well understood by the older generations of Arab and Egyptian singers and actors. In order to preserve their heritage as part of the Arab-Egyptian identity, they immortalised Ramadan-related rituals, practices and values in their songs and shows,” said Hanaa Fathi, a Cairo doctor born in the 1950s who reminisced about Ramadan memories with her family.
It was in the early 1960s that the fawazeer were first broadcast on Egyptian radio as entertainment in Ramadan. Families gathered by the radio to listen enthusiastically to Amal Fahmi, a well-known radio host, presenting brain-teasing riddles followed by Zouzou Nabil’s legendary series Alf Leila wa Leila (One Thousand and One Nights).
“The Iftar cannon told us to listen to Hona Al-Qahera (This is Cairo) on the radio by eminent broadcaster Galal Moawad. We all remember how we huddled with our families in front of the radio to solve the daily fawazeer. These family shows taught children valuable moral lessons and ethics to follow,” Fathi added.
Meen Saheb Al-Sout? (Whose Voice is it?) was introduced to Egypt’s radio stations in early 1956 by radio pioneer Amal Fahmi. The riddles on the show, making it one of Egypt’s favourite Ramadan shows for many years, were so intriguing that listeners sent in their solutions by post.
The idea for the programme came to Fahmi when she was unable to identify the voice of a celebrity while listening to a radio programme. This inspired her to present a fawazeer show that featured public figures such as entertainers Emad Hamdi, Faten Hamama, Um Kolthoum and countless others reading a page of a book without revealing their identities to listeners. The audiences were left to try to recognise the voice and solve riddles written by well-known poet Bairam Al-Tonsi, journalist Mofid Fawzi, and poets Salah Jahine, Bakhit Bayoumi, and Bahaa Jahine.
Amal Fahmi’s idea inspired numerous other radio shows, and with the advent of TV the fawazeer also revolutionised Ramadan entertainment in Egypt. For many families, the Iftar cannon indicated the start of favourite TV shows.
NOSTALGIA: “Ramadan shows remind me of my childhood, when Ramadan was in the winter. The school days were short, and every day in the afternoon there were fawazeer on TV. We were kids, and these shows were new to us. The excitement of watching them was unprecedented. The following day in school we talked about them and repeated their funny phrases and songs,” remembers Alexandra Kinias, an Egyptian-American scriptwriter.
In 1961, Egypt aired its first TV riddles show, Ala Raai Al-Mathal (As the Saying Goes) presented by Amal Fahmi with riddles written by Al-Tonsi based on the book Al-Amthal Al-Ammeya (Colloquial Proverbs) by Mahmoud Taymour. Al-Tonsi advised viewers to look at the book in order to identify the proverbs, and each episode presented a compelling short play based on a colloquial saying that the audience was supposed to guess.
In 1967, fawazeer were shown on TV with an array of celebrities whose names became synonymous with Ramadan, particularly Nelly, Sherihan, and Samir Ghanem. They became part and parcel of the annual Ramadan entertainment shows not only in Egypt but also in the Arab world.
Among them was Tholathy Adwaa Al-Masrah (The Trio of Theatre Lights), a one-of-a-kind TV show that featured exceptional stage performances and riddles presented by three widely-admired comedy icons Al-Deif Ahmed, George Sidhom, and Samir Ghanem. It was written by poet Hussein Al-Sayed and directed by Mohamed Salem. “Tholathy Adwaa Al-Masrah was really funny. You watched it for a good laugh. Al-Deif Ahmed died in 1970, and the fawazeer continued with just George and Samir,” Kinias said.
Nelly’s Fawazeer (1975-1996) was also a perfect combination of the genuine creativity of director Fahmi Abdel-Hamid and the remarkable artistic talent of actress Nelly that led to the outstanding success of this show. In 1975, Abdel-Hamid began directing the TV show Soura and Fazoura (A Photo and A Riddle) with the help of the writer Salah Jahine and the contribution of choreographer Hassan Afifi, one of the lead dancers at the Reda Dance Troop. Among favourite Ramadan editions of the show was Fawazeer Al-Khatba (Riddles of the Matchmaker) in 1981, which included dances, songs and an uncommon feature at that time — cartoon characters.
“These old shows were one of a kind. It was the first time this type of entertainment had been brought to Egyptian TV. I was in awe when Nelly’s Fawazeer started in colour. The show was transformational. Nelly was the singer Fayrouz’s sister, who joined the entertainment business at a young age. She danced, sang, acted and performed. She was fun, cute, charming — the girl next door. Everybody loved her. Nelly was also backed up by director Abdel-Hamid and choreographer Afifi. You could feel their chemistry reflected in the show. They were the dream team,” Kinias remembered.
