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Netflix's First Arabic Original Sparks Backlash on Home Turf

The exterior of Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, California.
The exterior of Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, California.

On a high school trip to Jordan's ancient city of Petra, a group of teenagers sneak out at night to drink beer, smoke weed and gossip around a bonfire. A girl asks her frisky boyfriend to take things slow.

By global Netflix standards, its first original Arabic series "Jinn" hardly pushes the envelope. But when the show debuted last week, many Jordanians were shocked and appalled by a program that had been billed as a point of national pride.

Some Twitter users blasted the series as pornographic. Government ministers vowed to censor it. Jordan's grand mufti denounced it as "a moral degradation." Lawmakers called an emergency session. The attorney general demanded the cyber-crimes unit "take immediate, necessary action" to pull it from Netflix.

While the government has not made good on its threats, the outrage nonetheless has shaken Jordan's self-image as a bastion of tolerance in a turbulent region. It reflects a cultural gap between the reputation of the country's Western-allied ruling elite and conservative Muslim public, many of whom consider it "haram" — forbidden — to drink alcohol, smoke marijuana or even kiss before marriage, and look to television to deliver morality.

"Jordan likes to think of itself as miles ahead of other Arab countries," said Jordanian media analyst Saed Hattar. "But the reality is, although social media is flooding millennials with more modern content, our traditional values and morals have not changed."

The five-episode thriller centers on a private school in the capital of Amman, a bubble of liberalism and privilege in the country. School buses cart the teenagers off to a wide-open desert haunted by ancient demons that make strange and terrifying things happen.

FILE - Bassel Ghandour, of Jordan's first Oscar-nominated film "Theeb," speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Amman, Jordan, Jan. 7, 2016.

Prior to the release, the internet was buzzing with pride in the first Netflix original from the Middle East. Directed by Lebanese filmmaker Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya and written by Bassel Ghandour of Jordan's first Oscar-nominated film "Theeb," the series, featuring an all-Jordanian cast and backdrop, sought to portray Arab youth outside Hollywood stereotypes and shine a long-awaited spotlight on Jordan's nascent TV industry.

In a Netflix statement, Ghandour hailed the series as a "real turning point" for Jordanian representation. Entertainment bloggers praised "Jinn" as an antidote to the grim news from the volatile region. Jordan rolled out the red carpet for the series premiere at an upscale Amman golf course flocked by paparazzi.

The show appeared in line with the liberal, tolerant image that the Western-educated King Abdullah II and his glamorous wife Queen Rania have promoted for Jordan in spite of the country's widespread poverty, largely tribal society and authoritarian legislation. As the U.S.'s closest Arab ally, Jordan is one of the largest recipients of American aid.

But the royal family's cosmopolitan reputation doesn't entirely reflect Jordanian society. Almost immediately following its debut, excerpts from the pilot episode spurred scathing posts on social media.

Cursing, kissing

Complaints were various. For starters, the actors curse in Jordanian dialect.

"This will encourage teenagers to use indecent language in the streets, with their families," said Laith al-Tantawi, a 31-year-old Amman resident.

Of all places, these transgressions occur in the historic site of Petra, the country's crown jewel of tourism.

But what seemed to bother viewers most was the kiss.

"I will never allow my children to watch it. This is impossible," said Khetam al-Kiswani, 42, a mother from Amman. "It contradicts our morals, society and our religion, it contradicts everything."

Hattar, the media analyst, said that while far more scandalous American shows flood the country's screens, he had never before seen Jordanian actors kiss on TV.

FILE - Tourists visit the Treasury, Jordan's most famous archaeological monument leftover from the Nabatean civilization, in the kingdom's Petra archaeological park, Feb. 13, 2017.

"Much of the country lives in camps and rural areas and follows the orders of patriarchal society. They do not condone such public displays, even if these things happen privately," he said.

Deflecting blame

Jordan's Royal Film Commission, which had granted "Jinn" producers approval to shoot, sidestepped responsibility, saying in a statement that it neither "condones or approves or encourages the content of a film or series." It tried to play down the controversy as the outcome of "divergent opinions that reflect the diversity of Jordanian society."

The Tourism Ministry, which had preemptively welcomed the show as a promo for Petra, also tried to deflect blame, berating its "lewd scenes" as "a contradiction of national principles ... and Islamic values."

Jinn's progressive defenders dove into the online combat. In an op-ed, journalist Daoud Kuttab argued that because a mere 1% of Jordan subscribes to Netflix, "to say that it corrupts society is an exaggeration." Jordanian TV critic Maia Malas wrote that the show's brazen exploration of young love defies Jordan's long legacy of self-censorship.

Netflix reaction

In response to a request for comment, Netflix said the series "seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age, including love, bullying and more."

It added: "We understand that some viewers may find it provocative but we believe it will resonate with teens across the Middle East and around the world."

So far, attacks on "Jinn" have been rhetorical. Although Jordan's attorney general and information ministry threatened to block local access, it's still unclear if and how the government will take action.

"It's highly unlikely they'll end up censoring it," said Hattar. "It's a familiar strategy. The loudest voices are calling for harsh punishment, and the government needs to look like it's responding."

Netflix said content removals are rare but that it complies with take-down requests from authorities. The streaming site drew global condemnation earlier this year when it obeyed Saudi Arabia's order to pull an episode of its show "Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj," which criticized the crown prince, from the kingdom's Netflix feed.

Despite the firestorm, Netflix is accelerating its push to the region, announcing that its second Middle Eastern original, "Al-Rawabi School for Girls," would launch later this year. Its Jordanian director, Tima Shomali, says the series, with its focus on the travails of young Arab women, strives to push cultural boundaries and spark conversations in her country.