How do you know you’ve arrived in the 21st century? When a high-quality TV drama is made about you *and* a Facebook group is made to protest the show. Egypt’s controversial scriptwriter Waheed Hamed has created Al-Gama'a (The Group), a compelling drama series telling the story of the state security force’s campaign to bring down the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the most popular Ramadan series in Egypt, and is broadcast on state television three times a day!
The series starts in 2006 at al-Azhar University, during a clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and other students. The Brotherhood was protesting vote-rigging in the student elections, and held a military-style parade despite their renunciation of violence in 1970. The narrative then weaves back and forth in time with a cause-and-effect narrative starting with Hassan al-Banna’s founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Haisam Abu-Samra’s article in Cairo 360 has some pretty good stuff to say:
[E]verything that we've seen and heard so far about the show indicates high quality. Arab actors just have a natural knack for roles with gravity (they're almost the equivalent of British actors in Hollywood) and the inspired casting of Jordanian Eyad Nassar as Hassan Al Banna is definitely a step in the right direction.
Hamed is not a fan of fundamentalist movements. He has written shows that attack fundamentalism, but doesn’t shy away from doing the same on government corruption. Al-Gama'a’s critics are coming from many sides. Portrayals of the police “as more merciful than nurses” and as conducting interrogations while “offering [prisoners] tea and coffee” anger Brotherhood members who have been incarcerated and beaten by the police. Others are upset that Muslim Brotherhood members are shown as religious radicals right from the start. You can read more of what the Muslim Brotherhood has to say for itself on its English-language web site. Saif al Islam, son of the founder, says “Hamed is injecting poison in honey.” Not surprisingly, he intends to take legal action against the show. Whatever one’s perspective on the Brotherhood, there’s no denying its political and cultural salience for Egyptians, and this show seems to have eclipsed all others in popularity and controversy this Ramadan.
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the notion of a Ramadan TV series, especially in a predominantly Muslim country. Growing up in the heathen land of Canada, my family always minimized TV, movies, and other distractions during this time. It speaks to a very different approach to Islam in a culture where it’s the dominant force – the way of life, not a way of life. (It would be amazing to live for a while in a country like Egypt or Indonesia – especially during Ramadan, where everything comes to life at night. Man, Eid must just be incredible! One day, insha’Allah.)
And there’s big money attached to all this Ramadan programming. In a recent LA Times column, Nasry Esmat points out that Ramadan soap operas and historical dramas are so popular in Egypt that during the 2009 holy month, $146,000,000 was spent on advertising, a 62% increase over the rest of the year. You break your fast and turn on the idiot box, joining millions of fellow Egyptians. It keeps going after the next day’s fajr (dawn) prayers. Advertising demand is so strong, a new state TV channel – Drama 2 – has been opened just to handle the advertising opportunities.
Watching the trailer (click here if you’ve having trouble with Flash), I really wish I could understand Egyptian Arabic—or that they’d release a subtitled version. Al-Gama'a looks and sounds great – I want to watch it, even though I know who gets whacked in the end.