Nelly’s Fawazeer ran for more than two decades on Arab TV stations with new riddles every Ramadan, including Soura wa Fazzortein (1975), Fawazeer Arosty (1980), Fawazeer Alam Waraq (1990), Fawazeer Sandouq Al-Donia (1991), and Fawazeer Zay Al-Naharda (1996) — which was Nelly’s last Ramadan show in her long career.
Fattouta’s Fawazeer (1982-1984) was a unique Ramadan show introduced in 1982 by Fahmi Abdel-Hamid that featured the actor and comedian Samir Ghanem and a miniature form of him — called Fattouta — dressed in a loose-fitting green suit and large yellow shoes. This miniature was an entertaining character that sang, danced, and told riddles in humorous ways. Fawazeer Amo Fouad (1983-1993) featured actor Fouad Al-Mohandess, who presented an educational and humorous show for a whole decade that left an imprint on viewers of all ages.
Boogy Wa Tamtam (1983-2009) was the most treasured puppet show in Egyptian television history that captivated the hearts and minds of multiple generations. It featured a clumsy monkey (Boogy) and his intelligent rabbit sister (Tamtam), as well as other characters like Tamatem, Ziko, and Uncle Shakshak, with their songs, dances and conversations.
The talent of comedians Younis Shalabi (Boogy) and Hala Fakher (Tamtam), in addition to the efficient work of puppet designer and director Mohamed Rahmi, contributed to the success of the show in Egypt and the Arab world. It managed to maintain its position every Ramadan by keeping young audiences tuned into the puppets’ daily-life stories.
Geddo Abdou’s Fawazeer (1987-1988) by Abdel-Moneim Madbouli was another popular Ramadan show engraved into the minds and hearts of the 1980s generation by actor Abdel-Moneim Madbouli. The show managed to entertain both children and adults, and it brought family members together to guess the plants that Geddo Abdou discussed in every episode, enriching the audience’s knowledge.
Sherihan’s Fawazeer (1986-1994) was a milestone in TV history and was first introduced to the Ramadan season by Fahmy Abdel-Hamid. For almost a decade, the beloved actress Sherihan presented her compelling show, which was rich in amusing songs and mind-racking riddles. Sherihan had studied dance in Paris, and this was reflected in her first appearance in Alf Leila wa Leila in 1986. Among her humorous fawazeer shows were Hawl Al-Alam (Around the World) in 1988 and Hagat wa Mehtagat (Things and Needs) in 1994 featuring actors Mohamed Heneidi and Alaa Morsi. The work of choreographer Hassan Afifi, composer Moudi Al-Imam, and the costume designers was also behind the show’s success.
“When Sherihan came along, she was the perfect successor to Nelly. Her show was on a different tier, though. With her unprecedented talent and lavish costumes, her fawazeer became a visual fiesta. People were in awe. It was a combination of a Las Vegas and a Hollywood show, with an oriental flavour. Sherihan, like her predecessor, had joined the entertainment business at a young age, and she was not only talented, but worked hard her entire life to improve it,” Kinias said.
Alf Leila wa Leila was a radio series in the 1960s recited by the comforting voice of actress Zouzou Nabil and directed by Mohamed Shaaban. Playing the role of Scheherazade brought Nabil much fame over the years. In the 1980s, it was adapted into a TV series starring numerous celebrities: Iman Al-Toukhi and Youssef Shaaban; Laila Elwi and Samir Ghanem; Athar Al-Hakeem and Farouk Al-Fishawi; Dalal Abdel-Aziz and Yehia Al-Fakharani; Nelly and Sherihan.
An audience of both adults and children was glued to the TV screens every day of the holy month when watching a new episode.
Every day in Ramadan around the evening prayer TVs used to be switched on to the cartoon series Bakkar’s cheerful introductory song by famous singer Mohamed Mounir. The unforgettable cartoon, which features a Nubian character (Bakkar) and his pet goat (Rashida), was Egypt’s first successful cartoon show, made in 1997 by director Mona Abu Nasr.
Another famous children’s show was Alam Semsem (Semsem’s World), first aired in 1997. Al-Moghameroun Al-Khamsa (The Five Adventurers) was another Egyptian cartoon series written by writer Mahmoud Salem that attracted the younger generations and engaged them in solving the mysteries encountered by the characters.
DRAMA: The TV series that were shown during the holy months of the 1980s and 1990s are part and parcel of many generations’ memories of Ramadan, and their names trigger a wave of nostalgia for how families gathered to watch them together.
Layaly Al-Helmiya (Nights of Al-Helmiya, 1987-1995) comes at the top of the Ramadan drama list with its sterling reputation and tremendous success. Written by gifted writer Osama Anwar Okasha, this hybrid-genre TV series with its wide array of characters won the hearts of fans with a legacy that lasts to the present day.
