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Reality shows rarely fall short when it comes to controversy, but they don’t often get pulled from the air on governmental orders. Not so in Egypt, where a TV belly-dancing talent search was suspended this week after just one episode following an outcry from the conservative sectors of society.
Al-Raqisa — or The Dancer — premiered on Monday on the Al Kahera Wal Nas satellite channel, with 27 professional belly dancers from more than 10 countries each vying for the chance to appear in their own music video, a starring role in a feature film and the envious title of “best belly dancer in the world.”
But it was to be the show’s first and last episode, with Egypt’s top religious body, Dar el-Ifta, demanding that it be pulled for “corrupting morals.” Producers later announced its suspension.
“They’re not saying the real reason, but the unofficial reason is that the government asked to remove it at the top tell,” says Mohamed Hefzy, one of Egypt’s most prolific independent producers and scriptwriters.
Al-Raqisa isn’t the only entertainment offering to have recently been shut down in Egypt. In April, the film Sweetness of Spirit, starring Lebanese siren Haifa Wehbe, was pulled from cinemas after just one week. The story of a young boy who becomes obsessed with a single woman who moves into the neighborhood was deemed to have too many sexual undertones.
“You feel like every time there is something that causes a controversy, the government is very sensitive and paranoid that it could hurt them, so [they] feel like it’s better to do away with it and just face that than face the angry public,” Hefzy says.
Although Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, came to power after toppling the Muslim Brotherhood and cracking down on religious extremism, the government — and a large section of society — is still considered overtly conservative.
“The government is trying to appease the conservative Islamists that are not the Muslim Brotherhood — the Salafi and the other parties who did not support [ousted president] Mohamed Morsi,” Hefzy says. “I think they’re trying to work with them to try to keep some kind of balance. [Islamists] are a big part of society, and they can’t just ignore them.”
Hefzy himself — who has produced a string of independent films, including recent festival favorites Rags and Tatters and My Brother the Devil and has recently returned to scriptwriting with upcoming United Arab Emirates road movie From A to B — hasn’t escaped Egypt’s critical eye.
His film Excuse My French, directed by Amr Salama, about a Christian boy who pretends to be Muslim to survive at a public school, was, he claims, accused of “destroying the fabric of society” and “causing a sectarian rift.”
“But we got away with it. It made money and was successful. The critics liked [it] and it’s going to a lot of festivals now,” he says. Excuse My French was on Wednesday named in the lineup for the London Film Festival alongside fellow Egyptian drama Decor, from director Ahmad Abdalla.
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