With Ramadan miniseries, Arab TV takes on ISIS

By dramatizing the hardships and brutality of life under ISIS, the producers of 'Black Crows' hope to sway viewers' opinions about the jihadists.

MBC Group/Reuters
A scene from the 22-episode Ramadan miniseries 'Black Crows,' filmed in Lebanon, April 24, 2016. The series is being watched by millions across the Arab world on the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel MBC.

Across the Arab world, millions of Muslim families settled in Saturday night to watch the latest episode of “Black Crows,” a special-for-Ramadan miniseries meant to convey the horrors of life under the so-called Islamic State.

The night’s episode of the Saudi-produced, 22-part drama, aired on the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel MBC, depicted an ISIS suicide bombing near a London playground.

That same night, in a grim indication of the series’ relevance, three men killed seven people and wounded dozens of others on or near London Bridge, an attack later claimed by ISIS.

According to Arab programmers, too often Arab television networks have shown scenes of chaos in the rubble-filled aftermath of a suicide bombing or bloodied victims in the streets awaiting medical help.

Yet this Ramadan, a month of prized primetime programming as families gather around the TV at night, networks and advertisers are addressing – and challenging – terrorism.

Media experts and network executives say behind the shift is a realization that after years of broadcasting the car-bombings and beheadings that terrorist groups use to reach audiences, and more than a decade after networks, such as Al Jazeera, would air speeches by Osama bin Laden in their entirety, now is the time for media outlets to go after and challenge the terrorist narratives.

The first to break the mold is “Black Crows,” which was conceived of 18 months ago and is being shown on MBC, one of the go-to channels for many Arab families during the holy month.

'We have become numb'

Through the eyes of families, fighters, leaders, and particularly women, the series delves into the daily life – and horrors – in Raqqa, Syria, the self-declared capital of the ISIS caliphate.

The creators of ‘Black Crows” say the series came as a conscious effort to reverse years of “desensitization” to violence from the nearly weekly terrorist attacks that have ravaged the Arab world.

“We have become thick-skinned, we have become numb,” says Fadi Ismail, director of group drama at O3 Productions, which created “Black Crows” and other MBC programs.

“When we hear there are 80 killed here, 40 killed there – they are just numbers. Drama is a way to humanize and make it so engaging that it is no longer farther away – it could be in your own home.”

The decision to produce “Black Crows” came after the overwhelmingly receptive response to two episodes of the Ramadan series “Selfie” in 2015, in which the main character traveled to Syria to retrieve his son, who joined ISIS.

In late 2015, the production team began researching true stories of people living in or who have fled Raqqa. The series was shot in Lebanon using a pan-Arab cast of Saudis, Egyptians, Tunisians and Syrians. 

In Saturday’s episode of “Black Crows,” after the playground attack, a forlorn Raqqa baker and his son make kanaffa sweets to be distributed to ISIS commanders in celebration. “We used to bake kanaffa for happy occasions, for weddings,” the baker notes, “what does it mean for us now?”

Bleak life for women

Life is portrayed as especially bleak for women, who dominate the series.

One woman is shot for selling plates decorated with depictions of animals. Another is thrown into prison for reading the grinds at the bottom of coffee cups, a practice observed by Arab women stretching from Morocco to Iraq.

Schoolgirls who have backpacks featuring “infidel characters” such as princesses and cartoons, are forced to cover up their faces with black marker – with one schoolgirl saying black “is the only color” she now needs in her life.

At a hospital seized by the jihadists, commanders decide to behead doctors and nurses – as ISIS “takes no prisoners” – to scare and intimidate their enemies, a declaration that startles and unnerves ISIS fighters. A young boy rebuffs attempts by an ISIS emir to enroll in him the jihadists’ brigade.

Over the course of its first several episodes, fighters, both men and women, begin to have doubts about the group’s brutal tactics and actions that go against central tenets of Islam. Very quickly, those doubts turn to regret as central characters realize they are now trapped in ISIS.

According to initial figures, MBC says that up to 30 million people have been watching.

MBC says “Black Crows” targets two types of viewers: “neutrals” who adopt a “laissez faire” attitude toward terrorism and who condemn it from afar, and the fringe minority who may be willing to adopt the ideology or approaches of terrorist networks.

Producers say they hope that by depicting the brutality of ISIS through the cruel banality of daily life, particularly of women, they can show how alien and extreme the movement is to the Arab and Muslim world.

“It is not optional any more for media outlets to watch terrorism happen without having a say in it,” says Mazen Hayek, an MBC spokesman.

“It is not enough anymore to pray for Istanbul or pray for Manchester or pray for London every day, media-wise,” he continues. “With this threat, we have to be more proactive and give our opinion to change the narrative.”

Anti-terror ad

Challenging terrorism hasn’t been restricted to programming on Arab media outlets.

Some corporations are using their presence to address extremism.

Kuwait-based telecommunications giant Zain specifically targets, and challenges, extremist groups’ claims in a special Ramadan ad, titled “Lets bomb violence with mercy.”

In the ad, a suicide bomber comes face to face with his victims as he struggles to justify his act.  

“You who comes in the name of death, he is the creator of life,” a passenger on a bus challenges the bomber.

In the end, dozens confront him with messages of love and mercy.

“Worship with your God with love, not terror,” Emirati pop singer Hussein Jasmi sings along with the chorus: “Be tender with your faith, tender not harsh.”

The advertisement is notable as it features real victims of terrorist attacks that have ravaged the region over the past 12 years, including Ibrahim Abdulsalam, who was wounded in a Kuwait mosque blast, Haidar Jabar Nema, who lost his son in a bombing in Iraq, and Nadia al Alami, a bride whose wedding was hit by Al Qaeda suicide bombers in Amman.

Since being posted on May 27, Zain’s Ramadan ad has garnered more than 5 million views on Youtube, while tens of millions are watching the ad each night – oftentimes during ad breaks for “Black Crows.”

Zain has declined to comment on the advertisement, choosing instead for the ad to speak for itself.

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