Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting and devotion, but it is also the Islamic world’s television drama addiction month. At the end of a day’s deprivation, millions of Muslims from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf gather in front of their television sets to follow daily episodes of month-long miniseries especially created for the Ramadan sweeps month. Every year, one or two of the multiple offerings becomes the breakout success, and the year’s forerunners invariably reflect the zeitgeist of the Islamic world.
This year, the two stand-outs are a mind-boggling contrast: on the one hand, a scholarly, pious docudrama of the life of Omar, a Disciple of the Prophet and second Caliph; and on the other, a wild Egyptian version of Sex and the City. It is disconcerting enough that ‘The Girls’, as the latter is called, is allowed to air in newly Islamist-governed Egypt and conservative Gulf Emirates- more about that later- but even more controversial is the life story of the Caliph Omar. That strikes at the heart of a particular Sunni-Shiite split in Islamic doctrine.
In the eponymous docudrama, actors play the Caliph Omar and other close disciples of the Prophet, as well as members of his family, breaking a long-standing taboo in the film industry of the Muslim world. So far, Arabic screens have been spared Cecile B. De Mille style religious epics with Victor Mature and Charleston Heston in biblical garb.
But the interdiction on portraying Muhammad and his disciples is a Sunni tradition, never observed in Shia Islam. In Iran, black-browed, black-bearded, turbaned depictions of Muhammad, the Caliph Ali and his martyred son Hussein, are ubiquitous. On the other hand, in strict Sunni Saudi Arabia, the prohibition against idol-worship is so sweeping that the very shrines and tombs of the Prophet’s family were destroyed by Wahabi zealots in the eighteenth century.
Even in moderately Sunni Egypt, imams of the Azhar University have been ambivalent about the Ramadan docudrama ‘Omar,’ although the tone of the Emirates-based MBC production is irreproachably respectful, and the lead role is played by a sympathetic, brawny, charismatic young actor. The Prophet Muhammad is never shown or heard directly, although his off-screen presence is intimated in many scenes.
On the other hand, the four girls of ‘Girls’ Stories’ are blatant clones, if not parodies, of the Sex and the City Quartet, down to the Carrie character’s habit of concluding each episode by recording her thought of the day on her laptop. They live in an unrecognizable, aseptic Egypt of gated communities and traffic-less roads, and pepper their vocabulary with five Americanisms per sentence. Camellia, the crudest and wildest, is the ‘Samantha’ character, but all four of the ‘girls’ vamp around in six-inch heels, skintight spandex, décolletage and nip-tuck faces. They chase elusive boyfriends and equally elusive jobs with the talentless single-mindedness of rhinos. They abuse any male at hand, including lackluster suitors and doting daddies- not Sugar Daddies, but their actual progenitors; for these Egyptian ‘girls’ are spoilt brats who still live under the roof of improbably indulgent fathers whom they treat with such contempt that one boyfriend actually objects. The girls are so unsympathetically drawn that it is a mystery which demographic these charmless protagonists are intended to attract.
Unless, of course, wittingly or unwittingly by their creators, they represent a cautionary tale, girls gone wild, ‘secular’ values taken to a cartoonish extreme. In that case, it is no wonder that Egypt’s newly-elected Islamist government turns a blind eye to their onscreen shenanigans during the holy month of Ramadan.