Why I'm choosing to watch classic Arabic dramas during Ramadan

We tune in to some minor stations and unearth a trove of regional dramas from the past four decades that offer a tonic to the stale series of today

Nour El Sharif stars in the 1993 religious drama Omar Ibn Abdel Aziz
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Ramadan is a time when we reflect on the things that matter. While watching television programmes is not what everybody will view as a mode of reflection, there are insights to be gleaned from spending a few hours in front of the small screen during the holy month.

The most obvious is that the current crop of dramas is becoming increasingly stale.

With few exceptions, the complex morality tales that for a long time were a hallmark of the Ramadan drama, are being replaced by cheap thrills.

In the high-profile Lebanese production Khamsa W Nos, audiences have to put up with a mundane love triangle due to the petty motivations of the main characters. Meanwhile, the latest season of Lebanese crime drama Al Hayba has been a disappointment because of a lack of chemistry between its central couple.

Then you have the comedies. This Ramadan marked the first time in five years without a series starring the renowned Egyptian comic Adel Imam. Judging by the dearth of talent on display, he can't come back soon enough.

This year a majority of comedies went down the mindless screwball route, as opposed to the biting satire of the old. The Egyptian series Super Mero is simply awful. It follows a caped crusader who spends her evenings rescuing Cairo residents from bumbling criminals. Another Egyptian production, Hogan, follows a young man whose superhuman strength – he eats glass and bends steal – has turned him into a home-town hero. Both of these shows lack gripping storylines and ultimately have nothing to say about a part of the world going through rapid transition. 

Flicking back to the past

Watching any of these dire offerings would make this a long month, so I trawled through more than 1,000 channels to discover a variety of broadcasters showcasing a different kind of television.

While Ramadan is used increasingly by major channels to launch their latest programmes starring the next big things, there is a growing number of low-profile stations, such as Dubai Zaman, Kuwait Al Qareen and Egypt's Dream TV, that focus on dramas from the 1970s to the 1990s.

It was a revelation for me. As someone who grew up in Abu Dhabi during the 1980s, I knew series such as Raafat Al Hagan were popular but now that I am older, I appreciate why. 

They were produced in what remains considered as the golden age of Arabic television. It was a time where the entertainment industry’s centre of gravity was in Egypt (it is now shared with Lebanon) and the medium was viewed more as an art form than a sheer commercial enterprise.

The Arab Game of Thrones

Running for three seasons from 1988, Raafat Al Hagan was a cultural phenomenon and could be viewed as the Game of Thrones of its time. But here is the catch, watching the programme (broadcast nightly on Dubai Zaman at 11pm) I have a hunch that it would tank if it were produced today, simply because viewers are far more impatient.

It is based on the true story of the titular character (played with equal panache and panic by Mahmoud Abdel Aziz), an Egyptian spy who spent 17 years engaged in clandestine operations in Israel. The programme, which was written by Egyptian novelist Saleh Morsi, was rich and thoughtful. It would not have descended into the all-out machismo of the popular Egyptian police drama Kalabsh, which is being broadcast this Ramadan. Instead, the moral complexity of the characters in Raafat Al Hagan, from both the Egyptian and Israeli sides, are steadily revealed. The scripts respect the viewer's intelligence and the pay-off remains startling to this day. 

There was more to stardom than looks

One aspect of Raafat Al Hagan worth mentioning is the quality of performances. Television work back then was viewed as a reward for time spent on the boards. Nearly every member of the cast, from the great Youssef Chaban to Mohamed Wafik, cut their teeth in Egypt's competitive theatre scene before making their way to the small screen.

Unlike the actors involved in ­Ramadan dramas today, such as singers Cyrine Abdelnourcurrently struggling in her role in Al Hayba – and Wama frontman Ahmed Fahmy's so-so performance in the romantic show Prova, television back then wasn't a time to introduce yourself to the masses. It was a more meritocratic environment, where talent trumped looks.

As a prime example, look no further than Zeinab Wal Arsh. The cast of the drama, which features Mahmoud Morsi, Soheir Ramzy and Hassan Youssef, would be deemed unwatchable by audiences today. Set in the offices of a struggling newspaper, this tale of love, deceit and political intrigue has Ramzy and Youssef – both in their 30s at the time – playing characters about 10 years their junior. However, they were pros and their intensity was so spot on that you can forgive such a discrepancy.

The prevalence of 'mosalsalat diniya'

Another forgotten facet of Ramadan television these vintage channels reminded me of was the former prevalence of "mosalsalat diniya" – the religion-inspired drama. Long viewed as a natural staple of the holy month, such shows have faded from our screens, with the major exception being the brilliantly produced MBC 2012 pan Arab production Farouk Omar, based on the life of Omar ibn Al Khattab, the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate.

However, the success of that show was down to it being a welcome throwback to a different era. Screened nightly on Dream TV at 1am, the 1994 series Omar Ibn Abdel Aziz is the real deal. Starring Nour El Sherif, the series centred on Omar II's brief but influential reign as the leader of the Umayyad Caliphate from 717-720 AD. El Sherif gave a commanding performance as he delivered his lines in the classical Arabic dialect of fus-ha, making the programme as entertaining as it was educational. It complimented the vibe of Ramadan perfectly.

While it is easy to describe these programmes as mere throwbacks, their presence on our screens is important and needs to be highlighted. The shows serve as a counterpoint to a Ramadan television scene that is increasingly slipping in quality, while they are a reminder to all of us that we have better stories to tell about the region and its history.