DUBAI (Reuters) - When Karim arrives in Kuwait to pay his condolences over a brother-in-law’s death, his sister leans towards him and tells him tearfully in Farsi: “Here it’s not allowed to enter the quarters of grieving women.”
Unfamiliar with the customs of Kuwait, the grieving Karim departs to find the diwaniyya, or Gulf Arab salon where the men of the family are holding their own wake.
This opening scene from “Karimo” sets out the dramatic tension over national identity that runs throughout the TV serial. But it speaks to a reality that has complicated Gulf Arab policy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions: the region’s sizeable community of Iranians or Arabs with Iranian origins.
For some, the show’s brazen plunge into these questions — defying the official narrative in Kuwait that glorifies Bedouin tribes — has served an Iranian agenda at a time when smaller Gulf states traditionally aligned towards the United States ponder what a resurgent Iran could mean for the future.
Karim listens to Persian music; he struggles to pronounce Arabic words; Farsi dialogue comes with subtitles. Kuwait’s private al-Rai TV even advertised the show in Farsi and Arabic.
“This is a cultural invasion and imposition of Farsi on an Arab society,” wrote one user on the site of Kuwaiti daily al-Anba, reflecting the strong reactions of many. “I don’t think our society is so desperate that it has to resort to Farsi.”
Yet the fact is around 30 percent of Kuwaitis are thought to be Shi’ite Muslim — the sect of Islam in Iran that sets it apart from the Sunni Islam dominating in most Arab countries — and over half of them may have Iranian blood. Kuwait has many merchant families whose names betray their Persian past.
It is a similar story all the way down the Gulf coast, from Kuwait to Oman. Shi’ites are even a majority in Bahrain, viewed by Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi school of Islam — which views Shi’ism as heresy — as a virtual fifth column for Iran.
Also many Sunni Arabs who moved to Iran generations ago but returned in recent decades continue to mix Farsi words in their speech or speak with an accent. Some can still speak Farsi.
In other words, says Daifallah Zaid, who wrote the series, a large viewer base is ready for dramas that discuss different, or suppressed, facets of Gulf life today.
“It was the first Gulf work that bravely tried to turn the spotlight on this, when most drama is just the same,” said Zaid. “In Kuwait we have a lot of people who speak with this accent. The Iranian element is present in all the Gulf. It’s not just Iranian, it could be Iraqi or Indian too.”
He said it was part of a trend in Gulf drama, pointing to a serial on Abu Dhabi TV in 2007 called “Rihlat Shaga” (“A Journey of Hardship”) that focussed on the Bidoon, or “the without” — Arabs refused nationality by Gulf governments who slipped through the cracks of history when it came to state formation.
In “Karimo,” the protagonist struggles to find acceptance among his sister’s children, who are embarrassed over their Iranian relative. Played by well-known actor Dawoud Hussein, Karim wins them over. But with sibling rivalry running riot, the script makes his the voice that begs the brothers to make up.
“I wanted to do something different but that reflected the reality. People said it was political but it was a humanitarian drama,” Zaid said.
Sunni Arab governments in the Gulf are worried that Iran’s nuclear energy programme could transform the Shi’ite country of over 70 million into a nuclear weapons state.
How much Gulf populations share this fear is hard to gauge. For many, from a Sunni, Shi’ite or secular perspective, Israel — with its assumed nuclear arsenal — is more of a concern.
Governments, some of whom host U.S. military forces, have nevertheless been increasingly outspoken over their position.
In July Youssef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington, predicted protests and riots in the Gulf if the United States or Israel staged any military action against Tehran. But he preferred that to a nuclear Iran.
Hussein al-Qatari, a Kuwaiti viewer of mixed Arab-Iranian origin, said only some Kuwaitis, of Sunni tribal background, think of Iran as a major threat — the same ones outraged at a Kuwaiti soap in Farsi and Arabic beamed into their living rooms.
But he said there were no conflicted loyalties — just a more complex pattern of origins than many Kuwaitis allow for.
“Often we are accused of being affiliated to Iran, that we love Iran more than we love Kuwait, and it’s rubbish,” said the 24-year-old English literature graduate, a fan of the show.
“In my circle people don’t think of Iran as a threat — but a lot of people who are originally Persian do think Iran is backward in its policies and in the way they treat their own people,” he added.
The nuclear dispute has paralleled a rise in Iran’s regional influence since the 2003 war on Iraq brought the Shi’ite majority there to power and nationalist leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president in 2004.
Sunni-Shi’ite tension in Arab countries has followed. An outspoken Shi’ite preacher was stripped of his Kuwaiti nationality in September for comments insulting Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, a revered figure for Sunnis, intensifying the reaction among anti-Iran Kuwaitis over “Karimo.”
But Muhammad al-Zekri, a Bahraini anthropologist, said the controversy over the series illustrated how far official versions of national identity — set by and centred on ruling dynasties of tribal origin — no longer reflect the modern Gulf.
“There is this grand narrative that says we are Al Sabah (Kuwait’s ruling family) that emigrated from central Arabia and established the history that is modern Kuwait,” Zekri said.
“There is a new generation who don’t understand this past and it doesn’t make sense to them. The imagination of the past must allow for the here and now to find its room in the discourse, and that is where we are all going wrong.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton