Controversy Around Netflix’s Jinn Highlights A Cultural Divide In Jordan And The Middle East

Controversy Around Netflix’s Jinn Highlights A Cultural Divide In Jordan And The Middle East
A scene from Netflix’s Jinn. (Image: Netflix)

In the opening scene of Netflix’s first Arabic-language series, Jinn, a young woman named Mira (Salma Malhas) kisses her boyfriend, shares her plans of going to a party, and comments on how another male student is an “arsehole.” On most American shows, this would be tame. In Jordan, it’s a situation.

Jinn is a fantasy series created by twin brothers Elan and Rajeev Dassani. It’s about a group of teens who go up against supernatural forces, and it’s the first in a series of planned Arabic-language Netflix shows. It was released globally last month, and the reaction was immediate and divisive.

Some Arabs, especially teens and young adults in Jordan, praised the series for showing a different side of the Arab world, one that felt authentic to their experiences. Instead of being restrictive or playing to stereotypes – including those seen on many American shows – Jinn depicted teens in Jordan having fun, discussing their relationships, and even being a bit rebellious at times. It’s something Elan Dassani told Gizmodo he felt during the making of the show too.

“The reaction when we were there, filming and writing, was quite positive,” Dassani said. “We decided to show Jordan and show Arabs in a way that hadn’t really been seen onscreen before. Teen Arabs hadn’t been portrayed in a realistic way that was accessible to the west. And our goal with Jinn was to show exactly that, to show that Arab teens are just like any other teens.”

Others were far less kind. The series currently has three point five stars out of 10 on IMDB, with many one star comments from people saying they’re upset about Jinn’s portrayal of Jordanian culture by showing teens swearing and kissing, as well as the fact that most of the female characters aren’t wearing hijabs, or head coverings worn by some Muslim women.

According to state-run media (as reported by The National), members of Jordan’s government condemned the series for being lewd and immoral, and reports have surfaced that the country’s top prosecutor asked the cyber-crimes unit to pull the series from Jordanian Netflix.

Jordan’s House of Representatives had scheduled an emergency meeting for June 16 to discuss Jinn. It was later postponed to give the attorney general time to conduct an investigation, but it’s unclear whether that investigation is ongoing.

Here’s a public statement from Parliament regarding the situation, as shared by state-run media:

The House of Representatives has followed up on reactions to the series Jinn, which was rejected by a large number of Jordanian people due to scenes that were described as alien to our culture, faith and social traditions. While waiting for the judiciary to provide us with all documents and legislation governing this type of work, it was decided to postpone the meeting until further notice.

“The reaction was stronger than even I expected,” Rajeev Nassani told Gizmodo. “I was expecting some reaction to the show – just because it is provocative, and it is trying to show teens in a way that hasn’t been seen before. But the government’s reaction was more than I expected.”

In a statement to Gizmodo, Netflix stood by the series, and mentioned the supportive statement from the Royal Film Commission (or RFC) of Jordan:

We understand that some viewers may find Jinn provocative, but it seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age. Unlike traditional broadcasting or cable TV, only members can watch Netflix – and they choose exactly what shows to watch… There are ratings and detailed information on each show, so members can make informed decisions about what’s right for their families, as well as a PIN-code system to ensure kids can’t watch content their parents consider inappropriate.

We also asked Netflix whether the network had been contacted by any members of the Jordanian government regarding the show or an investigation. The representative directed us to the following statement: “We comply with local law when we receive valid legal requests. The RFC has put out a support statement saying that they are following the reaction of official bodies and taking them seriously.”

According to Sue Obeidi, director of the Hollywood Bureau for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Jordan is one of several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East that has seen vast changes in media consumption over the past 10 to 15 years.

Until recently, television largely consisted of government-controlled stations, like those from the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation. Cable and satellite television opened the country up to Western channels and programs, like Game of Thrones, a popular show in Jordan. Streaming channels like Netflix have amped that up even more.

Obeidi said many of the shows Jordanians watch are American, or inspired by American programming, like Arab Idol. Television shows based in Jordan, especially foreign-made ones, were practically non-existent until now.

