How Ramadan dramas have evolved into a league of their own

Ramadan remains the best time of year for networks to broadcast new television series, with a new episode airing every day for 30 days straight, due to viewership being at an all-time high.

Storytelling has come of age, thanks to the countless serials that are aired during the holy month. A photograph by Max Ehlert, shows how stories were shared in the past. Photo by Max Ehlert / Getty Images

It has become a family ritual during Ramadan, one that is almost as sacred as the breaking of the fast. Like Vimto, suhoor tents and decadent desserts have now become associated with the holy month. Ramadan TV shows too have become the very epitome of an evening among families across the Middle East.

How did this come to be, and what makes Ramadan dramas a standalone genre of its own in Arabic entertainment?

Here’s one theory: the very modern phenomenon of the Ramadan TV mini-series is, actually, based on an ancient custom seeped in tradition, says Pierre Abi Saab, a Lebanese intellect, writer, journalist and art critic.

According to Abi Saab, who headed the cultural pages at Al Hayat newspaper before becoming the deputy editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily Al Akhbar, musalsalat (Arab TV series and soap operas) have become an integral part of the Ramadan mood, the same way the hakawati – the Arabic word for a storyteller who recounted tales and myths before the advent of radio and television – was once the protagonist of Ramadan nights in times past.

“Ramadan has always been a time of year closely linked to oral culture, to storytelling and spectacles,” says Abi Saab.

“Think of musalsalat as the hakawati of these modern days.”

There’s no question about it. Ramadan remains the best time of year for networks to broadcast new television series, with a new episode airing every day for 30 days straight, due to viewership being at an all-time high.

Mazen Hayek, the official spokesman for MBC, which happens to be the region’s biggest media conglomerate and the most popular network when it comes to broadcasting Ramadan shows, says the holy month is akin to having “the Super Bowl for 30 days straight”. It’s a television phenomenon that occurs nowhere else in the world.

“Ramadan is the peak in TV viewing for us,” says Hayek. “It’s in a league of its own ratings wise, and studies have shown that people spend, on an average, six to seven hours a day watching TV during the holy month.”

Typical programming includes romances, comedies and historical dramas, some of which reflect current events. But what exactly constitutes a successful Ramadan TV show? How can one programme stand out from the pack, considering that each year – 90 to 100-plus series – catering to all tastes and expectations, are first aired specifically during Ramadan?

“During Ramadan, programmers mostly provide serials that emphasise habitual viewing with the use of character development over multiple episodes, cliffhangers, strong emotions and highly charged plots,” says Joe Khalil, an associate professor in residence at the Northwestern University in Qatar, who teaches communications courses.

The lifestyle changes associated with Ramadan, says Khalil, are profound and strongly affect viewership patterns, so the number one thing a Ramadan programme needs to do to succeed is make sure it airs after iftar. “The later the better,” says Khalil. “People are night owls during Ramadan, and if they’re not out at a suhoor tent, then they’re home watching TV.”

Actress Aseel Omran, from Saudi Arabia, who currently appears in the MBC production Gharabeeb Soud (Black Crows) about the role of females in ISIL, says the stronger and more controversial the topic, the more it will be watched during Ramadan.

“It’s a sign of the times now,” she says. “TV shows comment on what is happening in our daily lives, in our realities. There was a time when we cared more about watching historical dramas or about biographies of famous people, but today, the popular Ramadan show is the one that reflects reality and presents our social and political and everyday challenges.”

That said, despite the intention to cater to present trends, Ramadan TV often revolves around seven tried and trusted genres:

Fawazir Ramadan

TV binge-watching started at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, says Salma Al Rowhi, when Fawazir Ramadan began to appear on television.

The 63-year-old Egyptian, who has lived in Dubai for 15 years after her time in Kuwait, says she remembers watching Egyptian actresses Nelly and Sherihan dancing, who would then present musical skits and end each episode with a Ramadan riddle.

Spy thrillers

Then, in the late 1980s, a show unlike any other aired during Ramadan. Ra'fat El Haggan, which tells the real-life story of Egyptian spy Refaat Al Gammal and the 17 years he spent as Jack Breton in Israel, launched an obsession for spy thrillers, culminating in Al Zaibaq (Mercury) airing on channels across the region this year.

"I swear, I don't know a single person in my immediate circle or my parents' circle who didn't watch Ra'fat El Haggan," says Mohammed Al Ahmad, a 37-year-old engineer from Palestine, who lives and works in Abu Dhabi. "I may have been young when it aired, but I can still hum the theme song, and every Arab knows it, I promise you."

Social dramas

The 1990s was the era of the social dramas. Egyptian series lead the pack in this category, but the Syrians, Lebanese and Gulf shows don't lag far behind. Perhaps the most popular of the lot is the classic Aalet Al Hag Metwalli (The Family of Haj Metwalli) about Haj Metwalli and his four wives, who all live in different apartments in the same building.

Historical dramas

In the 1990s and 2000s, historical dramas, mainly the ones depicting life in Damascene neighbourhoods in the early 20th century, became a mainstay of Ramadan TV.

”BabElHara”

Bab Al Hara. Courtesy MBC

Bab El Hara on MBC is a case in point – the show is currently airing for the ninth Ramadan in a row.

Yasmine El Daleh, a 42-year-old architect living in Sharjah, says she lived in Amman when Bab El Hara first aired during Ramadan.

"Every night, whenever Bab El Hara was on, the streets were absolutely deserted," says El Daleh.

“People were addicted to that show, to the details, the old props, the simple Syrian life it depicted. And the addiction hasn’t gone away; I can’t believe it’s running for the ninth year.”

These shows constitute another means of taking refuge in the past, and have become hugely popular among Arab viewers despite advocating stereotypical themes.

Other examples include Al Zaim (The Leader) in 2011. Last year, Khatoun aired on Abu Dhabi TV, also set in old Damascus, and Khatoun 2 is proving equally popular this year.

Big-budget productions

The popularity of costume dramas set in the late 19th or early 20th centuries reflected nostalgia for an age seen as more heroic – this resulted in shows such as MBC's Saraya Abdin in 2014, Alf Leila Wa Leila (1,001 Nights) last year and Orchidea, on Abu Dhabi TV this year, which has been compared to Game of Thrones.

”Omar”

The historical television drama Omar. Reuters

Another that certainly falls in this category is 2012's Omar, a drama about the life of the 7th-century Muslim ruler Omar bin Al Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam. It's the only Ramadan serial to have been subtitled in English, with episodes available on YouTube.

Biographies

They’ve all been done – from the lives of songstress Om Kalthoum and Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, to Lebanese singer and actress Sabah, to poet Mahmoud Darwish, to Egyptian actress Soad Hosni – biographies that depict the life of a famous person are always produced with Ramadan in mind.

Political dramas

In recent times, political dramas that deal with sensitive and controversial topics have become a category of their own, especially with last year's hugely popular Emirati series Khiyanat Watan (The Betrayal of a Nation) on Abu Dhabi TV – it addressed the secretive workings of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE.

”KhiyanatWatan”

Khiyanat Watan. Courtesy Abu Dhabi TV

This year's ISIL-bashing Gharabeeb Soud, produced by MBC, also proved equally popular.

With radical changes unfolding across the region, the focus on more contemporary plotlines is rampant. Consider also Al Gama'a (The Brotherhood) about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood on Abu Dhabi TV; the first season aired last year and a sequel is currently showing this Ramadan.

artslife@thenational.ae