As the holy month of Ramadan comes to a close, one of the season’s biggest TV hits in Egypt has been a topical and hard-hitting look at the life of a celebrity Islamist preacher.
The Ramadan serial ‘al-Da’aey’a’ [the Preacher] hit TV screens just days after the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, a sea change in Egyptian politics that has deeply polarized society.
The show’s critical look at ultra-conservative preachers comes amidst a highly charged debate over the role of religion in politics and the future of Islamist movements that liberals feel misrepresent the true nature of the faith as practiced in Egypt.
At a café in downtown Cairo, patrons gather after the fast-breaking meal to catch up on the latest episode in the series, which follows the life of TV preacher Yousef, played by actor Hani Salama.
One viewer, Adel Shata said the show was an accurate portrayal of the lives of controversial preachers.
“He [the director] intends to portray the characters in the series as similar to people who are in reality living amidst us in our society. Al-Da’aeya is the ‘cool’ guy, who dresses well and is interested in the media, in television; he’s a man who can put on a show” he said.
Al-Da’aey’a, directed by Mohamed Gamal el-Adl, follows the arc of Yousef’s life as he goes from an advocate of the most puritanical interpretation of Islam to a more moderate worldview.
Yousef begins to soften after he falls in love with Nismah, a musician whose lifestyle and career he previously disapproved of, played by actress Basmah.
Actor Salama says he felt that it was important to take on a substantive subject in the wake of the revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Islamist factions.
“I believe that after the revolution, for the first time, we began to understand each other, despite our many differences on various issues. We never imagined the sheer size of the Islamist groups, or that they had such a huge supporter base as well as a strong ability to organise. So, it was important for me as an actor, to take a job that would enlighten the people” he said.
But the toppling of Mohammad Mursi by the army following mass protests against him added new relevance to the show, which was written and mostly filed while Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood were still in power.
Lead actor Hani Salama said that the growing power of Islamist groups and threatening statements towards liberals and the media meant that taking his role was a risk from the start.
“I took on this project at great personal risk. Let’s assume that they [the Islamists] had not left power. There is a very big chance that the series would have been stopped, or that we could have been questioned or even jailed. Anything could have happened” he said.
Under the Brotherhood’s rule, liberals accused the group and their Islamist allies of imposing their conservative vision, which was not suited to the traditionally permissive Egyptian society.
But the Muslim Brotherhood say they were democratically elected to run the country and were removed in a ‘military coup’.
Actor Salama says the emergence of a new breed of preachers, unlike those in the past, overstepped the boundaries of their profession.
“We can all differ in our opinions, but these differences have a rule - the rule is that we should respect each other despite our differences. But one cannot speak to another who is uncompromising in his views, who believe that his opinion is the only one that counts, and anyone with a different view is called a ‘kafer’ [non-believer]. These people are known as Da’aeya. So do their titles entail the right to judge people? Have they taken over the work of God” he said.
Egypt’s continuing political turmoil has contributed to the series’ success as one of the most watched shows during Ramadan.
Mursi’s fall has also given the show wider distribution. The show’s producers allege that prior to Mursi’s fall, Egyptian Television refused to broadcast the series, rapidly reversing course after Mursi’s ouster.
Series writer Medhat el-Adl says that during their time in power, the Islamists had shown themselves to be fundamentally intolerant of their opponents.
“I felt that we were entering a stage where Egypt’s identity was being changed. They [the Islamists] were beginning to gain ground everywhere, and they began to declare others apostates, to disrespect other cultures, and to disrespect ideas different from their own. I wrote this series at the time when the Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamists were still in power, and as a production team, we were determined to present this series. We even had a lot of trouble in selling it because channels were too afraid” he said.
While there has been a great deal of speculation over whether the character of Yousef is inspired by one particular person, writer Medhat el-Adl says the character is a vehicle for his own critique on one interpretation of Islam.
“A lot of people asked me who the lead role in this series represents from the sheikhs in our society. But I told them it was not one particular person. I took personality traits from every single Da’aeya [preacher]. At the end of the day, he [the main character of ‘Yousef’] was my means of expressing my views on Islam. Hani Salama was my means of explaining the idea that the real Islam, the Islam that I grew up with and know, does not look like this. This is why when I wrote about his love for a woman in the series, I made sure she had a job that he believed to be religiously forbidden”;
As the Eid holidays approach, many Egyptians who have become hooked on al-Da’aey’a are waiting for the show’s dramatic finale.
But while the topical and controversial Ramadan serial is coming to an end, Egypt’s ongoing political drama shows little sign of ending.