It seeks to un­der­mine nar­ra­tive that IS uses to en­tice re­cruits, says net­work di­rec­tor

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

AMOTHER trav­els to Syria to find her son af­ter he ran away to join the Is­lamic State. A Christian re­nounces her faith and plots to blow up a church. A black­clad ma­tron tells teenage girls to rest up be­fore they are raped by ex­trem­ist fight­ers.

These fright­en­ingly fa­mil­iar sto­ries of life un­der IS in Iraq and Syria will, this month, be­come plot­lines on prime-time tele­vi­sion in the Arab world.

A sprawl­ing, 30-part dra­matic se­ries was sched­uled to make its de­but on MBC 1, the Arab world’s most-watched satellite chan­nel, dur­ing Ra­madan, said Ali Jaber, the di­rec­tor of tele­vi­sion for MBC Net­work.

The net­work shared with

videos from three episodes of the show,

It paints a pic­ture of IS 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, a Yazidi slave is sent to clean an IS 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, IS com­man­ders in­doc­tri­nate chil­dren into their ranks. Like the IS re­cruits, the cast comes from across the Arab world, and the show’s plot­lines re­flect well-known head­lines about the group’s atroc­i­ties.

Ra­madan, which is to be­gin around May 27, 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.

Though the new MBC production has the trap­pings of a drama, and some of the cos­tumes and makeup can be car­toon­ish, the se­ries, set be­hind the ji­hadists’ front lines, is not light view­ing.

An­other story line in­volves a jour­nal­ist whose fi­ancé be­came an IS sui­cide bomber. She goes un­der­cover to re­port on the group, and pledges to aban­don her Christian faith and blow up a church.

The ac­tress, Sa­mar Al­lam, in a phone in­ter­view, said 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 IS’s vi­o­lence could not.

“IS 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 ac­tress, plays a woman who kills her hus­band for cheat­ing on her and flees to join the IS 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,” she said.

She hoped that de­spite the dark sub­ject mat­ter, view­ers would tune in for the hu­man sto­ries. “It’s not all ter­ror­ism and war. There are lots of dra­matic sto­ries in it as well.”

The se­ries echoes news cov­er­age of the IS, 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,

said the se­ries sought to har­ness the in­flu­ence of pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion to un­der­mine the nar­ra­tive that IS 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.”

Still, pro­duc­ing a show about IS 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 IS 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 United States Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son.

Other Ra­madan se­ries, dramas and come­dies, have re­ferred to IS, but 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 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 and the net­work hopes to pro­duce an English-lan­guage ver­sion for wider dis­tri­bu­tion.

The writer is a Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent for ‘The New York Times’. An Ara­bic speaker with more than a decade in the Mid­dle East, he has cov­ered coups, civil wars, protests, ji­hadist groups, rot­ten fish, re­li­gion and pop cul­ture from more than a dozen coun­tries, in­clud­ing Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, Egypt and Ye­men

‘Black Crows’, a dra­matic se­ries about life un­der the Is­lamic State, will air on the Arab world’s most-watched satellite chan­nel, MBC 1, dur­ing Ra­madan.

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