There is no doubt that Egypt’s religion-based personal status law is unjust to women. Where divorce is concerned it gives men power over almost every financial detail, and makes life difficult for a woman especially where children are concerned.
Discussing these issues in great detail, the new series Faten Amal Harby presents the tricky situation of Faten (Nelly Karim), a woman working at the Real Estate Registration Office with two young daughters who insists on divorcing her violent unemployed husband Seif (Sherif Salama).
Seif and his mother (Fadia Abdel-Ghani), who now gives him a job in her small clothes factory, resolve to turn this divorce into a vile war as long as Faten refuses to remarry him. Faten Amal Harby is directed by Mohamed Gamal Al-Adl. With films like Mawlana (2017), Al-Deif (The Guest, 2019) and Saheb Al-Maqam (The Shrine Owner, 2020) to his name, journalist, television host and novelist Ibrahim Eissa is writing for the television for the first time.
The series opens with a flashback of Faten’s miserable life with Seif, starting ironically with the camera fixed on their tacky wedding portrait, inscribed with the words “True Love”. After this, Faten – known to her friends and work colleagues as Tuna – appears wearing a cheap wedding dress, putting on makeup and waiting for Seif to come and divorce her in the house of her Christian friend Maysoon (Hala Sedky). For the fifth time, he will not show up.
From this moment on, the merciless post-divorce war on Faten starts. Such problems do of course happen in reality, but the screenplay fails to pace them to give the viewer any relief or space to assimilate. The action progresses too quickly with one problem following another, starting with Seif removing the furniture of the house and then kicking her and the children out and suing her for custody, visitation and educational guardianship.
The drama reveals all the details of the hardships and challenges facing any divorced woman who is trying to provide for her children on a limited income due to the refusal of the man to provide for his children. The night they are evicted she spends in her car which, though she paid for it with her own money, is legally her husband’s. She cannot stay at an affordable hotel because, though there is no legal reason for this, no two- or three-star hotel in Egypt will accommodate a woman by herself. It is something that came up on social media and was tackled by the National Council for Women.
Faten is a strong character. She wouldn’t give in to Seif wanting their two daughters to wear hijab while she was married and, after her divorce, wants to keep them in the same school even though he is no longer paying their fees. Maysoon, who was always supportive, welcomes Faten and her daughters in her home before the lawyer Shekeib (Mohamed Tharwat) asks her to go to the Protection and Reception Woman Centre affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which could help her in court.
Another sequence shows Faten losing her temper in the court room and wanting to file a law suit against the personal status law itself, prompting the judge (Khaled Sarhan) to order that she should spend the night in jail, before he sympathises with her. Faten becomes a trend after a video of her making this statement begins to circulate. She continues to seek answers from men of religion: if she remarries, will custody of the children be taken away from her?
Eissa’s message that the law needs to be amended is important and true, but it is better served through a documentary of some kind. Cramming all these technical details into the drama makes it a somewhat stifling experience, with a relentless pace and dialogue that is too didactic and direct. The two daughters, Yara and Nadine, are absent emotionally, too. And yet the series seems to be leading a push to change the law, which wouldn’t be the first time.
Said Marzouk’s 1975 film Oryodo Halan (I Want a Solution), starring Faten Hamama and Roushdy Abaza, in which a woman named Doriya Azmy (Hamama) turns out to be one among many as she tries in vain to obtain her divorce after 20 years of marriage to an abusive and unfaithful husband, prompted an actual change in the law.
After being the Ramadan superstar for several years in a row – Nesr Al-Saeed (Upper Egypt Eagle, 2018), Zelzal (Earthquake, 2019), El-Brens (The Prince, 2020) and last year’s Moussa – the reigning enfant terrible of the Egyptian screen Mohamed Ramadan joins forces with auteur Mohamed Yassin for the first time in Al-Meshwar alongside actress Dina Al-Sherbiny.
The latest Ramadan series by director Mohamed Yassin was Afrah Al-Qobba (Wedding Song, 2016), based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, starring Mona Zaki and Eyad Nassar. Before that Moga Harra (Heat Wave, 2013), an outstanding, critically acclaimed adaptation of the late screenwriter Osama Anwar Okasha’s novel Monkhafad Al-Hend Al-Mawsemi starring Eyad Nassar, Rania Youssef and Dorra.
Written through a workshop led by Mohamed Farid, Al-Meshwar is a suspense thriller in which Maher (Mohamed Ramadan) and his wife Ward (Dina Al-Sherbiny) flee Dar Al-Salam in Cairo to Al-Max in Alexandria, where they place their little boy Rahim in the Cairo of Maher’s aunt (Hanan Youssef) and cut all connections with Ward’s sister who is very concerned as a result.
Working at a salt factory, the couple are pursued by a business tycoon Wagih (Ahmed Kamal) facing charges of antiquities trafficking after two pieces are found hidden in his house. In one unconvincing scene, he manages to track them down at the factory and they escape through a back door, picking up their son and a bag of money at Maher’s aunt and disappearing in a working-class wedding procession.
Yassin’s choice of locations is exceptional, though it is cinematographer Abdel-Salam Moussa who is the true star of the show. In one scene, when the couple secretly spend the night at the Giza Zoo, Moussa creates a brilliant piece of art filming the animals and trees at night. Here as elsewhere the problem is the lack of a strong or gripping story line, with very little happening from half-hour one episode to the next and 12 minutes wasted on the opening credits and the recap. The script fails to deliver on the suspense, with the couple appearing far too calm, and Ward far too well groomed with tail nails and carefully coiffed hair, for a couple whose son and their own lives are under threat.
Once again the series doesn’t live up to precedent, with Ahlam Al-Fatta Al-Tayer (Dreams of the Kid, Al-Tayer, 1978), written by Wahid Hamed, directed by Mohamed Fadel, and starring Adel Imam as the eponymous hero. A thief recently released from prison, Ibrahim Al-Tayer – now in flight from a dangerous gang as well as the police – hides 750 thousand in stolen cash in a mental hospital with the help of its director, who then dies. Though not as visually compelling, it is a gripping, suspenseful experience in which not a moment is wasted.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.