"Gharabeb Soud" a drama series that has intrigued many by its name alone, has been airing since the start of Ramadan, and it's causing a stir online.
The controversy surrounding the series, which revolves around the rise of Daesh in the Middle East, began even before the first episode was aired. Its name has left people divide and conflicted; in the same way the series has now it's into its second week. There have been various interpretations of the title; most media outlets have adopted the meaning "Black Crows" but the title actually comes from a verse in the Qur'an from Surah Fatir: "And among the mountains there are tracks, white and red of different colours and (others) utterly black." So the actual title should be Pitch Black Mountains or Rocks, suggesting that Daesh is a strong and dark militant group.
Whatever the precise meaning, it spells one thing: A danger is lurking and it can be found those closest to you.
The record breaking series cost O3 production, a subsidiary of the Saudi-owned MBC Group, more than $10 million to make. It focuses on life with and under Daesh, exploring the reason that so many people of different backgrounds have joined the terrorist group but treads on an unfamiliar and dangerous ground as some may see it as sympathising with people who join Daesh.
The drama starts with darkened and blurred images with brief information written about various people who have vanished without a trace ranging from adolescents to professional women to educated and wealthy men. Directed by the Egyptian Adel Adeeb and Syrian Hassan Qassem Al-Rantesi, "Gharabeb Soud" promises to reflect the reality of the current situation in the region, with claims that the series is based on real life stories and anecdotes of people who have witnessed life under Daesh. The production has a mix of famous actors and actresses from across seven Arab countries; after all Daesh is made up of a mixture of nationalities that have invaded a number of Arab countries.
What distinguishes this series from other productions that have tackled Daesh is the fact that we see events unfold through the tales of women. In many ways it provides answers to the frequently asked question: "Why do woman join such a violent and repressive group?"
"Gharabeb Soud" makes it clear that every Daesh member has their story. In the first episode we meet a young bride who was tricked into joining Daesh by her husband during what she expected to be their honeymoon. Later we meet her again, this time she is the head of the Al-Khanssaa Brigade, in charge of the all-female police force. Others join in an effort to find husbands and avoid a life as spinsters, giving the series a much needed comical dimension. Other women, include; an Egyptian belly dancer coming to save her son, a journalist who wants to convince her fiancé to leave and two young mothers one of whom was living in a refugee camp, we have yet to learn of their past.
As young boys are seen discussing the fastest mode of transport to heaven, car or boat or plane, their leader tells them they will be going there "by belt", in reference to a suicide attack which they will have to orchestrate. They are all sexually abused by their leader who kills any boy that speaks of the abuse. Trained to shoot using Yazidis and anyone deemed a "non-believer" as targets, the children are told not to aim at birds as they are God's creations and it would therefore be "haram", sacrilege, to do so.
The series gives an insight into the division that lies within the leaders of Daesh and the distrust that exists amongst them, and their rivalry and corruption. The audience is also invited to see how the "volunteers" are given choices of the area they want to work in, for example the women are asked if they want to join "jihad nikah" (marrying a Daesh fighter), electronic/scientific jihad or be part of the law and order patrol team better known as Al-Hisba.
Though it is gripping for audience members who have learnt about Daesh atrocities through the news, "Gharabeb Soud" may not be a show for those who have lived under the heavy hand of the terrorist group. It relies heavily on sensationalism; violence, use of guns, rape and sexual abuse and as such is more than just an anti-Daesh production.
In handling Daesh as a phenomenon generated only by religious extremism, the show is too simplistic. Daesh expanded its reign in the region taking advantage of the ethnic and sectarian tensions which had erupted in the Arab world. It is hard to accept the series' narrative that regards Daesh members as "ill raised, anti-social, bad people that happen to be around each other!" The group's structure and many layers are completely ignored by producers, as are its methods of funding and training which are also vital in its continued strength and expansion.
The series completely bypasses the fact that Daesh found its opportunity in the policies of bloody repression, social injustice and marginalisation associated with dictatorial Arab regimes, and how the crackdown intensified since 2011, making it a misconception, an ill-characterised version of reality.
Prior to being aired, "Gharabeb Soud" received mass coverage with some US diplomats expressing their approval that a television series was being used to challenge the jihadists' message. Viewers haven't been so understanding. The drama has failed to unite people in fact it has served to fuel further sectarian tension which was triggered by Al Jazeera Arabic's report on the series which questioned the intention and purpose of such a production, this has spiralled onto social media as people were divided into the very same cause that gave Daesh room to expand; sectarian tension and hatred fuelled arguments.
There is a long way to go before a reliable, fully informed series on Daesh can be broadcast on mainstream media outlets, partly due to the fact that it is a complex group with complicated ties; ones that won't be exposed to the general public.
According to "Gharabeb Soud" the vast majority of people who join Daesh or help them are "victims" who are brainwashed, only to realise the group's brutality and long to escape. This is an overly simplistic explanation of the group's hierarchical structure and people's affiliation to it, defeating the entire point of the production.
Aired at peak time, the drama has been labelled "MBC's big Ramadan gamble". If the gamble pays off, there's talk of it being dubbed into English in the future.