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Arab TV Series Dramatizes Life Under ISIS

In one episode from the series, a Yazidi slave is sent to clean an Islamic State fighter’s room, where his bored wife asks if the woman is hungry or would like to watch a movie. The captive woman is outraged.

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Scene From ‘Black Crows’: The Women of ISIS

A Yazidi slave kept prisoner by an Islamic State fighter confronts his wife in a scene from “Black Crows,” a television drama about life under the Islamic State.


By MIDDLE EAST BROADCASTING CENTER on Publish Date May 16, 2017.


Photo by Middle East Broadcasting Center .

The stories of women dominate the series, the producers said, because they offered rich dramatic material. A majority of the channel’s viewers are also women.

In another episode, Islamic State commanders indoctrinate children into their ranks.

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Scene From ‘Black Crows’: ISIS Indoctrination

Young boys with assault rifles fire at prisoners scampering between oil drums for target practice in an episode of “Black Crows,” an MBC 1 production to be aired during Ramadan.


By MIDDLE EAST BROADCASTING CENTER on Publish Date May 16, 2017.


Photo by Middle East Broadcasting Center .

Like the Islamic State’s recruits, the cast comes from across the Arab world, and the show’s plotlines reflect well-known headlines about the group’s atrocities.

Ramadan, which is to begin around May 27, is a month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. It is also peak television season in the Arab world, where families gather after breaking their fast to binge-watch shows late into the night.

In television terms, “it’s like the Super Bowl for 30 days straight,” said Mazen Hayek, a spokesman for MBC.

Typical programming includes romances, comedies and historical dramas, some of which reflect current events. Though the new MBC production has the trappings of a drama, and some of the costumes and makeup can be cartoonish, the series, set behind the jihadists’ front lines, is not light viewing.

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The series depicts members of the Islamic State as victims, and women who challenge the militants’ control are heroes.

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MBC 1

Another story line involves a journalist whose fiancé became an Islamic State suicide bomber. She goes undercover to report on the group, and pledges to abandon her Christian faith and blow up a church.

The actress, Samar Allam, said in a phone interview that being on set and getting into character depressed her, but that she hoped the show would make people think in a way that news reports about the Islamic State’s violence could not.

“ISIS is a danger to all of humanity,” she said, using an acronym for the group. The show allowed her to “show my hatred and my condemnation of this group, to express it in a concrete way.”

Marwa Mohamed, a Saudi actress, plays a woman who kills her husband for cheating on her and flees to join the Islamic State with her two sons. After one is sexually abused and the other is killed, she struggles to escape.

“It is important to wake people up and show them that Islam is not that,” Ms. Mohamed said.

She said she hoped that despite the dark subject matter, viewers would tune in for the human stories. “It’s not all terrorism and war,” she said. “There are lots of dramatic stories in it as well.”

The series echoes news coverage of the Islamic State, with explosions that leave bodies scattered and gunmen waving black flags, but dramatizes the lives of people forced to live under the group.

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Scene From ‘Black Crows’: An Execution

Women from the Islamic State morality police execute an old woman for selling dishes with animal figures on them in an episode of “Black Crows,” to be shown during Ramadan on the MBC 1 satellite channel.


By MIDDLE EAST BROADCASTING CENTER on Publish Date May 16, 2017.


Photo by Middle East Broadcasting Center.

Mr. Jaber, who is known in the Arab world for being a judge on the reality competition “Arabs Got Talent,” said the series sought to harness the influence of popular television to undermine the narrative that the Islamic State uses to entice recruits.

“We believe that this is an epidemic, this is a disease that we have to muster the courage to address and fight,” he said.

Still, producing a show about the Islamic State in the region where the group has done the most damage carries risks.

A comedy show on MBC that mocked the group led to death threats against its star. And Mr. Jaber said some sponsors might hesitate to advertise their products on such a violent show about a terrorist group.

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The series depicts the Islamic State as a brutal criminal organization run by corrupt and hypocritical leaders.

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MBC 1

“It will bring eyeballs, it will bring buzz and ratings and reputation, but no money,” he said.

Since the Islamic State stormed through Syria and Iraq, shocking the world with its choreographed beheadings and elaborate executions, governments have struggled to defeat the group and counter its potent, made-for-television propaganda.

Some diplomats have told Mr. Jaber that they like the idea of using television to challenge the jihadists’ message. In March, he was invited to discuss the show with Western and Middle Eastern diplomats at a summit meeting in Washington hosted by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

Other Ramadan series, dramas and comedies, have referred to the Islamic State, but “Black Crows” appears to be the first to be set entirely in the militants’ world, said Rebecca Joubin, an associate professor of Arab studies at Davidson College who studies the region’s television programs.

The most popular Ramadan shows are often escapist love stories, full of beautiful people wearing nice clothes. “A lot of people are like: ‘I don’t want to watch this stuff. I see it on the news every day,’” Ms. Joubin said.

Still, the series’ producers expect it to be widely viewed during Ramadan, when MBC 1 traditionally sees a spike in viewership.

The show will be broadcast in Arabic as “Al Gharabeeb Al Soud,” and the network hopes to produce an English-language version for wider distribution.

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