Jinn... on the rocks
In early 2018, Jinn show runners Elan and Rajeev Dassani reached out to me for assistance in gathering a focus group of students from a Jordanian private school, during the development of their top secret Netflix script.
A year and a half later, Netflix's first Arabic Original series, Jinn, was released. And those same kids were nowon my TV screen.
If you haven’t already seen the show, it follows a group of West Amman private high schoolers who are inadvertently tasked with ridding the human realm of evil ‘Jinn’ or spirits, while shedding light on a very small, but very real faction of Jordanian youth’s ‘coming-of-age’. And this… this is where people are divided.
It is very clear that the brothers have done their homework when it came to character development of the main players of Jinn. I will be the first to vouch for them. I have lived amongst these fictional high schoolers and can relate each of those characters to a real person. However those that object to the series are in their right to say that they are not representative of all Jordanian youth. But therein lies the problem with their argument. They never try to.
There are several factors which have triggered a backlash for those involved with the creation of this show which ranges from the purists who criticised the accents/dialects and the mythology of the ‘Jinn’ to the outright enraged, who slammed the creators for featuring a young Jordanian couple kissing on screen, claiming there is a conspiracy to besmirch Jordanian culture, norms and values.
For the former, it is important to remember the importance of creative license when it comes to any piece of fiction in order to serve the story. Having said that, the show is guilty of reproducing some orientalist stereotypes about ‘Arabs’ when it comes to the natives of Petra, which, in this day and age, is hard to forgive. The latter however ooze denial and hypocrisy are belligerent in their commentary. For starters, Mira (played by Salma Malhas) is slut shamed for the kissing scene whereas Fahed (played by Yasser Al Hadi), is all but mentioned. This gives a little bit of insight into what we’re dealing with regarding the commentary currently surrounding the show.
With the subject of censorship being discussed in Jordan’s parliament this week, as a direct result of the release of Jinn, we must ask ourselves, why are we still clutching on to straws when it comes to self-censorship in cinema. We all know, whether you agree with it or not, that these behaviours exist in our society. The real issue I see is, that certain subjects and taboos, in this particular case, love, are not addressed on the big screen in our native tongue.
Our native tongue does not readily portray or address love, if at all, in a realistic or healthy way in our modern cinema.
This, to me, is the crux of the problem.
While we applaud the cinematic grandeur of shows such as Game of Thrones which is awash with sex, violence, strong language, incest and fantasy, we ostracise Jinn for barely scratching that surface.
What baffles me is that Jinn’s apparent reflection on society is a far cry from works such as ‘Body Of Lies’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio which presents a group of Jordanians as terrorists. Where were the cries to boycott and calls to ‘cancel’ Ridley Scott who has since returned to Jordan multiple times for his work?
Although the Middle East has not experienced a liberation (in the way we associate with the ‘western’ world), that isn’t to say that romances do not still exist in the shadows. I cannot count the times I’ve witnessed, in the bars and clubs of Amman, high school aged boys and girls from varying socio-economic backgrounds, getting intoxicated with a cigarette in one hand and a partner in the other just like in the show. To that, I’ll say Jinn has come very close to but has just missed the mark on holding up a mirror to youth culture.
Critics have also blasted the strong language which is prevalent throughout the series, making claims that it is unrealistically overused. I personally think that the reason for this emphasis on the ‘vulgar’ language is just to make up for the weak dialogue, which is evidently translated from English to Arabic. Though anyone refuting the fact that school kids use this kind of language either hasn’t spoken candidly to a high schooler in their life or is living in utter denial.
The fact of the matter is that the show is following a slice of Jordanian society which is very real and very representative of the variety Jordanian society encompasses.
There are those who will say that Jordanians have bigger problems to deal with such as corruption and the ever growing economic divide. That may be the case, but it doesn’t negate the real need to have this discussion. For the longest time we have actively allowed ourselves to adopt western culture into our daily lives yet we still have a problem admitting it, claiming that our culture is one that is pure and undisturbed.
This is not the case. From the movies we consume, to the clothes that we wear, the food that we eat and the words we choose to speak, the Middle East, being the cradle of civilisation, has been melded with more cultures than any other, throughout human history. Whether we like it or not, that includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
With a sizeable minority of the Jordanian population living on the daggers edge of poverty, for them to see a show (or in the vast majority’s case, only hear about a show), which to them, present to the world the bourgeoisie level of society as the norm in Jordan, is unfair. I can understand this. We all want a slice of the representation pie. However, it is important to remember that Netflix is a business, first and foremost. With the assumption that they want to appeal this piece of fiction to Arab audiences, they also want to make sure their international consumer base can enjoy the show. Hence, their apparent injection of ‘westernisation’.
All in all, I applaud Netflix for bringing Jinn to our screens and for being steadfast and unapologetic in their support for the cast and crew involved. The young actors are bravely seeing out the storm of comments, memes and threats online. No doubt, after the dust has settled, this show will have set the long awaited wheels in motion to normalise a plethora of taboos. As history has shown us, decades ago, what we classed as vulgar, obscene and lewd has become normalised in our culture.
We will be following the careers of these pioneering kids and remember where they came from. Progress cannot be made if we are at a standstill.
Hazem Alagha is a 29-year-old British-Palestinian Film producer.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.