‘Asmahan’ tops during Ramadan

Egyptian audiences tune into historical series

CAIRO — Another Ramadan has come and gone — and in Egypt yet again a historical series managed to win the chase for auds during the Muslim holy month, when viewing rates peak across the Arab world.

Whereas “King Farouk” captured the public imagination in Egypt during Ramadan in 2007, this year it was the turn of “Asmahan.” Biographical series is the tragic tale of an Arab singing diva who died mysteriously in 1944 at age 26 amid conspiracy theories she was a British spy during World War II.

The 30-part series, from Tunisian producer Nejib Ayed, gives a no-holds-barred account of the short but racy life of Asmahan — a Syrian Druze princess whose real name was Amal Al-Atrash and who is played in the series by Syrian actress Sulaf Fawakherji.

Series begins when Asmahan, at the age of 6, emigrated to Egypt from Syria with her mother and two brothers amid a rebellion against French colonial rulers.

The nightly episodes focused on her singing career as well as her drinking habits, her numerous love affairs, the fact that she had an abortion and that she filed for divorce so she could devote herself to singing.

It was this realism, critics say, that gave the series the edge over three other biographies broadcast on Egyptian television during Ramadan — “Nasser,” “Ali Mubarak” and “Imam Abdel Halim Mahmoud.”

Egyptian producers had hoped that by presenting iconic Arab figures or even lesser-known but mysterious personalities they would emulate the success last year of “King Farouk.”

According to Egyptian film critic Rafiq Al-Sabban, the trend of bringing biographies of important personages to television began with 1999’s “Um Kulthoum,” a series on the life of another singer who was Asmahan’s rival and who some say was had a hand in her premature death.

That series switched the focus in Egyptian television from Syrian drama back to Egyptian production.

“It encouraged many actors, writers and producers to bring the biographies of political and art figures to the screen,” Al-Sabban told the Daily News Egypt newspaper.

Few have succeeded, he said.

“This year, we have ‘Asmahan,’ and critics over the Arab world unanimously agreed that it’s a great work,” he added.

Those that work appear to do so because of their realism.

“These three (‘Um Kulthoum’, ‘King Farouk’ and ‘Asmahan’) presented these figures realistically with all their flaws and fine points and should set an example to others.”

Those that flopped, he said, “presented an imaginary picture of the person that was far from reality.”

Producing biopics is not without its dangers, however, and “Asmahan” faced several attempts by the Al-Atrash family to halt the screening.

Two nephews filed a lawsuit in Egypt, claiming the series harmed the reputation of the family. The suit was rejected.

In Syria, family members pleaded with the authorities to ban the serial, but they were turned down.