With a hint of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade came a remarkable surprise this Ramadan. The iconic performer Sherihan made her first appearance in years – in a mobile service advertisement that nonetheless seems to recount her life journey from her glory days as the star of the Ramadan Fawazir (or “Riddles”), the variety programme that defined Ramadan for years, through the tragic car accident that left her immobilised.
When the accident took place Sherihan had starred in three Fawazir seasons: Alf Leila wi Leila (1001 Nights, 1985), followed by Fawazir Al-Amthal (The Proverb Riddles, 1986) and Hawl Al-Alam (Around the World, 1987) directed by Fahmi Abdel-Hamid. On her return to the screen she starred in one more: Hagat wi Mehtagat (Things and Needs, 1993) by Gamal Abdel-Hamid. Sherihan on TV left the audience in awe and rekindled public interest in her story, with many returning to a 1990s interview in which she described both her pain and her determination to dance again.
Sherihan started her career at a very young age, starring alongside some of the major figures of Egyptian cinema like Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz and Adel Imam in Al-Adhraa wal Shaar Al-Abyad (The Virgin and the White Hair, 1983) and Khali Balak Min Aaklak (Take Care of Your Mind, 1985), respectively, and sharing the stage with the great comedian Fouad Al-Mohandes in the timeless classic Sok Ala Banatak (Lock Up your Girls, 1982) and – her stubborn comeback – Sharie Mohamed Ali (Mohamed Ali Street, 1991-1994), also with Al-Mohandes, in which she performed long and demanding sketches deliberately focused on her back, where she had sustained the greatest injury.
As well as two of the television’s most prominent directors, at a young age the gifted singer-dancer-actor had worked with some of Egypt’s greatest lyricists – Sayed Hegab, Taher Abou Fasha, Abdel-Salam Amin – and composers: Mohamed Al-Mogi, Helmi Bakr, Sayed Mekkawi and Moudy Al-Imam. Her costumes and dancing styles set the trends in the Arab world and beyond. But it is as the star of the Fawazir that Sherihan is best known. It is a role only one other female performer shared with her: the Armenian-Egyptian Nelly, who starred in the Fawazir in the late 1970s and early 1980s and again for five years starting in 1990. Later attempts at reviving the Fawazir with actor Sherine Reda and Oriental dancer Nadine all failed.
I saw the Sherihan ad online, where it can be seen in its entirety. The web experience free from commercial interruptions is by far superior whatever the programme, in fact, though even the Watch It platform now includes an ad at the start of each episode, something to which subscribers have been objecting. The same material is available ad-free through Telegram, where it is pirated and shared as download links.
One of the more popular serial dramas this year is Tamer Mohsen’s Leebeit Newton (Newton’s Game), about a couple, Hazem and Hana, who own an apiary on a large farm. Hana (Mona Zaki) is an agricultural graduate with a Masters in beekeeping, while Hazem (Mohamed Mahmoud) is helping her manage the project. Created by Mohsen, the series was written through a workshop that brought together Maha Al-Wazir, Samar Abdel-Nasser, Mohamed Al-Sheikhibi and Amaar Sabri. Hana, secretly pregnant, is on her way to an agricultural conference in the US, where she plans to stay on illegally till she gives birth to her first child with Hazem and thereby ensure the child has American nationality. Hazem, who will obtain a visa illicitly, plans on following her there.
It is clear that Hana is very dependent on Hazem, who helps her through various phobias (her dog phobia in particular is unconvincing). But the man who will procure the visa for Hazem for a huge sum turns out to be a thief. Hazem loses the money, and he ends up losing the apiary as well he falls out with the owner of the farm. In one brilliant scene, after he finds the apiary burned down, Hazem manages to lock the man up with with the bees having smeared his face with honey. Meanwhile Hana has been robbed of her money and has nowhere to stay till she meets one Egyptian and then another, Moenes (Mohamed Farrag), a middle-aged man with a long beard who is in charge of the Muslim community in his state, seems to have some ulterior motive as he offers her a job.
Mohsen’s technique of presenting the history of his main characters through clever flashbacks is remarkable, but the script tends to fall into the trap of too many coincidences, like Hana, after car pooling with him in the morning, just happening to run into the same Egyptian young man when she has nowhere to stay at night. But as the series goes forward its true subject, a typically underrated Egyptian woman’s suffering under patriarchy, emerges. It seems the title is a reference to Newton’s laws of motion, which she demonstrates by standing up for herself and taking charge of her own life.
Two other series this Ramadan have female heroines: Harb Ahlia (Civil War) and Khali Balak Min Zizi (Be Careful of Zizi), starring Youssra and Amina Khalil, respectively. In the latter show, a comedy directed by Karim Al-Shenawi and co-written by Magdy Amin and Mona Al-Shimi (Al-Shimi created the show under supervision of screenwriter Mariam Naoum), Khalil plays Zainab or Zizi, a hysterical middle-aged woman obsessed with getting pregnant who doesn’t seem able to realise her dream despite several IVF attempts.
Zizi is well written and convincing from the get-go, when she is seen at the supermarket carrying too much confectionary while rushing around looking for an electric outlet in which to charge her phone – only to leave the supermarket and drive recklessly to the clinic where she is told she is still not pregnant. She then barges into her professor husband’s lecture to talk to him. Hisham Asaal (Ali Kassem) eventually tells her he wants to end their marriage, and so she strikes him and destroys his car. Hisham’s brother Yasser (Tamer Nabil) convinces him he has to take her to court. And so the issue of divorce, its legal and social implications, are discussed in a lighthearted way.
Directed by Sameh Abdel-Aziz, Harb Ahlia (Civil War) revolves around Mariam (Youssra), a wealthy plastic surgeon who due to complications during her divorce has been estranged from her daughter Tamara (Gamila Awad). Mariam, who owns a hospital, is being manipulated by her psychiatrist Youssef (brilliantly played by Basel Khayat), who tricks her into marrying him in secret after convincing her she has a terminal disease and will be dying in a matter of months. Written by Ahmed Adel Sultan, the script is well balanced, paying enough but not too much attention to each component of the drama.
This includes not only the story of Noor (Mayan Al-Sayed), the daughter of Mariam’s former servant whom Mariam now treats as her own daughter, and Youssef’s marriage to Farida (Arwa Gouda), which Mariam is encouraging because she feels he should have someone after she is gone, but also Tamara’s Generation Z complexities and the life of her father Aziz (Roushdy Al-Shami), a womanizing business tycoon who has a new wife every few months and owns half of Cairo’s bars and clubs. He is behind Mariam’s bad relationship with Tamara...
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly