However parlous the state of the world, right now it’s worse for Muslims, who are abstaining from food, drink and sex from sunrise to sunset this month. And with Ramadaan falling during the longest days, this holy month is proving particularly difficult. But some countries have original ways of helping the virtuous keep their minds off their empty bellies. For almost 30 years Egyptians have been settling down to break their fasts with dates, hearty meals and prank shows on their television set.
Best known for putting the “mad” back into their Ramadaan is a comedian by the name of Ramez Galal. Pranking both Arab and Hollywood celebs since 2011, his high-rating show has become a Ramadaan tradition across the Arab world.
Galal’s schtick involves tricking celebrities into terrifying situations and then watching their reactions. Think Jeremy Beadle on speed. And turbo boost. Victims have been led to believe they are about to drown at sea, their plane is on the verge of crashing, or that they have been kidnapped by terrorists (well, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry).
His celeb hit list includes Paris Hilton and Antonio Banderas, as well as numerous Arab superstars. Galal’s stunts are so extreme that he’s been punched by victims and threatened with lawsuits. This year he took on Hollywood hardman Steven Seagal, conning the actor into thinking the skyscraper he was in was on fire and staging a dramatic rescue. Once the truth was revealed an angry Segal decked Galal.
Now Galal even finds himself in a ratings war against fellow prankster and comedian Hany Ramzi.
(Sample prank: Ramzi invites Arab celebrities to jet off to South Africa for a safari experience, then traps them in caged car with a snake.) But for Mohamed Kamal, a DJ for Hawa Radio in Cairo, there’s no competition.
“Prank shows started to be a Ramadaan tradition before I was born,” he says, “but Ramez Galal is the best and most popular one so far. It’s really good to watch our superstars in different fields with Ramez, in these hard situations. For example, football stars such as Mido. We don’t always have the chance to watch them in Ramadaan. This way, we get to know more about their personalities. Most Egyptians think it’s fake, but they keep watching. At the end of the day, we all find it entertaining and funny as hell. It’s typical Egyptian humour, we love this type of tricks.”
But these shows can tread a fine line, sometimes crossing into controversial territory. One of Galal’s pranks showed Arab singer Heba Magdi being “abducted by Isis”, who then forced her to put on a suicide belt. Another jape, showing a mock-execution by Israelis prompted the Times of Israel to call it “sick”.
Nor are all Egyptians fans of the new wave of pranksters. Ali Amro who is studying for a PhD at Sydney University in Middle Eastern Studies, says his cousins put the show on as they break fast together. “If you compare the evolution of comical Ramadaan TV shows in Egypt, this has really hit rock bottom. Contrast this to a generation ago when something like Ibrahim Nasr’s Camera Khafeya was shown. It was cheaply made, but enabled the unsuspecting victims to get into a dialogue and exhibit their wit. Ramez’s show dehumanises the victim, be they celebrities or not.
“The show is reflective of Egypts gutter politics and general state of affairs which has long suffered from an imagination crisis.”
But here in the UK, stand-up comedian and writer Sadia Azmat believes we could learn from Egypt. “Ramadaan TV traditions are mainly fundraising appeals on the ethnic channels. I think my friend once counted 36 different appeals at one time,” she says. “It’s nice to see such fun programmes, I would love to see more variety in terms of genre catering for all audiences.”
As for the scholars, they are divided over the issue of Ramadaan fun. Says Qari Asim, Imam of the Makkah Masjid in Leeds: “As long as an activity is not unlawful in Islam, Muslims can pretty much carry on.” However, others believe that fooling people and putting them in a state of fear is not a very Islamic principle and therefore best avoided. Imam Usman Butt of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association in Stevenage, Herts., says: “The Qur’an tells us to stay away from falsehood in general and especially during the month of Ramadaan. And this show is based on the premise of falsehood.”
There are those who would argue that in this time of extremism and Islamaphobia, Muslims should stop taking themselves so seriously. But then, the Muslim world is not a homogenous entity and theological ideology should not be confused with cultural norms and practices. Because the truth is that these Ramadaan prank shows have as much to do with Islam as a Downton Abbey Christmas special has to do with the birth of Christ.