Raafat Al-Haggan (1987-1992) by Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz and Yousra was another Ramadan drama, where Abdel-Aziz’s performance, as well as the overall suspense created by the scenario and music, made the audience await each episode with baited breath. Ahlam Al-Fata Al-Taer (Dreams of Ibrahim Al-Taer) was actor Adel Imam’s TV debut in 1978, followed by Domou fi Oyoun Waqeha (Tears in Shut Eyes) in 1980. These were two of his memorable roles in Ramadan TV drama that managed to leave an imprint on the minds of the 1970s and 1980s generations.
When satellite TV spread in the 1990s, investing in fawazeer was no longer a profitable option. Instead, the channels focused on producing candid camera shows during the holy month.
Min Gheir Kalam (Without Words, 1991-1998) was a show presented by the late comedy star Hassan Mustafa in the 1990s that featured celebrities playing charades on TV. They were divided into teams, and each team guessed the titles of songs, movies and plays to win.
Ibrahim Nasr’s Al-Camera Al-Khafiya (The Hidden Camera, 2001) was one of the most popular prank shows that received considerable success. In the show, Nasr mastered the impersonation of a woman called Zakiya Zakariya and managed to make the audience giggle with every utterance.
A number of attempts were made to imitate the fawazeer shows of Nelly and Sherihan but they were in vain. Nelly and Sherihan’s performances proved to be irreplaceable, not only in the audience’s hearts but also in the history of Ramadan’s entertainment shows.
Some of the copycat shows were Al-Monasabat by Yehia Al-Fakharani, Hala Fouad and Sabrine (1988); Al-Fenoon by Sherine Reda and Medhat Saleh (1989); Ehna Fein by Samir Sabri (1994); Geran Al-Hana by Nadine and Wael Nour (1997); Helm Walla Elm by Nelly Kareem and Salah Abdallah (2002); Al-Eyal Etganenet by Yasmine Abdel-Aziz, Abdallah Mahmoud and Mohamed Saad (2002); and Abyad Weswed by Mohamed Heneidi, Alaa Walieddin and Ashraf Abdel-Baki.
Giant media producers across the Arab world today tend to target audiences during the holy month with shows calculated to have the maximum number of viewers interspersed with floods of commercials. Ramadan has become the most expensive time for investing in TV drama and entertainment shows, raising the audience’s expectations of quality and genre.
The fawazeer industry, which entertained many generations over the years, is no longer in demand. The absence of generous funding and the fading of talents are the main reasons behind its disappearance from the entertainment scene at the present time.
According to Egyptian-American writer and director Hisham Issawi, the newer shows have not gained the fame of those of the 1970s and 1980s because they lack creativity despite the money spent on them.
“The most important aspect of any medium is originality,” Issawi said. “In the old days, the writers or producers of the shows were Egyptians, with an Egyptian education, not touched by any other culture. Nowadays, many of the Egyptian TV shows are taken from American productions. We rarely get a truly original Egyptian idea.”
SONGS: Another highlight of the holy month is listening to old Ramadan songs. Despite the passage of time and the major changes in the public taste for music, the generations that witnessed the entertainment of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s can go on a trip down memory lane when they listen to Ramadan songs.
Before television was introduced into Egypt’s households in the 1960s, listening to music contests on the radio was a tradition. The radio was many artists’ means of sharing their talents with audiences in the hope of joining the world of fame. Every composer was allowed to play music for 15 minutes on the radio, paving the way for Ramadan songs.
In 1934, singer and composer Mohamed Fawzi shared his song Hato Al-Fawanees (Bring the Lanterns). Ahmed Abdel-Kader, a prominent singer and composer, put forward two songs for Ramadan in Wahawy Ya Wahawy and Ramadan Gana, with Mohamed Abdel-Motteleb singing the latter. Wahawy Ya Wahawy, written by Hussein Helmi, includes Coptic words used to greet the ancient Pharaoh Ahmos’ mother after her son’s victory in his battle with the invading Hyksos. These Coptic words, along with others, remained in use in the Arabic language.
“Ramadan Gana reminds me of old music clips, and it was one of [band] Massar Egbari’s covers of old songs. I remember trying to reproduce a new version of this song with the band. After studying every detail of the original music and lyrics, I came to love it even more. It is a brilliant timeless track,” said Ahmed Hafez, a member of the Massar Egbari musical band, which produces covers of old songs.
Another classical Ramadan song with significant historical background is Hallo ya Hallo (1961), or “give us sweets”, which was sung by children to the Fatimid ruler Al-Moez li-Deen Allah when he came to Cairo in the mediaeval period. The same words were used later to denote children’s elation at the arrival of Ramadan. Similarly, Al-Tholathy Al-Mareh’s song Aho Geh ya Wlad (1959) became very popular for the contentment it brings in Ramadan to the older and younger generations.
