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From Safaa Amer to the Diabs: The Upper Egypt unknown to TV dramas
 
 
Still from Tayea
 

I have never felt much inclined to watch dramas set in Upper Egypt, even though I’m from Upper Egypt myself. The themes which creators draw upon in these TV series are predictable and overused, and have not changed since the 1990s. Therefore, I was not surprised that Tayea — the series written by the Diab family (Khaled, Mohamed and Sherine) and airing on TV this Ramadan — follows a story where the central elements are the illegal trade of antiquities and a long-standing blood feud, and Upper Egyptians wear big turbans and have stone-cold hearts.

The same goes for the TV series Nisr al-Saeed (Eagle of the South). It is unnecessary to mention the work’s author, because actor Mohamed Ramadan, or “the legend,” as he likes to refer to himself, usually works with writers who tailor characters to suit his preference, and expand his “legendary” status. At first, the show follows Saleh al-Qinawy (Ramadan), the head of the town, who lives in a grand palace and is killed by the villain, Hitler (Sayed Ragab), in a power struggle between two families — one of which has ancestral claims or who view themselves as the “rightful owners of the land” — and another family, the arch-enemies, who are consistently depicted by writers who author drama about Upper Egypt as the axis of evil and perpetually cursed. Saleh dies, and his son, Zein (also played by Ramadan) seeks to avenge his father’s murder, and the story unfolds in repetitive struggles that involve the usual blood feud, but also terrorism and drug trade, two themes that have begun to emerge over the past few episodes.

Such are the topics that no dramatization of Upper Egyptian life ever diverges from.

Unraveling the thread: Mohamed Safaa Amer and his establishment of Upper Egyptian drama

Everything starts somewhere, and, in my opinion, the prevailing pattern in dramas depicting Upper Egypt goes back to late screenwriter Mohamed Safaa Amer, himself a native of the south, who wrote many of the most successful dramas set in Upper Egypt in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Critics have considered him “the best” when it comes to writing about Upper Egypt, especially since his large body of work often served as the link between this region of Egypt and TV viewers in the rest of the Arab world. Yet have Amer’s stories represented the real Upper Egypt we live in or, or an Upper Egypt that only exists in his own imagination?

This article doesn’t really intend to evaluate Amer’s work, but it is inevitable to address it when discussing the representation of Upper Egyptians in Egyptian drama, and why it has not changed for more than 20 years. Why are they, from the point of view of those who write them, always dealers in drugs or weapons or antiquities? And why do all their conflicts revolve around blood feuds, despite their struggling with a host of other problems common to every area of the country? All these questions bring us back to Amer. In an attempt to illustrate how he has pioneered the current treatment of Upper Egyptian issues on TV, I will discuss three character portrayals in three of his most popular works for TV: Ze’ab al-Gabal (Wolves of the Mountain, 1993), Al-Do’ al-Shared (The Stray Light, 1998) and Hadaeq al-Shaitan (The Devil’s Gardens, 2006).

In Wolves of the Mountain, Al-Badry Badar (Ahmed Abdel Aziz), the son of the patriarch of the Hawara tribe, Sheikh Badar (Hamdy Gheith), refuses the marriage of his sister, Warda (Samah Anwar) to the man she loves because he is from another family. The fact that he has a university education and that his own father has accepted do not sway his rigid ideas, and when Warda disappears, a rumor spreads around town that Al-Badry has killed her. He flees to Cairo, and only then do his views on life eventually change. It would have definitely been more realistic for Al-Badry to have a more progressive outlook than his father’s from the beginning, given the generational difference, at least. However, it seems that Amer was consumed by the age-old fixation on the capital as the only escape from the “backwardness” of Upper Egyptian traditions.

In The Stray Light, Amer glorifies the unchecked power of the Azayza family over their village, to the extent that an incident like a person being whipped is spoken of as though it were perfectly normal, as long as it is carried out by Rafea Bey (Mamdouh Abdel Alim), the family patriarch. He is portrayed as a wise, gentle and sacrificing man, and so dictatorship, when practiced by him, becomes a force of good. Throughout the series, no villagers are mentioned beyond the Azayza or their arch-enemies, the Sawalem, who, over the years, have acquired enough money to rival the bigger family, even though they started out as “servants.”

Amer didn’t stop there; his imagination of what a “legendary hero” should be continued to stretch. In The Devil’s Gardens, Mandour Abul Dahab (Gamal Soliman) is a drug dealer who owns a pit where he buries his enemies alive. He is, however, nothing but a delicate child inside, and the writer weaves his protagonist’s corruption with a love story of mythic proportions to highlight that aspect of his character. Once again, viewers are asked to empathize with a criminal; to view a ruthless dictator as some kind of superhero.

Left to right: Ahmed Abdel Aziz in Wolves of the Mountain, Mamdouh Abdel Alim in The Stray Light, Gamal Soliman in The Devil’s Gardens

All three of these shows focus solely on the big, rich families of Upper Egypt, with no significant characters representing the millions who live in poverty in that part of the country. Amer’s choice to ignore that segment of Upper Egyptian society has informed the way Upper Egypt is represented in TV works to this very day. The protagonists are almost always the palace owners in the villages: cruel, corrupt men grappling with issues of illegal trade and revenge, who are nevertheless loved and revered by fellow characters and audience alike.

