First Published: 2017-06-12

Ramadan TV drama on ISIS stirs mixed reactions
'The series does a wonderful job of revealing life inside ISIS recruitment camps,' says Egyptian cinema critic Tarek el-Shenawy.
Middle East Online

By Samar Kadi - BEIRUT

Lebanese actors Joe Trad and Samar Allam

Ramadan is traditionally peak season for television viewing across the Arab world with stations offer­ing a large variety of new productions, mainly comedies and romantic series. This year, however, large audiences are hooked on a no-easy-viewing drama — “Al Ghara­beeb Al Soud” (“Black Crows”), de­picting the life of women under the Islamic State (ISIS).

Based on accounts of ISIS survi­vors, the 30-episode programme on Saudi-owned Middle East Broad­casting Centre (MBC) has been hailed as an attempt to hit back at terrorists’ networks that have honed propaganda skills and media out­reach to spread ISIS’s deadly agenda and to entice the gullible into their ranks.

“The series does a wonderful job of revealing life inside ISIS recruit­ment camps and the ways the radi­cal organisation follows in bringing in recruits from all corners of the world,” said Egyptian cinema critic Tarek el-Shenawy.

“In doing this, it shows view­ers the realities of such extremist groups, which eventually scares viewers away from these groups. It is so convincing that some of the he­roes and heroines of the series were threatened by ISIS.”

In Iraq, where ISIS is fighting to keep its last main stronghold of Mo­sul, the series sparked controversy, including accusations that it de­famed Sunni Muslims and encour­aged people to turn to secularism.

“The series distorts the image of Islam. It draws people away from religion. I believe there is a blunt attempt to promote liberalism and secularism in Arab societies,” ar­gued translator Walid Khaled.

Government employee Omar Mo­hamad criticised the series for de­picting Muslim women as a “cheap commodity” consumed by greedy extremists.

“Showing this series is an insult to Sunni Muslims as it defames a par­ticular sect that is accused of sup­porting the ideology of this criminal group who has no relation whatso­ever with Islamic religion,” Moham­ad said, adding that he and his fam­ily have stopped watching the show.

The series, which started on May 28, coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan, was expected to elicit strong and visceral reactions from audiences but MBC Group TV Direc­tor Ali Jaber said “it was not meant to be that hard-hitting and contro­versial.”

“MBC as a media organisation wants to stay relevant to the con­versation in the societies where our audiences are,” he said. “There is no point in burying our heads in the sand while this conversation is happening in every country, every home.”

“MBC represents the voice of moderation in the region,” Jaber added. “We need to tackle this issue in the way we believe in — with a bet­ter message, more progressive and compelling. ISIS is not just a terror­ist organisation. There is a narrative and an ideology behind it. The only way to counter this was by putting out our own narrative and exposing ISIS for the evil it represents.”

Jaber said it took two years of planning and hard work to prepare the series, which was filmed in Leb­anon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia with three prominent directors involved and some of the top actors from the region in featured roles.

This is not the first time MBC has addressed the rise of extremism in its productions. The Saudi satirical show “Selfie,” which was popular during Ramadan for several years, used dark humour to mock the militant group in sketches featuring characters played by Saudi come­dian Nasser al-Qasabi. He and MBC received death threats from ISIS be­cause of the skits.

“Black Crows” actors have not been spared from ISIS’s wrath, ei­ther.

“We have all received threats, which we take seriously,” said Syrian actor Ahmad al-Ahmad who plays ISIS Emir Abu Talhat al Yakouti. “The whole region is in danger. The existence of human being is threat­ened by such extremists and we are part of this place and this region.”

“We had to do something about it. That is why our objective as actors is to convey a message through our work. Drama is sometimes a tool to confront danger, just like the weap­on in the combat field. The series shows that ISIS champions system­atic terrorism that is annihilating and destroying the whole region,” Ahmad said in a telephone inter­view.

Although he played down the ef­fect of the programme in shifting deep-rooted beliefs, Ahmad said he hoped “it might strengthen immu­nity (to extremism) and clarify ideas and misconceptions.”

Judging by the reactions — both supporting and attacking “Black Crows” — the series is proving to be very effective.

Ahmed Sayed, an Egyptian civil servant is among the keen audience. “I like it because it is based on the actual experiences of some of the women who joined ISIS and man­aged to escape. The events show that such radical organisations have nothing to do with Islam but are there to destroy every place they set their foot in,” he said.

Iraqi housewife Balkis Kazem said she preferred to watch comedy and entertainment shows. “Watching ‘Black Crows’ is an additional tor­ture for Iraqis as we try to switch from bloody events and violence,” she said.

Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

 

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