- August 26, 2010
- 16 minutes read
Time of the Brotherhood
When Wahid Hamid announced that he was writing a television serial about the organisation of Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimoun (the Muslim Brothers) over a year ago, there was much hubbub all across society. Hamid is well-known as a skilled television dramatist and the more controversial in the history of that medium. When he wrote the serial Awan Al-Ward (Time of the Roses, 2000), for example, which starred Hisham Abdel-Hamid and Youssra and was directed by Samir Seif, Hamid crossed one of the red lines of Egyptian society by broaching love and marriage between Muslims and Copts. This was a subplot within the serial, yet the subject unsettled religious leaders. Arguably the most controversial serial of all was Al-‘A’ilah (The Family), directed by Ismail Abdel-Hafiz and featuring the late star Mahmoud Mursi, which aired during Ramadan in 1994. It dealt with the dramatic religious transformation which beset Egyptian society all through the 1980s and 1990s, with waves of religious violence resulting in a precarious security situation. Hamid relied on a number of references that drew him into the field of religious jurisdiction to the chagrin of many religious parties beyond political Islamists, and he was accused of denying essential precepts of the faith. As a result the serial was never broadcast again.
Islamically oriented characters in Hamid’s films are likewise negatively portrayed, the clearest example being the bearded civil employee played by Ahmad Aql, opposite Adel Imam, in Sherif Arafa’s well-known 1993 film Al-Irhab wal Kabab(Terrorism and Kebab): he spends his office time praying in order to refrain from doing his work of serving the citizens as he should. This caricature is not entirely unjustified as a critique of surface religiosity and faulty work ethics, yet the picture becomes a lot more disturbing in the film Dam Al-Ghazal (Gazelle’s Blood), directed by Mohammad Yasine (also the director of the serial under review) when the worthless street thug Rishah becomes the amir of the gamaa or leader of the group of extremists in the poor neighbourhood where the protagonist lives, despotically ruling the lives of the neighbours. Hamid was no doubt inspired by a notorious incident of one such amir in Imbaba who had worked as a drummer for belly dancers.
Hamid’s history in this department resulted in attacks being waged on the new serial, Al-Gamaa, before anyone knew anything about it (partly because it was advertised before Hamid finished writing it). With the first episode on the first day of Ramadan, the controversy surrounding the serial became a principal topic on the pages of newspapers and satellite television talk shows. That was partly because Hamid opens it with a significant and well-known event that took place in Egypt four years ago, when the police arrested a large number of Azhar University students belonging to the Muslim Brothers after they performed a military parade on campus. The issue escalated after major leaders of the Brotherhood were arrested, including Khairat El-Shatir, second deputy to the Murshid (Guide) or highest authority within the organisation, whose own incendiary statements at the time (that he is ready to transport thousands of armed men to Palestine and southern Lebanon to fight along with Hezbollah against Israel in the July 2006 war, implying that there existed at the disposal of the Brotherhood a trained militia that could undermine the internal security of Egypt) did not help contain the issue. Many underwent military trial.
In presenting a popular account of the history of the Ikhwan Hamid is faced with two essential questions relating to the topic. The first concerns chronicling immediate events relating to political mobilisation efforts on the part of those who support fundamentalist ideas and see in political Islam the answer to Egypt’s problems; and they include the Ikhwan. They stand against those who support civil society, whose own ideals imply an equal if more complicated drive to mobilise. Yet in the midst of this conflict and the consequent polarisation of society Hamid stands before a variety of political critiques even as he documents a true enough state of discontent on the street and the problems suffered by Egyptians. This he does despite the fact that he is friends with many members of the ruling elite and some would say that he enjoys this much freedom — evidenced in films like Al-Irhab wal-Kabab and Al-Gharib wal-Mansi (The stranger and the forgotten) only because he is counted as belonging to the regime.