Ramadan songs not only reflect people’s excitement at the holy month, but also express values and traditions related to Ramadan, such as praying, reciting the Quran, and donating food and money to those in need. Written by Mohamed Ali Ahmed and sung by Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud, Marhab Shahr Al-Som (1966) is a good example of a song about the value of praying and fasting during the holy month.
In a similar manner, Mohamed Al-Mougy’s 1962 song Al-Ragel Da Hayganenny (This Man is Driving Me Crazy), sung by Sabah and Fouad Al-Mohandess, represents a wife’s criticism of her husband’s non-stop craving for all types of food instead of learning the lessons that Ramadan teaches. “You can’t help but smile when you listen to this song, which depicts the conversation between every husband and wife before breakfast,” commented Hafez.
One of the building blocks of the media coverage during the holy month is tawashih and ibtihalat (Quranic verses and religious songs and prayers). Some of the soothing voices reciting them are sheikhs Mohamed Refaat, Abdel-Basset Abdel-Samad and Sayed Naqshbandi. “My childhood memory of Ramadan always starts with the ibtihalat by Sheikh Abdel-Basset Abdel-Samad. His voice resonates in my head whenever I am in Egypt during Ramadan. His beautiful, calming voice makes an enormous impact on listeners,” Hesham said.
Since the centuries-old role of the mesaharati falls under Ramadan’s traditions, Mohamed Fawzi dedicated his song Ashhadlo Subhano in the 1950s to this profession as a sign of gratitude. Other singers followed suit, such as Mohamed Abdel-Motteleb, Mohamed Kandil, and Mohamed Roshdi, as well as comedy stars Ismail Yassine and Mahmoud Shokouko, in an attempt to keep the mesaharati alive. Fouad Haddad’s Al-Mesaharati, composed and sung by Sayed Mekkawi, is a classical song that celebrates the same tradition.
“Al-Mesaharati is rich in its words, melody, and cultural heritage. It is sung with nothing in the background, but the drum beats add charm to it. It puts us in the mood for the month of Ramadan,” said Hafez.
TODAY: The success of the materials produced in the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to many factors, the most important being their remarkable talents.
“Besides the assortment of talented presenters, actors and singers featured in the Ramadan shows and songs, the secret behind their success lies in the formidable contributions of eminent poets such as Bairam Al-Tonsi, Salah Jahine, Sayed Hegab and Bahaa Jahine; brilliant choreographers like Hassan Afifi; skillful composers such as Mohamed Fawzi, Helmi Bakr, Ammar Al-Sherei and Omar Khairat; and an array of proficient directors, especially Ahmed Salem, Fahmi Abdel-Hamid, and Gamal Abdel-Hamid. When such remarkable talents meet in one show, it is hard to replicate new Ramadan shows and songs that outshine these unique experiences,” Fathi said.
Another reason why the shows remain memorable is that they were part of a classless society. “There were only a few shows at that time, which means they were the only option you had,” Issawi said. “Everyone watched those shows: it didn’t matter what your background was, or your level of education or social class. They were for all, from the doorman to the prime minister, and families rarely had more than one TV set that they huddled around.”
The shows also had powerful and meaningful content that is rarely found today. “The shows of the 1970s or 1980s were well thought up, well acted, and well written. That’s why we can all re-watch them. Compared to today’s shows, they were Shakespeare. The production values were high, and people spent the whole year planning, writing, and producing them. They brought the best writers and best directors. Since everyone in the country would be watching and since there were no other options, they had to be the best,” he added.
“There were few options, but those options were of high quality — the best of the year and unique in what they presented,” Kinias said. “It was only in Ramadan that we got to watch fawazeer or series. So, it is easy to remember these shows because they were few but precious. They were not for quick consumption.”
Today, mass production means viewers are inundated with limitless shows that they can hardly remember. “The old shows created a sort of unity between people,” Kinias noted. “With only two TV channels, everybody watched exactly the same things. That’s why the pop culture of my generation was all the same. We all share the same memories,” he added.
This is a far cry from today, with hundreds of channels and Netflix, YouTube, and other online platforms. “Producers try to appeal to each individual taste, each age, and each social class today,” Issawi said. “While you could argue that this variety makes our younger generations more diverse, there’s something positive in having shared references among a single generation. When the old Ramadan shows are brought up among the 1970s and 1980s generations, everyone remembers them, and there is a bit of joy in that,” he added.
Hafez thinks the reason why some Ramadan songs and shows have stood the test of time is that they were made with passion. “Even though some old songs have disappeared, every now and then we find old songs being reproduced in new tracks or added to the soundtracks of commercials, films, or series. These songs have become an integral part of our shared pop culture and heritage,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly