CAIRO - 29 January 2018: Sabea Gar has perfected the art of delivering home truths. The drama has had us glued to our TV sets since its first episode, craftily invading our lives and getting us to relate to its characters. By depicting very similar and almost identical stories to our own everyday lives, it’s almost as if the characters are ourselves or people we meet all the time.
That is until the series began shocking us with truths that we have for too long chosen not to admit. So much so that audiences who once heaped praise on the series’ three female directors Ayten Amin, Nadine Khan and Heba Yousry—who together add a mixture of spices to end up with one harmonious fine taste, presenting in a dazzling way interlocking threads of human relations that at once amuse us and teach us—began to reagrd the events as unusual and hard to grasp. This, many viewers are arguing, is not representative of our society.
But is the series attempting to be subversive by shocking viewers? Or is it really holding up a mirror to our society?
There are two types of drama series; the first you watch eagerly to know how it is going to end; the other you watch to enjoy its details. Sabea Gar is definitely the second type. Starting with a glossary cover, the series attracted a large base of audience, portraying the intimate cosy aspect of our family lives. It then began to uncover some of the dark, hidden sides that we choose not to bring up, even among ourselves. Though some argue this is intended to teach us to accept these facts, face them and discuss them bravely and without shame, the gradual yet shocking shift has stirred a wave of anger among audiences.
The series is set entirely on location in a large apartment building, the drama lines revolving around middle class families and their problems. The setting entrenches more and more the feeling that we are watching a replica of the daily lives of the majority of Egyptian society. In each apartment, there is a different set of life issues and problems; and the only point of intersection between all these lines is that they are neighbors.
The main two families are those of two sisters Lamia (Dalal Abdelaziz) and Leila (Sherine).
Lamia’s one and only goal in life is to see her daughters get married, arguably every Egyptian mother’s obssession. Meanwhile, her sister represents yet another very common societal complex. Although married to a con man, she refuses to ask for a divorce; one one level she is afraid of the “gossip,” and on another, she actually “still loves him.” She embodies a classic female weakness that exists deep inside many Egyptian women, something of a Stockholm Syndrome where the woman is in love with her abuser and cannot escape the abusive relationship.
Till that point, Sabea Gar was that engaging and enjoyable family soap opera whose viewers who found themselves emotionally attached to Lamia’s and Leila’s families. If the series’ producers had kept up this pace, they would have taken the easiest way to success and guaranteed the continuation of a high viewership of the series, avoiding most criticism. Instead, they took a much riskier turn and began employing shock tactics, jolting audiences with controversial characters and plot twists.
In each episode they introduced a more complex societal problem taking advantage of the high popularity of the show to push forward some intense messages.
The result was general backlash from most viewers who criticized the bold approach. Others argued that perhaps we are overlooking the true purpose of drama, stressing that the added value drama offers does not come from amusement or a plain presentation of daily life, but that it is more of a mirror being held up to society. That mirror shows us our good and bad sides, its purpose is to face them and fix them.
The series goes deep into one controversial issue after the other, stressing on the fact that in most cases, the “sinner” is not more than a victim of circumstances that they didn’t create. And in other cases, they are simply part of our reality that we need to admit, whether we like it or not.
That approach has not gone down well, with viewers feeling they are forced to accept a “reality” they believe is blown out of proportion and that they cannot identify with.
The first controversial problem is that of Ismail (famous director Amr Salama in his first acting role) who though claiming piety really has endless double standards. After getting engaged to one of Lamia’s daughters, he suddenly left her to run after her more liberal sister Heba. The series presents him as symbolic of all “pious” people, an overgeneralization many found not only inaccurate but offensive.
Hala is yet another controversial character. Although she refuses the idea of having a man in her life, her ultimate goal is to have a child; and she asks a colleague to marry her only for this reason. Is Hala a victim? A byproduct of her con father and her weak mother? Is it correct to marry only for this reason? Of course not. Is her fear of men justified? Yes it is. Now do girls like Hala exist in our society? Fans argue the series was right to shed light on such an example, at least so that we admit its existence and face it as a reality. while others felt her representation was overblown.
While audiences felt some of the plotlines and twists were open to discussion, there was perhaps one had viewers in an uproar. It shows Heba, one of the daughters, who was attracted to her married neighbor (Tarek) and who had started to talk with him behind his wife’s back. They once smoked hash together then agreed it would be better to be “only friends.” Heba then goes to a friend’s apartment, they were alone and they drank beer and smoked hash. Many viewers felt offended, saying these actions disrespect “our conservative respectable society.”
The reason behind Heba’s actions and the message she is meant to deliver are crystal clear throughout the plot. In one scene, she says to her friend, “Do you believe that I have never loved anyone, I don’t care about love or marriage I just want to try everything in life.’’ But regardless of whether or not you like what you see, some audiences have expressed the notion that we should at least take note of the message that we should embrace our children to help them find their way, give them their space and the needed level of freedom and teach them how to choose, otherwise we might pay the high cost of their deprivation, especially since. “The forbidden is always the most desirable.’’
When it comes to Tarek, he too is reviled by the audience. A married man, he flirts with Heba and his colleague at work, drinks wine and smokes hash; in a conservative Middle Eastern society like ours, he would be seen as the worst husband ever. The series does not defend Tarek but it does appear to attack his wife, Noha (Heidy Karam), possibly blaming her for her husband’s infidelities and rather aggressive behavior. This stance alone was enough to turn audiences away from the series.
Another woman that audiences felt was misrepresented was young female engineer May, who lives alone in her engineering office. May was once in love with Ahmed, her colleague at university but he left her to marry another woman then travelled to work abroad. As soon as he was returns, they relationship resumed, both emotionally and sexually. Again audiences have criticized the series makers for presenting such a negative story, though others point out it is clear that the purpose is not to praise them but to paint them as part of our society, part of our mirror.
Yet the producers didn’t highlight enough that this couple, despite their existence, do not comply with our customs and traditions. As their relationship is portrayed as somehow normal, it exprovoked the audience and many viewers felt the cheap thrills and shock factor were cheap tools to up ratings.
Crossing a Line
And perhaps this is where Sabea Gar fails. It may depict real-life examples, the message being that we are not all the same; that we must face our problems to be able to solve them; and that burying our heads in the sand like ostriches is not the solution.
We must learn to accept others who are different than us and not just criminalize their actions or avoid them, but by zeroing in on these examples it has somehow blown things out of proportion. The gradual approach may have helped deliver the producers’ message more effectively and more painfully—the pain of truth; or in other words, a poisonous truth that would cure us and never harm us—but by intentionally zooming in on extremes many viewers feel the series has lost credibility, angling the mirror to only reflect certain “truths.” Worse, they argue, it attempts to pass these examples off as reflective of Egyptian society.
Another general complaint was that the series was given a rating of 12+ although a number of its scenes require to be 18+. Shocked audiences argued that not only the content but the message too were inappropriate for children and that it did not offer positive role models they coud emulate.
Despite the shortcomings of the series, it was critically acclaimed. The three talented directors successfully presented a group of young female actresses who appear for the first time, which helps the audience identify more with the true characters.
And what makes the show even more credible, beside the dazzling and natural performance of all the cast members, is also their simple appearance. The girls appear without any kind of make-up, wearing simple outfits similar to what we wear at home.