Al-Kabeer Awi: Three characters, half a series

Ahmed Mekki, the Egyptian comedian and movie star, has found his way back to the small screen. The actor releases a feature comedy every summer–“Teer Enta”  in 2009 and ”La Taragoo’ Wala Estislam “in 2010–and promised to return to his roots this year.

In “Al Kabeer Awi” (The Big Man), Mekki, like a mocking bird, uses his skill at playing different people by actually playing three separate characters in one sitcom. By simply changing his wig, Mekki plays a father and his two extremely different sons.

Mekki’s return to television was not entirely smooth. Though he dreamed of following fellow TV stars and presenting his fans with 30 episodes, the hardworking actor hurt his leg when he fell off a wall during the filming of the sixteenth episode. Producers were forced to end the show mid-season.

Efforts by both the actor and the writers–who were under contractual pressure to deliver a full series to producers, advertisers, and networks–to write Mekki’s characters into a splint for the final 15 episodes failed.

“I was sad to see the show ending so soon,” says Mariam, a student at AUC in her early twenties, who follows Mekki’s career. “I enjoyed the series so far. I found it to be better than the usual Ramadan comedies.”

The series captured the attention of Mekki’s fans because some of the plot is inspired by characters he has played in previous movies.

The title character (played by Mekki) is the mayor of Al-Mazareeta, a fictional village in Upper Egypt. While on his death bed, al-Kabeer Awi tells his son, al-Kabeer (also played by Mekki), that he has a brother. We flashback to the 1960s, where Mekki dons yet another wig to play a cool kid who marries an American woman. The American woman has an agenda behind accepting al-Kabeer Awi’s proposal: to have a baby belonging to each nationality on earth. The couple has twin sons, and they decide to each raise one of them.

Al-Kabeer’s brother, Johnny (played by a tattooed Mekki in a blond wig), appears, insisting that, as the older brother, he is the rightful new mayor of al-Mazareeta. Comedy is certain as the Upper Egyptian gada’ (tough man) and American “dude” fight over everything. (Both characters appeared first in “Teer Enta” under different names.)

Who wins the position of mayor is less important than which character is deemed the funniest, and that victory seems to have gone overwhelmingly to the gada.  “This American dude is just not funny,” says Mohamed, a graphic designer in his late-twenties. “Mekki plays two different characters in this show, and just like that, he gets two different responses: al-Kabeer gets two thumbs up, while Johnny gets the thumbs down.”

It seems that when Mekki and his co-writers conceived of Johnny, they were not thinking of a man who was born and raised in America. Rather, they took their inspiration from an Arab man, Americanized via Justin Timberlake and Adam Sandler.

The  writers’ deepest understanding of American culture seems to extend only to cliches, however colorful:  Johnny wears unmatched clothing and occasionally sports cornrows.

Johnny may look American, but he acts like an Arab. He and his American colleagues mysteriously speak Arabic; he advises his brother’s wife to stick around and fight al-Kabeer’s second wife (played by Lebanese beauty Nicole Saba); he freaks out when he misinterprets the attention from another male, before realizing, with exaggerated relief, that the man is straight.

It is partly this portrayal that turned Mohamed off from the character. “Americans don’t typically speak Arabic, they don’t support polygamy, and they don’t freak when meeting a homosexual person.”

When a villager starts to sympathize with Johnny and joins his little cult, the writers Americanize the poor Upper Egyptian by dying his hair green and dressing him in a colorful t-shirt, which he wears over his galabiya.

Mekki himself seems to be in agreement with Mohamed; Johnny gets much less screen time than al-Kabeer, to the delight of most viewers. “Al-Kabeer is extremely funny,” says Salma, a 22-year-old Human Resources assistant. “He has this bittersweet feeling to him. I enjoy his smart dialogue and his sweet reactions.”

Salma recalls the moment when al-Kabeer starts singing the Toni Braxton love ballad, “Unbreak My Heart,” in an Upper Egyptian style. She also enjoys the way al-Kabeer interacts with his brother and his family.

“He is well-studied, well-written, and an extremely great character,” said Salma. “He manages to make me laugh every time he is on the screen with his jokes and reactions.”

Al-Kabeer is not the only reason to mourn the shortening of “Al-Kabeer Awy.” For her part, the actress Donia Samir Ghanim finds a creative role in al-Kabeer’s wife, Hadya, a beautiful and strong but goofy woman, who brings the laughs whenever she appears on TV.

And the show deserves some credit for being hip and smart. “Al-Kabeer Awi” is filled with pop-culture references, especially from previous Mekki films and characters, and, although sometimes predictable, the plot and the style is relatively innovative for Egyptian television.

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