In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the literary works of leading Egyptian authors brought glory to the big screen when their novels were made into films. This year, the Egyptian novel took to the small screen when Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz’s Afrah al-Qubbah (Wedding Song) was made into a television series broadcast during Ramadan.
This phenomenon of turning widely read and best-selling novels into screenplays was embraced when scriptwriter Wahid Hamid turned Alaa al-Aswani’s best-selling The Yacoubian Building into a 2006 film directed by a young Marwan Hamid. The story is about an old apartment building in downtown Cairo occupied by Egyptians representing different economic, social and cultural castes. The film and the novel alike depict the suffering and transformation of every social caste in Egypt since the movement of July 23, 1952, until 2005, a period which included the overthrow of the monarchy and political parties and the military taking the reins of power.
Since The Yacoubian Building, the idea of turning novels into screenplays has become more common. For instance, The Blue Elephant, Hepta: The Last Lecture and The Price are films adapted from novels written respectively by novelists Ahmad Murad, Muhammad Sadiq and Amal Afifi. However, critic Mahmoud Abd al-Shakur told Al-Monitor that Wedding Song marks a turning point in “the relationship between the novel and the screenplay.”
Mustafa al-Faramawi, the manager of Dar El Shorouk bookstores observed: “The series’ excellent script and exceptional production, and the distinguished performance of its crew, have placed the novel on the bestseller list and this speaks of the importance of cinema and television in bringing the audience back to reading.” (It is worth mentioning that Dar El Shorouk owns the copyright and distribution rights of Mahfouz’s novels in Egypt.)
As Faramawi noted: “Turning a novel into a film usually increases sales of the latter at screening time, as was the case with The Blue Elephant or Hepta. Moreover, the films’ posters are sometimes used as covers for the novels’ next editions, as a sort of advertisement. Unlike Wedding Song, most of these novels had achieved considerable print sales before being made into films.
However, sales of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels have been decreasing for years, a trend expected to be turned around with the release of Wedding Song, adapted from one of his richest intellectual and political literary works.”
Wedding Song relates the story of the murder of a young actress, Tahiyya Abdo. The novel explores her murder from the different perspectives of people she knew through working in a theater, which is both owned and managed by Sarhan al-Hilali.
Hilali decides to make his group perform a play portraying Abdo’s murder, to uncover any corruption among the theater’s staff, including Hilali himself. Every character in the drama symbolizes a certain social, political or economic stratum. Critic Muhammad Abd al-Shakur indicates that the genius of the novel is the way in which it exposes all aspects of the corruption that led to the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war against Israel, and tackles the roots of that corruption from the 1952 movement until after Egypt’s victory in the 1973 war.
Abd al-Shakur points out how Wedding Song has all the elements of success. The rich literary work has been turned into an attractive series with the assistance of a large cast of popular drama stars. ”
When asked about his expectations for the upcoming series, Shakur notes: “The Sunset Oasis is a rich, philosophical novel that needs special scriptwriting skills to be made into a drama that attracts and holds the audience so they can understand the meanings and purposes of the novel.” He added, “This, certainly, is a considerable challenge for the work team.”
The novel, published by Dar El Shorouk, is set in the 19th century at the beginning of Britain’s occupation of Egypt. Police officer Mahmoud Abd al-Zahir is transferred to Siwa Oasis when Egyptian authorities suspect him of sympathizing with the revolutionary anti-colonization stance of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Ahmad ‘Urabi. Abd al-Zahir’s Irish wife — who is fond of archaeology and was in pursuit of Alexander the Great’s tomb — accompanies him to the oasis. The novel is based on Abd al-Zahir’s inner struggle, as he is caught between either accepting the new circumstances — his transfer, the British defeat of ‘Urabi, the oasis people and his wife’s attitude — or rejecting the whole situation.
The Sunset Oasis won the international Booker Prize for Arabic Fiction , yet the novel is not as popular as The Blue Elephant or Hepta. Therefore, the television series faces a big challenge with everyone wanting to see if it will be another success as big as Wedding Song. “I hope they succeed so that there will be a mutual benefit between the novels on one side and the cinema and drama on the other,” Faramawi said.
“Some works benefit from the popularity and distribution of certain novels such as The Blue Elephant and Hepta and some novels benefit from adaptation for drama and cinema to simplifying their message or to portraying them in a more popular appealing or attractive way, as is the case with Wedding Song. I hope the same methodology will be a success for The Sunset Oasis.”
This article was originally published by Al Monitor.