Translating Ramadan Riddles (Fawazeer)

Like holidays in the West, Ramadan generates its own forms of nostalgia for the joys of Ramadans past. This nostalgia attaches not just to the month’s religious aspect, but to all the shared experiences that Ramadan holds, such as traditional foods, family meals, late nights around the TV or the shisha pipe, last minute dashes for sohour — and in the realm of popular culture, the special TV programming as well.

In this context, the phenomenon of Ramadan mosalsals (TV programs) is well-known. As the explanation goes, with so many people in a post-iftar daze and trying to stay up late hours until sohour, the nights of Ramadan are prime hours for TV viewing. Accordingly, Arab TV networks release their most ambitious serials at this time of year.

The month of fasting is thus also a feast of TV options, some of which reinforce the Islamic identity of the month (e.g. Omar), some of which revive a glorious Arab past (Saqr Quraish, Haroun al-Rashid), some evoke Arab nationalist feeling of modern times (Layali al-Hilmiyya, Bab al-Hara), and some aim to be more topical (Al Gharabeeb Al Soud, Mawlana). This is not to mention all the mosalsals that are pure melodrama, simple comedy or full-on imitations of American TV.

But there was another form of Ramadan programming that somehow managed to combine all these themes in one surreal mix: the fawazeer (فوازير). In essence, the fawazeer programs were a short 10-minute variety show containing dance numbers and sketches that present an affectionate pastiche of Egyptian popular culture of the pre-satellite TV era. The core of each fawazeer episode revolved around a riddle that the audience was asked to solve, usually anchored to a specific theme for the entire 30-episode season.

Although the tradition of fawazeer stretches back to the 1950s and continues even to this day through occasional efforts at revival, the peak of the fawazeer programming is widely considered to be the series presented by Nelly and then Sherihan in the 1980s and 1990s. Above all in Egypt, but also in other parts of the Arab world, they form part of the childhood nostalgia of the generation that would grow up to lead the Arab Spring.

Industry Arabic is celebrating this Ramadan by translating the full collection of riddles from the 1981 season starring Nelly, titled “al-Khatba” (الخاطبة). Considered one of the best seasons of the fawazeer, this series presents Nelly in the role of the professional matchmaker. In each episode, Nelly proposes a new potential suitor to an aspiring bride and her family in the form of a riddle describing his profession. For example, the riddle of the first episode goes:

Whether you own shops or tracts

Write for a living or act

ُEven married or single

You owe him a bill —

This lifelong bureaucrat

أهل الدكاكين والفدادين

والكتّاب والفنانين

حتى العزاب

تعمل له حساب

وفي المأمورية بقى له سنين

The expected answer here is “tax collector.” As part of the humor of the episode, in each case the father replies to the riddle saying, “al-gawaza di mish laazim titim” (this marriage must not take place) followed by the girl wailing “But I love him, daddy” — an age-old dialogue that still rings true in patriarchal Egypt.

But beyond the fascination that Fawazeer Nelly hold as a touchstone of popular culture, they have their own literary significance as well, in that they were written by none other than the beloved colloquial poet Salah Jaheen. Although Jaheen is most known for his collection of Rubaiyat (a poetry collection in Egyptian dialect that many Egyptians can still quote by heart), he was an omnipresent influence in the Egypt of the Nasser and Sadat era. As a daily cartoonist for Al Ahram, lyricist for songs of Abdel Halim Hafez, screenwriter behind the blockbuster hit Khali Balak Men Zuzu, and playwright of works for Cairo’s puppet theater, there is little from that epoch that Salah Jaheen didn’t have a hand in. In this context, the fawazeer represent the intersection between Jaheen’s literary output as a leading colloquial poet and his broader gift for creating artifacts of popular culture that resonate with Egyptians of all classes.

In the spirit of the traditional Ramadan serial, we’ll be publishing the translation of one new riddle every day during Ramadan. This translation represents the first time these fawazeer will be translated into English. As such, we hope to rekindle the fond memories these programs hold for many across the Arab world, while at the same time bringing their joy and humor to a whole new audience.

To catch the full series of our translations, follow us on Facebook or Twitter to receive a new riddle every day during Ramadan.

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