Modern Egypt — (XXV) The key to the secret

Tarek Osman
Sunday 9 Apr 2023

TV scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha provided the key to understanding modern Egypt in an influential series of dramas.


“I am the question and the answer. I am the key to the secret and the solution to the riddle.” With these words, TV scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha began his series Zizinia, one in a sequence of highly successful TV dramas about Egypt and Egyptian society.

Egypt’s identity is the question, the riddle, that Okasha has diligently addressed throughout his career. In Zizinia, the potential answer that he proposes is that the protagonist, named Bishr, contains different aspects of Egypt’s identity through the constituent parts of his consciousness.

The name Bishr is derived from Bishara, meaning the gospel or good news. In the series, Egypt is thus seen as a representation of the divine and a place where the sacred meets the profane.

For the ancient Egyptians, this meeting was manifested in the land of Egypt, which they considered to be a reflection of the heavens. In their belief system, the Nile Delta and Nile Valley, which appeared from the sky in the form of a lotus flower, represented life as the lotus was itself a symbol of life.  

But this sacredness transcended the land itself and led to its intangible meaning. Egypt denoted nature, the archetypal mother, and the queen who shelters, protects, and provides.

For Isis, ancient Egypt’s mother-goddess, Bishr could represent the husband, the god Osiris, or the son, the god Horus. In either case, the masculine learned from the feminine, and grew through her giving. Through the queen’s flowering and the fullest manifestation of her sacred meanings, the king could perfectly command his kingdom.

This connection between the land and the king was a fundamental element in the pharaoh’s ascension from the human to the divine and a symbol denoting prosperity and harmonious living.

In his TV drama, Okasha made Bishr an urban and Western-educated resident of Alexandria, but someone whose origins, to which he was solidly connected, were in Upper Egypt, or the Saied in Arabic.

Bishr moves seamlessly between the chic areas of Alexandria and the city’s less-affluent quarters and haunts. He has a northern Mediterranean lineage that he is proud of and a sliver of Europeanness that connects him to modernity. But this is shown as existing amidst an ocean of Egyptianness, represented by his strong attachment to the Nile Delta and the Saeid. Often, the sliver of Europeanness guides the Egyptian vastness around it, but sometimes it is submerged in it.

Bishr loves Aida, who, like him, is Egyptian to the core. However, because of her social status and education, she is also culturally connected to the West. Bishr is often drawn to Western women, with their glamour, European refinement, and sensuality having a major power over him. But when Bishr decides to marry, Okasha makes him choose a cousin of his who hails from the depths of the Nile Delta and the Saeid.

To Bishr, this is like coming home and a retreat into Egypt’s core culture. But Okasha also often leaves Bishr, and us, the audience, longing for Aida and the refinement of Egypt’s upper middle classes and for the meeting between Egyptianness and Europeanness.   

Part of Okasha’s genius was his ability to divorce the meaning of Egypt from the struggles of its people, only to then find ways of reconnecting them and of showing how the trials of the society advance its understanding and its internalisation of Egypt’s identity.

In his series Asfour Al-Nar (Bird of Fire), he explored society’s search for a political saviour, often with calamitous results. In Al-Shahd wal-Domoua (Pleasures and Tears), he explored the peaks and troughs of Egyptian society.

In Layali Al-Helmeya (Nights of Helmeya), he wove an intricate canvas of society’s march through the 20th century. In his last work, Al-Masraweya (The Egyptians), he tells the story of modern Egypt from its beginnings and takes his audience to the moment of transition after Mohamed Ali’s and the Khedive Ismail’s transformations.

In other works, some of which seem to have been the closest to his heart, such as Al-Shawagheesh (Sea Hustlers), Abla Hikmat, Al-Raya Al-Bidaa (The White Flag), and, of course, Zizinia, Okasha takes us on long journeys to his beloved Alexandria. On Egypt’s Mediterranean shores, he makes the Saeid meet the Delta and together seep into the country’s openness to the fresh winds coming from the north.

He shows the distinctions between the different components of Egypt’s identity, as well as how harmoniously they can come together, and presents the struggles of the Egyptian people as they follow the paths by which society accrues experiences. Modern Egypt’s long march in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the many ordeals the society endured and the rewards it reaped, saw a slow transformation through which the collective psyche grew and matured. Today, we have come closer to figuring out the riddle of Egypt’s identity and holding the key to the secret, he thought.

His marvelous oeuvre has stirred people’s imagination, giving form to the different meanings of Egypt and the different facets of its consciousness. There is Fatma, for example, a strong, independent, and conservative young woman who represents the Delta and is shown in continuous interaction with Maria, an outgoing and often rebellious young woman representing Alexandria.

Fatma encourages Maria to understand more about the culture of the Nile Valley and the Saeid, while Maria encourages Fatma to visit Alexandria’s Corniche, where she removes her headscarf and her hair flies in the winds of modernity coming from Europe. In representing the two young women walking together, laughing loudly, Okasha shows the harmonious merging of their psyches as the heritages and cultures of the Saeid, the Delta, and the Mediterranean come together in a fascinating flowering of the fullness of Egypt.

In his explorations of Egypt’s identity, Okasha transcended his role as simply a dramatist. Instead, he assumed the role of a true storyteller who guards his society’s memory of what is really significant in its historical trajectory. We might disagree with his readings of certain epochs or with his renderings of certain people. But in presenting many images of modern Egypt, he guided Egyptians and Egypt-observers on illuminating and beautiful journeys into what Egypt means.

He blazed a trail that all lovers of Egypt ought to walk upon.

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).


* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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