Kitsch and Kitchen Sink Drama

“There is no monasticism in Islam,” declared the Prophet Mohamed. And yet, that is what Ramadan offers a taste of: daytime renunciation and celibacy. Although ideally a time to practice wakefulness, or awakening, people pass the month of fasting sleeping, or sleepwalking through the day. A time prescribed for meditation and quiet reflection, it is instead marked by shot concentration and short tempers, as people stagger around in seven degrees of stupor leading up to and following the iftar (breaking of the fast). The abstinence and self-denial observed during the day are vengefully displaced by overindulgence in the evening, with unequaled quantities of Oriental sweets devoured during this month. Unsurprising then, in this stupefied and passive condition, that the other glut of the season should be television; more than half of the serials produced by the state-owned Egyptian Broadcasting Company debut during Ramadan. Factor in that most movie theaters are closed for the month, and you have an idea as to why escapist entertainment might be so desperately sought after.

For nearly three decades, the hotly anticipated pièce de résistance of Ramadan TV has been the fawazeer (riddles show). This popular mainstay is more an occasion for song and dance than the solving of facile riddles presented to the viewing audience (who must answer, via post, in hopes of winning prizes). Although most agree that the show has seen better days, it has survived several death knells. Nelly, a charismatic dancer from the early eighties, was the most talented and popular of the fawazeer stars. In one hallucinatory sequence, with tinny spaceships and surreal outer-space photo montage, her improbably blonde hair is stylishly tousled as she mugs for the camera, and coos: “I’m walking on air, barefoot; with my mind’s screws troubling me.” And there, in a line, you have a summary of the prevailing mindlessness of Ramadan TV.

Another popular show is camera el khaffiyya or (candid camera), but with a twist. For the past couple of years the portly star of this equal opportunity show, where presenter and unsuspecting participants are humiliated alike, has taken to dressing in drag. Garishly made up and clearly enjoying it, the ringleader of this cirque de grotesque excels in pushing people to the very edge until he is either verbally or physically abused, or both. Sketch highlights include a butcher chasing the presenter down the street with a carving knife because he insisted on trying to build a kiosk directly in front of the butcher shop; the presenter maniacally cleaning store windows with a filthy rag; and the presenter barking in the streets and biting unassuming pedestrians, claiming to have been bitten by a rabid dog himself. That the unwitting participants of this show consent when asked for their permission to broadcast these episodes may be attributed to unfathomable good-naturedness on the part of Egyptians. Word has circulated, however, that participants are financially compensated for their efforts, following a lawsuit by a disgruntled participant. Whichever the case, the immense success of this program went on to spawn a popular play, based on the same cross-dressing character and played by the same actor.

Amidst all this insipid entertainment, there was at least one inspired show, lakhbat lakhabeet (mixed-up nonsense). The presenter, unassuming and verging on the goofy, takes to the street to interview people, deliciously garbling his words and coining a few phrases along the way. So, what do you think, he asks, after having said absolutely nothing in so many words. And, unbelievably, people almost always answer, or try to. Vaguely, cautiously, hedging their bets, but answer they do rather than asking: Excuse me, what exactly did you say? And, therein lies the genius of this skit. The man on the street will sooner volunteer elaborate answers or extravagant misinformation rather than simply admit: I don’t understand or I don’t know.

This year, Ramadan TV showcases the same strained hilarity, the same rambling talk shows and celebrity interviews. It lasts until nearly five in the morning, keeping people mind-numbing company right up to suhour (the pre-sunrise meal), before their fast begins anew. The split personality of the whole exercise is evident in the preponderance of religious programs shown before iftar, and the variety shows broadcast afterwards. The set-up of the former, versus the get-ups of the latter could not be in sharper contrast. By day, in an unimaginative studio environment, one man sits with one book, preaching the dour intricacies of the faith for hours. Meanwhile, the singing and dancing forbidden in nightclubs and theaters during Ramadan feature prominently in the post iftar television programming. A modern adaptation of a 1,001 Nights, for example, is merely the flimsiest excuse for a 1,001 costume changes.

Of course, there can be no discussion of Ramadan entertainment without mention of the de rigueur dramas, avidly consumed by the bored and the dutiful across the country. Here, the world of soaps is the world of slaps; in other words, of Dostoevsky — hysterics, histrionics and inexplicable tears — minus the profundity. Exceptionally, over the past few years there have been controversial soaps tackling issues like polygamy and inter-faith relations, as well as the occasional well-realized historical drama, such as one based on the life of musical icon Oum Kalthoum. Moreover there is a trend this year, on non state-owned satellite television, toward the political soap. One about Afghanistan, The Road to Kabul, was pressured off the air after only eight episodes, and another, Palestinian Exodus, continues to stir controversy.

Throughout this intemperate season of mass-distraction, when the public permits all shades of madness into their living room, what emerges is an all-too-human balancing system, fasting and feasting along the slippery road to moderation. There is an obsequious jingle that comes on at the end of every Ramadan, lamenting its passing, that typifies the spirit of overcompensation. Leaving so soon? But it’s still early, O month of fasting, the refrain disingenuously repeats. Whoever sings along should be made to fast the rest of the year.