Netflix's first Arabic original sparks backlash on home turf

Netflix's first Arabic original sparks backlash on home turf

Netflixs first Arabic original sparks backlash on home turf

On a high school trip to Jordan's ancient city of Petra, a group of teenagers sneak out at night to drink beer, smoke weed and gossip around a bonfire. A girl asks her frisky boyfriend to take things slow.

By global Netflix standards, its first original Arabic series "Jinn" hardly pushes the envelope. But when the show debuted last week, many Jordanians were shocked and appalled by a program that had been billed as a point of national pride.

Some Twitter users blasted the series as pornographic. Government ministers vowed to censor it. Jordan's grand mufti denounced it as "a moral degradation." Lawmakers called an emergency session. The attorney general demanded the cyber-crimes unit "take immediate, necessary action" to pull it from Netflix.

The five-episode thriller centers on a private school in the capital of Amman, a bubble of liberalism and privilege in the country. School buses cart the teenagers off to a wide-open desert haunted by ancient demons that make strange and terrifying things happen.

Prior to the release, the internet was buzzing with pride in the first Netflix original from the Middle East. Directed by Lebanese filmmaker Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya and locally produced by Elan and Rajeev Dassani, the series, featuring an all-Jordanian cast and backdrop, sought to portray Arab youth outside Hollywood stereotypes and shine a long-awaited spotlight on Jordan's nascent TV industry.

Entertainment bloggers praised "Jinn" as an antidote to the grim news from the volatile region. Jordan rolled out the red carpet for the series premiere at an upscale Amman golf course flocked by paparazzi.

The show appeared in line with the liberal, tolerant image that the Western-educated King Abdullah II and his glamorous wife Queen Rania have promoted for Jordan in spite of the country's widespread poverty, largely tribal society and authoritarian legislation.

Complaints were various. For starters, the actors curse in Jordanian dialect.

"This will encourage teenagers to use indecent language in the streets, with their families," said Laith al-Tantawi, a 31-year-old Amman resident.

Of all places, these transgressions occur in the historic site of Petra, the country's crown jewel of tourism. But what seemed to bother viewers most was the kiss.

"I will never allow my children to watch it. This is impossible," said Khetam al-Kiswani, 42, a mother from Amman. "It contradicts our morals, society and our religion, it contradicts everything."

Hattar, the media analyst, said that while far more scandalous American shows flood the country's screens, he had never before seen Jordanian actors kiss on TV.

"Much of the country lives in camps and rural areas and follows the orders of patriarchal society. They do not condone such public displays, even if these things happen privately," he said.

Jordan's Royal Film Commission, which had granted "Jinn" producers approval to shoot, sidestepped responsibility, saying in a statement that it neither "condones or approves or encourages the content of a film or series." It tried to play down the controversy as the outcome of "divergent opinions that reflect the diversity of Jordanian society."

The Tourism Ministry, which had preemptively welcomed the show as a promo for Petra, also tried to deflect blame, berating its "lewd scenes" as "a contradiction of national principles ... and Islamic values."

Jinn's progressive defenders dove into the online combat. In an op-ed, journalist Daoud Kuttab argued that because a mere 1% of Jordan subscribes to Netflix, "to say that it corrupts society is an exaggeration."

Jordanian TV critic Maia Malas wrote that the show's brazen exploration of young love defies Jordan's long legacy of self-censorship.