A NEW TV satire has become a hit in the Arab world by using dark comedy to mock some of the region’s most serious issues, from the Sunni-Shiite divide, to the brutality of the Islamic State group (ISIS).
The show, Selfie, has also brought a backlash. ISIS sympathisers have made death threats against its Saudi star and top writer on social media.
One mainstream Saudi cleric called the show heresy for mocking the country’s ultraconservative religious establishment.
All of which has made it the buzz of the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is the peak television viewing season in the Middle East.
In one of the show’s episodes, lead actor Naser al-Qasabi plays a would-be “caliph” starting his own ISIS-style militia, but he’s surrounded by buffoons and hypocrites.
His “mufti,” or top cleric, never finished school. He struggles to find ways to make his group stand out — their flag is the same as that of ISIS, but with the black and white colors flipped.
When one of his cronies boasts of planning a mass beheading, the “caliph” complains that he wants a new form of execution.
“Behead, behead, behead. That’s all you got?” he groans, before suggesting the captives be put in a freezer.
Naser al-Qasabi, the series’ star, and its writer Khalaf al-Harbi told The Associated Press that they expected the backlash, but weren’t prepared for the popularity.
It’s one of the top shows on MBC, a privately owned Saudi TV network, and has been the talk of media in the region.
Al-Qasabi says the series’ dark humour reveals just how tragic the situation across the Middle East has become.
What’s coming is darker. Maybe I am a bit pessimistic, and I hope that I am wrong, but I don’t think I am.
In another episode, two Saudi men meet at an airport in Europe and bond over their love of women, alcohol and hard partying.
Though neither is religious, their budding friendship takes a nosedive when they discover that one is Sunni and the other Shiite.
They argue until airport security arrests them, and when police find out they’re fighting over a split that happened 1,400 years ago, they send them both to a mental hospital.
And in the show’s most popular sketch, al-Qasabi plays a Saudi father whose son has run off to join ISIS. He smuggles himself into Syria, pretends to be a jihadi joining ISIS and tries to convince his son to return home.
It’s a more serious episode, showing his horror at ISIS’ “perversions” of Islam and at the group’s atrocities — and his torment as he tries to avoid committing atrocities himself in his disguise.
But it has comic moments as well, as he fumbles his way through militant training and is chased around the bed by a militant bride who is forced on him by the group and who has dedicated her life to pleasing jihadis as a means of going to heaven.
Another sketch lampooned Saudi Arabia’s powerful, ultraconservative religious establishment and its stance against music. That was the episode that prompted cleric Saeed bin Mohammed bin Farwa to accuse al-Qasabi and MBC of heresy.
In response, Al-Qasabi told the Associated Press he views his acting career as his own form of “jihad” — which in Islam means any struggle in the path towards God.
Offering something positive that raises awareness of issues, I see this as jihad.
Jihad is that you raise your children well. Jihad is that you work and are on a path to doing things well. Jihad is that you are good at your work…Life is one great jihad.
Al-Harbi explained the title, saying the show is trying to give a snapshot of Arab society today.
Selfie’s biggest success, he said, is in exposing how extremist groups manipulate religion.
He added that the show would deliver that message to the Arab public more effectively than lectures or government-controlled newspapers.
I felt this is a weapon that will reach the audience. If it was just something comical, we would have focused on easy societal issues that aren’t dangerous and are guaranteed safe.
Contains reporting by the Associated Press.