Think a little bit Stranger Things, a little bit The Society and you’ll be on the right track for the very first Middle Eastern Netflix original series, Jinn, that streams on June 13.
And while it might seem a little counterintuitive to try and realistically portray the lives of teenagers in the Middle East via unknown actors and a supernatural thriller about ancient spirits that haunt the valleys of Jordan, it well, kind of works.
OK, here’s the deal: the series revolves around a group of Amman teenagers on a high school trip to the historic site of Petra, and how a series of unexplained events that lead to a murder introduces a vengeful jinn – a spirit found in Muslim mythology – into their lives.
Part of a dedicated move to create more Middle Eastern programming on Netflix, Jinn appears only the beginning, and has been swiftly followed up by two further Original series from the region. Next up is Al Rawabi School for Girls, a drama set in Jordan with an all-female Arab cast, and then next a series based on the bestselling Arabic horror books by late Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik called Paranormal.
For the cast of Jinn, all 17 or 18 years of age, the experience off-camera was as dramatic as the journey their characters take onscreen.
“The cool thing about it is that in Petra, the Bedouins still believe in these stories,” says Aysha Shahalthough, who plays the part of high-school senior Vera. “They were telling me that there’s a cave there that nobody dares walk into because there are Jinn inside it.”
“We had a bet that someone had to go inside that cave,” says Salma Malhas – who plays Mira – taking up the story. “We were shooting at night and we could see the cave and, I think it was Jameel, asked, ‘how much would you pay me if I walked into this cave?’ In the end the Bedouins didn’t let him go.”
But while tales of jinn, or spirits, have long been referenced in Arab folk tales, these days, the locals peddle stories mainly to the amusement of tourists and visitors.
The cast, made up exclusively of unknown local talent, had little experience of acting in a production of this scale when the auditions took place for several months around the country.
“I’d never acted professionally before, only in a few school productions and auditioned mainly because my theatre teacher at the time pushed me into it,” says Malhas.
But while the cast might all be new, you’ll be pleased to hear that can find your classic high school characters here: from Vera the senior on the periphery of the friendship groups to Mira, the strong girl with the tough background, Yassin the outsider to Keras the character with a touch of mystery. John Hughes – the man who arguably invented the modern high school movie genre with a showreel including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and more – would have indeed approved.
Despite being touched by the otherworldly, perhaps the show’s biggest strength lies in the realistic portrayal of Arab teenagers today – something that hasn’t always been the case.
Arguably one of the greatest, and funniest, Arabic theatre productions of all time, Madrast Al Mushagheen (“School of Mischievous”) had an admittedly stellar cast of actors in their late twenties and thirties, led by the peerless Adel Imam. Hilarious? Certainly. But hardly something for a teenager to identify with.
“Considering that I was still in school, I found it very, very realistic. I have friends who are the same as some of the characters here,” says Hamzeh Okab, who plays Keras. “It’s actually really cool because I think everyone in the Middle East can relate to someone in the show. Each character has their own specific personality, their own traits. These are definitely relationships that are found in schools, in groups. We tried to highlight those kinds of relationships as much as possible. It’s really exciting that this is the first Netflix Arabic original, because no other show has given us insight into the teenagers’ lives as much as this does.”
For Sultan Alkhail, who plays Yassin, it was simply channelling what Arab youth go through in their daily lives, the shared experiences across the globe.
“All the characters undergo struggles that are consistent with teenagers all around the world,” he says. “Friendships, love stories, conflicts, family, that’s what makes it more special for me, more than the supernatural element. The supernatural element is like the added spices.”
Jinn streams on Netflix from June 13