Crack of dawn

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Hani Mustafa reviews the Thousand and One Nights latest local iterations



The Thousand and One Nights, first known in English as The Arabian Nights, is one of the earliest folk narratives in Arabic to generate a mysterious, exotic sense of the East in mediaeval times. This made it popular not only in the West but all over the world, enabling it to influence all kinds of art for centuries on end.

In Egypt many films were made based on stories from the book. In 1942 Egyptian filmmaker Togo Mizrahi wrote and directed one of the earliest films inspired by a story from The Nights, a comedy musical named Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves starring Ali Al-Kassar, Ismail Yassine, Mohamed Abdel-Moteleb, Samia Gamal, and Laila Fawzi. In 1955 radio listeners enjoyed a special Ramadan show, The Thousand and One Nights by Taher Abu-Fasha, directed by Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban (aka Baba Sharo, as he was known through his popular children’s radio show). Starring Abdel-Rahim Al-Zurqani (as Shahryar) and Zouzou Nabil (as Shehrazade), this programme went on for 830 episodes lasting 26 years. Abu-Fasha never baulked at extending and modifying the original tales, sometimes making up his own drawing on grandmothers’ bedtime stories. He used his talent as a poet to write the dialogue in rhyme, creating a unique language that added to the mystery. That is why so many subsequent treatments use rhyming dialogue.

In 1984 Egyptian television produced the first season of The Thousand and One Nights as a TV drama, written by Ahmed Bahgat and directed by Abdel-Aziz Al-Sokkari. Bahgat, who was a humorist and columnist for Al-Ahram, sought to create something different from the radio show, and so he made Shehrazade (Naglaa Fathi) a contemporary schoolteacher bored of her chores. While shopping she comes across a lamp with a genie trapped inside it, and when the genie asks what she wishes she asks to be transported to the time of The Nights. This allows Bahgat to insert contemporary tropes into the mediaeval setting to comic effect, as when Shehrazade tells Shahryar (Hussein Fahmi) that he is a “dictator”. The song used for the credits — composed by Gamal Salama to lyrics by Abdel-Wahab Mohamed, and performed by the Moroccan-Egyptian singer Samira Said — became a popular classic.

For many years in Ramadan, starting in 1967, the TV audience looked forward to a TV show called Fawazir Ramadan (Ramadan Riddles). Inspired by a radio programme hosted by Amal Fahmi since 1960, which went on for decades, the first few seasons of the Fawazir were directed by Ahmed Salem and starred by the Stage Lights Trio of comedians (Samir Ghanem, George Sidhom and Al-Deif Ahmed). It stopped after Ahmed’s death in 1970. In 1975 it was relaunched, directed by Fahmi Abdel-Hamid. Until 1981 it starred Nelly, followed by Sherihan. When in 1985 Abdel-Hamid decided to mix The Arabian Nights into the riddles, he made The Thousand and One Nights: The Mermaid of the Seas as a dramatic second part of Fawazir Ramadan. The series was written by Abu Fasha and also starred Sherihan. The introduction to each episode was taken from the recordings of the radio programme that had been made 30 years before with animation scenes showing Shehrazade and Shahryar as cartoon figures. The link with Fawazir Ramadan did not last, however. Later The Thousand and One Nights returned as its own show. By then numerous stars had plated the two main characters in a range of shows: Nelly, Poussi, Laila Elwi, Elham Shahin, Athar Al-Hakim, Iman Al-Toukhi, Nicole Saba and Reham Abdel-Ghafour as Shehrazade, and Samir Ghanem, Youssef Shaaban, Sherif Mounir, Maged Al-Masri, Ashraf Abdel-Baki, Mahmoud Qabil as Shahryar.

Most of these series, whether they were broadcast on radio or TV, maintain the frame story of The Nights, in which having discovered his wife’s infidelity the king loses faith in the opposite sex. He takes to marrying a new virgin every day, having her killed by Masrour his swordsman after consummating the marriage at the crack of dawn. When there are no more virgins left in the kingdom the vizier must offer his daughter Shehrazade, who evades death by telling the king a story which she refuses to finish until the next day, forcing him to spare her life until he finds out what happens next. To this end she keeps generating stories within stories…



One 15-episode Ramadan TV series screened during the second half of the month this year generated a sense of nostalgia. Gawdar, written by Anwar Abdel-Moghieth and directed by Islam Khairi, is subtitled The Thousand and One Nights. It maintains the usual structure, with one line of drama developing around the life of King Shahryar (Yasser Galal) and his new wife Shehrazade (Yasmin Raeis). The first episode opens with the king sword training with one of his guards, adding flashback glimpses of his betrayal, but that is as the artists spend on the frame story. It is the story that Shehrazade tells, the story of Gawder (also Yasser Galal) the son of Omar Al-Masri (Mahmoud Al-Bizzawi) and his wife Fatma (Ayten Amer in the first and second episodes and then Wafaa Amer) that is the focus of the show.

Like most writers of The Thousand and One Nights, Abdel-Moghieth uses a classical dramatic structure, mixing fantasy with tragedy and romance. The protagonist is constantly confronted by challenges and the powers of evil threatening his life, often saved by the intervention of some mysterious higher power. As a newborn he was protected by a mysterious old woodcutter (Abdel-Aziz Makhyoon) who transformed into a dove to watch after him every day. And when his older brother Salem was so jealous he wanted to suffocate Gawdar with a pillow, the white bird entered the room and returned to his true form as an old man to prevent crime.

The writer gives Gawdar a series of challenges that he promptly overcomes: his jealous older brother, the assistant of the local Fetewwa or strongman, who is harassing Gawdar’s future fiancé, Shawahi (Nour), a magician and the head of the Shamaa family. The Shamaas are using black magic and the help of genies to collect the four powerful treasures of the wise man Shamardal (Rashwan Tawfik), which will enable them to control the world, and Gawdar happens to be the key to one of these treasures. The creators of this series are obviously inspired by fantasy hits like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, which is evident in costumes and accessories such as the Shawahi’s metal fingertips. In one scene, she rides a dragon to capture Gawdar while he is on a boat in the middle of the sea.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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