To promote values of coexistence effectively, a drama production must reflect Yemen’s diversity as well as its everyday reality. That’s the preferred approach of writer and director Marwan Mafraq, 33. “A variety of dialects in a Yemeni drama series offers positive representation,” he said. “It places regional cultures in sharp focus.”
The Hero Inside Us
One such production that advances this philosophy is Batal Bi-Dakhilna, (The Hero Inside Us), a ten-part series featuring six characters who pursue various approaches to deal with conflicts in their personal lives–situations that reflect aspects of Yemen as a whole.
Filmed over eight months in Sana’a and Aden and written in several Yemeni dialects, The Hero Inside Us was released in May 2022 and is available online with English subtitles. Following each episode, a short clip titled “Beyond the Story” breaks down the dynamics of the conflicts depicted and explores ways to resolve them.
One of the cast members, Sarah al-Maghrabi, 26, is delighted that the series was well received.
“The feedback was extremely positive,” she said, underscoring her appreciation of the production team for respecting the audience’s sensibilities.
“Since the stories move between Sana’a and Aden, we were coached to speak both dialects accurately,” she added. “One family speaks two of them.”
Al-Maghrabi believes drama series such as The Hero Inside Us have the potential to strengthen community ties.
“Despite differences between regions, the culture is the same, and we share the same issues,” she said.
Marooned in More Ways Than One
Khalaf al-Shams, (Beyond the Sun), a drama series widely followed during Ramadan 2021, was filmed on an island in the Gulf of Aden and other locations in eastern Yemen.
The story revolves around a group of travelers who are stranded after pirates hijack their boat. The plot upholds reason and wisdom in problem-solving and taking risks.
“We resolved to bring together actors from different regions to convey a message to Yemeni society,” said Waleed al-Alafi, 39, the series director. “Regardless of the circumstances, we can live in peace, find common ground and overcome obstacles. This was a major challenge for us to overcome as well, but in the end, we made it.”
The variety of dialects in the series prompted Haifa Mohammed, 28, a project coordinator and media activist, to explore the cultures of these regions. “I was keen to understand the words, either through the context, or by asking my parents and friends about them,” she said.
Inclusion Comes up Short
Although Beyond the Sun was well received in Yemen, it misses the mark in two crucial aspects, according to Muhamasheen’s Voice, a public awareness platform that highlights discrimination issues in Yemen. Representatives say the series is flawed for equating blackness with evil in a society already heavily biased against Black people.
Director al-Alafi countered the criticism by saying Beyond the Sun is based on real events, transposed to a tragicomic format. “There are good and evil characters throughout the series, both white and black,” he explained.
But the series’ reliance on blackface, the offensive use of dark makeup to portray a Black person, is problematic. Rooted in racism and historically linked with the ridicule of Black people, the practice is widely condemned in much of the world.
Al-Alafi admits he was unaware of this before the release of the film.
“The makeup was not meant to offend anyone,” al-Alafi said. “I had never heard of blackface before.”
In future productions, al-Alafi vows to find Black actors to portray Black characters. “I denounce all forms of discrimination,” he added, “and I will not repeat what happened in Beyond the Sun.”
Al-Alafi is convinced that greater integration of actors in drama series is a more sound approach to upholding pluralism in Yemeni society.
“I have already started doing this and will keep going,” he said. “I want to support the Yemeni drama industry by training new actors of all backgrounds so they have a chance to take lead roles.”
Issues around racial discrimination have plagued Yemeni drama productions for many years. Cappuccino, a 2021 series, faced similar accusations, while the older and more established Your Worry is Mine has also been criticised as biased against Yemenis from rural or Bedouin settings.
While there’s a long way to go to improve this aspect of creative arts, the inclusion of Yemen’s diverse cultural backgrounds and dialects is a clear step in the right direction.
“The portrayal of everyday situations in a drama series that uses different dialects and environments puts us in others’ shoes,” said Mohammed Khaled, 40, a finance manager at a local association. “We end up sharing the characters’ feelings and part of their lives.”