Arab Spring: A New Scenario for Ramadan Series

Article  by  Paloma HASCHKE  •  Published 29.09.2011  •  Updated 29.09.2011
Image extraite de la série Samara
During Ramadan, viewers from the Arab world are traditionally served a feast of TV shows. The industry has been hit hard by the events of the Arab Spring, however, although this situation has also opened the door for the creation of more audacious programs.
Commonly associated with fasting and praying, the month of Ramadan is also the time of the year during when Muslim viewers spend more time watching television than any other period of the year. They watch the dozens of series, known as “Musalsalat”, produced especially for the occasion. Each one of these programs is divided into thirty episodes, in order to start and end with the holy month. Shows air immediately after the Iftar dinner (eaten after dusk to break the daily fast) and have become an important part of the meal. The tradition is now to gather around a heaping table with family and friends and watch television.
 
A pioneer in the Arab cinema industry, Egypt has been the primary producer of this kind of television program for decades. Lately, however, Syria has established itself on the regional market and is today considered as the most serious competitor. With those two countries having the upper hand in the industry, it is thus not a surprise to see that Ramadan TV programs have been badly disrupted by the Arab Spring.
 
A number of satellite channels have refused to buy Syrian productions this year in an effort to distance themselves from Bashar Al-Asad’s government. In Egypt, chronic strikes and unrest have put the economy under pressure and aroused political tensions. The television industry has of course not been spared: a significant number of actors have been harshly criticized for their support of the former regime and their shows have been kept off the air after production was completed.

 


The revolutionary atmosphere has also inspired boycotts. In both Egypt and Syria, Ramadan TV productions have been abandoned following Facebook campaigns intended to expose their leading actors’ hostility to the popular uprisings.

In Egypt, almost 25,000 Facebook users called for the boycott of half a dozen series that were still promoted as feature dramas for Ramadan this year. This was the case of Samara, whose lead actress, Ghada Abdul Raziq, has publicly condemned the revolution; or Adam, in which the leading role was played by Tamr Hosni, a singer adored by Egyptian teens until he was kicked out of Tahrir Square in Cairo.

                        Facebook page calling to boycott Adam and Samara


In Syria, for the first time in the country’s history, a movement to boycott Syrians series for political reasons has been taking shape on Facebook. The page, entitled “The Syrian List of Shame – Syrians Against the Revolution”, gathered more than 27,000 fans to denounce actors that have publicly criticized the revolution and offered their support to the current government.
 
Faced by such uncertainty over content, local and regional TV stations switched to productions from the Arabic Gulf, particularly those from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This change in schedule happened a few weeks before the beginning of Ramadan. The vast majority of Egyptian and Syrian series produced for the holy month were ready to be aired long before the popular uprisings started. Consequently, a sizeable portion of those programs did not deal directly with the theme of the revolution. The significant plunge in Ramadan drama production this year – particularly in Egypt, where the numbers dropped from 50 series produced in 2010 to 32 in 2011 – has thus gone hand-in-hand with an audience deficit. In countries where the political situation was still uncertain and where people kept protesting for change, it is hardly surprising that real life events proved more attractive than TV fiction.
 
But the Arab Spring hasn’t had strictly negative consequences on television production. In Egypt, the popular uprising has influenced a number of projects and has allowed the broadcasting of series that would never have been aired under the former government. The series Al Mowaten X (Citizen X) was inspired by the police torture of a young Egyptian, Khaled Said, in June 2010. His death then became a strong symbol of Mubarak state repression for the protesters on Tahrir Square.

 
 
Trailer of Al Mowaten X


The impact of the revolution on the small screen was not limited to Ramadan dramas. Inspired by the rebellious movement that is transforming the region, some producers challenged traditional TV formats by launching audacious programs in which ordinary citizens played key roles. Private satellite channel ON-TV, which gained a considerable influence during the uprising for relaying the political messages of the different actors in the revolution, has been airing a dozen new shows based on catchy and innovative concepts. The idea of Taxi Masr (Egypt’s Taxi) is, for example, to film the discussions that take place in a taxi between drivers and their clients, using a small camera. People usually speak freely about subjects that matter to them on a daily basis, mostly speaking of the current political situation. In Matloub Ra’is (Unknown President), a member of the audience is selected by the host of the show and then has to act as if he or she was a candidate for the next presidential elections by presenting a platform and giving a fake interview. This type of program is literally revolutionary for an Egyptian audience numbed by decades of censorship.


 
Trailer of Taxi Masr


But with such a large number of new political programs on the air and the unprecedented appearance of news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in the crowded Ramadan TV market, it is hard to tell whether audiences will continue to be attracted by obsolete formulas or by fictional series too far from the current political situation. One thing is sure, however; producers and screenwriters already know that if they want to make up for the money and audiences that they lost this year, they will have to focus forthcoming Ramadan dramas on the revolution and its heroes.


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Illustration Credits:
- Capture of the series Samara
- Facebook Page calling to boycott Adam et Samara 
Video Credits:
- Trailer of Al Mowaten X / YouTube
- Trailer of Taxi Masr /YouTube 

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