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Egypt’s modern history told through one woman’s daily struggle

Bent Esmaha Zaat, a critically acclaimed Ramadan TV series, sheds light on Egypt's political and social changes since 1952. Ahram Online talks to its director

Yasmine Zohdi, Sunday 4 Aug 2013
Zaat TV Series Nelly Karim
Scene from Bent Esmaha Zaat TV Series
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Based on Sonallah Ibrahim’s critically acclaimed novel Zaat, the Ramadan television series Bent Esmaha Zaat (A Girl Called Zaat) tells the story of an Egyptian girl born to an average middle class Cairo family on 23 July 1952 — the same day the Free Officers’ movement ousted King Farouk and declared the end of the Egyptian monarchy.

Zaat’s life — as well as the novel and TV series adapted from it — spans years of political tumult, social change and cultural transformations, along with three Egyptian presidents.

Although the novel came out in 1992, meaning its events come to an end during the tenure of ex-president Hosni Mubarak, the TV series — written by Mariam Naoum and directed by Kamla Abu Zikri and Khairy Bishara — bravely goes on to tell Zaat’s story up to the January 25 Revolution in 2011, when Egyptians took to the streets and brought down the Mubarak regime.

Abu Zikri, who directed the first 17 episodes of the series, says Ibrahim didn’t mind the changes made to his narrative. “He didn’t read the script; Sonallah Ibrahim is bigger than that,” she says. “He had faith in what Mariam and I were going to do, and I know he follows the series and is so far very pleased with the outcome.”

The idea to turn the novel into a TV series first came to producer Gaby Khoury, who — impressed by their collaboration in the 2009 film Wahed-Sefr (One-Zero) — got in touch with both Kamla Abu Zikri and Mariam Naoum in 2010 and asked them to take on the project. Shooting was set to start in February 2011, but was put off as a result of the turmoil that engulfed the country in the wake of the revolution and Mubarak’s ouster.

Production started in 2012 instead, and after she finished the first half of the series, Abu Zikri decided that she wouldn’t be able to direct the remaining episodes because she wanted to work on editing the first half herself. “If I don’t edit my own work, it’s like I never directed it in the first place,” she says. Producer Gaby Khoury then contacted Khairy Bishara, who stepped in to direct the rest of the series.

Despite the fact that it airs exclusively on one channel and at times that many find inconvenient, Zaat still managed to attract many ardent viewers and generate positive reviews. Abu Zikri believes the reason behind that is the character of Zaat herself (played by Nelly Karim), as well as that of her husband, Abdel Meguid (Bassem Samra).

“What makes the story so special is that Zaat and her husband aren’t. They are not heroes in any way. They’re not into politics, they’re not rich, they’re not exceptionally gifted or successful,” says Abu Zikri. “They’re average Egyptians you see and meet every day; peaceful people who struggle to get on with their lives and want no trouble — the type that makes up the majority of this country’s population. And that is why everyone who watches the series will find something they can relate to.”

But although Zaat and her family do not engage in politics, their lives are constantly altered by the political change the country witnesses, along with the economic upheavals and social trends that come along with it. In the revolutionary sixties and pre-war seventies, Zaat is a dreamy and romantic student; in the late seventies she is a wife weighed down by day-to-day chores and the financial responsibilities that grow heavier with Sadat’s open door policies. In the eighties and nineties of Mubarak, Zaat completely loses herself in the ceaseless fight to get by and keep bread on the table. Her story becomes the story of a nation, in its triumphs and defeats.

“The general state of the country is always expressed through the characters,” says Abu Zikri. “One of my favourite episodes is the one where President Anwar El-Sadat visits Jerusalem and Zaat’s father, a loyal devotee of the values and ideals of Nasser’s times, watches his Knesset speech on TV in agony. The man looks broken, and so was the whole country back then. Most people felt as if they were losing their pride and dignity with that move.”

