CAIRO, Egypt—Last week, it was Ingy Sharkawy who won the race that begins right after dinner each night at her family's home in Cairo. She beat her dad and brother to the remote control, and her mother grumbled when Sharkawy plopped down on the best seat in front of the television.
In charge, Sharkawy clicked past "Devil's Gardens," a series about drug trafficking in rural Egypt. She flipped to "Tamer and Shawkiya," a comedy about newlyweds from different social classes. Finally, she decided on "The Nightingale," the biography of a legendary Egyptian crooner.
With a tray of syrupy pastries and a pot of bitter Arabic coffee, the Sharkawys settled in for a seasonal tradition that millions follow throughout the Middle East: gathering to watch the often-melodramatic, sometimes controversial prime-time, sweeps-month TV that airs during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
Muslims across the Arab world break their dawn-to-dusk fast not just with lentil soup and platters of chicken, but also with a visual feast that makes Ramadan one of the most-anticipated television months for both Arab families and advertisers.
The Ramadan television lineup is the Middle East's version of American networks' sweeps week, with the unveiling of lavish miniseries that are a mixture of campy schlock and cutting-edge scripts.
"The shows in Ramadan are better than at any other time of the year," said Ingy Sharkawy, 25. "It shows that the directors make a huge effort to produce the best series for Ramadan since they know everyone will be watching."
Television broadcasters earn as much as 20 percent of their annual revenue during Ramadan, said Mohamed Elassiouty, who heads the film program at the American University in Cairo. He said some business tycoons even finance their own miniseries solely as vehicles for the soft drinks and dairy products they hawk.
"They know people will stay at home, after a heavy meal, and relax in front of the TV," Elassiouty said. "They flash them with ads that will definitely stick in their minds after watching it four or five times each day, for 30 days. The real stars this year, I guess, would have to be Pepsi and Fern butter."
But among the advertising are some critically acclaimed programs that tackle the most pressing issues of the region: terrorism, Western influence, religion and poverty.
Competition is fierce and viewers are increasingly discerning.
The best-known names in Arab cinema work year-round to come up with the biggest, flashiest and edgiest Ramadan shows, sometimes spending more than $1 million on a single series. The shows air on both state-backed and privately owned stations.
"I can't keep track of them. There are too many," said Nevine Karam, 36, who carved out time from her job at an architectural firm to create her own handwritten guide to the programming.
Karam's friends admired her handy guide and asked for their own copies. To keep up with the demand, she built an Excel spreadsheet and photocopied it for her pals. They, in turn, scanned in the guide, and emailed it to dozens of other young Egyptians eager for help wading through the tangle of programs.
"Now, it's out there roaming around the Internet," Karam said with a touch of pride.
Egypt alone produced 60 series this year on a dizzying collection of subjects ranging from the lives of Cairo street children to the push for women's rights in remote farming communities to an idealistic father's struggle with his rebellious son.
One of the biggest hits is "Cinderella," the sweeping biopic of Soad Hosni, a revered Egyptian screen diva of the 1960s and `70s who plunged to her death in a mysterious fall from a sixth-floor apartment in London.
In other parts of the Arab world, directors risk their lives and livelihoods with more serious shows that challenge authoritarian regimes as well as the wave of militant Islam that's coursing through the region.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, the top-rated Ramadan show lampoons the kingdom's ultraconservative traditions. In one episode, Saudi women call police because they fear a burglar has broken into their home. But when the officer arrives, he refuses to enter the home because the women don't have a male relative with them. The show's producers have received death threats and calls from Saudi clerics to cancel the program.
Renowned Syrian director Najdat Anzour offered "The Renegades" this season in an effort to show that terrorism and extremism affect Muslims just as much as Westerners.
Anzour's show, one of about 40 from Syria this year, incorporated the work of seven Arab screenwriters for an unflinching look at the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and England. In one scene, a cleric visits the wife of a man who died carrying out a terrorist attack. The sheikh wants to recruit her 5-year-old daughter for another operation.
"It's not enough that you took my husband, you want to take my daughter, too?" the sobbing woman screams before slamming the door.
No stranger to controversy, Anzour still watches his back after death threats that poured in after his Ramadan series last year. "Beautiful Maidens" depicted the lives of suicide bombers at al-Qaida training camps who'd hoped for a reward of 72 virgins if they carried out attacks. Outraged Islamists demanded the cancellation of the show.
Anzour triumphed, and an estimated 50 million viewers tuned in.
This year, Anzour said in a telephone interview, he aimed to "defend Islam" against the growing influence of zealots. He said he wanted to shake up the Arab world to show that frank dialogue among Muslims—not just between Islam and the West—is crucial now.
"The best dialogue is through art and culture," said Anzour.
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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