Too slow to become a TV masterpiece, Sunset Oasis revives interest in a fascinating novel

Mahmoud Azmi was an Egyptian police officer appointed by the British as district commissioner and tax collector of Siwa Oasis, a remote and rebellious location in Egypt’s north east, in the late 19th century. Nothing is known of his history except his bizarre act of vandalism of a Pharaonic monument there.

Bahaa Taher’s 2007 novel Wahet al-Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis), written when he was 72, takes Azmi, renamed Mahmoud Abdel Zahir, as a middle-aged protagonist and constructs a story of love, betrayal, occupation and most of all identity around him. It’s a deeply philosophical novel told powerfully through simple, carefully chosen words, avoiding slang yet never heavy or pretentious. Using archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry’s writings about Siwa and its Berber-speaking people as inspiration, Taher gives life to each character through inner monologues that create a subtle narration of the events from all points of view.

It certainly is a difficult and daunting text to bring to life on the small screen in a season such as Ramadan, which is what El-Adl Group did this year. Made by the formidable duo of director Kamla Abu Zikry and cinematographer Nancy Abdel Fattah, the first 18 episodes were written by Mariam Naoum and the rest by Hala al-Zaghandy. Abu Zikry, Abdel Fattah and Naoum have worked together on films such as A Day for Women and One Nil, and acclaimed series such as Zaat and Women’s Prison (on which Zaghandy also worked). In Sunset Oasis, you can see that this team is fond of Taher’s text and committed to staying true to it.

Yet unlike Taher’s novel, the series opens on July 11, 1882, the day the British fleet bombarded Alexandria and invaded the city under heavy resistance, in response to the 1879-1882 Orabi Revolt against British and French control of the country. Mahmoud (Khaled al-Nabawy) is aiding the revolutionaries during the bombardment. It’s an interesting way of establishing the origin of a reserved, self-assured, stern character: Who is this tall, handsome officer? What is he fighting for? How will this affect him later in the story? The series consciously establishes its premise on a powerful note: the downfall of the revolution, the start of the 74-year British occupation, and the idea of ongoing resistance.

Opening with two episodes about the Orabi Revolt was a successful hook thanks to clear references to the January 25 revolution, a fact immediately picked up on by viewers. Government officials, including Alexandria’s mayor, took sides with the British and hired thugs to terrorize people with fires and looting, causing chaos throughout the already burning city. Mahmoud’s brother in arms Talaat tries to convince him that he’s fighting for a lost cause and must renounce it, saying the revolutionaries are now being calling traitors, the revolution chaos, and Orabi a disobedient traitor. There’s no description in the novel of this imaginative scene (widely shared on social media), in which Naoum shows how history repeats itself: For the rest of the story Mahmoud struggles with the fact that he consciously renounced the only cause he ever believed in — and was even ready to die for.

Mahmoud is then punitively transferred by the British to Siwa, at the time infamous for its inhabitants’ deep hatred of outsiders and resistance against external control. In the third episode we are introduced to Catherine (Menna Shalaby), an Irish widow whose passion for Egyptology has led her to spend her savings on seeing temples firsthand. The conflict between her and Mahmoud, who soon get married, is immediately visible: he is the man within and she is the foreigner who observes. She is obsessed with Egyptian heritage and sees its imagery in Mahmoud, who just considers it a constant reminder of how great Egyptians once were. “Glory is for the grandfathers,” he says to her in a pained tone, “but as for their grandsons, they’re only good for being conquered.”

When the action moves to Siwa in the fifth episode, we encounter Sheikh Yehia, the eldest Siwan and a force for peace, and the dilemma facing his rebellious niece Malika (Rakeen Saad), who sneaks out to ancient tombs to make clay sculptures in likeness of Pharaonic ones. Abu Zikry seems to recognize Malika as the most interesting character, and to a large extent does manage to convey her sense of mystery. In the book, although she’s a main character with major contributions to the plot, Malika has no inner monologue like the others, creating even more interest in her character and situation, increasing her mystery. Everybody has their own interpretation and opinion of Malika. This is not the case in the series, in Naoum’s least successful deviation from the novel. Sheikh Yehia’s son Radwan (Ahmed Magdy), nonexistent in the book, marries Malika early on but is soon killed in a war between families. Malika mourns him for the rest of the show and her story becomes one of lost love: almost all her decisions are fueled by his loss and her inability to love anyone else, leading to frequent scenes in which she visits his grave and tells him her troubles, hopes and dreams. In doing this — maybe to lengthen and broaden Malika’s storyline, introduce a handsome new face or just shake the audience by giving them the perfect couple before quickly killing one of them off — the show lost its advantage and Taher’s impartiality toward Malika.

