How stars built an authentic chemistry that's turning Al Atawla into a Ramadan heavyweight

Ahmed El Sakka, Zeina and Tarek Lotfy discuss mastering Egyptian dialects, reinventing age-old stories and badgering for scenes with Bassem Samra

Zeina with Ahmed El Sakka in Al Atawla. She says the project was one of the most collaborative of her 15-year career. Photo: MBC
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For Egyptian star Ahmed El Sakka, there's a clear link between Ramadan and the most successful series that run throughout the holy month. Just as the physical relief of breaking the fast after a long day, a successful Ramadan drama should provide viewers with a form of emotional release.

The actor has a lot of experience in this regard, having appeared in a string of successful shows during the season including 2022's taut police thriller El Ekhteyar 3: Al Qarar and the 2021 family drama Nasl El Aghrab.

This Ramadan, he returns with Al Atawla, a vibrant comedy-drama in which he plays a professional thief, Nassar, whose retirement goes awry due to a family feud. Airing on the MBC streaming platform Shahid, the series has been praised by critics, especially El Sakka's light comedic touch that's rarely seen on the small screen. "It is a great role in that it follows the model of a tragic hero who just yearns to have a simple life," he tells The National. "While the show has a dramatic plot and many characters, the audience sympathises with his quest and positive nature and this is what really keeps the audiences engaged until the end.”

With the story set in the working-class communities of Alexandria, the Cairo-born El Sakka had to learn some of the dialects and mannerisms of residents from the coastal city. "Alexandrians have their own character and way of communication," he says. "It's not very different but it is a specific dialect and the way they use their words and the rhythm. It is something that a lot of us in the cast worked really hard on because the city, with its atmosphere and people, is an important element of the show.”

For co-star Tarek Lotfy, who plays Nassar's brother Khidr, nailing that authenticity was a physical challenge. "When you are talking about inhabiting characters who are deeply rooted in customs and traditions, it is a more intense process," he says. "It is almost like double the work. The intense scenes are a joy to do but getting the body language right was a big challenge for me like hand gestures."

Loosely translated to "the heavyweights", Lotfy says Al Atawla works as a Ramadan drama because it provides a fresh perspective on age-old stories. "It does explore this seemingly simple struggle between good and evil people but also asks the deeper question of how much can a good-natured person bear in times of struggle?" he says.

Al Atawla has a strong supporting cast including Bassem Samra and Zeina. Playing Nassar's love interest Jana, the latter describes the set as one of the most collaborative of her 15-year career. Such an atmosphere allowed her to grow into her role despite the initial reservations expressed to director Ahmed Khaled Mousa. She says: "To be honest with you, I didn't initially envision the character in the way you see on screen. But this was how Ahmed designed it and we disagreed on that. But ultimately he was right because he made Jana more empathetic and recognisable to the audience.”

That said, Zeina did get her way over another aspect. “I kept telling Ahmed that I needed more scenes with Bassem Samra because I am such a big fan of his,” she recalls. “Ahmed would keep saying that it would come in later episodes. I became so determined to make it happen that Ahmed basically got so sick of me that he added a scene in the first episode.”

El Sakka says he already misses being on set on Al Atawla, a sure sign the show will be well received by viewers. "The teamwork was great and we all really pushed each other to do some great work," he says. "I am proud of what we all achieved.”

Al Atawla is available to stream on Shahid

Updated: April 04, 2024, 12:35 AM