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‘Al-Rayan’: a biopic challenged by historical fallacies

One of the massive economic changes in 1980s Egypt was the rise of pyramid schemes. Presented as highly rewarding (offering interest rates exceeding 20 percent) and “religiously correct” alternatives to conventional banking, which is believed to be against Islamic teachings, the schemes attracted hundreds of thousands of Egyptian depositors. A few years later, the companies declared bankruptcy and people were repaid in refrigerators and fans.

Ahmed Al-Gabry, commonly known as Ahmed Al-Rayan, was the mastermind of these schemes, and after his company went bankrupt, the young businessman was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1988.

The “Al-Rayan” TV series, showing this Ramadan season, attempts to profile the famous Islamist and businessman. Yet questions about the accuracy of the series have surfaced recently, characteristic of most biographical dramas that tend to either over-celebrate or over-condemn the person they mean to portray.

Starring Khaled Saleh, the biopic follows Al-Rayan’s journey from the very beginning, when he was a small trader selling food and clothes, to his work as a trader in foreign currency, all the way until he became a business tycoon.

In the show, written by screenwriters Hazem al-Hadidy and Mahmoud al-Bezawy, Al-Rayan comes off as a two-faced con man, a characteristic emphasized by the drama’s introduction music, which describes him as a man willing to do anything for money.

Although he presents himself as an Islamist, he’s shown as a pragmatic opportunist who manipulates religion to achieve financial goals.

In his youth, Al-Rayan made large profits selling clothes to poor university students, while describing his trade as “charity," the serial relates.

Hosted by journalist Wael al-Ibrashy earlier this month on his TV show “The Truth," Rayan said that the series tarnishes his reputation, portraying him as a thief, womanizer and state security agent. He also accused the series of inaccuracy in describing him as a member of Jama'a al-Islamiya, as he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood early on in his life.

The series shows Al-Rayan cooperating with security forces, who approached him as a “voice of reason” since he abstained from violence among his fellow Islamists. The show demonstrates one incident when a group of Islamists objected to a university concert and wanted to stop it by force. Al-Rayan suggested a smarter tactic, asking them to go to the theater at the time of the concert and recite Quranic verses – a technique that succeeded in stopping the musicians from playing.

Consequently, Al-Rayan was asked by the State Security Investigation Services to help them prevent potential clashes between Islamist and leftist groups on campus.

Halfway through the month, the TV drama focuses on his personal life and the details of his first marriage.

It also digs deep into his family life. His father (acted by Salah Abdallah) is shown disapproving of his son's Islamic ideology, while his mother fears it, although she doesn't fully understand it.

His brother, Fathy (Bassem Samra), is portrayed as a weak man married to the controlling Badria (Riham Abdel Ghafour).

The way Fathy is presented in the show has also been criticized by Al-Rayan, who says that his brother was never a drug addict.

Al-Rayan told Ibrashy that his business didn't depend on swindling, as the series suggests, and that the Mubarak regime forced him to declare bankruptcy because it saw his company as a threat to the banking system.

Al-Rayan, who was not released from prison until August 2010 – seven years after completing his sentence – accused former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly of extortion, claiming he asked Al-Rayan to pay LE10 million to be released from prison.

There are several points of contention in the series' depiction of Al-Rayan’s life. Al-Rayan, for instance, claims that the government is still holding some of his money. Some people also argue that the state forced his company into bankruptcy at the time to protect the banking system, while others attribute his demise to the large losses he incurred on the London stock exchange, a charge that he denies. The compensation depositors received – namely electric home appliances – was also surrounded by suspicion, as his properties were sold in shady deals.

The production company gave Al-Rayan LE700,000 to produce his biopic, on the condition that he would not get to read the screenplay or attend the shooting. Yet before every episode starts, the series runs a disclaimer-like sentence: “This story is imaginary.”

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