But where does the real Upper Egypt stand in relation to the works of TV dramas penned by Amer and the many writers who came after him?

The Republic of Copts in Egypt

I was very perplexed when, while looking through works upon works of TV series set in Upper Egypt, I couldn’t find one single Coptic Christian as a leading character in any of the shows. It is as if Upper Egypt is only inhabited by Muslims, which is far from the case. In a place like Malawi, the Minya town where I come from, most merchants and store owners are Copts, and there are plenty of partnerships between Copts and Muslims. Most people living in our street are Copts, and they have their own stories, which have never been represented in any work on TV — or in cinema for that matter — up until now.

There are entire villages, neighborhoods and streets across Upper Egypt that are exclusively inhabited by Copts. Moreover, most villages are split into three districts: one for Muslims, one for Copts, and one that is shared, but is usually further split into Muslim and Coptic neighborhoods as well. Despite the dangers of this often complete segregation between the Muslim and Coptic communities of Upper Egypt, there is absolutely no hint of any of the resulting sectarian disasters that take place in any works of drama that depict life in the south.

In the entire history of Upper Egyptian drama, the one Coptic character that stands out is Girgis, a secondary character in Khalty Safiyya wal Deir (Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, 1995), based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Bahaa Taher. He is a monk who helps Harby (Mamdouh Abdel Alim) seek refuge when Safiyya (Poussi) turns against him.

Working women in Upper Egyptian drama

There’s also a clear failure when it comes to representations of women in Upper Egyptian drama. While female characters are not ignored, they are always one of two archetypes: The misogynistic matriarch whose power comes from her position as a wife and a mother and who acts like the man’s mouthpiece at home (even after he dies), or the miserable, oppressed daughter who struggles to get an education or to get married or to make herself more attractive so her love interest will treat her better. There’s a scene in Eagle of the South, for instance, where the protagonist’s paternal cousin asks her sister to teach her “a couple of English words” she can say in the presence of Zein, so he would admire her the same way he does his educated Cairene wife. But where are all the working women of the south in these TV shows?

Still from Eagle of the South

Most households in Upper Egypt have one or more women who work, and a lot of women from Upper Egypt leave their hometowns to enroll in universities in Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities. Some of them have gained their independence, and work away from their family homes in Upper Egypt. There are also the local women who work in trade, toiling at the markets  everyday from 3 am to 5 pm, where they are respected and treated exactly like their male counterparts. None of these are anywhere to be seen in dramatic representations of Upper Egypt.

Upper Egypt is not a set of palaces and huts

I remember that a writer friend from Cairo made the following remark while sitting in a café in Malawi, during her participation at a book fair taking place in the town, of which she was one of the organizers: “This café isn’t any different from the ones I go to in Heliopolis.”

My friend’s comment, uttered in surprise, reveals a stereotype held by many about Upper Egypt, one that is undoubtedly cemented by TV representations of the south, and that disintegrates when they actually visit for themselves.  

In reality, most capitals and many cities in the governorates of Upper Egypt do not differ much from those in other governorates around the country, whether architecturally, or in terms of recreational services and facilities, such as coffee shops, hotels, sporting clubs, language schools and cultural centers. What kind of society is made up of only extravagant palaces fit to house a royal in the Gulf, and, in stark contrast, drab huts that are dilapidated to the point of misery?

Where’s the middle ground? Where are the regular residential towers and regular air-conditioned apartments inhabited by regular people who wear regular pants and t-shirts? Where are the middle classes, who live the same way members of the middle class live all across Egypt? Where are the universities of Upper Egypt, and the relationships between young people on campus? Where are the lawyers, the engineers and the craftspeople who live in Upper Egypt, and who have not been seduced by the “siren call” of the capital? Where are our cities, our streets and our actual problems, beyond drugs, antiquities and revenge? Where are we in the dramatic depictions of Upper Egypt?

In the end, one article could not possibly suffice to address all the forms of life and struggle in Upper Egypt that creators of TV dramas have failed to cover. I would still like to remind them, however, that we are not a monolithic whole. There are multiple identities in Upper Egypt, with dialects and traditions that vary from one city to the other, and one village to the other. Each governorate has its own issues, and many of them are prevalent in all of Egypt: economic troubles in light of increasing inflation, sectarian conflicts, violence against women, and many other woes. All of these are problems shared by countless communities across the country, but they manifest differently from one place to another. Yet Upper Egypt in its entirety is always represented the same way, and Upper Egyptians are still portrayed as creatures from another world.  

Was it Amer’s success with TV viewers that caused this? Or do TV writers simply prefer to take the easy way out, copying from their predecessors without considering how times have changed, as they always do? In all cases, we have not yet seen any true representation of ourselves as Upper Egyptians on TV, and perhaps we never will. The same shows continue to come out every year, spinning mythical tales about the people of the south, persisting in the farcical spectacles that deceive viewers — even Upper Egyptians themselves, sometimes — about the realities of this infinitely rich and multifaceted part of the country.

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Hamada Zidan