First episode of Emirati drama Khiyanat Watan Min Riwayat Ritaj attracts 48 million viewers

Khiyanat Watan Min Riwayat Ritaj is an edgy Emirati political drama that dares to be different. We spoke to its actors, Habib Ghuloom and Haifa Hussein.

Ritaj is so complicated and so far removed from any character I’ve done that it was a privilege to delve into something so different, says Bahraini lead actress Haifa Hussein. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Media
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Khiyanat Watan Min Riwayat Ritaj has been described as one of the most important– and groundbreaking – television shows to emerge from the UAE and the wider Gulf region.

It has been hailed as the first Gulf production to tackle a politically and religiously sensitive subject: the secretive workings of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Within hours of the broadcast of the first episode on Abu Dhabi TV after iftar on the first day of Ramadan, the show – the title of which translates as “Treason” or, more literally, “The Betrayal of a Country as told by Ritaj’s Story” – was trending on Twitter.

Emirati actor Habib Ghuloom, who is part of the production team and stars as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says the first episode attracted 48 million viewers.

“We always knew this would be an important work, but 48 million viewers was a staggering number to us,” says Ghuloom.

“This means it’s not just Emiratis watching – they would make up just one million viewers. This means that people from across the Arab world tuned in and understand the importance of this work.”

Ghuloom’s wife, Bahraini actress Haifa Hussein, plays the title role of Ritaj, a woman who finds herself in the midst of a downward spiral of love and secret organisations.

The character, a 36-year-old divorcee dealing with the shock of her marriage falling apart while caring for her sickly father, is a departure for Hussein from the usual characters she portrays, not least, she says, because Ritaj is based on a real person.

“Ritaj is a real woman, she exists, she has lived these circumstances,” says Hussein.

She appears in most of her scenes without make-up, and her character is seen crying often, unlike the more glamorous and femme-fatale type roles Hussein is usually seen playing.

“This role caused me depression, mentally and emotionally, during rehearsals even,” she says. “All the scenes are full of shock and grief and sadness.”

Despite this, she says that the role was a dream come true.

“As a character, Ritaj is so complicated and so far removed from any character I’ve done that it was a privilege to delve into something so different,” she says. “And no wonder – it’s a patriotic show dealing with a sensitive topic.”

The cast of the show includes more than 80 actors from across the region, including a significant number of young, new Emirati faces.

Emirati pop-star Hussein Al Jassmi lends his vocals to the title song, and has actively promoted the show on his social-media accounts, expressing his support and admiration for the project.

The husband-and-wife team of Ghuloom and Hussein are also involved behind the scenes in the production of the show.

“We were looking for a special book with elevated language and an enlightening subject, through which we could examine an important topic artistically and dramatically,” says Hussein. “It was an honour for us as a team to have found this and to get to work on it together.”

“People are interested in it because it’s different,” says Ghuloom. “People are looking for something different, and we delivered. We are betting on this work, because we built it from the ground up and prepared every tiny detail so that it is the high-quality, impressive work that it is.”

It distinguishes itself from the usual soap operas and television dramas to come out of the region through its subject matter, says Ghaloom.

“The subject we are presenting is a matter of public opinion important to Emiratis and Arabs anywhere and everywhere,” he says. “Everyone is involved and interested in issues such as the dark, underhand workings of the Brotherhood and their secret organisations, hiding under the guise of religion – and we understand that people’s love of the UAE and its government will make them understand the importance of us creating this series.”

The key, says Ghuloom, was to approach the subject matter from a social angle, and let the political and religious themes evolve through examining the lives of the characters.

“The story examines the effects of a political organisation such as the Brotherhood, and its underhand dealings, on the behaviour and ambitions and dreams of ordinary people, the effect on their families and children and homes,” says Ghuloom. “This is something we can all relate to – that’s the draw.”

The drama has a message – one that is being delivered by every single person who has worked on it, says Ghuloom.

“It’s our chance as Emirati dramatists and Arab artists to present our opinions, to give back to our country, to celebrate the safety and security that is the envy of all our neighbours,” he says.

Asked whether there will be a second season, Ghuloom is non-commital.

“The series is based on a book and on actual events that happened, and we examine those in full,” he says. “As a work, it is complete.

“But we are very proud of what we’ve accomplished and we hope to create many more dramas of such high quality and such importance.”

Khiyanat Watan Min Riwayat Ritaj is broadcast on Abu Dhabi TV each night at 7.50pm, with repeats at 3.30am and 8.30am