In Somalia, a first television series that challenges the Islamists

Badria Yahya Ahmed, 21, lead actress of the television series “Arday”, in Mogadishu, October 17, 2023.

Hibaaq, a Somali influencer, celebrates her million subscribers on the TikTok application. The teenager, pink hijab carefully tied around her head, coquettishly made-up and smartphone stuck to her hand, gathers her friends in a trendy café in Mogadishu. Under the flashes of the phones, the young people laugh and Hibaaq begins to cut a piece of the immense pink cake when a powerful explosion rings out and pulverizes the room.

The opening scene of the series Arday (“students”, in Somali) says a lot about everyday life in Somalia, the insecurity and the attacks which strike this nation of 17 million inhabitants, the majority of whom have been terrorized by Islamist extremists for two decades. However, the series by director Ahmed Farah, released in May, is intended to be an act of resistance to the challenges facing the country.

Currently composed of a season of ten episodes, it is the first series filmed entirely in Mogadishu despite the risks involved. The Somali capital has a sinister reputation as the most dangerous city in Africa, if not the world. The United Nations has documented 173 terrorist attacks over the past four months in Somalia.

“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have even dared to imagine filming in Mogadishu one day because of the constant threat. But today the city is developing, we feel a little better there, we no longer hesitate when it comes to sitting on the terrace of a café”ures Ahmed Farah, who emigrated to the Netherlands as a teenager after the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991, before returning to live in the region, between Kenya and his native country.

However, the terrorist violence carried out by Chabab, a Somali Islamist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is omnipresent, both in fiction and in reality. “One day, during filming, an attack took place a few blocks away. We had to stop until all the actors could call their loved ones and make sure everything was okay.”, remembers the director. In general, his team limited its travel and filming time outside to avoid exposing itself to reprisals from the Islamists.

“We are all traumatized”

Despite the obstacles, Arday is enjoying resounding success in this nation where three-quarters of the inhabitants are under 30 years old. Each episode averages 2 million views on YouTube, where the series can be seen for free. “She does not intend to show a dreamed Somalia, nor to be miserabilist, just to show a fair face of the country in which young people can recognize themselves”, says Ahmed Farah, who, as a former journalist, knows the images of famine and attacks that stick to Somalia. The director also wanted to give his first reference sitcom to a country where all the films broadcast on television come from Turkey or India.

As its title indicates, Arday intervenes in a high school in Mogadishu and reflects the daily life of a cl. There we find the panoply of American-inspired series: the scenes in front of the lockers where gossip is whispered, the first loves between high school students, the teenage crises with the parents at home. But not only that. “It’s as much a tool for entertainment as it is for raising awareness”, warns Badria Yahya Ahmed. At the age of 21, this student plays the role of Najma, one of the central characters of the series.

If Arday has caused a stir in Somalia, notably suffering violent criticism from imams in Mogadishu, is that it directly attacks the dysfunctions and taboos of this conservative society. Topics deemed politically incorrect by dignitaries Muslims are at the heart of the ten episodes of the series: forced marriages of young girls, ravages of , online blackmail, between students… “All these things that our parents’ generation turns a blind eye to”smiles Badria Yahya Ahmed, looking up to the sky.

In a somewhat fantasy school – the cl is not overcrowded, unlike the norm in Somalia, the decor is futuristic, the uniforms are colorful – the creators ofArday introduced an unconventional character: a psychologist whom high school students can consult if necessary. “Somalia is a nation traumatized by thirty years of war and attacks, where trauma is transferred from one generation to another but where we never talk about mental health”relates Ahmed Farah.


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Thus, in the first episode, after the attack which blows up the influencer Hibaaq’s party, one of the survivors of the attack consults the psychologist. “We hear explosions all the time, it’s normal, we’re used to it”, he said, listing the list of relatives who died in attacks, before collapsing. These dramas were experienced by all the actors in the series. For Badria Yahya Ahmed, this scene highlights an important subject: “It’s good, it shows that we shouldn’t be ashamed of being afraid. We are all traumatized. This attitude must stop! »

Renaissance of local cinema

For the forty young actors, all amateurs before filming, Arday also opens up opportunities in a country where the film industry is non-existent. “I was playing alone in my bathroom, but I never thought I would become an actress in a destroyed country like Somalia”, said, in his hoarse voice, Badria Yahya Ahmed. A student of international relations, she intended to become a diplomat but now receives offers from directors abroad and from advertisers.

Arday is also shaking up Somali television production, Ahmed Farah wants to believe: “We have brought a new requirement, a new quality. Local TV channels will hopefully start producing their own content rather than just recycling and subtitling Turkish and Indian sitcoms. » The 44-year-old man, who is coming out of a two-month shoot in the north of the country for his next film – again despite the risk of kidnapping – symbolizes this rebirth of local cinema. His first movie, Ayaanle, released in 2022, is the first Somali production to have been broadcast on the Netflix streaming platform.

Noé Hochet-Bodin(Mogadishu, special correspondent)

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