With everyone spending time with family at home, it’s the season for the big television dramas. Joe Gill talks to actor Khamis Al Rawahi about his major new Ramadan series.
Images: Jerzy Wierzbicki
As the camera pans onto a scene of village life in the 1950s, the director Yousef al Balushi shouts ‘action’. In the yard of a traditional Bahraini house an old man walks towards a middle-aged woman and a young boy, and an argument begins.
The setting and the costumes speak of a different time and place, in old Bahrain from days gone by. In fact, it is Muscat’s heritage village at the Qurum Natural Park on a day in June. An Omani television crew is filming a scene from a major new drama, The Light of My Eye, which has been shot in various locations across Oman and Bahrain with a cast of local and international actors.
The drama is scheduled for broadcast over Ramadan, which in Oman – and across the Middle East – is a time when people gather around the television to enjoy a season of family entertainment.
Khamis al Rawahi (pictured opposite), an assistant director and actor in the new series, took time out during filming to speak to Y.
The series is set in Oman and Bahrain and has been filmed in both countries, with Omani locations including Rustaq, Barka and Tiwi.
“The producers could not find an authentic village in Bahrain
because everything there has been modernised,” explains Al Rawahi. “So we built houses in Qurum Park to look like old Bahrain.”
Among the cast are two Kuwaiti actresses who are playing Bahraini characters.
Rehearsals for the series took place for three months prior to the start of filming. The run-up to Ramadan is the one time of year when actors in Oman can expect to be busy.
When asked about his own role, al Rawahi is coy. “I want it to be a surprise,” he says.
Al Rawahi is one of Oman’s best-known actors and something of a local celebrity. While I interview him at The Wave, Muscat, several people recognise him and come up to say hello. He greets them without a trace of irritation.
“Being famous has two sides – on the one hand it can be helpful but sometimes not. People will do things for you, but some people think that because you are famous, you will be arrogant.” Such a fear is evidently misplaced in his case.
His love of acting started very young. “I grew up in a small village outside Izki. I started acting in school, like most actors from Oman.
“Once a week there was a free class where you take part in a group activity and I took theatre. We would make plays out of classic stories and fables.
“On national holidays they had a performance such as poetry or drama and I would usually take a leading role.
“When I grew up there was no electricity or TV in my village. There were people we called rich who had their own generator and shop selling cold drinks.
“I remember hearing the generator go on and running to their house to watch TV. My father used to beat me because he said it was rude to go to their house to watch television.
“In those days, Oman TV did not start till 3pm. I used to sit watching the rainbow pattern with just an image of a Khanjar, waiting for the programmes to start.”
After moving to Muscat, he joined a summer course organised by the Youth Programme, where big stars from across the Middle East would visit to talk about their experiences. One of them was the famous Egyptian actor Mustafa Hashish, now a big star in his homeland.
“At the start of the course there would be more than 100 young people, but by the end only 15 would stay the course. while others dropped out. I was one of them. I spent six months with the Youth Programme,” says al Rawahi.
In 1994, he was given his first role in a theatre drama with Fakhriya Khamis – she was the star of the show and was also a well-known TV actor.
In 2002, Dr Abdul Karim bin Ali Jawad, a pioneer of theatrical arts in Oman, helped al Rawahi find sponsorship to study acting at Hull University in the UK.
Most Omanis who get to study drama abroad tend to go to Kuwait or Egypt.
From those beginnings, al Rawahi has gone on to carve out a successful 20-year career working in theatre, television and film in Oman.
His big break came in 2006 when he was given a major role in Al Faghoor – a popular drama based on a true story of a family feud in Rustaq.
He also starred in the hit show Daryesh, a series of one-off dramas that ran for three Ramadans, in which he played various major parts.
A role that made him a household name touched on the issue of reckless driving in Oman. Al Rawahi played The King of the Road – a young man whose father buys him a sports car that he races around doing dangerous stunts – until tragedy strikes and he kills a family.
