A TV series helping us see beyond the surface of reality: Heza al-Masaa

In a standout scene from one of this year’s most highly acclaimed Ramadan TV series, Haza al-Masaa (This Evening), one of the protagonists Sony learns that Abla, the woman he loves, is going to marry someone else. Sony (Mohamed Farrag) falls silent for a moment and then expresses his congratulations with a fake smile before changing the subject. Fleeting though it is, this scene embodies the series’ excellent script, direction and performance. Both the script and Farrag’s performance hint that Sony is about to explode, a feeling accentuated by director Tamer Mohsen’s decision to stage the scene in a dark abandoned movie theater.

All works of art are ideologically biased, and a powerful way to represent this bias in TV is by keeping it out of direct dialogues and monologues, otherwise the show risks preaching a certain ideology or a shallow depiction of it. This Evening expresses its bias indirectly. It revolves around several themes, the most important being Egyptians’ confused struggle to find themselves. The events chart the differences in how Egyptians from different economic brackets go about that quest.

Sony, Samir and Treka, all in their early thirties, co-own a mobile shop next to an abandoned cinema in a working-class Cairo neighborhood. They all know how to hack phones, and Sony hacks women’s phones in order to blackmail them into sleeping with him, using the cinema for his computer set-up for spying. Samir used to do the same thing, but has apparently stopped after getting a woman killed. Samir works as a driver for a big company, of which Akram is the executive director. Akram is married to Nayla, a perfume maker whose father is a millionaire, but they are unhappy in their sex life. While they’re on a trial separation, Akram marries Samir’s cousin Abla. Finally there’s Toqa, a young woman being blackmailed by the owner of another mobile shop using a sex tape she was in. Samir and the guys decide to help her.

Discrimination beyond class

This Evening represents a departure from most Egyptian art in how it explores gender discrimination, because it portrays the lives of girls and women from different walks of life. Nayla (Arwa Gouda), Hind (Samar Morsi) and Sara (Hagar Ahmed) are wealthy, while Abla (Hanan Motawie), Toqa (Asmaa Abou El yazeed) and Om Abeer (Zeina Mansour) are working class.

The series debunks the common misconception that upper-class women are not usually victims of gender discrimination. When Nayla tries to improve her cold relationship with Akram (Eyad Nassar), he cheats on her and marries someone else on a whim. Nayla tries to find ways to reignite the spark, but Akram apparently loses his mind and thinks, though he doesn’t admit it, that satisfying his lust is a God-given right. Akram’s married friend Hazam (Hany Adel) treats make-up artist Sara like a slave, hiding his romantic relationship with her, humiliating and ignoring her to maintain his image as a respectable TV presenter. Akram’s younger brother Sherif (Bassel Alzaro), who runs a water sports center in Sharm el-Sheikh, delays marrying his devoted live-in girlfriend and eventually breaks up with her because they’ve had sex. The show suggests that while rich women may have more freedoms when it comes to choosing their attire and sex outside marriage, rich men share the same attitude as underprivileged men about these issues — their violence is just often less direct. The series suggests that working class women have it worse because male views are imposed on them more violently; any attempt to break away from the path society has assigned them could destroy their lives. They are also more vulnerable to sexual blackmail, like Toqa and the women Sony spies on.

Samir (Ahmed Dawoud) is conflicted about Toqa, as he is conditioned by social norms that judge her harshly, but his own past as a blackmailer induces him to sympathize with her. A typical working-class view of women is embodied in Sony, who appoints himself a perverse sort of moral guardian: whomever he deems to have sinned, he blackmails. If he fancies a woman he blackmails her into sleeping with him then leaves, continuing to spy on her even after moving on to someone else.

Abla, meanwhile, is pursued by Akram just to satisfy his sexual urges, and suffers a secret, humiliating courtship to avoid being discovered by Nayla. She accepts this because it’s the first time she has experienced a man’s affections. “In our circles, a woman kisses her husband’s hand, not vice versa,” she says when he tries to be a gentleman.

A series filled with details

This Evening is concerned with characters’ multiple dimensions. It doesn’t present its characters as good or evil, encouraging viewers to relate to them on a spiritual level. As a drama with a progressive view it allows you to see beyond the surface of reality. For instance, the motivations of Sony, with all his flaws, are explained to the viewer without any attempt to justify them. As Sony himself states in the last episode, he has an inferiority complex when it comes to his best friend Samir. Lacking charm and without many friends or loved ones, he has tried to get attention in any way he can since he was a child. He also believes that marrying a sensible, decent woman like Abla or Toqa is his last chance to be a decent person. That’s why their rejection seems to slam all doors in his face, pushing him over the edge.

Ironically, when Sony and Samir argue in the movie theater, Sony aptly describes Samir: For all his sins, which include a murder, he always has a way out because of his charisma and intelligence. He gets a chance to repent, while continuing to do the wrong thing.

Akram, whose desires are initially understandable but whose feelings for Abla gradually turn to hatred because of his excessive selfishness, reclaims a little sympathy when he asks his late father’s photo, “Are you happy now?”

Every episode is full of minute intricacies and the dialogue is pleasing and realistic. Every sentence uttered is natural, appropriate and skilfully written, fitting with each character’s background.

Sadly, very few directors in Egypt these days really tackle this part of the job, mainly determining camera angles and selecting actors for minor roles because producers have gained near complete control of casting. But Mohsen’s vision is clear throughout the story, which he created himself before continuing to supervise the development of the script, written by Mohamed Farid and his team of writers. The central characters are all talented actors, and Mohsen shows skill in guiding them and helping them get into character. He also cast young actors from independent movies, like Asmaa Abouel Yazeed as Toqa and Donia Maher as Hadeer. Abouel Yazeed’s flawless performance is an indicator of Mohsen’s eye and her substantial talent. It shows his willingness to take risks with new actors, as he did with Sahar al-Saygah in his earlier series Bedoun Zekr Asmaa (Without Mentioning Names) in 2013 and Jamila Awad in Taht al- Saytarah (Under Control) in 2015.

This Evening shows great attention to environmental detail; Mohsen is clearly a proponent of realism. This is clear in his depiction of the working class alley, the mobile phone shop with poster ads covering its windows, the type of butcher (masmat), the chairs and metal tables, the paint jobs on the walls, the furniture in the apartments, and the abandoned movie theater (shot on location in Beni Suef). The extravagant décor of Akram and Nayla’s world, with its entertainment options, parties and travel destinations in Egypt and abroad, is equally convincing. Most scenes were shot on location.

Camera movement, colors and sound change according to the mood of each scene. Most scenes in Samir’s house are filled with tension because a handheld camera reflects the mood. When Akram and Abla first meet, the camera is stable and the colors warm to reflect the moment’s intimacy. When Akram and Nayla’s relationship wavers, shades of dark blue and minimal light sources suggest a cold melancholy. Like the choice of a movie theater as the location for Sony’s spying and the selection of old songs playing in the background, everything is intentional. This precision, also evident in his previous series, puts Mohsen on the list of best directors in Egypt.

This Evening was one of the best series this year, perhaps even the best in recent years. It has a progressive and intellectual vision, and it saved a dull Ramadan TV season that was full of outdated notions from being a total wipe-out.

This is an edited translation of this piece. Translated by Sarah Fayed. For another take on Heza al-Masaa, see here.

Mohamed Hamdy 

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