Since the launch of Egyptian television in 1960, the dramatic series has been one of its mainstays. Like radio drama makers before them, television writers and directors focused on social issues.
Aelat Marzouk Afandi (Mr Marzouk’s family) directed by Nashwa Abdel-Moneim and written by Fathi Abdallah was one of the earliest — and also the longest — series on the radio, which discussed the daily life of an ordinary middle-class family. The daily five-minute episodes lasted from 1959 until 2009. As television took root, the topics widened but, due to the large budgets and serious research required, historical dramas remained rare. As of the 1980s, evidently egged on by the powers that be, Islamic history became the subject of some television dramas made for the Ramadan season in particular.
Many historical works in cinema as well as television have sought to comment on the present through evocations of the past. Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte (1985), for example — co-written by Chahine and Youssri Nassrallah — stressed intercultural dialogue when it presented the French occupation of 1798-1801 as an opportunity for one young man, Ali (Mohsen Mohieddin) to learn French and communicate with the French campaign’s “savants”. In 1996-1998, two seasons of Al-Abtal (The Heroes) — written by Sami Ghoneim and directed by Hossameddin Mustafa and Said Al-Rashidi, respectively — made a kind of school textbook version of the relevant events, while in 2012 Shawki Al-Magri’s Napoleon wal-Mahrousah written by Azza Shalabi gave a much more accurate account of Egyptian society at the time, evoking a situation not unlike the one that followed the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak at the start of 2011.
After a three-year hiatus, this year filmmaker Khaled Youssef — who started his career in film as an assistant to Chahine, and the co-director of Chahine’s last film, Heya Fawda (Chaos, 2007) — makes his television debut with Sirruh Al-Batea (The Secret of the Sultan), based on an eponymous short story by Youssef Idriss. The series involves a village jeweller named Hamed (Ahmed Fahmi) who in 2011 develops an obsession with the local shrine of a mysterious saint named Sultan Hamed, whose intercession his grandfather (Salah Abdallah) always recommended. Things go well for Hamed when he lights candles at the shrine and they go badly when he doesn’t. Hamed knows from his grandfather that Sultan was a peasant who resisted the French back in the 18th century, but the plot thickens when he realises there are shrines supposedly containing his body all across the Nile Delta.
The search for the patriotic peasant involves an archaeologist named Youssef Iskander (Mahmoud Qabil), an antiquities dealer working for foreign collectors named Massoud (Khaled Abdel-Gelil), and a gang working for Massoud led by a man named Abul-Azm (Ahmed Wafik) looking for some sort of hidden treasure under the ground of the shrines. It also involves Hamed’s friend Sara (Reem Mustafa), who was among the protesters surrounding the Egyptian Museum on 28 January 2011, when Massoud ordered Abul-Azm to sneak into the museum and steal what he could before the army arrived to secure it. Eventually Hamed happens upon a letter from a French professor called Clement (Hussein Fahmi) to his friend in Paris about his experience in the Egyptian village and the bravery of a peasant called Hamed (Ahmed Salah Al-Saadani).
The series goes back to the time of the campaign when the French take a citadel in a village in Menoufiya named Shatanouf — apparently from château neuf (or new castle) — and the peasant Hamed and his friends kill three French soldiers and Hamed is arrested. This is an opportunity to illustrate the village community at that time: the sheikh of the village Salem (Khaled Al-Sawi) and his daughter Safiya (Hanan Motawea), who has been in love with Hamed since they were kids. Throughout there is a feeling that Youssef is borrowing from various Chahine films: when Hamed loses one of his fingers while protecting the children when the wooden ceiling collapses, for example, this recalls Abdel-Hadi (Ezzat Al-Alaili) saving a buffalo from drawing in a well in Chahine’s Al-Ard (The Land, 1969).
History as a lesson in patriotism trended through the 1980s and 1990s, notably in screenwriter Osama Anwar Okasha’s epic Layali Al-Helmiya (Helmiya Nights, 1987-199), a five-season series directed by Ismail Abdel-Hafez; a sixth season was made by a different writer and director and it felt very different. It illustrated the changes in Egyptian society through the years. More recent shows of this kind include Bawwabet Al-Halawani (Halawani Gate) directed by Ibrahim Al-Sahn and written by Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman (four seasons: 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001) and Hawanem Garden City (Garden City Ladies) directed by Ahmed Sakr and written by Mona Noureddin (two seasons: 1997, 1998).
This year Souq Al-Kanto (Kanto Market), directed by Hussein Al-Menbawi and written by Hani Sarhan, delves into the lives of cloth merchants in the main Cairo fabrics market at the end of the 1920s or early 1930s. The sets and costumes reveal the time, and that is confirmed when, in a reference to the Great Depression of 1929, one of the characters says that America is suffering from bankruptcy. The protagonist is Taha (Amir Karara), a grandson of Hassanein Al-Kammash (Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun), who owns the largest fabric shop in the market. Although Taha is very close to his grandfather, especially since his father died when he was young, he doesn’t feel that he belongs to the market. Instead he and his friends work at a moonshine production facility. The real villains though are Rashad Al-Harami (Fathi Abdel-Wahab), a shop attendant and assistant to Awad (Diaa Abdel-Khalek), Al-Kammash’s main competitor.
Both the accurate evocation of the period and the acting performances are outstanding. In the first few episodes most bad deeds are done by those two, and they are mostly against Al-Kammash. The drama is very tightly woven, with a whole cast of secondary characters from Downtown Cairo where the market is located. This is also the site of the famous Emadeddin Street nightclubs. An important character is Rawia (Mai Ezzeddin) who works at a woman’s fashion showroom and lives with her mother (Sherine), an Alexandrian Greek hotel owner whose business is heavily in debt. The plot thickens when Rawia loses her job and the mother is forced to call her ex-husband who owns a closed shop at the Kanto Market…
Directed by Mohamed Salama and written by Eyad Saleh, on the other hand, Al-Katiba 101 (Battalion 101) is about the recent past. Based on real events that took place in 2014 in Sinai, this show is in effect a new season of Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice), whose first two seasons (2020 and 2021) focused on the war on terrorism fought by the army and the police, while the third season tackled the very critical days of the massive 30 June 2013 demonstrations and the 3 July declaration which ended the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Mohamed Morsi. The war on terrorism was hardly over, however.
Like the last three seasons, this is an action drama revolving around two main characters, Lieutenant Colonel Khaled (Aser Yassin) from military intelligence, and Special Forces Major Nour (Amr Youssef): the information struggle and the military battles that constituted the two sides of the war. The series illustrates different aspects of that war: the relationship between the military and Sinai inhabitants, especially the major tribes of the north. In one episode, Sheikh Moussa (Khaled Al-Sawi), who is the head of a tribe, tells Khaled that used to work with military intelligence back in 1968, though the series also shows that Wahid (Fathi Abdel-Wahab), Moussa’s nephew, leading smuggling operations in northern Sinai, and later cooperating with the terrorists, betraying the trust of Moussa.
The writer of the series uses the family of the two main characters either to lighten the load of the battle scenes, or to give the audience direct information about the war on terrorism. It is too obvious that these scenes seemed to be intentionally planted for these reasons only without being smoothly woven into the drama. Strong points include directing and cinematography, which shows the details of the clashes without ignoring the spiritual condition of the soldiers as they face their destiny.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly