Samia Mehrez lecture - Image in crisis: The case of 'Hajj Metwalli's Family'
Duration: 00:58:15; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 358.480; Saturation: 0.106; Lightness: 0.108; Volume: 0.255; Cuts per Minute: 0.584; Words per Minute: 60.540
Summary: About Samia Mehrez:
Samia Mehrez is an Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sanallah Ibrahim and Gamal Al-Ghitani (1994). Her articles on Francophone and Modern Arabic Literature have appeared in a number of Arab and international journals.
About the lecture:
The lecture/paper presents a critical reading of the Egyptian TV series Hajj Metwalli's Family that was shown on a number of Arab local and satellite channels during the month of Ramadan (from November until December 2001). The daily prime-time series rendered, throughout its episodes, a positive representation of a Muslim, self-mad man (Hajj Metwalli) who marries five women (the first whom dies during the early episodes), each providing a step on the Hajj's ladder of economic success and social ascension. No sooner had the series been aired then it generated unprecedented issues and values that it portrayed-whether being on a social, ethical, or artistic level.
This lecture/paper will attempt to read the conflicting and conflicted discourses produced by various participants in the debate, including the National Woman's Council in Egypt, Egyptian State Television Authorities, regional press coverage, and popular Arab reactions as a mean to understand the relationship between society and art, authority and creativity, reality and imagination, truth and representation.
Lecture till 00:33:22.000
Discussion starting 00:33:22.000 (not transcribed)
...During Ramadan month, on most of the arabic screens, and the points of view were controversial about thevision that the series gave to the family.
Samia Mehrez, is an Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo. She will use the series"Al Hajj Metwalli" as a sample to talk about the image in crisis and the crisis of the image.
She is the author of many different articles on francophone and contemporary literarure and has a book "Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction". Please.
Good evening. I'll profess this talk in english and then proceed to speak in arabic. Given the subject of the talk, and the laugh in which the tv series operates, i've actually chosen to use a, what one would call a flattened kind of arabic "arabi baladi",
so i don't appear to be confliciting with the general mood of the image that is been portrayed before you. Christine Tohme has grasiously provided for us two episodes of the "mousalsal" or the tv serial "A'ilat alhajj Metwalli",
but i actually have opted for simply this still image, that i feel incapsulates much of what i will be speaking about. And therefore without further a do, i will begin my talk, in arabic.
Once again, as is the case every year, Egyptian television greeted us during the 2001 Ramadan season with an awesome mass ofTV series, exclusively fashioned for Ramadan.
The Arab viewer, who would have just broken his/her fast with the typically heavy Ramadan meal, iftar, could slip into a state of drowsiness and fall with abandonment in front of the small screen.
Watching television – after decades of special programming, produced specifically for these post-iftar hours during the Holy month of Ramadan – is an activity that hinders the already arduous process of digestion, with an intensity that almost brings the process to a halt.
It has become safe to say that, in general, the typical Arab viewer has a special appetite for Ramadan serial television programming.
These series dominate the small screen because they are aired at prime-time, in the time bracket when the entire family gathers around the television screen at the end of their meal, a captive audience that rarely has occasion to reunite in its entirety during the year, as the father may be out or the mother busy with the children, etc.
The shows summon the family to gather around them, in its smaller single unit or in the context of larger family gatherings.The unraveling of events govern the process of digestion, only to be interrupted by, or concluded with, heated discussions, accompanied by tea and Ramadan's traditional sweets.
The debate spills over, onto the streets and overruns public spaces, hovering over that viewer who thought he/she could flee the family setting and rebel against its dominion.
It travels across continents and the well-guarded national borders that the Arab viewer finds increasingly difficult to cross, particularly post September 11.
There is no escaping Egyptian television series during Ramadan. Even those of my ilk, who do not watch television, are entrapped, after constantly scheming to avoid the lure of the small screen, and bound by a commitment to write a paper on Ramadan television series.
Since the keepers of the Egyptian media industry are fully aware of the power of this Ramadan siege and of its commercial and economic returns, they have not spared any effort to invest in the most qualified, available talent in terms of scriptwriting, direction, performance and set design, to pleasantly surprise their restfully reclined spectator.
Ramadan series are created with the understanding that their target market is a family audience, one which crosses the class divide and encompasses both the poor and the wealthy.
The producers, particularly at the level of scriptwriting, have thus directed their focus towards the social themes deemed best suited for the collective viewership – including the children of the nation – who is expected to engage with the shows despite differences in age, gender, class and creed.
From the moment of their inception in the 1960s, state television and other media institutions have been keenly aware of the national role of the small screen as a tool for awakening audiences and shaping their consciousness.
They consider television to be a privileged tool, utilised for elaborating and disseminating a collective imaginary.They use it, more or less directly, to mould a representation of society in accordance with the outlook of state policies and national ideological transformations, continuously casting and recasting values onto the existing collective of values and thus, ensuring their safe-keeping.
Even when a television series ventures into lashing out a critique of the reality of economic and social disparity or changes in moral values, deemed to threaten the construction of the imagined and the real family – from the point of view of the institutions representing the state – , the critique, itself, stems
from a constructive or corrective drive aimed, in its entirety, at coercing and disseminating values intended to protect the construction of the collective image.
Commercial production becomes a social text in the midst of debates, articles and dialogues whose broader lines are drawn from judgments and commentaries on the series, whether laudatory or negative.
Every year, one of the series programmed for Ramadan succeeds in grabbing public attention, and in the rewriting of that collective social text – a ritualised confirmation to viewers and commentators alike of their belonging to the imagined nation and to the imagined community or collectivity, bound by the least common denominator of shared meanings and signs in the past and present, regardless of how conflicting the readings and commentaries of that one series appear to be.
In the past two decades, the official discourse, disseminated by the Egyptian state's media apparatus, appears as immature and precarious as the institutions from which it was spawned, weakened by its unrelenting effort to absorb the dichotomous prevailing liberal and Islamic discourses.
This current status contrasts sharply with the 1960s, when state institutions effectively familiarised audiences with a unified, clearly organised discourse, cast in a nationalist, modernist, progressive and bourgeois vocabulary.The institution of the media has now become the staging area for the production of a discourse that aims at 'hitting two birds with one stone', so to speak – at pleasing, or alienating, for that matter, the right and the left, the Islamistand the secular, the traditional and the modernist, – so as to impose a state-set sense of authority – on the concert of contradicting and com- peting discourses and values in the public sphere.
The position of Egypt as the primary exporter of television series in the Arab world, specifically in the market of the Ramadan season, has muddled the landscape even further.
As Arab satellite stations have widened the scope of their broadcasts to include a world- wide audience, producers, and more specifically, the producers of specialised television programming for Ramadan, have had to take note of such transformations in the profiling of their viewership.
They no longer fashion series exclusively with the Egyptian family in mind, but they have to make allowances for the wider Arab 'satellite broadcast' family audience, at the very least. Moreover, they have had to adjust their considerations of that family's values, expectations of storytelling and construction of drama.They have also had to contend with the limitations that such expectations have brought to the marketing and distribution of television series throughout the Arab region.
In other words, the 'globalisation' of Ramadan serial television production has brought forth a new set of contentions and contradictions to their authors, who are subsumed in the drive to please all, while sailing safely through the multiple boundaries of censorship in their native country and fellow Arab countries.
Notably, the authority of the Egyptian state has been impacted in its attempts to produce an image consistent with its representation of
the imagined nation, community and collectivity.
On the other hand, worldwide satellite television broadcast has provided the producer of the television serial drama with a new realm, not necessarily positive or progressive, free from the standards of official representation.
Last Ramadan (November and December 2001), Egyptian television aired a series entitled A'ai'lat Al-Hajj Metwalli (Hajj Metwalli's Family), in the midst of all these transformations, flaring an uproar never witnessed before.
In past years, series such as Layali al- Hilmiyyah (The Dreamlike Nights), Al- A'ai'lah (The Family), or Awan al- Ward (Time of the Roses) generated intense, albeit one-sided, debates during and after their broadcast.
The Hajj Metwalli and his family invaded the lives of Egyptian families and their Arab 'satellite' kin, overshadowing any – and every- thing else broadcast on the small screen during this prime-time bracket, including the bombing of Afghanistan and daily Israeli invasions into Palestinian cities.
From the first instance of the series' broadcast, the principal preoccupation of Arab satellite television stations, in addition to other debate forums such as clubs, unions and radio stations, was to host the series' superstar Nour el- Sherif, and interrogate him unrelentingly on his opinion of polygamy, with the intention of extracting a definitive, crystal-clear, absolute rejection of that social phenomenon, all the while getting him to reiterate his tremendous love for his real wife, Pussy.
The story-controversy of Hajj Metwalli is, briefly, the story of the social rise of Metwalli, a self-made man, beginning with his life as a 'boy', working for Mu'allem Salamah, the large textile merchant, and achieving the height of wealth and power after the death of his master.
Metwalli's climb up the social ladder begins with his marriage to his late master's wealthy widow, who dies soon enough, leaving him with the opportunity to marry four other women.
Parallels were being drawn between the story of Hajj Metwalli, unfolding on the small screen, and that of Hajj Medhat al-Suweyrki, which was unfolding concurrently on the pages of the press.The latter's story concludes with the Egyptian state indicting Hajj al- Suweyrki to a seven-year jail sentence for breaching the laws of polygamy by marrying more than four women at once.
