Opinion: why Netflix is right, whether we like it or not

The streaming platform's controversial Jordanian series Jinn has started a long overdue conversation about behaviours that do exist in our Arab society
Opinion: why Netflix is right, whether we like it or not
Controversy Jinn is available in 26 languages in more than 190 countries
By Lubna Hamdan
Fri 21 Jun 2019 12:08 AM

What was supposed to be a celebration of Jordan’s first-ever Netflix show ended up in teenagers being bullied, the Jordanian government launching an investigation into the series and the national army’s cybercrime unit even attempting to pull it from Jordanian Netflix.

The reasons? Conservatives have argued that the show Jinn, which is set in modern Jordan and ancient Petra, is against Jordanian culture, values and principles. The show follows a group of Arab teenagers as their friendships and budding romances are tested when they unknowingly invite the supernatural forces of jinn (spirits) into their world.

It includes what Jordanian authorities have called “lewd scenes” including kissing, the consumption of alcohol and vulgar language – naturally, Jordanians were upset. While I can personally attest to these elements being very much present in Jordan, both the public and authorities accused Netflix of tarnishing the image of Jordanians and representing a small percentage of wealthy teenagers.

To clarify, the show does indeed miss the mark in representing the majority of Jordanians, who are neither wealthy nor ‘Westernised’ as some would say. But it doesn’t try to do that, and neither should it; that is not the point of a work of fiction.

We each have the freedom of choice to take what we want and leave what we don’t want from any other culture

And if more Jordanians themselves attempted to create films that represent all parts of society, we wouldn’t need a US platform like Netflix to do it. Let’s keep in mind that this is the same platform which features some films that present Jordanians and Arabs as murderous terrorists, yet a kissing scene in Jinn has created more backlash than any representation of Arabs as terrorists.

The same argument has been made about Jordanians watching Western shows like Game of Thrones, which is filled with intimate scenes, but refusing to acknowledge that Jordanians, too, live through love stories, for example.

It’s no secret that love is a taboo topic in the Arab world. We don’t talk about love, we talk about marriage.

And this is why the backlash against Jinn is a good thing: it’s forcing us to hold up a mirror and understand our youth and society better.

For example, while Salma Malhas (who plays Mira) is shamed for kissing Yasser Al Hadi (who plays Fahed), he is not at all mentioned by critics – the same ones who have no problem with a recurring theme in Arab cinema: violence against women.

So does Netflix have a lot to learn when it comes to social boundaries in Jordan? Yes. But do Jordanians have a lot to learn when it comes to their own society and what should and shouldn’t be accepted? Yes. I would rather watch an intimate scene than watch a woman being assaulted (and usually in Arab cinema, it’s by her own husband, father or brother).

If more Jordanians themselves attempted to create films that represent all parts of society, we wouldn’t need a platform like Netflix to do it

Luckily, some people have publicly spoken for the show, including Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, head of the Royal Film Commission of Jordan (RFC), who said in a tweet in Arabic: “We have to respect the diversity in families and behaviours, and wished the same stamina that has been dedicated to controversy for a fictional show given to real issues facing the country. Let us respect people and their differences as Jordan is tolerant to all beliefs and groups and their peaceful lifestyles”.

British-Palestinian film producer Hazem Alagha also told Esquire Middle East, “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.”

Maybe we’re all mad at Netflix because it’s showing us just that. But it’s also okay that we’ve taken parts of Western culture into our own, because we each have the freedom of choice to take what we want and leave what we don’t want from any other culture around the world. Isn’t that what tolerance is all about? 

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