In the novel, Sonallah Ibrahim alternates between fact and fiction. Each chapter focusing on Zaat and her life is followed by one offering a collection of newspaper clippings, headlines, quotes and news summaries from the time in which the story takes place. In the TV series, the writer and directors try to follow a somewhat similar rhythm: Each episode opens with scenes of the capital during the time in which the events of the episode occur, with a popular song from that specific year playing in the background. Many of the historical events that shaped modern Egypt — from the opening of Maspero, to the 1967 defeat, to Umm Kalthoum’s death, to the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty with Israel, to the 1992 earthquake — are accurately depicted, often through original archival footage, and are reflected on Zaat’s life and mirrored in her evolution as a woman.

It is women especially that find Zaat appealing; most of them see something of themselves in her. Zaat is a normal woman; she is beautiful but the hardships of life show on her face, and her colourful dresses and short skirts are eventually replaced with loose, shapeless garments and a veil, making her look like most women you encounter on the street — a far cry from the glamorous and immaculately dressed femmes fatales all over TV. She represents a very wide range of Egyptian females: oppressed, frustrated and often underestimated. As a child, she suffers the trauma of female genital mutilation (FGM); as a teenager, she has to argue with her parents to they allow her to go to college. As a woman she lives with a demanding husband who is often domineering and unappreciative, and as she grows older she is socially pressured into covering her hair. She rarely has a say in how her life unfolds.

According to Abu Zikri, the series couldn’t have been aired at a better timing. She believes that if they had made Zaat when Hosni Mubarak or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were in power, it would have either been taken off the air completely, or the censors would have cut out at least half of it.

“They would have never allowed people to watch the series because the story of Zaat is, in its essence, the story of what 60 years of military rule have done to this country and to her,” Abu Zikri says. “She starts out as a hopeful girl with dreams and aspirations, and she gradually becomes a deformed, exhausted, powerless and ineffective person who falls prey to consumerism and the brutality of the capital’s middle class life.”

That middle class life that Zaat leads is a series of daily struggles — minor annoyances that grow to become unrelenting problems that plague the majority of Cairo’s citizens. She deals with religious fanaticism, a crumbling healthcare system, police officers abusing their power, corrupt employees and merciless government bureaucracy. Zaat’s small endeavours, such as renovating her bathroom, sewing nightgowns and selling them to colleagues at work for extra income, or finding a solution for the garbage strewn about by cats on her doorstep, are captured in raw, heartwarming detail, yet Abu Zikri says she had a hard time trying to bring all the intricacies of the novel to life on the screen.

“The novel brims with vivid, vibrant details that would have been impossible to show on the screen as described in the book,” she explains. “For example, the daily nuisance of finding a taxi — how long she waits in the sun. Then how she argues with the driver when he asks for an extra 50 piasters … little things like that. Sonallah Ibrahim delves into every single aspect of Zaat’s life.”

There are other parts of the novel that Abu Zikri says were also difficult to portray in the series, namely Zaat’s thoughts on issues like sex and religion. “Sonallah Ibrahim is very bold, and when writing the novel there was no ceiling to his freedom. But we didn’t have the same liberty since it’s TV, and especially because the series was set to air in Ramadan,” she elaborates. “We had to be more reserved when addressing Zaat’s sexuality; her conjugal problems with her husband, as well as her faith — how she viewed God and her relationship with religion. We tried our best to express everything in a subtle manner, but it wasn’t easy.”

One of Zaat’s most significant factors of success is its actors, even those in supporting roles. Characters like Zaat’s mother, Fawzeya (Intesar), her rebellious friend and earlier love interest, Aziz (Hany Adel), and her vivacious neighbour, Sameeha (Nahed El-Sebaey), all leave their mark. Abu Zikri says the highlight of the experience was working with the cast, especially Nelly Karim who she had directed before in Wahed-Sefr.

“It was my first time working on a TV drama, and it’s been very rewarding,” Abu Zikri says. “I am extremely lucky that I got to direct a series based on the work of a brilliant writer like Sonallah Ibrahim, produced by Gaby Khoury, and starring such a skilful group of actors.”

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