Nevertheless, a notable difference separates Hajj Metwalli from Hajj el-Suweyrki, owner of the chain of Tawheed and Noor stores in Egypt. Hajj el-Suweyrki's accumulation of wives was driven by sexual urges. He married and took advantage of impoverished young women, who eventually turned on him and reported him to the authorities.
The smart-talking Hajj Metwalli's accumulation, on the other hand, is driven by material calculations. He marries his four wives with designs to accrue his power and wealth, improve his social standing and his connections within the public administration.
While the Hajj el- Suweyrki 'series' concludes with a jail sentence, the Hajj Metwalli series ends with his personage, a progenitor – the absolute ruler, sitting cross-legged atop a small empire comprised of women and money
where all are obedient, happy and extremely content, and 'all live happily ever after'.
And, thus the story ends.That image sealed the representation of the Egyptian family and the Arab satellite family.
The series touched on a number of social issues widely identified as problematic in prevailing currents in contemporary Egyptian society, such as the growing number of unmarried women (or widely spreading spin- sterhood), an increase in polygamy, the retreat of modernist or liberal values as symbolised in women's rights, women's education and family planning, the shattering of basic family and social values and the rise to prominence of a new class of parvenus and nouveaux riches.
The tone with which the series shaped its approach mixed fantasy, satire and explicit exaggeration.
While a framework of light- hearted sarcasm overshadowed the complexity, reality and gravity of these issues, it nonetheless marked a contrast with the more familiar, long- established pattern in which television series approached such issues, namely with the absence of clear judgements or moral indictments of those social manifestations deemed nefarious.
For instance, Mustafa Muharram, the author of the text, chose not to demean the framework in which Hajj Metwalli and his totally subordinate family evolved. Moreover, he decidedly depicted Hajj Metwalli's dominion as positive.
The representation of the man as polygamous, opportunist, domineering and socially ambitious was presented in affectionate terms. Hajj Metwalli was surrounded by a cast of women he ordered 'to be or not to be'... this, at the cadence ofone episode after another, except for one, to which I shall return in due time.
Despite the complete absence of an analytic dimension, the series was undoubtedly held together by the stellar performance of its cast, with the great artist – popular far and wide across the Arab world – Nour el-Sherif, at its helm.The calibre of the actors' delivery explains the unprecedented success of the series, despite the conservative, reactionary discourse in which the daily installment, totalling thirty-four episodes, was laid out.
Its success can be paired with the success reaped by the American series Dallas, which invaded the entire world a few decades ago and perhaps superseded Hajj Metwalli in its conservative reactionary outlook, including its simultaneous treatment of progressive and regressive family structures.
The social text of Hajj Metwalli's Family seemed intricately and profoundly constructed. It interrogated, through the bias of the discourses that formed around it, on varying levels – whether in the written or audio-visual media – , a phenomenon that certainly begs for further study of what it signified with regard to the representation of the crisis and the crisis of representation in current Egyptian society.
The range of social issues that the series approached was, in reality, nothing new for its audience.The question of polygamy has been exhausted by the media and has generated a tremendous amount of relentless debate, as has the question of the retreat of moral values in the face of materialism. Hajj Metwalli is, as a character, not far from that of Ahmad Abdel Jawad, the patriarchal dictator in Naguib Mahfouz's trilogy, which generations of Egyptians were raised on during the second half of the twentieth century.
Where is the novelty, then?
The novelty, from a personal perspective, lies in the absence of a 'lesson-to-be-learned' moral structuring to the story.There is no one-sided or unilateral voice or reading, captioned with a negative judgement cast on those conservative, reactionary values that present a real threat to the construct of the modern family, as perceived by the official collective image – 'official', in this context, representing a strictly discursive or rhetorical concern, and not that of the level of policy or government action.
Quite in contrast to Mahfouz's trilogy, which ends with the death of the domineering patriarch and frees the path for his son, the Hajj Metwalli series ends with the patriarch squatting cross-legged on his throne, dominating his son, thwarting all of the son's attempts to escape or to reject the father-figure's authority and backward values.
The absence of the accustomed 'lesson-to-be-learned', or 'moral of the story', flared an awesome amount of reaction from the recipients of the series; reactions that depict, in their intensity, an image of the comedic crisis and the crisis of comedy in Arab society, whether on the social, economic or political level.
For instance, a large segment of women, including a group of young female students at the American University of Cairo (who later became the subject of an empirical research project), proclaimed that they would agree to being a second wife on condition that their marriage provide them with that with which Hajj Metwalli rewarded his second wife.
Such postures were considered as mature remedies or logical alternatives to the dilemma of spinsterhood, and the tragedy spinsterhood engenders for Egyptian society.This position resonated with the outward approval of one of Egypt's betterknown clerics.
