Kamla Abu Zikri’s Betlou Al-Rouh (Backbreaking) is not the only television drama to depict the Islamic State (IS) on the inside. There is also Al-Seham Al-Mareqa (Rogue Arrows, 2018), directed by Mahmoud Kamel, as well as Al-Aaedoun (The Returnees), directed by Ahmed Nader, this year.
But Backbreaking is worth focusing on for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, it makes the brave choice of restricting itself to 15 episodes, thus avoiding the verbosity to which so many 30-episode series end up being prone. It is also hugely controversial because of the way it involves ordinary Egyptians in the story of IS.
Written by Mohamed Hesham Obayya, Backbreaking is the story of an upper-class couple, Rouh (Menna Shalabi) and Akram (Mohamed Hatem), whose only son, Seif, is attached to his maternal grandfather (Ezzat Zein). When Akram’s strange phone calls and secretive arrangements make Rouh suspicious that he might be having an affair, he decides to take her and Seif on a trip to Turkey to celebrate their anniversary. A Turkey-based friend of Rouh’s father takes them out for dinner.
But as it turns out they are vacationing in Gaziantep on the Syrian border, where they just happen to run into an old university friend of theirs, Omar. Akram looks surprised to find him here. That night when Akram takes Seif out for an ice cream, however, neither they nor Omar come back. Akram leaves instructions for her to join them; if she chooses not to she will never again see Seif. He has decided to join the holy fight in Al-Raqqa.
Choosing her son, Rouh is led by Omar’s wife Lena, now known as Oum Ossama (Hagar Al-Serag), as the screenplay brilliantly builds up the narrative benefiting from Abu Zikri’s remarkable attention to detail as well as her actor management and choice of a convincing location in Lebanon.
The screenplay also presents Akram’s transformation from a tattooed, drink- and drug-addled advertising executive to a committed terrorist, by way of a lost soul who perceives everything in his life as sinful. It starts with his mother’s death, when Omar capitalises on his friend’s devastation to impart his fundamentalist wisdom. Abu Zikri shows this with a close up of Omar’s mouth. In the summer of 2014 Akram is seen drinking whiskey while he weeps watching an IS video, but by 2017 the action is already underway.
Unable to answer the questions of his son, who misses his grandfather and his screens – devices and television are now forbidden – Rouh struggles to find the medicine he needs for his rare condition. Wearing the black outfit all women in the caliphate have to wear, she finds little solace in her brief talks with Oum Ossama, with whom she smokes a discreet cigarette and visits a former hairdresser for a makeover – illicitly.
She is also befriended by the head of the women’s religious police Oum Jihad (Elham Shahine), who is married to the IS leader in Al-Raqqa Sheikh Nasser and happens to be Egyptian. With her she witnesses a lashing and is trained to use a weapon.
Meanwhile Rouh’s father is in Turkey and with the help of his friend he manages to locate and have a phone delivered to his daughter and grandson via Turkish outlaws. But all is not fanaticism. It turns out Omar is secretly in love with Rouh, and will be sending Akram on a dangerous mission before he is ready to be rid of him. When news arrives that he was shot, Rouh is forced to join the widows’ quarters where her life is even more difficult...
Menna Shalabi’s performance is exceptionally clever, with subtle but powerful delivery and deep awareness of all the shades of emotion. Mohamed Hatem and Ahmed Al-Saadani are equally adept at conveying layers and aspects of their respective characters.
Backbreaking is not only one of the best dramatic works to have appeared on IS, it is also one of the best features of this Ramadan season. Along with Obayya, Abu Zikri manages to maintain the balance between the details of the war and its human components, bringing to life in an effortlessly convincing way realities that most people cannot imagine or relate to, and demonstrating the horrors of the historical moment through the eyes of a woman who was deceived by her husband and thereby forced to experience a world vastly different from her own.
It is the show’s ability to walk a tightrope between Rouh’s former upper-class life and the IS situation into which she is forced – together with the constant hope of escaping Al-Raqqa – that makes this rather more than TV entertainment.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.