Taht El-Saytara: Reshaping perceptions of drug addiction in Egypt

Rania Elembaby, Sunday 26 Jul 2015

Screened during the month of Ramadan, Taht El-Sayatara TV series sparked a debate on the hidden realities of drug addiction in Egypt

Nelly Karim, Hany Adel
Mariam (Nelly Karim) and Sherif (Hany Adel) in Taht El Saytara TV series. (Photo: still from the series)

“Our end is one end; either in prison, mental institutions or death,” said Ahmed, a recovered drug addict and representative of the public relations committee of Narcotics Anonymous Egypt (NA).

Taht El-Saytara (Under Control), the TV series which was screened during the month of Ramadan, tackled the topic of drug addiction and soon became the talk-of-the-town.

Three years worth of research provided scriptwriter Mariam Naoum and director Tamer Mohsen the necessary information to deeply depict the lifestyle of drug addiction; the mental, social and psychological effects on its users and social circles, along with a portrayal of the treatment process, including its struggles and benefits.

Taht El-Saytara focuses on Mariam’s (Nelly Karim) struggle with drugs when her past comes back to haunt her, causing her relapses after nine years of recovery. Yet, with the support of her long-time friend and ex-drug addict, Sherif (Hany Adel), she pulls herself back together. In parallel, the series dynamically portrays the stories of other drug addicts from different social circles and ages, such as Ali (Mohamed Farrag) and Hania (Jameela Awad), throughout which their paths unpredictably collide with Mariam’s.

Professional psychiatrist and scientific advisor of Taht El-Saytara, Dr Nabil Elkot, participated in an acting role as the couple's therapy counselor during the series. Elkot was also responsible for preparing the actors for their roles.

Elkot told Ahram Online that the director Tamer Mohsen contacted him asking to prepare the actors.

"We got several recovering addicts, young and old, with different stories to represent the series. We conducted different workshops that included the actors’ participation and exposure to the recovering drug addicts’ group meetings. The director made sure that every scene was related to a recovered drug addict. It is built on real examples, and the series reveals only a portion of how it actually is in reality,” Elkot explained.

Thirty episodes gave the filmmakers an opportunity to go into the deepest truth of the drug addiction, embedding it within Egyptian social realities.

With the topic rarely being tackled or discussed in the mainstream media, Taht El-Saytara triggered a variety of responses, with viewers from all generations and walks of life expressing their opinion on the series and the message that it carries.

Taht El Sayrata
Hania (Jameela Awad) and Ali (Mohamed Farrag) in Taht El Saytara TV series. (Photo: still from the series)

Raising awareness and reception

“Finally an honest show that depicts the reality of a world people chose to believe did not exist,” Mona, who is in her early twenties, told Ahram Online.

Equally positive was an older viewer Marwa who is married with children, commenting on the series as "not bad for a first trial [in providing an in-depth portrayal of drug addiction in Egypt], and that the series gave a notion of the inner world of this kind of affliction.”

On the official Facebook page of Taht El-Saytara, many reviews have proactively encouraged the series.

For instance, Salama found series to be "useful for parents and children,” suggesting that it “could be a good start for weekly awareness programmes, advertising items, and discussion boards for special stages of secondary education and universities.”

With drug addiction being still an issue that finds very little tolerance, the series managed to trigger better understanding and acceptance by viewers, and particularly those who have addicts among their family members.

On the other hand, the series raised awareness regarding the availability of treatment facilities and associations for drug addiction in Egypt, providing a useful insight for those who lacked it.

“Many people found it more comfortable to accept drug addicts in their family and friends circles,” Dr Nehad Sanan, psychologist and team Leader of the Addiction Department and supervisor of recovering addicts working at the Behman private psychiatric hospital in Cairo, commented to Ahram Online.

Sanan pointed out that acceptance is not only related to addiction as a disease that needs treatment, but also includes security search procedures which are often difficult to accept for the drug addicts and their families.

In the series we find those procedures portrayed several times whenever drug addicts – such as Tarek (Ahmed Wafik), Mariam and Hania – admit themselves to the Halfway recovery unit portrayed in the series. The supervisors check the addicts ensuring that no drugs have been stacked or hidden within the addict’s clothes or even parts of their bodies by patting them and undressing them for clearance.

“Because of the series, both addicts and their families, began to understand what the procedures are and what the addicts go through," Sanan revealed.

