Criminals and victims: an Arab TV drama’s take on Isis

‘Black Crows’ seeks to undermine the narrative that Islamic State uses to recruit

A sprawling 30-part drama series showing life under ISIS is scheduled to make its debut on Arab channel MBC 1 during Ramadan. MBC Network/NYT

 

A mother travels to Syria to find her son after he runs away to join Islamic State. A Christian renounces her faith and plots to blow up a church. A black-clad matron tells teenage girls to rest up before they are raped by extremist fighters.

These frighteningly familiar stories of life under Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will this month become plotlines on prime-time television across the Arab world. A sprawling, 30-part drama series is scheduled to make its debut on MBC 1, the Arab world’s most-watched satellite channel, during the holy month of Ramadan, said Ali Jaber, director of television for the MBC Network.

The network shared with the New York Times video from three episodes of the show, Black Crows. It paints a picture of Islamic State as a brutal criminal organisation run by corrupt and hypocritical leaders. But recruits are depicted as victims, and women who challenge the militants’ control are heroes. In one episode from the series, a Yazidi slave is sent to clean an Islamic State fighter’s room, where his bored wife asks if the woman is hungry or would like to watch a movie. The captive woman is outraged. The stories of women dominate the series, the producers said, because they offered rich dramatic material. A majority of the channel’s viewers are also women. In another episode, Islamic State commanders indoctrinate children into their ranks. Like the Islamic State’s recruits, the cast comes from across the Arab world, and the show’s plotlines reflect well-known headlines about the group’s atrocities.

The 30-day Super Bowl

Ramadan, which is to begin around May 27th, is a month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. It is also peak television season in the Arab world, where families gather after breaking their fast to binge-watch shows late into the night.

In television terms, “it’s like the Super Bowl for 30 days straight”, said Mazen Hayek, a spokesman for MBC. Typical programming includes romances, comedies and historical dramas, some of which reflect current events. Although the new MBC production has the trappings of a drama, and some of the costumes and make-up can be cartoonish, the series, set behind the jihadists’ front lines, is not light viewing.

Another story line involves a journalist whose fiance becomes an Islamic State suicide bomber. She goes undercover to report on the group and pledges to abandon her Christian faith and blow up a church. The actor, Samar Allam, said in a phone interview that being on set and getting into character depressed her, but she hoped the show would make people think in a way that news reports about the Islamic State’s violence could not.

“Isis is a danger to all of humanity,” she said. The show allowed her to “show my hatred and my condemnation of this group, to express it in a concrete way.”

Marwa Mohamed, a Saudi actor, plays a woman who kills her husband for cheating on her and flees to join Islamic State with her two sons. After one is sexually abused and the other is killed, she struggles to escape.

“It is important to wake people up and show them that Islam is not that,” Mohamed said. She hoped that despite the dark subject matter, viewers would tune in for the human stories. “It’s not all terrorism and war,” she said. “There are lots of dramatic stories in it as well.”

Undermining Isis’s narrative

The series echoes news coverage of Islamic State, with explosions that leave bodies scattered and gunmen waving black flags, but dramatises the lives of people forced to live under the group. Jaber, who is known in the Arab world for being a judge on the reality competition Arabs Got Talent, said the series sought to harness the influence of popular television to undermine the narrative that the Islamic State uses to entice recruits.

“We believe that this is an epidemic, this is a disease that we have to muster the courage to address and fight,” he said. Still, producing a show about Islamic State in the region where the group has done the most damage carries risks. A comedy show on MBC that mocked the group led to death threats against its star. And Jaber said some sponsors might hesitate to advertise their products on such a violent show about a terrorist group.

“It will bring eyeballs, it will bring buzz and ratings and reputation, but no money,” he said. Since Islamic State stormed through Syria and Iraq, shocking the world with its choreographed beheadings and elaborate executions, governments have struggled to defeat the group and counter its potent, made-for-television propaganda. Some diplomats have told Jaber that they like the idea of using television to challenge the jihadists’ message. In March, he was invited to discuss the show with western and Middle Eastern diplomats at a summit meeting in Washington hosted by secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

Other Ramadan series, dramas and comedies have referred to Islamic State, but Black Crows appears to be the first to be set entirely in the militants’ world, said Rebecca Joubin, an associate professor of Arab studies at Davidson College who studies the region’s television programmes.

The most popular Ramadan shows are often escapist love stories, full of beautiful people wearing nice clothes. “A lot of people are like: ‘I don’t want to watch this stuff. I see it on the news every day,’ ” Ms Joubin said. Still, the series’ producers expect it to be widely viewed during Ramadan, when MBC 1 traditionally sees a spike in viewership. The show will be broadcast in Arabic as Al Gharabeeb Al Soud, and the network hopes to produce an English-language version for wider distribution.