Other crucial events, if not an exact retelling of Taher’s story, do deliver the original emotional effect and purpose, as in the scene toward the end where Malika goes to Catherine’s home and they meet for the first time. Naoum took the liberty of adding and subtracting elements from the text in order to deliver the chaotic nature of the incident. Catherine is shown drinking, which she never does in the novel, and then the events unfold in one of the most interesting and difficult scenes of the series acting-wise: Through an error of judgment on Catherine’s part, Malika’s affection and desire for help and understanding is mistaken for sexual interest.

The decision to stay true to the novel by telling the story through inner dialogues shows the creators’ appreciation of Taher’s remarkable literary abilities, establishing the story’s philosophical nature and each character’s quest. Abu Zikry reportedly also spent time with Siwa’s oldest denizens and an old text they keep to document their traditions and events throughout the years.

Filmed amid the mud-brick houses of Siwa’s old town of Shali, almost all the shots involving the elders’ council or houses of the indigenous people are set up with creeping camera movements shot through holes and windows, conveying Siwans’ very private nature. The lighting impressively reinforces the story’s dreamy, poetic melancholy: Combined with a specific palette of exotic desert yellows and oranges, mixed with dimly lit interior scenes, it brings out a picture of cinematic proportions and sets itself apart from almost all TV shows that have tried to portray that period. The only downside is that the image comes out as too polished at times: after appreciating the scenery, sets and impressive visuals you remember that this is a show set in the desert in the 19th century — everything is not supposed to look so well-groomed and carefully maintained all the time. Although Abdel Fattah was hands down the most skillful cinematographer at shaping light this Ramadan, the image she creates is unrealistic and too digital at times.

Almost all the casting was spot-on. Nabawy is confident and graceful as Mahmoud. Saad, the new Jordanian actor who plays Malika, is striking and charismatic. Sheikh Yehia is played by the underappreciated Ahmed Kamal. The only real letdown is Shalaby’s portrayal of Catherine, despite the great efforts made to turn her into an Irish woman through posture, red makeup and hair dye, delicate period costumes and weak, mispronounced Arabic (especially in the first episodes) — although there was clearly not much interest in giving her English an Irish accent. Abu Zikry should have gone with her original inclination, which, she told Al-Masry Al-Youm, was to chose a foreign actor for the role.

But the main flaw was the show’s incredibly slow pace and obvious stretching of the plot. The 30-episode length, necessary for Ramadan TV shows, strayed from the novel’s structure and many episodes lacked real events — you could skip one or two without really missing anything. Some lengthy conversations could easily have been done without. Plot points, though recognized by the director and given the attention they deserved through their visual reconstruction, simply came too late. The questions asked by Taher through the conflicts each character faces — such as Mahmoud’s existential crisis and Catherine’s desire to give her life meaning through the glory of finding Alexander’s tomb — became lost amid the long conversations and uneventful episodes. With a powerful start, stretched-out middle and hasty end, the characters lose their defining elements and we in turn lose track of what they are actually seeking. They all looked and sounded the same in the final episodes as they did in the first, which made me wonder where all those hours of screen time had gone.

Starting off, the series drew positive responses and a good deal of discussion on social media, and the scenes packed with references to the 2011 revolution in particular received praise. Many were shared alongside quotes from the novel regarding freedom and revolution. But viewers were quickly put-off by the show’s deadly pace, and social media responses were quick to point that out. Yet on a visual level it was a successful portrayal of Taher’s oasis, a world of which there’s hardly any documented evidence and an often neglected part of Egypt. It will certainly inspire viewers to visit the area, or at least pick up a history book and the novel. Fans have already started rewriting analyses of the novel itself and creating new interpretations of it.

Hessen Hossam 

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