CAIRO — As night falls and fasting breaks during Ramadan, the city's corner groceries, bakeries, and fruit stalls are aflicker with televisions. In neighborhood cafes and upscale restaurants alike, customers sip tea and gaze into tiny sets and jumbo screens.
Ramadan, which ends this week, is not only a spiritual time of fasting and prayer. It's also a period when the country is collectively consumed with the sultry plots and overdramatic actors of the country's wildly popular soap operas.
After a day without food or water, the only energy many can muster is to stare at a television set - and their shows of choice are the dozens of soaps made especially for Ramadan, when TV viewership is at its highest and there seems to be a thirst for escapism.
"The shows that are made especially for Ramadan are really moving," says Samir Abdu Metwally, standing in his small grocery with a grainy television blasting to the side. "I could sit and watch them all day." And he does - from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, he says.
Egypt is the Arab world's center of television and film, and in the past 10 years soap operas, or musalsilat in Arabic, have become a major part of that industry. While the soaps are broadcast all year, TV executives sink the most money into shows that air during Ramadan. These popular serials are created by the country's most celebrated writers and directors and feature its most famous actors.
But deciding which soap operas should air on state-run television during the Muslim holy month is no easy matter. With TV producers rushing to wrap their soaps on time, Egypt's Governmental Policies Planning Committee decides just days before Ramadan which serials will air on its four local channels - all government-owned stations with by far the largest viewership. This year around 60 soaps vied for 12 airtime slots. A decade ago, there were merely a dozen angling for airtime.
This fivefold increase is largely due to the regional growth of satellite outlets and to a massive migration of talent to TV from Egypt's faltering film industry. These shows are a lucrative proposition for producers: Last year gross revenues were $70 million.
Soaps are so popular here because they accurately reflect the life of the people, TV executives and viewers say. "They deal with issues in our society and give us a realistic picture of these issues," says Mounira Mohamed Ezzat, a housewife sitting at a sidewalk cafe, watching a typical Egyptian soap opera - conniving characters in sophisticated duds with foreboding music in the background.
Unlike the West's tawdry soaps, musalsilat show much less skin, have a limited number of episodes, and often carry a moral message for the masses. Educating the public has historically been a goal of these serials, whether it was by extolling patriotism and hard work or denouncing terrorism and greed.
But as the soaps have become more lucrative through advertising revenue and sales to satellite stations, critics complain that many have also become vapid - mere entertainment.
"They are not art; they are commerce," says Wahid Hamed, a film and television writer who wrote this Ramadan's serial "Blood and Fire," dealing with corruption in Egyptian society. "[The serials] should have human, philosophical, or social values to influence society in a good way."
Given the effect of these soaps on public opinion, many complain that they don't raise awareness to help bring change in the region. "Nobody is tackling the real problems around the Middle East, to get people to think about democracy or peace building in the region," says Mohamed Gohar, a well-known television producer.
Others complain less about quality and more about the quantity of this year's soaps. "There are so many that we get confused. Nobody can watch all of them," says Samia Maghrebi, a housewife watching a soap with other patrons in a crowded restaurant on one of two huge TVs.
The Egyptian shows that make the cut every Ramadan are not only entertainment for groups of friends and families who gather nightly to watch, but the buzz on Cairo's streets, the subject of newspaper articles and TV talk shows. This Ramadan the favorites are "Women's Journey" with Egyptian star Nadia El Guindi playing a poor woman transformed into a successful businesswoman, and superstar Nour El Sherif's "Live Your Days" about a man going through a rebellious middle-aged crisis.