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.