AAT LEAST FOR its first seconds, “AlRawabi School for Girls” seems like just another teen drama. As piano chords echo in the background, a teenage girl in pink walks past a school bus. “School has always been my favorite place,” she says. Then his classmates attack him. The setup will be familiar to anyone who has seen “Mean Girls,” a 2004 American film.
The context is not, however. Produced in Jordan and directed by Jordanian woman Tima Shomali, “Rawabi” (photo) is not only about students who are mean to each other, but also about the patriarchal society around them. They are shaped by her, and they reinforce her without their knowledge: the series ends, six episodes later, with a gunshot, after a teenage revenge plot turns into an “honor killing.” (A widespread problem in the Arab world).
Shortly after its August premiere, “Rawabi” rose to the top of the Netflix rankings in Jordan. Viewers praised her for tackling difficult issues and portraying the lives of girls, which Arabic-language television often overlooks. It has also received valid criticism: some have noted that the setting, an elite private school, is a rarefied world few Jordanians know about. However, many complaints were of a more biased nature. Saleh al-Armouti, a deputy, asked the Prime Minister why the authorities had granted a license to a program which “propagates moral and educational decadence”.
There will be more carp to come. After a slow start, streaming services are taking off in the Arab world. Netflix now has around 5 million subscribers in the Middle East. Shahid, who is led by MBC, a Saudi-owned media company, has grown 20-fold since it was relaunched last year, to reach 2 million subscribers. To develop further – Netflix aims to double its Arab customer base within five years – these companies are investing heavily in original content. Some of them will break taboos on Arab cinema and television, not just in the way you’d expect.
Salty stuff often makes the headlines. Take “Jinn” (also made in Jordan), which in 2019 became the first original Arab drama on Netflix. It was not very good; critics criticized the writing and acting. But the loudest public criticism has focused on a kiss between two young characters. As the love scenes progressed, this one was chaste, just a little kiss on the lips. Yet it was enough for Jordan’s top prosecutor to ask the government to ban the series.
This kind of debate, however, is neither new nor unusual. “Chicago Street,” a Syrian drama that aired last year, featured actors kissing not only on screen but in its advertising campaign. “Newton’s Cradle,” which aired in Egypt this spring, was praised for its portrayal of relationships and sex, particularly a scene that touched on marital rape. Despite the occasional explosion of the clerical ensemble, Arab producers are finding ways to explore these questions.
Two other constraints irritate more strongly than public morality. Politics first: governments do not want television programs to challenge them. Second, business imperatives. Traditional studio bosses want shows to match a worn-out model, typically aimed at middle-aged women, rather than younger viewers who are popular audiences elsewhere.
Even on streaming services, political restrictions are hard to sidestep. Asked to ban “Jinn,” the Jordanian media regulator said he had no jurisdiction over Netflix. Other governments disagree. In 2018, Netflix pulled an episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”, an American comedy show, from its catalog in Saudi Arabia. The episode criticized the kingdom over the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. Saudi Arabia has said the show violates its cybercrime laws.
Trade barriers can be easier to overcome. For decades, the centerpiece of Arab television has been the Ramadan soap opera, which airs an episode every night during the holy month, and is aimed at families stuck to the hit in post-prandial stupor. These are expensive – production can take a whole year – and face stiff competition. The format is restrictive, since it often requires around thirty episodes (imagine the first three years of “Game of Thrones” compressed into a month). For many media companies, Ramadan brings in 15-20% of annual income.
With so many issues at stake, producers are playing it safe. They prefer established stars because advertising is easy when you can slap a well-known face on a billboard. The dramatic range is narrow: historical sagas, stupid action fare, slapstick comedy. Other genres have been neglected. Arab sci-fi fans, for example, often lament the lack of on-screen offerings. It’s not for lack of material: one of the most beloved Egyptian authors of the 20th century, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, has produced dozens of horror and sci-fi novels, despite objections from publishers who wanted stories of crime.
That backdrop made “Paranormal” all the more, well, abnormal when it released on Netflix last year. The first original Egyptian series on the platform, the supernatural anthology show is based on Tawfik’s novels. Its protagonist, Refaat Ismail, is a die-hard smoking hematologist from Cairo played by Ahmed Amin, previously known for his comedy sketches and YouTube videos that he produced himself. The first season only lasted six episodes.
None of this fit the traditional mold of Arabic TV, but viewers liked it. Aside from a few goofy special effects, “Paranormal” received rave reviews from local audiences, with Mr. Amin (pictured) praising his grim portrayal of the hero. He spent ten weeks in Netflix’s top ten in Egypt and shorter periods in those of other Arab countries; a second season is planned for November. Its success proves that while the Ramadan soap opera continues, there are now other ways to make prestige Arabic. TV—Some of them involving relatively unknown performers and experimental formats.
Importantly, instead of targeting their pricing to middle-aged domestic viewers, Arab directors, like those elsewhere, can now reach a dispersed and larger audience. “Paranormal” was deeply Egyptian, and not just in the vintage Nefertiti cigarettes Ismail smokes. The fourth episode was about the legendary naddaha, a female specter that attracts men to death in the Nile. Viewers eventually learn that the ghost was the victim of an honor killing. Yet the series was well received far beyond Egypt. Variety the magazine called it one of the best international shows of 2020. Foreign critics have compared it to “The X-Files”.
Other innovative ideas are in the works. In September, Shahid launched a series called “Hell’s Gate,” which takes place 30 years in the future and features a dystopian Beirut controlled by a gang of oligarchs. It was billed as the platform’s first sci-fi drama (given recent events in Lebanon, calling it fiction may seem facetious). Last year, Netflix released “Six Windows in the Desert,” a short film series by Saudi directors, and “Whispers,” a mystery series. He signed several deals with Saudi production houses to make original feature films and animated shows, in a country where cinemas were only legalized in 2018 after a 35-year ban.
All these productions will not break the borders. Netflix is working on a musical drama with Amr Diab, an ageless Egyptian pop star. Certain rules will apply: no one in Cairo is likely to launch an Egyptian version of the “yes minister”, mocking the cogs of the government of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. But streaming services help do for Arab TV what HBO made for America 20 years ago, bringing stories to life that otherwise wouldn’t be told. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Tales of the Unexpected”