Ramadan drama is sparking controversy on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with one series accused of promoting "normalisation" and another slammed by Israel for predicting the destruction of the Jewish state.
A period drama about the trials of a Jewish midwife airing on Saudi-controlled MBC for Ramadan has drawn both criticism as an attempt to promote Arab “normalisation” with Israel and praise for a rare exploration of the Gulf’s social history.
“Umm Haroun," a fictional series about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930s to 1950s, began airing on Friday as part of MBC’s lineup for the Muslim holy month, when viewership typically spikes.
An official from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Basim Naeem, condemned the series before it even aired and told Reuters that portraying Jewish people in a sympathetic light was “cultural aggression and brain washing."
A group of regional organisations "against normalising ties with Israel" circulated a poster on social media urging viewers to boycott “the wicked drama."
The show’s writers, Bahraini brothers Muhammad and Ali Abdel Halim Shams said they had no political message.
“People have spoken and judged before seeing it,” said Muhammad. “The message focuses on the ways of Muslims centred on showing love, good intention and peace to non-Muslims.” MBC, the Arab world’s largest private broadcaster, said that according to its data the show is the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia for Ramadan and among the top five dramas across genres.
MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek said Umm Haroun’s main message was a human one – a nurse who heals people “irrespective of any consideration”.
“It also focuses on tolerance, moderation and openness, showcasing that the Middle East was once a region where acceptance of one another was the norm versus the twisted interpretation and stereotyping of the region by hardliners and extremists, over the last decades.”
The writers said the main character, Umm Haroun, after whom the show is named, was loosely inspired by real-life Jewish midwife Umm Jan, who arrived in Bahrain from Iraq in the 1930s. A disclaimer during the first episode said the characters and events were imaginary.
Some people in Bahrain, which still has a small Jewish community, took to social media to share pictures of and a 1977 TV interview with Umm Jan, who is widely regarded as a symbol of public service in Bahrain.
In Kuwait, Twitter user Abdulaziz al-Seif said the show should not be seen as pro-Israeli.
“We should also differentiate between the Jewish religion and Zionism … This show has nothing to do with normalising ties with Israel,” he said in a video post after the show aired its first episode.
Veteran Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al-Fahad, who plays the midwife, told local daily Al Anbaa that young generations should know about “a people that were and still are in our world."
On the other side of the spectrum, Israel’s Foreign Ministry condemned as "unacceptable" a new Egyptian TV drama that predicts Israel’s destruction as well as the breakup of the United States.
The Foreign Ministry statement said the series “is completely unacceptable especially because the two states have had a peace treaty for the past 41 years.”
The Egyptian series “El-Nehaya” — Arabic for “The End” — is about a computer engineer living in a dystopian future dominated by cyborg clones in the year 2120. It’s one of the many dramas and soap operas that air each night during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.
In the first episode, a teacher tells a class of students about “the war to liberate Jerusalem,” which he says occurred less than 100 years after Israel’s founding in 1948. The teacher says Jews in Israel “ran away and returned to their countries of origin” in Europe. He made no mention of Sephardic Jews who hail from the Arab world.
A holographic map of a divided US is also shown, with the teacher saying that “America was the central supporter of the Zionist state.”
The series is produced by Synergy, one of Egypt’s largest production companies. The series airs on the ON television network, which is owned by a pro-government company.
The show’s writer, Amr Samir Atif, said that the destruction of Israel “is a possible future in the absence of real peace and true stability in the region. … Peace should be based on justice.”
Since taking office in 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has met Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at least twice. Egypt and Jordan are signatories of peace treaties with Israel.
Most Egyptians, however, associate Israel with the four wars the countries fought against each other from 1948 to 1973 and are deeply opposed to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.