Ramadan, the “month of musalsalat”, begins today

Ramadan kareem to everybody in the Muslim word. Today the holy month starts but, as a Syrian director friend of mine once said, this is “the month of musalsalat” for many people.

The National, the UAE online publication, published yesterday the “essential viewing this Ramadan“.  Yahoo!Maktoob has also prepared a tailor made platform for Ramadan which includes a  TV guide to find out which musalsalat are being broadcasted by whom. It might be not so easy to find out what you want to watch during Ramadan, as with more than 500 FTA channels -many of them broadcasting musalsalat of good and very low quality- it`s kind of difficult even to make your personal viewing schedule. I started watching TV extensively yesterday afternoon, when most of the channels were broadcasting overviews of their Ramadan grids. I was surprised to realize how many “Bedouin serials” are about to be broadcasted this year, I could see desert settings and hear much more Khaleji dialect than I remember from last Ramadan season. Dubai TV was a mix of glittering “Hollywood style” stars as Yousra and the Syrian Bassel al Khayat introducing their new musalsalat, plus very basic -and not funny for me..but maybe it`s because the dialect is harder – bedouin musalsalat, kind of “low cost” look. From time to time, the presentation of its Ramadan grid was interrupted to leave air space to English spoken features -like one on “Dubai as the best shopping place for gold”- clearly addressed to potential tourists.

Al Jazeera had a show called “Mata Ramadan?” (When is it Ramadan?) in order to find out when exactly the holy month should kick off.

Today is the official start of the fast together with the musalsalat “grand bouffe”. The afternoon was mostly “colonized” by sheikhs dealing with religious habits, fast, Ramadan enquiries from the audiences. Even MBC was silent on musalsalat side and focused on those “religious” programmes.

The only place where I was able to watch a musalsal this afternoon was Dubai TV, which was broadcasting the latest Syrian actor Bassam Kousa`s Tv drama, where he plays an Arab “Rain man” (do you remember Dustin Hoffman playing the autistic but brilliant main character together with Tom Cruise?). The musalsal is called Wara` as-shams (Behind the sun) and it is produced by well-known Syrian company Aj headed by Hani Arshi (who also appears in the role of consultant for the musalsal). It tells the story of a young and beautiful couple whose life will change since the announcement the child they are expecting is affected by the Down syndrome. From which I could see on the screen today, Bassam Kousa is very far from Dustin Hoffman`s performance in “Rain man”. He over-acts and over-reacts and makes you wonder why if you want to have any success during Ramadan (or even want to be just noticed) you have to tackle sort of “taboo” issues -but the kind of taboos that make your audience cry, like an handicap-. Sounds like the old Hollywood lesson: just perform the role of a marginalized, handicapped, etc and you will get your Oscar home. Despite I love Bassam and the way he acts, I have to say that this first episode of “Behind the sun” did not convince me at all.

Dubai TV is betting on Hatem Ali and Yousra`s works as “main dishes” this Ramadan. Hatem, who I have met in Damascus and chatted about his view on musalsalat industry, has wonderful insights, he is a talented director and a gifted intellectual. I loved his last film work “Al leil at-tawuil” (The long night) produced by Haitham Haqqi which I could only screen in Barcelona at Wocmes congress for the first time last July. I`m not a big fan of his Andalusian or Bedouin works, but I`ll definitely watch “Abuab al ghraim” (the gates of the cloud) tonight at 23 pm KSA which has been taken from Sheikh Al Maktoum`s (the ruler of Dubai) poetry. The Sheikh inspires more than one programme on Ramadan grid,  it seems: just watched “Kawather ramadaniyya” (Ramadan thoughts) which also comes out from his pen.

Even if I have no idea about what the drama will be about, I`ll watch the latest Yousra`s of course, tonight at 00.00 KSA on Dubai. Yousra has been my favourite actress since the time she was acting with Youssef Chahine and, even if she is in a musalsal, for me it`s always the same blood- tempered girl of “Iskandria kaman wa kaman?“.

MBC will broadcast the “must follow” of the season, “Bab al hara 5” and I`m very curious to see it on air, after I have attended the musalsal shootings in Damascus last May. No, of course I won`t tell in this blog if Abu Shehab or Abu Issam are coming back! Also curious to watch “Tash ma tash” in its 17th season, if I can make it to understand the Saudi accent. There are a number of Egyptian musalsalat on MBC that I will have a look at, knowing well that I will give up after a few episodes.

