“My whole life I’ve rarely been able to fully relate to a character on TV because he doesn’t speak like me, he doesn’t have the same background as me, or the same upbringing that I’ve had,” says Hamzeh Okab, the 17-year-old Jordanian star of Netflix’s newly launched – and first ever original Arabic series – Jinn.
...he doesn’t speak like me, he doesn’t have the same background as me, or the same upbringing that I’ve had.
Growing up over the past 20 years, it has been shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The OC, Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, and Riverdale – distinctly American television – that defined the teenage experience in mainstream pop culture. And the west, as per usual, exported its culture to the rest of the world; it was a one-way voyage.
The consequences of this were twofold; the singular nature of the exchange crippled the understanding of the Middle East and the west never saw or gleaned any understanding of what it meant to grow up Arab, and as just as importantly, Arab teenagers never saw themselves represented on TV.
Of course it is worth noting that Ramadan shows are a colossal industry in the Arab world and do reflect the culture, but these shows are concentrated in a single month of the year; they rarely, if ever, focus on the nuances of growing up as an average Arab; and they never echo past the borders of the Middle East.
So many people in Jordan have jinn stories. We loved the idea of using a mythology that is largely unknown outside the Middle East
But now, for arguably the first time ever, a contemporary supernatural teenage drama in Arabic, is being given a mammoth global platform upon which to prop itself. Set in present-day Petra and Amman, Jordan, Jinn follows a group of high schoolers, that unknowingly unleash the mystical forces of two jinns - one good (played by Okab), the other evil - turning the high school into their own battleground.
Petra's famous Treasury, where part of the show was shot.
Conceived, executive produced, and co-written (along with a team of Arab writers) by power (and sibling) duo Elan and Rajeev Dassani of SEAM, the show is directed by Lebanese Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya of the critically lauded Very Big Shot. The two – American – producers, who pitched the idea to Netflix, were inspired by their years of filming in Jordan. “So many people in Jordan had jinn stories,” Elan Dessani recalls. “We loved the idea of using a mythology that had not really been seen in the western world, and really is largely unknown outside the Middle East, and considering how a teen adventure would apply to it.”
You can’t just make the same show about werewolves or vampires.
While stories of supernatural creatures like werewolves and witches have not only been exhausted but have largely pertained to the west, the idea of jinn is deeply rooted in the Middle East, to the extent that it flirts with the parameters of reality within the culture. Many older generations of Arabs still very much believe in the existence of jinn. “My grandmother always used to talk to us about the jinn,” recalls Salma Malhas, the young actress portraying the title character, Mira, who accidentally summons the ‘good’ jinn. “There were always these myths, like if you keep the toilet seat open, the jinn is going to jump up and attack you from the toilet when you’re looking in the mirror.”
“The real key to that that is that you can’t just make the same show about werewolves or vampires,” says Rajeev Dassani. “In a sense Jinn is similar to shows like Stranger Things, and Sabrina, but very specific and unique because it is jinn.”
Sultan Alkhail (right) plays a bullied teen who accidentally summons an evil jinn, played by Aysha Shahaltough (left).
The show however, is not a deep dive into the mythology and lore behind Jinn; it leans more toward being a teenage show that then infuses mystical elements of jinn. “I think what we tried to do is take all these concepts and the inherited beliefs and all the stories of our grandparents and to twist them in a fun, modern way; what would be today’s take on jinn?” explains director Bou Chaaya.
The show focuses more on teenage life than an at-length exploration of the supernatural – but that’s okay. Even more than that, that might actually be very important in the grand scheme of things. By and large, the Middle East has always been viewed through the prism of American understanding; either a place of terrorism and turbulence, or a place where kids ride camels to school. Jinn offers a glimpse into contemporary, quotidian – barring the mythical forces at work obviously – teenage life in Amman, not the stories that shock, play into stereotypes, or make the news. These teenagers sulk, bully, and fight, but they also drink, kiss, and curse - which the show can get away with in a way regular TV programming in the Arab world can't. Of course, it must be noted that Jinn focuses on a specific socioeconomic class of Arab teenager in Jordan and does not reflect teenage life as a whole, but this is much in the same way that many American shows will focus vaguely on small town, upper middle class teens. The narrative of the show is not entirely novel – it features more angst than auguries – but it’s exactly what the Middle East needs right now.
...we needed someone to be able to represent and to play these characters in the most authentic way possible, and the only way we could do that was to get real teenagers.
Though set against a backdrop of the supernatural, it was first and foremost the life of a Jordanian teenager that the show sought to capture accurately. It features a starring cast of absolutely no-name actors who had never appeared on a TV screen before – and that was probably the best decision they could have made.
Salma Malhas, who was only 17 when she was cast to play the lead role of Mira.
In an effort to chase down authenticity, the show’s creators discarded the idea of using famous faces and instead held open calls for auditions for teenagers across Jordan. “The debate was about whether we should get older actors to play younger characters; should we bring in famous people?” shares Bou Chaaya. “But we needed someone to be able to represent and to play these characters in the most authentic way possible, and the only way we could do that was to get real teenagers.”
