By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD — Another season of maniacal television is over and done with the passing of another Egyptian Ramadan. But only just. The episodes had to extend into the Eid to finish themselves off. And you had to wait a day or two afterwards to be able to ‘digest’ it all – themes and motifs and hidden signals – if only because of the extended effects of fasting on you.
The one series worth mentioning, the one I’m reviewing here, is Zil Al-Rais (The Shadow of the President). It’s noteworthy and for several reasons. It bucked the trend – most of the Ramadan serials were about jinn or cheesy comedies. It starred Yassir Galal, a grade A actor whose been shelved for decades for no good reason. And it was professionally produced and directed. You didn’t feel that a shila (bunch of friends) were all starring side-by-side with each other, regardless of their qualifications for their parts. Not so here. The series was positively superb.
In the Lamp’s Shade
Zil Al-Rais had everything – action, intrigue, narrative twists and turns and surprises that left your head spinning, family drama and broken friendships, great camera work and a magnanimous soundtrack.
The other ‘unusual’ thing about it is that you were actually able to watch it on television. It was on several channels, as any Ramadan serial should be, whereas many other works were all exclusive to one channel, a channel that you could never seem to find on the satellite receiver. It just goes to show the afflictions Egyptian television is suffering from are all self-inflicted. If there were any political restrictions holding the industry back, this series would have suffered from them and doubly so given the controversial content.
The story, on the surface, is about a construction tycoon – Yehya Nouridin, played to perfection by Yassir Galal – who narrowly escapes an assassination attempt that leaves his wife and son dead. The man was formerly a bodyguard of President Hosni Mubarak and worked in the state security service, so he puts his skills to good use to find who is gunning for him. In the meantime, an old police friend – Hazem (Mahmoud Abdelmoghni) – takes charge of the case and begins to scuttle the investigation, in pay of certain corrupt elements gunning for Yehya themselves. To make matters worse, a shady businessman – Tarek Al-Gammal (Ehab Fahmy) – forces his way into the family firm and steals the company’s money, forcing the government to freeze Yehya’s assets at the worst possible time. Other subplots abound, such as the murder of Yehya’s neighbour, the owner of a famous publishing house, whose surveillance cameras caught a second team of assassins placing a bomb under Yehya’s car. This embroils the daughter of the neighbour, Dr. Salma (Hana Shiha), in the investigation. And she’s a family friend and has the hots for Yehya from the word go. (More on this below).
It turns out that Salma’s father was going to publish the sordid financial dealings of a former high-ranking government official – the so-called ‘shadow’ of the president – given to him by an accountant specialised in money laundering. The documents themselves track back to Yehya because he was investigating such a corruption case in his heyday as a security man.
Everything is hidden till the last two episodes when Yehya confronts the corrupt official and you ‘think’ that everything has been solved. The official professes innocence and makes his case, leaving you wondering if he really is the criminal mastermind or not. (I think he’s modelled on a former minister who was legendary for making documents incriminating him mysteriously disappear. The character here talks about such documents too).
The Family in Focus
At the very end, you get two earthshattering surprises. The corrupt official was actually speaking the truth. The person who was trying to have Yehya killed turns out to be his own uncle, Magdi, played by the classy actor Ezzat Abo Ouf. How could this be? He’d been muscled out of the family business by his own brother, Yehya’s father, and had to put up with his own fiancé – Nahid (Ola Ghanem) – hitching up with Yehya’s father. She steadily climbs the corporate ladder at his expense too, forcing him into the money laundering business himself.
It was all about revenge. Tarek turns out to be a secret associate of Magdi. (Nahid made the stupid mistake of bribing a public official to get the lowdown on the competition for the big government contract the company is striving after and Tarek uses that to blackmail her). In the confrontation scene Magdi reminds Yehya of his own bad relations with his kid brother, Nahid’s son. And then a further twist happens. Dr. Salma’s tries to kill Yehya, with the help of her ex-husband – a recently released political prisoner. Turns out Dr. Salma’s first love was tortured to death at the hands of Yehya’s associates in his bad old security service days. She comes to hate him so much that she has daughter kidnapped at one point, almost having the girl killed.