Jinn is sort of a pioneer concept for the Middle East,” Obeidi told Gizmodo. “I can see why they would have mixed emotions about it, because this is probably one of the first shows that is depicting their own culture that is made by an American platform.”

In a way, it’s kind of a double whammy: Not only is this groundbreaking Arabic-language series coming from an American company, but it’s also from two filmmakers who don’t hail from the region.

Elan and Rajeev Dassani are American filmmakers, whose parents came to the U.S. from India. The pair specialises in international shoots, having worked on shows like Heroes Reborn, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Star Trek: Discovery.

The duo worked with Arab writers and producers for Jinn, and consulted Jordanian teens for context”but in doing so, they found they didn’t innately understand certain nuances of Jordanian life. For example, the original script had the teens walking in the hallways between their classes, like something you’d see in a John Hughes movie. But in Jordanian schools, the teachers are the ones who move around. So they changed the script.

Obeidi doesn’t think the move to hire American filmmakers was necessarily a bad one, but does feel that companies should keep cultural authenticity as a focus (Netflix’s next Arabic-language series, called Al Rawabi School for Girls, was developed by Jordanians Tima Shomali and Shirin Kamal).

“I don’t think it’s an error, but it’s not best practices,” Obeidi said. “You definitely want any network, or streaming content, about a specific culture to work with people from that culture, so they have those unique experiences… [but] someone outside a culture can still tell a great story.”

However, there is another issue at play here, one that speaks to an ongoing conflict in the country – the cultural divide between the more conservative and liberal populations of Jordan. Urban areas have seen growth and change over the past few decades (changes reflected in other countries like Tunisia and Egypt) and they’ve had an impact. The Jordanian city of Amman, where Jinn is located, is considered an open and liberal urban area. Elan Dassani said the series was created with these teens and their culture in mind.

“Jordan is a very diverse place. There are people of all different cultural backgrounds in Jordan. There are going to be some people who like it, and there are going to be people who don’t like it,” he said. “We can’t have it portray and please everyone.”

Behind the scenes of Jinn. (Photo: Netflix)

Many of the show’s critics appear to stem from Jordan’s rural communities, which are considered more conservative and take issue with shows or films that seem to go against their cultural values.

According to Obeidi, some of those cultural values are intertwined with those folks’ interpretation of Islam, and that there’s a “huge grey area between culture and faith” in just about any Muslim-majority country. She added that Jinn isn’t inaccurate in how it portrays Jordanian teens. It’s more that some conservative Jordanians would rather not acknowledge it or act like it’s happening at all.

“I’ve been to Jordan every year and trust me, everything that happens in America happens in Jordan. If they’re objecting because Netflix is portraying young Arab kids as they really are, I think that’s a problem for Jordanians to come to reality about what’s happening in their own culture,” she said.

Even after the backlash, the network continues to look to the future of Arabic content for the streaming platform. In addition to Al Rawabi School for Girls, at least one more Arabic-language series is in the works, which takes place in Egypt. Will the reaction to Jinn change how the streaming platform approaches Arabic-language content in the future? Netflix said in a statement to Gizmodo that it’s listening to feedback, but gave no indication that it was changing its future programming plans:

Jinn seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age, including love, bullying and more. We’ve heard from many members across the Middle East and around the world how much it has resonated with them. But we understand that some viewers may find it provocative and as always will listen to that feedback as we invest more in local Arab content for the region.

In addition, Elan and Rajeev Dassani are looking to create more projects for Netflix in the future. While Rajeev Dassani wouldn’t say they made a mistake in how they portrayed their teenage characters in Jinn (and noted he was “disappointed” in the Jordanian government’s response) both brothers said they plan to engage more with local writers and creators – especially in gauging audience reaction. But that can come at a price.

Would they be comfortable censoring things, like kissing and swear words, if that was asked of them? Also, when a filmmaker comes from a culture that has its own values, how do they draw the line between respecting others’ cultural differences and engaging in censorship? I asked Rajeev about this.

“I think it’s a very tough line to draw, to be honest. To be authentic, sometimes you end up being provocative. I think it’s essential with any piece of artwork that’s portraying a community,” he said. “You engage with the community, and listen to their wants, needs, and concerns… At the end of the day, our hope is always to be as authentic as we can.”

Jinn is currently available on Netflix.