The religious influence that has overtaken society and the way in which it has been dominated by surface religiosity is rooted no doubt in the Ikhwan, and as such it seems the point of the serial is clear. This is the second question with which Hamid is faced in the context of writing it: the task of recounting the history of the Brotherhood, specifically through the early life and upbringing of Hassan El-Banna, his childhood and youth and his attempt to play a role in the Islamic religion by founding the earliest and most powerful Gama’a, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood. It is possible to say that this is the more important aspect of the serial. It is the principal dramatic line and by its nature it has a certain historical appeal not necessarily reflected in dramatic power or depth. Yet it remains the more suspenseful in the context of the 21st century. The process of moving from the present to the past requires dramatic justification, by the standards of traditional structure, which drove Hamid to open the serial with the State Security prosecutor responsible for the Azhar University events, Ashraf (Hassan El-Raddad) and his concerned mother (Sawsan Badr); they appear to be from the upper echelons of society and as such present an attention-grabbing counterpoint to the events that will justify moving back in time.
Ashraf has a girlfriend, Shirin (Youssra El-Lozi); and Hamid uses their relationship, which he turns into a matrimonial project, to effect the connection between Ashraf and Shirin’s grandfather the judge Abdallah Kassab (Ezzat El-Alaili), who was a member of the Brotherhood as a young man and later left them; in many scenes we see him criticising their activities and ideas. The dialogue between Ashraf and Judge Kassab is one of the main ways in which Hamid moves back to the time of Hassan El-Banna; they talk about nothing else, only political Islam and the Ikhwan seem to concern them. Thus the answers to the questions require talking about the emergence of the Gama’a and that of its founder and first Murshid.
Hamid is too intelligent to leave the scenes of the present time dramatically empty in this way. Instead he fills them with secondary characters and events which service his main ideas regarding criticism of society or the government as well as those backward and regressive ideas that have dominated society because of political Islam. He presents numerous subplots that give a direct picture of present-day Egyptian society. One Azhar University student who participated in the aforementioned military parade, for example, mentions to Ashraf that he belongs to neither the Ikhwan nor any other political current; as a result of the suffering he has gone through in his life, rather, he is ready to participate in any demonstration against the government. He lives in subhuman conditions in Istabl Antar at the foot of the Muqattam Hills, deprived of basic amenities. In many instances this has driven him to sneak into the student hostels with his colleagues in order to be able to shower. The scene was extremely moving despite the actor’s tendency to overact at some points.
Other subplots seem closer to the dramatic line of the serial. These include the story of the medical student (Karim Qassem), who is arrested along with the Ikhwan students. When he is confronted by his father (Salah Aballah) regarding his belonging to the Brotherhood, the son explains that he is in a relationship with a girl whose father is a doctor and a member of the Brotherhood; and since the Brothers never marry from outside the Brotherhood, he decided to become one of them not only to marry the girl but also to benefit from the opportunities the Gamaa could offer him in the way of work and life. The is also the story of the girl who works at Ashraf’s house as a cleaner: one day she arrives wearing niqab, which facilitates conversations with Ashraf and his mother whose only point is to show that she only took up niqab because she was told it is better in terms of the faith; she takes what she is told for granted, without the least desire to find out about religion and whether niqab is really part of Islam. In one line during the course of a conversation between Ashraf and his mother, Hamid expresses himself directly. This maid, Ashraf tells his mother, has been told that niqab is a virtue and not a requirement, but does not know the difference between the two.
A number of film stars are honorary guests of the serial, participating in the side stories the majority of which have no relation to the drama but exist rather in the context of social critique. There is one man unjustly being tried for bribery (Ahmad Helmi), a daughter who is unable to obtain her father’s pension (Menna Shalabi), and any number of scenes in which honourable small-time employees suffer as a result of the corruption of their superiors. One unemployed young man (Karim Abdel-Aziz) spends his time sitting in the Orman Gardens explaining to Shirin — in her capacity as a satellite television presenter — what one old man (Abdalla Farghali) said while he gave a speech frightening people of the coming of the new Tatars, locusts that will eradicate the green of these very gardens: a reference to the regime selling public resources to the private sector with businessmen investing such resources with a very to the fastest profits possible and no regard for the welfare of the citizens.
