You’re Watching What?: On Ramadaan Television Series Pt I


It’s Day 6 of Rammadan, and I have been thinking about what I would have been doing had the Arab world not erupted during the first 3 months of this year.  I would have been in Damascus, finishing up my summer term… probably improved a whole lot in Levantine Arabic… Oh well, can’t say that I’m all that sad… Such is life.  The Road to Damascus is my road not taken.

One of the other things that I would probably being doing is getting into Ramadaan serials.  Basically, the month of Rammadan is not just a holy month; it’s the equivalent of Spring sweeps!  Every year, 29-30 episode serials debut on Arab television channels.  I am assuming they come on at night after Iftaar (breaking of the fast).  Honestly this is probably the aspect of having my next Arab world experience being delayed that makes me the saddest.

Because I had no training in Arabic dialects (except a little Moroccan) and because I have never been in an Arab country during Ramadaan, the only serials I knew about were historical ones:  Presentations of great figures in Islamic history, or fictional communities from several hundred years ago.  Some of these serials, at least, were in Modern Standard Arabic.

In the course of studying Levantine Arabic and trying to get a grasp of Egyptian, I have discovered perhaps the most interesting genre for Ramadaan serials:  programs in Arabic dialects, that focus on present-day people and present-day situations.  To date, I have only watched two Series from start to finish (one Egyptian and one Syrian), but they were both great, and I am planning on continuing with my replacements for them.

تخت شرقي ( a chorus of musicians and singers that plays eastern music– It can also mean Middle Eastern bed, which kind of works with this show too).

This was the first serial/soap opera that I watched.  I liked it so much that I finished it out of pure curiosity about what would happen to the characters.  The serial revolves around the friendships and relationships of a group of four guys who have been friends since high school:

Adham is a small guy who can’t seem to get a girl because of his awkwardness…. A quick google search reveals that a picture of him is a little hard to come by…lol…  This is sort of hilarious if you know his character on the show.  His friends, although they love him, are always dogging him for his small frame, deep manly voice and sometimes standoffish nature. Adham gets caught up in a scandal of sorts during the show, mainly because his character flaws make him the ideal mark.

Sa’ad is a lawyer married to a woman who is as difficult as they come.  She’s jealous, overly sensitive and makes a scene more times than I can count during the course of the program.  But he’s no angel.  Apparently he wanted to marry someone else, a woman whose face is never revealed during the course of the serial, but who his family (read father) rejected I forgot why.  Sa’ad’s mother abandoned him and his siblings when he was a child, and so making sure that he is a part of his baby daughter’s life is of utmost importance to him.  His family, sisters and all are among the principal character sparticularly his sister Amani (who also does not get to marry the man she loves, because he is Palestinian i.e. doesn’t have citizenship of any country, meaning his children will not have Syrian citizenship) and who marries a man that absolutely disgusts her.

Tariq is a doctor who has OCD or as they call it in Arabic WisWas.  He can’t touch anything unless it’s squeaky clean.   Tariq’s world changes when he meets Greta, a half-Syria, half-German woman who is his complete opposite.  They fall head over heels (and get intimate which surprised the heck out of me— more on that later).  But their differences come up again and again.  For one thing, Greta has a half-brother who is Israeli and living in Israel.  Tariq is a Palestinian refugee.  (conflict for these two is a no brainer).

and Y’arub, your traditional playboy.  He’s a carefree womanizing drunkard who spends a good part of the program trying to evade military service in the Syrian army.  But Y’arub has such a great heart, and he is easily one of the most endearing characters of the show.  Of course, he develops quite a bit as an individual.

Of course there is a whole slew of other characters, but I don’t want to be too confusing.  What surprised me the most about this series was just how matter of fact the characters are.  Y’arub is a womanizer (has women in different area codes). He gets crazy drunk (it seems as a result of his family being Golan Heights refugees).  He is not the picture of the Arab world and Arab man that I am used to seeing… But I do know Arabs like him.  I don’t know if that is good or bad.  It’s just a more human portrayal than the more rigid, uptight one that some people try to put forth.

Tariq’s relationship with Greta was also interesting to me.  Greta was not some block character representing the evils of the Western world (which IMO “Western” characters in Arabic language movies and shows can tend to be).  She had her faults, which Tariq pointed out quickly, and at the same time she actually pointed out some of Tariq’s hypocrisy.

There was also two story lines about an older woman-younger man relationship.  Again, I could not believe I was watching this on an Arab Ramadaan series.

Speaking of said relationships,  the following are probably my favorite scenes in the whole series:  Start from 2:08-4:17 and 5:53-6:40 and 8:10-10:33.  You don’t have to understand what is being said to understand the scene.  They are not original by a long-shot, but they are again pushing against the stereotypes of what is considered an acceptable male-female relationship.  The program deals with the realities of the younger man-older woman relationship… The woman Hanady is 10 years older than the guy, Paul.

تخت شرقي offers  frank discussions of the cultural expectations of women in Syrian society (especially how a divorced woman is viewed, the proper decorum for a married woman to display and  the fears of being an old maid), socio-economic class.

Moreover, I liked this show because it gave me a very different perspective on how Ramadaan is celebrated.  I must admit, when I found out this was a Ramadaan serial I was shocked. “How can you be focused on God, and prayer and spirituality when you are watching this stuff,” I asked my instructor.  She replied that, whoever wants to go to Taraweeh will go and who wants to watch this before after or in lieu of will do so as well.  I think programs like this make me think about all the different dimensions of Ramadaan: Reconciling the sacred with other issues such as very human needs for reward and entertainment.

I could not believe what I was seeing.

For all these reasons and more, I liked this program.  From my perusal of possible تخت شرقي  replacement, Syrian serials seem to push the envelope quite a bit.  But, they also churn out pretty good material.  No wonder they are so popular.

Too bad it’s over.  But, all is not lost, These serials seem to recycle the same core list of actors.  It will be good to see them again, If only as completely different people.  All in all I learned a lot from watching and discussing this program.

My next post will be about an Egyptian serial— which is quite different.


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