Future TV is broadcasting Najdat Anzour`s “Ma malakat aymanokom” (which I will not dare to translate: too many different translations are appearing on the Net, and the expression comes directly from the holy Quran, the women`s sura) which I have watched a bit in his office during the editing process, founding it beautifully done and extremely interesting. Najdat also has got “Zhakirat al jasad” (Memory of the flesh) on Abu Dhabi TV which is inspired by the life of Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi.

That`s already so much to watch and there`s even more to discover just by zapping with the remote control from channel to channel after the Iftar meal.

Advertisements

Najdat Anzour`s new TV drama to set Ramadan 2010 on fire

A very hot and dry summer afternoon in Damascus. The kind of weather which pushes you to be indolent. But in this tiny Maliki apartment there is even more activity that usual. Two workstations in parallel are editing ما ملكت أيمانكم” (“Whatever you possess”) and ذاكرة الجسد” (“Memory in the flesh”), the latest TV drama  works by Syrian director Najdat Anzour.

I`ve been knowning Najdat for some years now and I`ve always admired his dedication and passion, whatever kind of work he does. This can`t be more true this time when he is working on such different contexts and stories. “Memory in the flesh” is inspired by the novel of Algerian writer Ahlam Musteghranemi, one of the more appreciated Arab writer of the last century, and  a very unconventional female personality. This 30 episodes TV drama is been produced by Abu Dhabi TV channel with 25% participation of Egyptian Media City, a miracle that only somebody like Najdat could orchestrate. It is very rare indeed to see Egyptian capital producing something that is shot by a Syrian -this has happened previously, as in the case of the Syrian Hatem Ali`s “King Farouk”, but the final result was rather a “made in Egypt”-.

Anzour is working with Syrian (like Syrian star Jamal Suleiman), Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian actors to create what could be described as a “Panarab” TV fiction production, something that tackles regional interests and issues, as the Algerian liberation war, the Lebanese civil war, etc. And, of course, there is a lot of beautiful literature taken from Musteghranemi`s work. Dialogues are in classical Arabic, as Algerian dialect is still not widely understood at a regional level as much as Egyptian or Syrian.

While he is still shooting “Memory in the flesh” between France, Lebanon, UK and Algeria, Anzour is at the final editing stage of “Whatever you posses” (the meaning of ا ملكت أيمانكم” being wider than this, as it is a Quranic expression coming from the “Sura of the Women” that has got a lot of religious nuances). This musalsal, which is also due to be launched during next Ramadan, is in a way at the opposite end of “Memory in the flesh”. Whereas the latter comes from a piece of literature, is set in the past, speaks Classical and addresses Panarab issues, “Whatever you possess” is a social drama very much set in a contemporary Damascus and spoken in Syrian dialect. It deals with issues like relation between men and women, sex, religion, corruption, poverty and extreme richness, all elements that are embedded together in contemporary Syrian daily life. Najdat and his “monteur” show me two finished episodes and I can`t prevent myself from thinking that this is going to set next Ramadan on fire.


Contemporary Damascus is shown with all its contradictions without any filter: one of the most ancient urban settlement in the history of humanity,and at the same time a tiny village where rural values of tradition and its preservation still seem to prevail over modern urban values.

This contrast is visible in everything from the locations to the characters, with a particular emphasis on females. Rich “enfants gates” that spend their time on the border of a swimming pool in their rich father`s villa, talking about make up and coiffeur, whispering on their fancy mobiles and elaborating on the latest fashion magazine coming from the West – and young educated girls that are pushed to sell their bodies to pay for their parents` health treatments-. The middle class is astonishingly absent from this picture -as it is, in reality, fading away from Syrian society class composition-. Middle class is shrinking everywhere in the entire world, as a result of the globalisation process that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer: but in Syria this process dramatically involves all the values that middle class traditionally brings to society, its dedication to education and hard work, its belief in self-initiative and self-making, its urban background. The females protagonists of “Whatever you possess” -Leila, Alia and Nadine- represent three prototypes well alive in contemporary Syrian society. Their complicated relations with men are mostly based on exploitation, submission, dependence, inequality, frustration and on a unbalanced exercise of power. To this respect, every social class seems to be the same -no differences between the rich and poor, the shrinking middle class being even more desperate as more conscious of the process that is leading to its own disappearance-.

Whatever you possess” is made up of luxury villas and poor suburbs, smoky bars full of belly dancers and Qoranic schools, women dressed in “total black” and kinky “femme fatales” going from one party to another. It shows a society which is totally permeated with liberalization and globalization but hasn’t developed its “anti corps” , being only able  to read this process in financial terms (i.e. being empowered to buy the latest luxury car or mobile) but not in cultural ones.

I remember Najdat showing the promo of “Whatever you possess” to a Danish non Arabic speaking audience in Copenhagen. The results was amazing, as people could understand -through the powerful visual language – the story he wants to tell, maybe much more universal than as it looks at a first glance.

