TV’s ‘good old days’ allow Tunisians escape from stressful reality

The continued popularity of the old series highlights collective nostalgia for simpler social life and family synergy.
Friday 16/10/2020
Sofiene Chaari (left) and Kaouthar Belhaj in the Tunisian series “Choufli Hall”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)
Sofiene Chaari (left) and Kaouthar Belhaj in the Tunisian series “Choufli Hall”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)

TUNIS – For years, the Tunisian public television channel al-Wataniya 2 has been broadcasting reruns of a number of old drama and comedy series.

These productions were first broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan in the mid-1990s and all through the beginning of the third millennium but have remained widely popular despite their age.

The series, which Tunisians brand as pure family viewing, used to bring families together in front of the television set for entertainment that was far removed from the culture of verbal and material violence that has characterised the dramas produced over the past decade. Instead of bringing members of the same families together for viewing time, the drama productions of the new millennium, both comedies and dramas, have separated family members and split their interests. With the proliferation of open-air satellite channels offering their own special Ramadan series, each age segment of the viewing public has developed its particular preferences and its own favourite stars to follow.

By re-broadcasting comedies and dramas from the “golden days” of the Ramadan series of Tunisian TV, Al-Wataniya 2 struck gold with the viewing public, playing on the overwhelming nostalgia of this public for the good old days of family cohesion, community solidarity, social peace and calm and simplicity of life at the time.

The series in question are “El-Khuttab ‘al-Bab” (“The suitors are knocking at the door”), from the Ramadan seasons of 1996 and 1997, “Idhak liddunia” (“Laugh to life”), from the Ramadan seasons of 1995 and 1999), and “Shufli Hal” (“Find me a solution”) with seasons 2005-2009.

Screen grab from title frame of the Tunisian series “Al Khottab Aal Bab”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)
Screen grab from title frame of the Tunisian series “Al Khottab Aal Bab”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)

All three series depicted the daily lives of normal Tunisian families during the month of Ramadan, as is the case with “El-Khuttab ‘al-Bab,” or in the rest of the year, as is the case of the other two series. Al-Wataniya 2 decided to broadcast these reruns during peak viewing hours and thus achieved the highest viewing rate of about 22%, according to statistics furnished by polling and ratings companies. These reruns have even beaten the live political shows usually broadcast on private Tunisian satellite channels during the same time slots.

The first trend that these findings reflect is that Tunisians have had enough of their tough daily reality in light of a stifling economic crisis that continues to worsen with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exhausted all vital sectors of the country socially, economically, culturally and even morally –considering the increase in criminality.

By following these series nostalgically, the Tunisian citizen is trying to flee from their reality and escape into an alternate virtual reality that reflects their aspiration for a simpler, carefree way of life and shows an idealised view of themself. The popularity of these series highlights the collective nostalgia for a simpler social life and family synergy, which have been lost amid the unprecedented growth of a dysfunctional value system that champions the triumph of individualism at the expense of the public interest.

This notion is confirmed by the findings of Tunisian sociologist and researcher Moncef Ouannes. In his 2018 book, “The Tunisian Personality,” he looked into the the sociological foundations of the Tunisian character and defined it as “an average state of psychological, cultural and social similarity that is expressed through quasi-similar and quasi-common behaviours and social and human relations, despite the existence of variations and and differences.”

Ouannes found that the cultural variety that characterises Tunisia’s rich history has contributed to making the Tunisian personality flexible, adaptable and open to quick assimilation and integration, and quick to respond to different situations, but on the other hand focused on self-interest more than collective values and rather unmotivated in taking initiatives or working.

Mouna Noureddine in the Tunisian series “Al Khottab Aal Bab”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)
Mouna Noureddine in the Tunisian series “Al Khottab Aal Bab”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)

These characteristics are reflected, for example, in Essboui, one of the main characters in the series “Shufli Hal,” played by the late accomplished Tunisian actor Sofiene Chaari, or the character of Stayesh in the series “El-Khuttab ‘al-Bab,” played by Faisal Bezzine, or the character of Maryam in the series “Idhhak liddunia,” played by actress Faten Fazaa. All three characters are carefree but lovable.

Despite being dated and relatively old, the series still finds echo in the Tunisian ethos and still succeeds in attracting the attention of the Tunisian viewer. All three series rely on situation comedy and unity of place. In “El-Khuttab ‘al-Bab,” the setting is the old city of Tunis, while “Idhhak liddunia” takes place in the home of the Fuzdqa family. “Shufli Hal” is set in Jannet’s building. In each series, the characters hardly change and are of diverse social and intellectual backgrounds and age brackets. The scripts were written by Taher Fazaa (“Idhhak liddunia”), Hatem Belhaj (“Shufli Hal”) and Ali Louati (“El-Khuttab ‘al-Bab”), all three prominent and capable screenwriters in Tunisia.

Louati, for example, is an accomplished poet, plastic artist and song writer. The characters he depicted in his script for “El Khuttab ‘al-Bab” matched very closely the personality traits outlined by sociologist Ouannes. For example, the character Elyes in the series, played by the late comedian Hatem Balrabeh, embodied the reckless and opportunistic young man, while the character of Sid Ahmed, played by comedian Nejib Belkadhi, embodied the role of the organic intellectual in the Gramcian sense of the word.

The characters of Abouda, played by Riad Nahdi, and Haffa, played by Jamel Sassi, represented the marginalised people of the neighbourhood who were looking to affirm themselves. The series also included a host of other character types that would have been difficult to string together in the same place and same story if not for the novelty of the scenario and its human dimensions. The plot indeed revolved around an illiterate carpenter, an educated and organic intellectual, and a popular bourgeois, unwittingly brought together by their common love for their old, traditional neighbourhood and their determination to defend it from being taken over by strangers.

In “Shufli Hal,” we find the same spirit of underlying communalities within the diversity and openness of Tunisian society. The series derives its humour from pushing the contradictions plaguing Tunisian society and the Tunisian personality to the extreme. The plot takes place in a building owned by a popular fortune-teller and where a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry has his living quarters and office. The comedic paradoxes in the series are endless and cannot really be found in reality. The series, however, was incredibly popular thanks to the talent of screenwriter and journalist Belhaj.

Sofiene Chaari in a scene of Tunisian series “Choufli Hall”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)
Sofiene Chaari in a scene of Tunisian series “Choufli Hall”. (Tunisian TV youtube channel)

Exploiting this fundamental dichotomy, writer and journalist Taher Fazaa was able to present a model of positive family and social cohesion through the story of the social interactions and attitudes between two families, one from a rural environment and the other from an urban environment, brought together by the bounds of marriage. Most of the issues, if not all, tapped into in the series were subjected to intense political and social debates in post-revolution Tunisia, for ideological ends.

In any case, television viewers in Tunisia seem to have had enough of the endless political debates that fill TV screens today and are nostalgic for the spirit of solidarity whose magic permeates the old series as well as the memories of the bygone days it brings back to life.