Prostitution, homosexuality, poverty and restructuring the Ministry of the Interior…such are the themes that recur relentlessly in recent years through the television series screened during the month of Ramadan. Though they continue to be discussed throughout the year, the month of Ramadan is characterized by an abundance of soap operas par excellence, since a number of television series produced during the rest of the year hardly exceeds fingers of one hand.
Once the holy month ends, satellite channels struggle to rebroadcast series that had have the same level of viewership ratings. Certainly Ramadan programming increases income and encourages production companies to work with the same team the following year. The holy month is also an opportunity for producers to take advantage of the success of their series only to push the margins of what is considered taboo or socially acceptable.
For example, Kalam Ala Waraq (Words on Paper), which has attracted the lion's share of critics, broke records for the amount of insults and profanities pronounced by its characters, including the protagonist Habiba, played by the Lebanese actress and singer Haifa Wahbe. Despite loud criticism, the series gained relatively high ratings in viewership.
Ahmed Shawky, who headed the writing team of the series, told Ahram Online that "breaking taboos in television series merely reflects what is already taking place in society and on social networks." He explained that through these networks, anyone can express their opinions, freely and without limitations. As such, limits of what is acceptable are challenged.
Shawky adds that in the past "any person who was trying to break a taboo needed to surround himself with a group of supporters to create a sort of a lobby helping one cope with the pressures of the critics." But as times have changed, according to Shawky, it has become easier to lobby for a particular idea and find consent of a large public via the Internet even if this idea is far from ordinary.
"The magic word is Internet," Shawky says. "Today, the writer is morally supported by the people with whom he shares his opinion. This is when the producer is convinced that his investment will not go in vain. In the past, this realization process could take many years, while now it can be achieved in a few months or a few days."
Another television series El-Sabaa Wasaya (The Seven Commandments), directed by Khaled Marie, provoked strong reactions of the viewers who criticized it for how the religion and the society's superficiality of faith is tackled in the series. Much like Kalam Ala Waraq, when compared with other series, El-Sabaa Wasaya ranks high in viewership.
In each episode, the creators take one step further in addressing taboos. For instance the series speaks of the "soufa" (piece of wool) which some women from rural areas use believing it will help preserve heat needed by semen for conception. 'Soufa' is often used by women who believe their husband suffer with infertility problems. Naturally, this topic, among many others tackled in the series, spilled much ink on social networks.
Mohamad Amin Rady, scriptwriter of El-Sabaa Wasaya (The Seven Commandments) commented that "the audacity which we already notice in soap operas of the last three years, is becoming even stronger now. Moreover, what increases the controversy is the fact that many of such series are screened intensively."
The scriptwriter goes on to point to many controversial topics, raised by his much older counterparts, such as Osama Anwar Okasha (1941-2010), Egyptian screenwriter and journalist. "Okasha soap operas, such Zizinia or Afarit Al-Sayala (The Demons of Al-Sayala), included strong vocabulary that has gone unnoticed. Okasha also talked about the history of 'soufa' without making a big issue out of it" Rady commented.
Like Ahmed Shawky, Rady agrees that social networks have contributed to this situation by opening the floor for certain social debates.
Rady also believes however, that sometimes, the same networks provide a platform to people looking for popularity and by criticising this or that, they only seek greater visibility on the web. "What really matters to me are the opinions of ordinary people whom I meet on the streets; they speak with complete sincerity. They find the Ramadan series neither daring nor insulting," Rady comments.
Rady speculates that the current level of social challenge seen in Ramadan programming is the product of a series of programs which has have pushed the envelope of social acceptability over the past several years.
As the waters continue to be tested, it seems that the sociopolitical context allows the soap operas to enjoy greater freedom. "Many television series managed to transform what began as a brave producer's adventure into a successful model," Shawky comments. In this context, the polls only confirm this theory.
The series such as El-Sabaa Wasaya, Segn Al-Nesa (Women's Prison) and Add Tanazoli (Countdown) prove to be the most awaited for by the viewers. Not only their success results from the brave thematic choices but also the viewership appreciated theseries' quality and depth.
And in fact, despite harsh criticism of some series, the audience continues to watch them. As such, new television series are on the rise again.