Will a Saudi TV show change how Jews are seen in the Middle East?
It’s nighttime and there’s a festive gathering happening within a mud-walled home in a Kuwaiti village. But when a radio report announces the establishment of the state of Israel, the dancing and gregarious discussions quickly come to a halt.
The year is 1948 and the scene is from the Ramadan series “Um Haroun” or “Mother of Aaron,” which tells the story of a Jewish family in Kuwait during the 1940s living under Arab-Muslim rule. The story centers on Um Haroun, a popular Jewish obstetrician, played by beloved Kuwaiti television star Hayat Al Fahad, who finds her pluralistic community, home to different religious sects, quickly changing as the result of events in Palestine.
When Um Haroun hears the news of the creation of Israel, she puts her hands over her face in disbelief.
“My God help us, may this all be a passing dream,” another man says.
The series, which ran on MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center), the Arab world’s largest private broadcaster owned by the Saudi state, was the subject of controversy even before it aired. The program’s creators affirm that it is a work of fiction. Series writers Muhammad and Ali Shams describe the production as “a social drama inspired by ancient ties that explores the stories of a fictional neighborhood that is home to different faiths and religions.”
However, portraying Jewish people in a sympathetic light is “cultural aggression and brainwashing,” a spokesperson for the Palestinian Hamas group told Reuters on April 27 Two days later, a spokesperson from IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) replied, praising the message of the series.
Critics of the series have denounced it for attempting to reshape Arab views of Israel in an effort to set the stage for formal relations, or what many Arabs call “normalization.” These claims are not unfounded. In April 2018 The Atlantic published an interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia, who recognized the Jewish People’s “right to their own land,” and asserted that formal relations between Israel in the Kingdom could be “mutually beneficial.” Some Gulf leaders see Israel as a potential ally against the shared threats of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.
Though Bahrain continues to have the only remaining indigenous Jewish population in the Gulf, for the past decade, a synagogue in the United Arab Emirates has served the small Jewish community there, and will also host an Israeli delegation at a world expo, scheduled to take place from October until March 2021.
The UAE declared 2019 the “Year of Tolerance,” and has appointed Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, a senior member of the royal family, as Minister of Tolerance. In September of that year, Abu Dhabi announced that it would build a massive interfaith complex that will house a mosque, a church and a synagogue. It will be be known as the Abrahamic Family House, and will be located on Saadiyat Island next to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
American Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and special advisor to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, has been quoted in the Jerusalem Post, saying that the current global health crisis presents a unique opportunity for cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States. “I have heard leaders in the Gulf say over and over, ‘with our resources and wealth and Israeli innovation, we can create a vaccine and a cure,’” he said. “They have seen this pandemic as an opportunity for cooperation between themselves and Israel. There’s an opportunity to join forces here. So many issues transcend politics in the Middle East.”
The UAE’s ambassador to the United Nations has stated publicly that it would be willing to work with Israel on a vaccine.
The roots for religious pluralism in the Gulf are still there, and fans of “Um Haroun” laud the series for highlighting a largely unknown part of the region’s past: During the 1940s and 1950s Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf thrived alongside their Muslim counterparts. Before Israel was established in 1948, an estimated 800,000 Jews lived throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The program revives the rich culture and heritage of the Jews in the Middle East who lived under Islamic governance for around 1,300 years in the status of dhimmi or protected persons. It also portrays their situation amid the rise of nation states in the Middle East and how the events that took place in Palestine then destroyed these communities, such as the one that Um Haroun belongs to in the series.
“This is a first in Gulf drama, and so it’s something quite different for our audiences, and something interesting to explore,” says lead actress Al Fahad. “It’s historical fact that Jewish communities existed in the Gulf back in those times. However, this series – while inspired by real times – is purely fictional.” The series coincides with Trump’s Mideast Peace Plan, which was announced in February of this year and was starkly criticized by Arabs and others as being too biased in favor of Israel. The plan, which would guarantee that Israel would control a unified Jerusalem as its capital and would not require it to abolish any settlements in the West Bank, has stirred outrage among Palestinians.
“The deal of the century pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn’t need a drama fiction series for it to fail or succeed,” said MBC Group’s official spokesman Mazen Hayek. “Logically, and unlike what conspiracy theorists say, there was no phone call from the White House to a top Saudi government official, who then called up the MBC chairman, who then rushed to appoint a team of scriptwriters to initiate the series! It doesn’t work this way. This is fiction, not sci-fi.”
“The primary message of the ‘Umm Haroun’ series is human, one that embodies tolerance, mutual respect, understanding and coexistence,” he added. “We at MBC have always tried to project an image of a different Middle East, one where hope overcomes fear, mutual understanding defeats hatred.”
The series, along with another MBC show “Exit 7,” a comedy that makes fun of Arab attitudes toward Israel, continues to stir controversy on social media and among Arab viewers. Both shows have been criticized for mixing entertainment with propaganda.
Most recently, several Islamist organizations, especially groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, have teamed up with Qatari and Turkish media against MBC, accusing it of promoting “normalization” with Israel. The Arab Weekly stated that a religious fatwa has emerged from an unknown extremist group in Gaza calling for a boycott of MBC.
When several Saudi viewers were asked to give their thoughts on the shows, they refrained to comment. Other Arabs in the Gulf voiced their opinions but preferred to not disclose their names.
“It’s quite an artificial show and most people see it that way,” said a Moroccan viewer living in Dubai. “This is a series being forced into society with plans to normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel. Saudi Arabia wants to go in this direction, but they have seen some resistance within the wider society.”
“The government wants to show that Muslims, Jews and Christians can live together,” continued the viewer. “The issue is not with interfaith but with the Zionism that is menacing the Palestinian people. We cannot go to some sort of “old normal” until we solve these issues.”
Israel has also created TV series inspired by current politics. “Fauda,” a drama that launched in 2015 on Netflix, tells the two-sided story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like “Um Haroun,” it brought real-life tensions, this time from the West Bank, to TV. Fauda means “chaos” in Arabic.
While there has been speculation by several viewers that “Fauda” inspired the creation of “Um Haroun,” what is evident is that these series have caught the mood of the times and a desire for impending change — change which as these controversies surrounding the MBC series demonstrates, will not be easy.
“I do believe that a series like this can bring about change — it’s a soft power,” said Middle East expert and former adviser to late Israeli President Shimon Peres, Ruth Wasserman Lande. “For decades Arab countries have been educating the public and the children and so forth very systematically and officially that the enemy is Israel and the Jewish people.”
“Once you begin to break down these stereotypes over time it does make a difference,” she said.
“Um Haroun” has not aired yet in Israel, but Lande says that it represents “a step in the right direction.”
Ramadan is a time when Arab families spend increased amounts of time at home with their loved ones. This Ramadan, when most of the Middle East has been under lockdown, Muslims, like everyone else, are inevitably spending even more time watching TV. If there were a prize for the most controversial TV show aired during this Ramadan, “Um Haroun” would be a sure winner.
Still, “Um Haroun” is only a story, even if it touches on sensitive parts of Middle Eastern history. Perhaps the real lesson is how much power does fiction have to dictate our reality?
Rebecca Anne Proctor is a journalist based in Dubai.