Moreover, we were also reminded, through the penmanship of many, that, while polygamy was one of the traditional tenets of the Muslim community, Hajj Metwalli deserved chastising for falling short of undertaking the full proceedings according to the Shari'a (Islamic law) in his polygamous practice.
Brethren from the Arab world, who had hastened to embrace modernist values and thus, forbade themselves from practicing their traditional entitlements within Islam, found in Hajj Metwalli the dream of a lost Eden, regarding him with the envious eyes of those deprived from God's paradise on earth.
On another scale, many saw the image of 'Meeto' (the nickname awarded to Hajj Metwalli by his fourth wife, who is also an oppor tunist bourgeois), as a representation emerging from the absence of social justice, the breakdown of the middle class and the superlative accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, abetted by the government.
Yet others saw in Hajj Metwalli's control over his wives, progeny and the textile market, a representation of the New World Order – the embodiment of the decay of American hegemony that acts with power, control and injustice, all masked under a guise of spreading justice and prosperity.
Some of our Iraqi brethren, those Arabs who live in anticipation of an American assault at any
moment, honoured Hajj Metwalli by lending his name and the name of his family members to a variety of traditional garb, as they perceived him as a genial entrepreneur who had succeeded in reviving the textile market from a slump.
This cursory exposé displays the diversity of interpretations of a single text, the scope of the reception this text received, fastened to the social location of its audience and its relationship to the message emanating from that text.
The social location of the producers of that message is not necessarily in accordance with that of its recipient.
These diverse and intersecting interpretations have allowed for the outlining of a new representation of the viewer. It is no longer possible to operate within the assumption of a single viewer with a unified, homogeneous or cogent perspective, deprived of will in the face of indoctrination by the media, whose aim is to sedate or awaken him or her.
In this light, the receiverappears as an active agent, a positive pole in reading representations. So, the issue then becomes what the viewer does to the media apparatus, not what this apparatus does to its audience.
State agencies refused to deal with the social text and the wealth of significance that the Hajj Metwalli series exposed so forcefully, but rather regarded it as a crime!
In the logic of the official imaginary, the series was deemed as attacking the larger understanding, or virtues, of small families and belittling the importance of education.
The accusations, carried in the official press release by the Higher Council for Women in Egypt, stated that the series stood against the national policy of the Ministry of Information as decreed by the state.
The Hajj Metwalli serial was aired during the same time bracket as the Osama Bin Laden serial;
and, it obviously antagonised the gruelling efforts being made to improve the image of Islam in the West.
Concerned entities in the Egyptian government rushed to convene with the producers of Hajj Metwalli and their television executives, with the aim of inducing changes in the script and introducing the moral directive so blatantly absent from the narrative, as well as infusing the text with the ever familiar tone of the unilateral, unified reading.
Mustafa Muharram, the author of the serial, was forced to add a passage in the second-to-last episode, where the Hajj Metwalli presents a contrived confession explaining his polygamy, claiming it was the result of deprivation from contact with women in his early years because he was so poor!
The dialogue with his son Saïd, revealed the precariousness of the official discourse that forced its way into the text:
Metwalli: 'By the way my son, a single wife, good and loyal, who loves you, is a more blessed fortune than many wives."
Saïd: "Do you mean to say that you regret your many marriages?"
Metwalli: "Of course, Saïd! I wish everyone could hear me and understand that a single wife, good and loyal, is a more blessed fortune than many wives; and I don't want anyone to do as I have. Moreover, one is hardly able to cope with one... imagine having to cope with four!"
Mustafa Muharram said he made sure that Nour el-Sherif repeated the same sentence, "that a single wife, good and loyal, is a more blessed fortune than many wives",
so the message would be passed on without any ambiguity to the intellectually limited, economically, socially and politically marginalised viewer, who was assumed to surely perceive the television series as an open invitation to engage in polygamy!
In reality, this intervention on behalf of the state and its agencies, mandated to enlighten the nation, confirms its persistent infantilisation of the audience – an audience that it perceives is in continuous need for protection from the multitude of readings and potentialities of interpretations, so that their world does not turn upside-down overnight.
Despite the insertion of the contrived moral lesson into the dialogue, the contradiction between the rhetoric of state policy and the construction of the family, in particular, and society, in general, in the official collective image, as contrasted with those representations within the series, linger.
The last image of Hajj Metwalli depicts a harmonious existence between him and his three wives, after expelling the fourth, bourgeois opportunist wife – the one depicted as childish–, from his paradise.
The image of this Eden he built survives until the last frame of the series, the conclusion of which confirms that social change is not possible through rhetoric and discourse, but through effective change in the economic and political reality of society.
END OF LECTURE
Samia Mehrez: Please
Someone from the Audience: Good evening, there's many important issues to us related to an islamic clear and honest text, as the polygamy, as the honour crime (in my country, Jordan); in this case what is the best to do?
SM: I didn't get the question, "what is the best" how?