Instead of tapping a cast of far older – and highly unrealistic looking – actors to pretend to play teenagers, as is the vice of myriad Hollywood shows and movies (Rachel McAdams was 25 when she was cast to play Regina George in Mean Girls; The OC’s Benjamin McKenzie was 28 when his character Ryan Atwood graduated from high school) they got actual teenagers. Who actually look like teenagers. The actors represent a fairly accurate cross-section of Jordanian high-schoolers; they have braces, slight smatterings of acne, are not girls that are size zeros and boys that are shredded from (adult) years in the gym. In that sense, the show is not aspirational, a la Gossip Girl, it does not fetishize, like The Vampire Diaries; it is far more grounded and teenagers are more likely to see themselves reflected onscreen.
I asked not to have these scripts translated into Arabic and given to the cast – I wanted the English versions. I wanted the actors to read them and work on the English versions as well because I wanted them to express these lines the way they would express them.
“It’s a Jordanian show in Jordan, so the first thing with the casting is we wanted the teens to be Jordanian,” says Rajeev simply. “There aren’t a lot of teen actors in the industry, and even though we knew having someone with some name recognition could help a show, we wanted to find really good actors and build them into stars. But also, we were looking for the most accurate actors.”
From left to right; Hamzeh Okab, Salma Malhas, Sultan Alkhail, Aysha Shahaltough, the four lead actors in Jinn.
Having real-life Jordanian teenagers portraying their onscreen counterparts also gave Jinn’s creators actual real life insight into contemporary Arab teenage life – and not the interpretation of it by a 50-year-old American screenwriter. The show’s two executive producers had filmed extensively in Jordan prior to Jinn, and were familiar with the culture, but at the end of the day, they were not Arab. “Given that fact, heavy amounts of research were important; we met with hundreds of different teenagers, and asked them about their lives. We wanted to understand how are they similar or different to other teens in America or other places, and what was specific or unique about being Jordanian,” explains Rajeev. And throughout filming, they continually drew upon the actors’ experiences to inform the direction of the show’s script and characters. “Our collaborators include Mir-Jean [Bou Chaaya], Amin Matalqa [Jordanian scriptwriter], as well as the actors. We were constantly asking them what feels real and what doesn’t.”
It doesn’t work the same way out here [in Jordan], all the American stereotypes that you see on TV
Director Bou Chaaya insisted on receiving the scripts in English. “I asked not to have these scripts translated into Arabic and given to the cast – I wanted the English versions. I was personally receiving these scripts, and trying to rework them in a way where we have an Arab perspective on things,” he explains. “But just as importantly, I wanted the actors to read them and work on the English versions as well because I wanted them to express these lines the way they would express them. This is what gives it this authentic angle and perspective to the story.”
Director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya on set.
For producers to not only allow but encourage virtual unknowns – who also happen to be children – to not only have an active say in helping tweak a few lines, but to have screenwriter-level input, essentially shaping the entire script and show, is not the usual path of directors or producers, but it was one which was vital to the ability of Jinn to try and emulate real Jordanian teenage life. “We had a lot of meetings, and they would always ask us ‘would you guys say it this way?’ ‘Would you guys actually do this?’ ” elaborates 18-year-old Nahas.
Arab adolescence does not ascribe to simply an Arabic parallel of the American high school experience; the stuff of cliques and jocks and nerds and lockers and prom are very American constructs. “It doesn’t work the same way out here [in Jordan], all the American stereotypes,” says Elan. “Our initial stuff had some of that, and they identified that that wouldn’t happen in our high school. Netflix, and the team – and we – all understood that the initial pitch came from two American writers, and that it needed time to adjust with the Arab collaborators. They helped a lot to catch things that were like ‘that doesn’t make sense here, that’s not what a teen would do here’. That was great, it was really helpful.”
The thing about the Middle East is that it’s untapped – there’s so much potential here
While the show may not be groundbreaking in its content – though to be fair, few supernatural teenage shows are – that the fact that an Arabic show is taking on the supernatural in a way that doesn’t involve cringe-worthy graphics and truly attempts to capture contemporary Ammani life, is in and of itself groundbreaking. “From this show we’re going to learn a lot – us as filmmakers, the talent, the producers, the network, everyone is going to learn a lot. This is the first experience for everyone,” Bou Chaaya says. “So regardless of how successful it’s going to be, this was a learning journey, and seeing how people are going to react to it is definitely going to shape the future steps for each and every one of us involved in the making of this show.”
This is a show that finally speaks to an audience of Arab teenagers who get to see themselves and their lives mirrored onscreen, and it will undoubtedly – hopefully – open the door for a flood of Arabic content, where there may be more room to experiment. Already two more Arabic shows are in production for Netflix; an adaptation of late Egyptian novelist Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Paranormal series, and female-driven Jordanian production, AlRawabi School for Girls.
“The thing about the Middle East is that it’s untapped – there’s so much potential here,” says Elan. The Middle East is overflowing with stories untold and this is the first break in the dam.