Despite this success, he still has a day job. He works as an events organiser with the public authority for craft industries, which generously allows him to take several months off work each year to work on Ramadan shows.
It may seem strange that he has to work but it’s the same for most actors in Oman, says al Rawahi. Oman’s television and film output is not large enough to support more than a handful of working directors and actors.
“Omani audiences tend to compare Oman TV productions with Egyptian, Syrian or American dramas, and often it is not a good comparison,” he says.
“Actors and directors from overseas work in an industry that is very well developed.
“Here, we have one private TV channel and two state channels, one of which mostly shows sport.”
With many viewers having access to satellite networks like MBC, Oman’s output needs to compete with the best international shows and this has raised standards of production, Al Rawahi says.
In the Gulf, Kuwait has long been a pioneer in theatre, film and television since the establishment of its Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts (HIDA) in 1973.
By contrast, there is no drama college or film school in Oman, although there is a drama course at Sultan Qaboos University.
Al Rawahi feels strongly that this situation needs to change. “I hope in the future there will be more arts education provision, for everything from painting to theatre to dance. There are lots of kids who would love to act, paint or learn music.”
If opportunities for Omani actors are limited, for Omani women there are bigger barriers to a career. “In the past and even today, a lot of families do not want women appearing in films,” explains al Rawahi. “When we were filming in a fishing village, we used male actors to dress up as women as the women of the village would not appear in front of the camera.
“A lot of girls wanted to go to university and they would apply for drama as the entrance requirements were less strict than for other courses. Unfortunately when they finished they would not go into acting, as this was never their intention, or their families would not allow it.”
For most Arab actors, the dream ticket is a career in Egypt, the ‘Arab Hollywood’.
During Ramadan the major shows are usually broadcast two or three times a day – at breakfast, in the afternoon and at night.
Al Rawahi has seen a gradual change to more daring and controversial scripts in a TV culture that has traditionally played it safe.
“In the past the censor would cut out anything against the government. We could not mention or play a minister. It’s much more open now. Daryesh played a big part in this change.”
Season of the Watch
Essential viewing or a distraction from what Ramadan is all about? Rumaitha al Busaidi gives the lowdown on seasonal telly.
The holy month, the generous month, the spiritual month, these are a few of the names that pop into mind when you think of Ramadan. But if you are a TV junkie then you definitely know this is also known as TV drama month. Across the Arab world around 100 dramas are broadcast each Ramadan.
It has been the norm for decades now that most TV stations and production companies invest the biggest part of their budgets in this holy month – Egypt alone produced 50 series last year.
Arabic drama serials, especially soap operas, are usually only 30 episodes long, specifically made to be broadcast nightly for the whole of Ramadan. The reason is simple – this is the month where most families get together to break their fast and have dinner in front of the biggest TV screen in the house, usually in the sabla (living room).
Turn on the box immediately after Maghrib prayers and there are shows to make you laugh and ease the stress of fasting. All the funny sitcoms air at that time in the evening.
But the prime slot for dramas and soaps is after the night prayers (Taraweeh) from 9pm till midnight. This is the peak time when everyone is relaxed and glued to the TV. With so many shows to choose from, channel flicking is unavoidable as you to try to catch all the different series.
This is a time for staying up late and, of course, the entertainment continues in the form of competitions and contests. They are mostly scheduled after midnight with endless trivia quizzes for your tired brain.
The variety is so vast, with TV stations offering different programmes and series, it’s enough to tempt any TV junkie to stay glued to the screen all day and all night.
Many religious and pious commentators have criticised this phenomenon, saying that it distracts people from the main purpose of Ramadan, which is to be in touch spiritually with Allah and meditate on his creations and blessings.
Your energy and contemplation should be focused on this, they say, rather than spending all your time watching these series – which end up being repeated after Ramadan anyway.
Differences of opinion over the merits of Ramadan TV are inevitable. Recording programmes is easier than ever, so you can always catch them later – but nothing beats watching an exciting drama unfold each night along with friends and family.