During the past few years, Najdat Anzour has smartly dedicated his career at “universal” issues that are of Westerners` and Arabs` common concerns, I.e. terrorism, relations between religions, issues like the Danish cartoon controversy. I`ve always found this very interesting but I have to say that I`m happy to see “Whatever you possess” focusing on Syrian society, debating about it, pointing out at its problems. Being more local he has probably become more universal, and even more understandable by us Westerners, even the non Arabic speakers, as those folks in Copenhagen. There is a lot of criticism in Syria in respect to this kind of “Syrian neorealism” featuring all the problems and the contradictions of the Syrian society on Regional TV screens, moreover during the holy month of Ramadan. People say those fictions don`t offer any solution for social change, just portray the bad side of a society. However, I think that through TV works as the latest Anzour`s, people could at least become conscious of some issues and realize they do exist, instead of using TV just as a way to escape in an imagery past that existed once or probably never existed.

“Whatever you possess” by N. Anzour, 2010

pictures from http://www.libyanyouths.com/vb/t27507.html

An eye on the Mossad:Najdat Anzour’s last provocation for Ramadan 2009

Ramadan is about to start, so it is the TV battle that every year surrounds Muslisms’ holy month.

One of the most promising (in terms of raising polemics) musalsal this year will be Najdat Anzour‘s ” Rigal Al Hasm(Decisive Men). Anzour is not new to provocation, having directed many controversial musalsalat on hot topics such as  Al Hur al ayn” (Virgins of Paradise) – on Islamic terrorism and suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia – or “Saqf al alam” (The roof of the world) – on the Arab anger after Danish Jyllands Posten had published Prophet Mohammad’s cartoons-.

But this year musalsal -which is going to be aired by Abu Dhabi TV during the soon to be started month of Ramadan – deals with a real “hot potato”: the Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, and Syrian-Israeli relations during the 1967 war, particularly after the occupation of the Golan heights.

The musalsal focuses on the story of a Syrian man -played by Syrian star Bassel Al Khayat– who seeks revenge for his  family that was killed in the bombardments of Golan. He goes then to Europe where he is able to infiltrate the Mossad with the help of the Israeli female agent Mirage. The story therefore moves to Israel where Bassel is quickly integrated into the Mossad and its interior conflicts and corruption. He starts a relation with Mirage, then with another Israeli female agent, played by Miss Lebanon Nadine, always keeping in his mind his family and his girlfriend left in Syria waiting for him. The plot is somehow interesting but the most interesting part is how Anzour has filmed the musalsal.

Last April, when I was in Syria, I got the chance to be invited to the shootings taking place in Syrian coastal town of Tartous.  The way Najdat and his Jordanian costume designer Hala have recreated the ’68 atmosphere in the West Bank is somehow interesting. They show an intense nightlife, bars and clubs full of music, beautiful women dressed as all the Europeans used to dress during the 68 revolution, an “easy going” and pretty libertine lifestyle. The setting is a kind of “pop” as you can see from the pictures here below.

najdat4

najdat3

najdat5

Another very interesting part is how he worked on the linguistic part. Having decided to shoot some parts in Hebrew, there was a “linguistic coach” on the set to train actors with the right Hebrew pronunciation (he is a Syrian who has spent a number of years in an Israeli prison). Then, as usual in Anzour’s sets, there were a lot of foreigners -mostly British people- that he invited to Syria to bring technical equiments -like the “truth machine” to shoot the scene when Bassel is questioned by the Mossad about his real identity- and also to play some “cameo” roles.

Being asked about the choice of the topic, Najdat states that he wanted to focus more on the “human side” of the story, rather than on the political one.  He insists he wanted to show the corruption and the intrigues that are hidden under what is considered one of the most powerful intelligence service in the world.

Only the screen could tell us what the result will be, and how “Rigal Al Hasm” will tackle the complicate Arab-Israeli issue. But something is for sure: this year the Mossad will have a face for the Arab audience, which is also the beautiful face of Miss Lebanon. They will see human relations -even if based on lies and double cross- developing between Syrians and Israelis, they will hear Hebrew on their Ramadan TV screen (altough this is not new, having the Syrians done many other musalsalat on the Arab-Israeli issue with some original dialogues in Hebrew).

This is for sure enough to have -at least- some major newspapers and talk shows talking about the musalsal.

“Rigal Al Hasm“, produced by businessman Hany Mokhlef (for a big amount of cash: rumors say between 2.5 and 5 million dollars), will be broadcasted on Abu Dhabi TV and many other Arab channels.

najdat1