The Egyptian television series Saraya Abdeen was highly anticipated as one of the biggest productions of the year across the Arab world. The advertising campaign for its release started as early as December 2013, which gave the impression that we would witness a unique and special production, a glimpse into a time in which we were not lucky enough to live.
But Saraya Abdeen, currently at its half-way point, has disappointed all expectations. The Ramadan series fails to stick to the historical narrative and its makers' claim that it's meant to be a fictional work
This is a problem. If the show is meant to be fictional, then how do the producers explain the phrase "based on a true story" which is written in the show's opening credits? The phrase dictates the necessity of sticking to the historical narrative – with the possibility of adding some small details to enhance the story. The historical issue aside, the show manages to belittle the intelligence of its viewers on numerous issues.
The first episode starts with the birthday celebration of Khedive Ismail – which continues for two more episodes, allowing us to see the lavish lifestyle of the palace at the time. In spite of the events being stretched over three episodes, viewers were patient in the belief that the next episodes would pick up. However, they were disappointed – the events that followed proved weaker than what a historical series should present.
The show's writer, Kuwaiti Heba Meshary, transformed the series into romantic – or rather sexual – stories of the man who continued Egypt's renaissance in the period after his grandfather, Mohamed Ali. Most events in the series show Ismail's sexual conquests with his wife and harem in a direct manner.
The distortion happening in Saraya Abdeen is unbelievable. In addition to the focus on Ismail's romantic escapades, all of the females in the palace are sexually active – princesses, servants and harem members. This all takes place under the careful watch of Ismail's mother, billed at a press conference prior to the show's release as a strong woman, a character who holds her ground.
When Ismail's wife wants to leave the palace, his mother (Yousra) locks her in the bathroom and then tells her that she'll have to leave behind the clothes bought by her son if she wants to leave – an unrealistic scenario for the wife of Egypt's khedive.
Another unrealistic endeavour is when Ismail's wife brings a woman to the palace to undo a spell she believes has been cast on her life with her husband. When the woman extracts the spell into the fireplace, she sets the house on fire. This kind of superstition wasn't common among royalty and also would not have been carried out within the palace.
Adding to the string of unrealistic stories, Ghada Adel – as a harem member – is featured smoking shisha. She also hides in Ismail's wardrobe to force him to spend the night with her. Then there's the scene at the beginning of the series where she asks a doctor to transform her into a "girl", meaning that she wants reconstructive surgery for her hymen, an operation not practiced at that time.
It's a shame that the writer's imagination is not used to develop the intellectual capability of Ismail, a leader responsible for Egypt's modern history. Instead, the show portrays him as a sex-crazed man after his conquests are already over.
If the makers of the show wanted to present a simple fictional narrative, they could have done so and steered clear of mutilating history.