She went on to explain that “drug addiction is a disease that is genetic and psycho-social, which means that it is psychological, social and biological.”

“Our disease targets us physically, mentally and spiritually. Therefore, it is a fatal disease,” Ahmed from Narcotics Anonymous Egypt (NA), added to Ahram Online

Taht El-Saytara
Tarek (Ahmed Wafik) and Salma (Injy Abou Zeid) in Taht El Saytara TV series. (Photo: still from the series)

Psychological, social and physical effects

The series carefully illustrates the lifestyle of a drug addict at different stages across different demographics and lifestyles. It also reveals the social stigmas and affects that result from drug addiction.

The sixteen-year-old high school girl, Hania, is the youngest drug addict portrayed microscopically in the series, though the age range varies even more greatly in reality.

According to Sanan, “drug addiction used to start from 20 years of age, but now it starts with ages ranging from 9 to 13.”

The influential factors as portrayed in the series link to the families’ detachment from their children, such as in Hania’s case, and peer pressure such as in Tarek’s case.

“While others may also have all the available means to get exposed to drugs, like the internet,” Sanan told Ahram Online.

“The series accurately depicts the dangers of drugs psychologically, socially and physically. Some drug addicts may suffer from depression or other psychological symptoms” she continued.

The series dynamically depicts a thirty year old drug addict, Ali, who gets sucked into the habit of drug use with a binding philosophy behind his behaviors that ‘the ends justify the means’. Ali’s progression into psychosis is reflected throughout the series after his growing and rigorous consumption of drugs.

Whereas, regarding the social effects, Sanan referred to Mariam’s case when her husband Hatem (Dhaffer Abdeen) left her. In addition, Tarek, a relapsing drug addict who had a failed marriage due to drugs, was also disowned from his own mother.

Further, the series did not miss the physical effects drugs had on Ingy (Rania Shaheen) and her husband when they were diagnosed with HIV, and shockingly for many viewers, Hania’s paralysis.

Taht El-Saytara
Sherif (Hany Adel) and Hatem (Dhaffer Abdeen) in Taht El Saytara TV series. (Photo: still from the series)

Recovery is possible

On the other hand, the series explains that the treatment is not impossible.

From one angle, Sherif’s character plays a significant role in portraying a seven-year recovered drug addict, loyal to his drug-free principles and lifestyle, and supervisor of other recovering drug addicts. Sherif is a role model of resilience to such a fatal disease. From another angle, however, Ali persistently questions the possibility of recovery.

The NA’s message is that “any drug addict can stop drug abuse and lose the desire for it.”

Ahmed from the NA reveals that “losing the desire for drug abuse is one of the difficult targets that any drug addict can reach.”

It is essential to point out that the NA did not participate in the production of the series nor associate with its direction and script writing. 

Also, the NA does not associate itself with any other organisations and does not affiliate with any religious, political, or governmental entities.

The blue book, entitled ‘NA Basic Text’, is constantly shown in the series and seems to be Mariam and Sherif’s daily guide to maintaining their recovery, as in fact it is a reference for many drug addicts. 

“The blue book is sold legally and solely from the NA and not from any other place.” Ahmed says. “It has principles that the drug addicts can refer to whenever they need help to recover.”

The TV series depicts the different treatment options including the detox, NA and the Halfway.

“The Halfway may be administered either by recovered drug addicts or medical centres. When the Halfway is provided through medical centres, the recovering drug addicts reside there until they can face the society again, and are provided different kind of treatments – cognitive behaviour therapy, family therapy, relapse prevention, meditation, etc – across different levels of recovery,” Dr Nehad Sanan explained.

Halfways administered by ex-drug addicts, provide a residency location through which, as Sanan said, “the treatment would include that the recovering drug addicts go to the NA."

“Recovering drug addicts submit themselves to the NA under their own will. They do not come by force and are not required to submit any membership fees,” Ahmed from the NA adds. 

“We [NA] are one of the ways to recover from the disease of addiction, and we include recovery as a matter of choice. This is the secret to the success of the programme.”

Further, some drug addicts are introduced to the NA from members within the NA, as well as from treatment facilities.

“We cannot apply or change the disease of drug addiction, but we can help to change the old lie that says, ‘if you become a drug addict you remain a drug addict,” he concluded.

Disclaimer: Names of some of the interviewees have been changed


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