Many members of the Ikhwan have accused Hamid of falsifying and distorting the biography of the founder. Yet on many occasions Hamid insisted that the factual background o the serial is drawn from valid documents including El-Banna’s own memoir. Starting at the beginning Hamid shows how El-Banna, since he was a school child in the village of Mahmoudia, was concerned with the concept of organisation. As a Dar Al-Uloum student in Cairo, he founded another organisation that targeted café goers. It is well known from the writings of numerous figures who were around at the time — the most obvious example being Taha Hussein — that there was a conflict between students of Dar Al-Uloum and students of Al-Azhar, which peaked in the first few decades of the 20th century. Such conflict is a result of both establishments offering traditional Arabic- Islamic education and may be compared to the conflict between Oxford and Cambridge, but Hamid makes use of that atmosphere to underline El-Banna’s own drive to work in the da’wah(spreading the word about Islam, mostly among wayward Muslims) while that honour was reserved for students of Al-Azhar.
Perhaps Hamid saw a connection between the chaos in the fatwahs currently being aired on satellite channels and El-Banna’s concept that religious knowledge is in the books and not exclusive to Al-Azhar. Here as elsewhere Hamid showcases negative details, including El-Banna’s meddling with the funds of the Brotherhood, and receiving funds from the British Suez Canal Company while he lived in Ismailia. At the time there were different wings of the Gamaa in different parts of Egypt, which El-Banna sought and eventually managed to bring under his control, turning it into a fascist organisation largely by sabotaging a term traditionally reserved for the Prophet Muhammad: mubaya’ah, which means declaring loyalty to a leader. In this area Hamid is eager to show El-Banna’s violence and his autocratic tendencies. Once again, Hamid is too intelligent to construct an absolutely negative character. He counterbalances his critique with showing the human side of El-Banna: his sympathy with a prostitute eager for redemption (Abir Sabri), for example.
No doubt the dialogue of the serial relies on books and theories far more than it does on drama. In many cases, especially in the parts where Hamid turns the characters into mouthpieces for his critique of Egyptian society, this weakens the work from an artistic viewpoint. In this sense the areas in which Hamid tells the life story of El-Banna seem more convincing since they require a greater degree of directness. Here there is as much drama as required, even though nothing is ever as free of abstract politics as it should be. One clear example of this is the scene in which a group of artisans in Ismailia visit El-Banna’s home to declare their allegiance. Here as elsewhere the charisma of the Jordanian actor who plays the part (Iyad Nassar), his good looks and his acting skill, no doubt had the opposite effect to Hamid’s intention of showing this violent and fascist figure, whose ideas and modus operandi reflected the totalitarian tendencies then current all over the world and especially in Europe. Having made such an impact as El-Banna, indeed, Nassar might face a problem in that the Egyptian audience at least will find it hard to accept him in any other parts for a while.
But speaking of acting skill, one cannot afford to ignore the experience and power of El-Alaili as Kassab. El-Alaili faced a major challenge in that his dialogue is too dry and direct — one sentence, for example: “The governments manufacture the people’s pain, the Ikhwan and the parties buy and sell them, but there is no one really with the people.” — and if not for El-Alaili’s exceptional ability to convey a sort of muffled anger combined with deep sadness, much of that dialogue would have been positively repulsive. The acting and the directing have helped a lot in this regard. In every dramatic work there is a message, however subtle or apolitical. InAl-Gamaa, however, there is more of a political message than drama. This seemed obvious in the recurrent message that the Ikhwan are a political organisation with no justifiable claim on religion. Hamid’s opposition to theocracy at any level is likewise reiterated in the dialogue: the notion that, once a politician speaks in the name of religion, it is as if he is speaking for God. Despite the fact that the serial appears to be a government effort to critique political Islam — a fact demonstrated by the participation of numerous stars in secondary roles — yet the greater concern is that such a spotlight on an illegal organisation might actually result in greater publicity for the Ikhwan. It might even drive young people to find out about El-Banna and the history of the organisation with a view to finding a role model and a place to belong.
To produce a serial of this kind in the buildup to the parliamentary elections is a gamble on the part of the regime.