TV drama ‘Al Funduq’ stirs controversy in Iraq

“Al Funduq” has divided public opinion by addressing taboo issues such as human trafficking, prostitution and drugs in Iraq.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Iraqi TV drama star Mahmoud Abu al-Abbas, center, and actors prepare to perform their roles in "The Hotel, at a filming location in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)
Iraqi TV drama star Mahmoud Abu al-Abbas, center, and actors prepare to perform their roles in "The Hotel, at a filming location in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)

BAGHDAD - The first domestically developed Iraqi TV drama in seven years has divided Iraqi public opinion by addressing taboo topics such as human trafficking, prostitution and drugs in Iraq.

“Al Funduq” (“The Hotel”), a 20-episode series shown on Al Sharqiya satellite TV during Ramadan, was set in a Baghdad hotel in which characters experience adultery, drugs, homosexuality, begging, organ trade and even police corruption.

While some denounced the programme as unethical and too audacious for conservative Iraqi society, others said it depicted sordid veiled realities in the country.

The Iraqi Ministry of Culture and Cultural Heritage issued a statement accusing Al Sharqiya TV of damaging the values and traditions of society by exposing audiences to distorted scenes through the series. It called for banning the series and holding accountable those involved in the work.

The TV administration released an official apology promising to scrap “inappropriate scenes.”

“Al Funduq” screenwriter Hamed al-Maliki questioned the “unjustified reaction” and “unfounded” criticism.

“All that we did is to address the problems (in Iraq) in depth and without dodging,” Maliki said. “It is important to confront the situation through dramas that are close to reality. We cannot go on misleading the minds and feelings of viewers with works that do not really reflect what is happening around us.”

Maliki said: “The series could be shocking because it delved into prostitution and human trafficking, exposed drug dealers and gangs that kidnap children to send them begging on the streets.”

“It’s a current matter for Iraq,” he said. “It’s a message to the youth to beware of the trap of human trafficking and it’s a message to the Iraqi state to care for the innocent and the poor who are the victims of the trade.”

He said he had been threatened and had his Facebook page hacked to intimidate him.

In a tweet in defence of his work, Maliki said: “In ‘Al Funduq,’ I addressed nearly 20% of the decadence and rubbish in our deeply rooted Iraqi society. I promise you to address the remaining 80% of our shy and scared culture (in future works).”

Iraqi actress Awatef Naim described “Al Funduq” as a “qualitative leap” in Iraqi drama production. “The series exposed what has been hushed so far. It is one of the most important Ramadan dramas and the most daring in presenting Iraq’s realities responsibly,” she said.

“Drama production stopped for many years and most actors and actresses are living in forced unemployment,” Naim said. “The production of such a work as ‘Al Funduq’ plays a key role in raising awareness about social issues and helps rehabilitate Iraq’s social fabric.”

Jabbar Joudi, the head of Iraqi actors’ syndicate, praised the series, which, he said, “showed the high capacities of Iraqi actors and actresses as well as the quality of homegrown Iraqi drama, which has been totally absent for years.”

“The criticism ‘Al Funduq’ drew is unfounded. The problem is that we don’t have proper art critics and all the comments are made on social media, which is not the appropriate platform to evaluate artists’ works and performances,” Joudi said.

He said he was surprised by “the big fuss” that so-called audacious scenes caused, stressing that Iraqi viewers are exposed to foreign movies that include much more daring performances.

“The work of artists in Iraq is a risky business because of the power and control of political Islam. Political parties should not be allowed to stop the evolution of art and culture in the country but we need to join efforts in order to buttress Iraqi drama and actors,” Joudi said.

“Al Funduq” was the first Ramadan drama produced in Iraq since 2012 and it heralds a return of an essential TV genre to the country.

The star of the series, Mahmoud Abu Alabbas, returned to Iraq for the first time in 20 years for filming. He went into exile in 1997 after he performed a one-man play that focused on harassment by the country’s security services under Saddam Hussein’s rule. He has since been residing in the United Arab Emirates.

Although those criticising “Al Funduq” were the loudest, the number of followers during Ramadan was significant.

Lama Adel, a 28-year-old government employee, said the drama depicted, in many ways, happenings in Iraqi society.

“We should stop acting like ostriches by burying our heads in the sand and face reality with all its pros and cons. ‘Al Funduq’ exposed the corruption, dishonesty and lies of certain categories of people and these are facts that we are living every single day,” Adel said.