A high school field trip to the ancient archaeological site of Petra turns tragic, and supernatural creatures are unleashed to prey on the living in , the first Arabic language original series from Netflix. Forget the Westernized concept of genies found in our popular culture, like or . This series draws on more traditional Arabian/Islamic mythology for its portrayal of the jinn, and it’s all the richer for it.
(Mild spoilers below.)
Mira (Salma Malhas), a high school student in Amman, Jordan, is struggling with the recent loss of her mother and brother, and her mixed feelings for her jealous boyfriend, Fahed (Yasser Al Had), who is pressuring her for sex. When the high school class takes a field trip to Petra, tensions emerge, largely driven by Tareq (Abd Alrazzaq Jarkas), your typical high school bully with a broad misogynistic streak for good measure. He and his cronies torment the shyly anxious Yassin (Sultan Alkhail) because they think he ratted them out to the teacher for their many misdeeds.
When Yassin accidentally falls into a pit in one of the caves at Petra, rather than helping him out, Tareq relieves himself into the pit while his cronies laugh. A senior named Vera (Aysha Shahaltough) eventually finds Yassin—but she might be possessed by a jinn, one of the supernatural creatures believed to inhabit the cave, per local lore. And what do you know, suddenly one of the bullies tormenting Yassin meets with an accident, cutting the field trip short.
That’s exactly what Hassan (Zaid Zoubi) had been warning about on the bus to Petra. He’s the super-smart nerd of the group, a walking encyclopedia of jinn mythology, so he knows a jinn can become obsessed with a human and attach themselves. They’re drawn to strong emotions and desires, exactly what you’re likely to find swirling around a group of high school students with raging hormones. The jinn can take the form of animals, and a tour guide tells the students that it’s possible to sometimes hear them whispering in the rocks at Petra.
Petra provides a stunning backdrop for all this melodrama.
Traditionally, jinn aren’t typically seen as good or evil, and that moral ambiguity carries over to the series. There seem to be two factions here: one content to co-exist with humans, all-seeing but never seen, and the other intent on destroying the human race for ousting them from their original home.
The jinn inhabiting Vera is seeking to unite fully with a human (as opposed to just possessing them) so it can roam freely—hence her keen interest in Yassin, who she hopes she can convince to agree to the process. Her persuasion involves a certain amount of wish fulfillment: supernatural payback for bullies, for instance. Of course, Vera conveniently leaves out the fact that when a jinn and a human unite, the human’s soul is utterly destroyed.
A second jinn, Keras (Hamzeh Okab), befriends Mira after possessing the body of a bedouin boy. His main mission is to foil Vera’s plans and keep other jinn from leaving the cave in search of a host, with Mira and Hassan’s help, as well as her skeptical BFF Layla (Ban Halaweh). But which jinn is the hero and which is the villain? It’s not entirely clear. By the cliffhanger season finale, some doubt has been cast on the purity of Keras’s motives—plus a number of other tantalizing secrets are revealed.
is being marketed as a supernatural soap opera, and it certainly has those elements, but tonally, one would never mistake it for or , which also fall into that genre. It’s less gleefully over-the-top, with more of a feel of quiet restraint. The story line largely makes sense (something one can’t always say about , for instance), and the writing is strong. Director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya has teased out equally strong performances from her young cast, especially Malhas, Shahaltough, and Zoubi’s Hassan. Best of all, Petra, often called the Rose City because of the pinkish hue of its stone, provides a stunning backdrop for all this melodrama.
Unfortunately, the show has already stirred up a cultural controversy in Jordan over scenes depicting Mira kissing two different boys (the horror!), as well as the occasional raw language. In fact, an outraged Jordanian prosecutor officially requested that the cybercrimes unit of the Ministry of the Interior take “immediate necessary measures to stop the broadcast” because of those “immoral scenes.”
The show’s depiction of teenaged sexuality is incredibly tame by US standards. But if you’re tempted to feel smug about how broad-minded we all are in the West, remember that some 20,000 confused right-wing Christians just petitioned Netflix to cancel the Amazon Prime series because it “presents devils and Satanists as normal and even good,” “mocks God’s wisdom,” and is “another step to make Satanism appear normal, light and acceptable.” (The group has since corrected its mistake in the wake of much Internet hilarity.)
Thus far, it’s been much ado about nothing, with Jordan’s Media Commission—responsible for state censorship of TV and theater productions— releasing a public statement that they have no authority to censor streaming services like Netflix. Ditto for Jordan’s Royal Film Commission. Netflix Middle East dismissed the complaints as “a wave of bullying.” But the series was filmed in Jordan—not just at Petra, but also the capital city, Amman, and Wadi Rum (“Valley of the Moon”)—and one assumes permits are required to film on location. Hopefully there won’t be a sustained outcry that puts a second season in jeopardy, because I, for one, am dying to find out what happens next.