'We want to instil local pride': How Netflix picks its Arabic shows for Eid and beyond

The streaming giant has announced it is showing 10 classic plays from the golden age of Arabic theatre this Eid

Adel Imam's 1976 theatre play Shahed Ma Shafsh Haga (The Witness Who Didn’t See Anything) will be available on Netflix this Eid. Netflix
Powered by automated translation

Netflix is rolling back the years with its new Arabic Eid campaign.

Launching on the streaming giant on Thursday, May 21, the upcoming Arabic Nostalgia section features 10 acclaimed plays dating back to the golden age of Arabic theatre, from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

That means we can expect plenty of performances from theatre stalwart Adel Imam. It was the Egyptian star who announced the campaign on his social media accounts on Sunday, May 17 as part of his 80th birthday celebrations.

Imam will surely look back on the period with deep satisfaction. After all, before he found success in both film and television, it was theatre where Imam’s gift for comic timing and masterly physical comedy came to the forefront.

Fans can savour his zany performances in classic productions such as 1973's Madrast Al-Mushaghebeen (The School of Mischief) 1976's Shahed Ma Shafsh Haga (The Witness Who Saw Nothing) and 1985's and El-Wad Sayed El-Shaghal.

A youthful Imam will be joined by plenty of stars in their prime: Saeed Saleh and Hassan Moustafa in 1979's El-Ayal Kebret (The Kids Have Grown Up) the Kuwaiti comedy legend Abdulhussein Abdulredha in 1982's Bye Bye London, while Shadia and Soheir Al Bably are full of mirth in the 1985's Raya wa Skeina – a dark comedy based on real life titular siblings who terrorised the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria in the early 1900s with a string of murders.

Abdel Monim Madbouly, left, Shadia, centre, and Soheir Al Bably star in Raya wa Skeina. Netflix
Abdel Monim Madbouly, left, Shadia, centre, and Soheir Al Bably star in Raya wa Skeina. Netflix

The Arabic Nostalgia campaign is the latest salvo from Netflix’s director of content acquisitions for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, Nuha Eltayeb.

The Syrian-Sudanese executive, who is based in the company’s Amsterdam offices, is leading a team which is scouring the region to find pre-existing Arabic content to add to Netflix's growing catalogue of regional content.

Back to the future: the emergence of vintage programming

Intriguingly, Netflix's new vintage offering goes against the grain of Eid releases, a time normally reserved for major Arabic studios to release marquee productions featuring the latest stars.

However, with cinemas shuttered due to the pandemic, Eltayeb is banking on these classic productions to provide the humour and warmth sorely needed in these difficult times.

"We know that many families in the region have grown up watching these plays and now, more than ever, need a good laugh," she tells The National.

“These classic plays bring Arab heritage to life in its purest form, and we’re excited about introducing them to the new generation. Hopefully, they’ll not just resonate with them but also give them a chance to connect with older generations in warm and heartfelt ways.”

The Kuwaiti comedy legend Abdulhussein Abdulredha in 1982’s Bye Bye London. Netflix
The Kuwaiti comedy legend Abdulhussein Abdulredha in 1982’s Bye Bye London. Netflix

Netflix’s latest move also falls in line with regional trends. Over the last decade saw, nostalgia-based programming has emerged in both the Gulf and the wider Arab world.

In 2015, Dubai Media Group launched the Dubai Zaman Channel, home to plenty of classic dramas – such as 1993's Ze'ab Al Gabal and 1996's El Wated, as well as the 1974 cartoon Aqlat Asbah.

This Ramadan, the Saudi Broadcasting Authority also launched its own old-school channel, Thikriyat TV, which celebrates the kingdom's rich entertainment industry with landmark shows such as Tash Ma Tash and the much-loved game show Huroof.

They are joined by already established nostalgic channels such as Kuwait Al Qareen and Egypt’s Nile Drama.

More than the thrill of seeing established stars at their peak, Eltayeb says viewers are thirsty for this seasoned content because they were produced in a time in which the Arab world was stepping out of the shadows.

“The entertainment from this era is steeped in history, with countries having overcome colonial influences, and created independent works of art that gave Arabs a voice of their own,” she says. “This is a time that is etched in people’s memories, not only because of the entertainment it gave birth to, but because of the environment that inspired this entertainment. It is a reflection of society, culture, history and politics that gave Arabs their own unique voice and the opportunity to tell their stories in real, authentic, and relatable ways."

What makes an existing show ready for Netflix?

When it comes to Netflix trawling production archives for fresh content, it is also a chance to dispel some misconceptions surrounding the platform.

“We want people to understand that at Netflix, great entertainment is not just about exporting US content internationally,” Eltayeb says. “It’s about sharing stories from the world, with the world, and exposing people to content that they may not otherwise have a chance to see.”

But with thousands of productions already available, what makes previously aired series, such as the 2017 Lebanese crime drama Al Hayba and 2018's action thriller The Eagle of El-Se'eed, worthy to receive that new Netflix kiss of life? The answer lies in that marketing sweet spot between popularity and originality, Eltayeb says.

“When curating content for the region, we’re looking for stories that are local, authentic, and true to their purpose. We’re not tied to genres, dialects, or nationalities. We want to acquire content that is popular, that people desire, and that allows us to offer a truly diverse catalogue of content for all ages, cultures, moods, and sensibilities,” she says. “We want to acquire content that allows us to showcase local talent telling local stories that gives Arabs the opportunity to see themselves on screen and instilling local pride.”

Explore Arabic culture through the small screen

Whereas the aforementioned classic television channels broadcast to an Arab-only audience, Netflix’s global outlook means all its Arabic Nostalgia content will come ready with English subtitles.

That feature is an "art form" in itself, says Eltayeb. With many of the productions – particularly the Gulf humour of Bye Bye London and the Egyptian colloquialisms that abound Madrast Al-Mushaghebeen – full of quirky dialogue, translators worked over-time to ensure that no quick pun got lost in translation.

However, more than chuckles and belly laughs on offer, Eltayeb hopes her team’s role in shaping Netflix’s Arabic content can expand the minds of its global subscribers (167 million by the end of 2019) when it comes to their notions of the region.

“We know how important it is to have a slate that offers diversity and variety,” she says.

“It’s incredibly important for us to make sure our slate reflects the diverse cultures and experiences of our members. That is why we work to acquire content from the region that reflects people’s lives onscreen, and we are creating original content in partnership with Arabic storytellers to tell authentic stories.”