Afterwards you see Yehya at his company, having recovered the money, working actively with Nahid’s son, and talking about the need to forgive to be able to heal and go on with your life. You see Dr. Salma too, still living next door, but cut off from the man she once fell in love with.
This may seem mundane but isn’t in the slightest. It’s meant to show you what happens when you neglect the internal front, the family, your own household, in the pursuit of wealth and influence. Yehya is the quintessential honest businessman, having left the security services – disgusted with the corruption and the strong-arm tactics of the regime he once served – and trying to maintain the family name without resort to bribes himself. Tarek, by contrast, is the nouveau riche. The kind of street urchin turned legitimate businessman that thrived under the Mubarak regime. Hazem is the envious ladder climber, and says so at one point. He pursued power to become rich like the rich-kid Yehya, marrying an obnoxious girl because her father is a former minister. (Hazem’s father is also an esteemed judge, so he’s squandering the legal heritage of his family too).
Nahid, I suspect, is a stand-in for the ex-president’s wife, trying to force her way into things while the head of the family, Yehya, is busy seeking revenge. That’s what happened in Egypt in the last days of the Mubarak regime. (Yehya is called ‘Al-Kabir’ at time in the story, a word used for the village bigman in Egypt). Her no good son, constantly taking drugs and double-timing with girls, has no appreciation for the family name because he never had to work for anything. (He threatens a guy with a gun at one point). As for Dr. Salma, she represents Egypt after the January revolution, a country still longing for the security of the old regime while dill-dallying with the forces for democratisation (her ex-husband).
She always tells Yehya that he’s not being up front with her, not trusting with all the facts. Come to think of it, her ex-husband – a very plump individual – looks very much like former Mubarak-era presidential candidate Ayman Nour. Curious!?
Bullet to the Head
Other family themes abound. Yehya’s sister, Ghada (Dina Fouad), is unhappily married and lives off her inheritance, wasting her time on facebook and neglecting her duties as an aunt towards Yehya’s daughter. This kind of persona has come in for a lot of criticism lately in Egyptian drama and the media. Also, note that her blockhead of a husband is Egypt’s cultural attaché in America and has no problem with her seeing her ex-fiancé (the shady businessman Tarek). He represents Westernisation or globalization, and we’re pretty much told so by his brother, since he’s the one who tells him about Tarek.
Yehya neglects his daughter, forcing her to go to a discothèque and take ecstasy pills at one point. And Magdi reminds Yehay that he at one time neglected his own daughter too.
The country, represented in the family, needs to pull together if it is to survive the corrosive influences besotting it on all sides – at home and abroad. If the previous regime as stricter with itself, none of this would have happened. The revolution and the current security breakdown and the persistence of corruption that’s choking the life out of the economy.
Self-inflicted wounds again. Look what happened to Syria and Libya when it came to the inheritance of power. This may seem like a terribly clichéd way of dealing with things but it isn’t. I was having a chat with a businessman the other day and he said if it hadn’t been for the stubborn streak in Hosni Mubarak, he would still have been in power today. All he had to do was push his ambitious son out of the way and arrest the Minister of Interior during the first few days of the protests. He said the same thing about President Morsi. Sibling jealousy and rivalry has been a problem from Cain and Abdel to the modern-day Arab regimes, monarchies and republics alike. We’re the ones who open ourselves up to foreign influences.
Self-inflicted dependency. And there’s nothing remotely clichéd about the ‘way’ they handle the storyline. Every character is perfectly thought out and no one is entirely evil. Note that Yehya never remarries to give birth to new a male heir, a rarity in Egyptian cinema and television. Even Hazem has his soft side; he has a secret second wife, a witness from Yehya’s former anti-corruption case, and Hazem has to choose sides at the end when his secret wife gets pulled into the fray herself.
If Egyptian drama can pull its socks up so effectively in the face of the trashy competition, then there’s hope for the country and the whole of the Arab world!!