Muslim and Arab Characters Are Gaining Global Popularity, Film Industry Experts Agree
“This wave [of Arab and Muslim stories] is beginning,” said Ahmed Sharkawi, the director of Arab content for Netflix Europe, Middle East and Africa. “The U.S. audience is becoming open to watching stories that are outside of the U.S. experience.”
Original TV shows with Arab and Muslim characters are gaining global popularity, according to a Netflix executive at the Red Sea Film Festival.
During a panel at the festival about writing for television, Ahmed Sharkawi, the director of Arab content for Netflix Europe, Middle East and Africa, said that a fresh and distinctive voice is beginning to emerge in the region’s media. “This wave [of Arab and Muslim stories] is beginning,” he said. “The U.S. audience is becoming open to watching stories that are outside of the U.S. experience.”
Given the SWANA region’s rich history of storytelling, there’s a boom of original scripts being written right now. Sharkawi said that since there are, “so many stories in this region that have not been told before, [our job is] about harvesting that intellectual property.”
“This is a culture that loves telling stories,” he added. “We all grew up on the folklore of our grandmothers telling us stories — some true, others not. The challenge is for the writer to find the right point of view to tell those stories.”
Shakawi named two Arab Netflix series that have become big regional hits. The first, the Saudi Arabian show “Crashing Eid” (2023–), is family dramedy that tackles societal romantic taboos with irreverence and warmth. The series follows Razan (Summer Shesha), who brings her British Pakistani fiancé Sameer (Hamza Haq) home with her to crash her Saudi family’s Eid celebrations. The couple, along with Razan’s daughter (Bateel Nabil) from her first marriage, have to convince their families that they are a suitable match.
The other series, the Jordanian show “AlRawabi School for Girls” (2021–2022) dives into the experience of teen girls at an all-girls’ school. The show was written by a women-only team and boasted a largely female production crew. After a teenager named Mariam (Andria Tayeh) is bullied by girls in her elite private school, she plans revenge with her friends and ends up with unexpected consequences.
Other speakers at the panel echoed Shakawi’s sentiment. Mohamed Hassan, a New Zealand-based and Egyptian-born writer, drew on his personal experience growing up in Auckland to create the six-part series "Miles from Nowhere" (2023). The show explores the impact of the "war on terror" on New Zealand's small Muslim community by focusing on a young Kiwi-Muslim songwriter and his dangerous friendship with a Security Intelligence Service agent, risking his entire community to follow his dreams.
“I became a screenwriter to tell a story that I felt was not being told — how the Muslim [diaspora] community experienced the war on terror,” Hassan said. “And the best way to tell that story was through comedy. The stories were alive and people were talking about them all the time — but for this sort of story, we wanted a receptive ear from the other side, and we found that through comedy.”
Karim Zreik, a Lebanese American Los Angeles-based producer, noted the rise of original content in the Arab world just as the U.S. trends toward budget cuts. Despite those shrinking budgets, he emphasized the power of writing and the characters' messages in making a show stand out. “Be bold,” he said. “Be daring and your writing will always stand out.”