Though it saw a drop in the number of television series produced, this Ramadan season includes two series in what might be called the metaphysical suspense genre: Zai Al-Shams (Crystal Clear) and Qabil.
Zai Al-Shams (Crystal Clear)
Zai Al-Shams is one of the cleverest and best viewed works this Ramadan. Written by Mariam Naoum, who drew on the format of the 2017 Italian series Sorelle (Sisters), it is directed by Sameh Abdel-Aziz who took over after director Kamla Abu-Zekri, who had been commissioned to make the show, was forced to leave, evidently because the producers felt she was not fast enough. The two directors traded insults on social media before making peace, which may have been inadvertent advertising.
Noor (Dina Al-Sherbini), an Egyptian lawyer studying and working in London, neither accepts nor rejects the advances of her closest friend there, a colleague named Mustafa (Ahmed Dawoud). The night Mustafa confesses his feelings to Noor, she receives a call from Egypt in which her mother Nayyera (Sawsan Badr) tells her her sister Farida (Reham Abdel-Ghaffour) has disappeared.
Noor travels back to Egypt, where she is told by Farid’s twins that their mother called only to overhear them telling their younger brother that they lied to her and their grandmother because they were afraid they would end up living with their father, who has been fighting for their custody since he divorced Farida, in Alexandria.
There are two timelines, with the present action supplemented by long flashbacks. These contain the substance of the drama, revealing that Noor had been engaged to Omar when she discovered he was having an affair with Farida, who became pregnant. The confrontation scene is a credit to Al-Sherbini. Back at present, her close friend’s husband, a policeman named Hassan, leads the search for Farida. They eventually discover Farida dead and determine that she was killed rather than committing suicide. And so the search for the killer begins.
The flashbacks show how Noor travelled to London as a result of Farida’s betrayal, revealing Farida’s character as a life-loving and carefree maverick who never had a problem with her mother’s multiple marriages. An artist and art teacher, it is at the school where she works that she meets Seif — one of the present suspects — who falls in love with Farida and whose fiancee creates a scandal forcing her to leave the school. Farida’s hypnotherapist tells Noor she had a recurrent nightmare about a woman who is drowning and whom she eventually recognises as herself. Farida is a spiritually transparent soul, she has visions and carries energy, bringing her loved ones good luck.
Nayyera is in the early stages of dementia and on some occasions she’s in complete denial about her daughter’s death though she sees her ghost and feels her presence — something that happens to Noor too, though she never tells Nayyera. The flashback timeline is constantly if sparingly throwing up details that serve as clues not only to the crime’s solution but also to the characters’ relationships. The script gets lazy where the children are concerned, with Noor giving them formulaic and cliched lectures rather than talking to them. The moral message the children communicate as they face the stigma resulting from their mother’s death is equally in-your-face even as it demonstrates a genuine human tragedy. Badr’s performance is extraordinary, especially due to the vivid contrast between her character in each of the timelines.
Qabil by Karim Al-Shenawi, whose debut was Eyar Nari (Gunshot), reveals an obsession with suspense even in the style of the opening credits. Tarek (Mohamed Mamdouh) is a police officer whose wife Sara (Rozaline Al-Beih) appears to be living with him though as it later becomes clear she actually died in an accident. The drama takes place from his viewpoint, and so it appears as though he is still living with Sara and having conversations with her all the time.
Since her death he has been off work, but now his commander orders him to come back and take on the case of a girl named Sama (Amina Khalil) whose photographs are all over Facebook, posted by her abductor and eventual killer, who names himself Qabil. Sama’s ghost appears to Tarek too. In the first episode, a somewhat cliched voiceover explains the underlying idea that social media results in greater isolation. Qabil has kidnapped and killed Adam (Mohamed Farag), a recovered addict who helps others overcome their addictions, as well as a suspect in the killing of Tarek’s wife.
The search for Qabil is on, but the storyline offers neither clues nor exciting developments. The pace is slow, the dialogue is weak with a lot of repetition and much unnecessary moralising (about the plight of sexual harassment, for example). Sama and Adam don’t get enough screen time considering it is the twist in their stories that might’ve saved the series, while Mamdouh’s performance is generic. In the first two episodes Qabil was exciting and showed potential for being a great TV series. By now, unfortunately, it is clear that it isn’t.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The phantom of the holy month
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