What an astounding production! I didn’t expect to like this series about British recruits drawn to join IS in Syria, and I nearly didn’t watch it at all. Perhaps I thought it would be heavily propagandist, presenting the young Muslims as hate-filled fanatics, and foment yet more prejudice against Muslims in general, regardless of the fact that those who choose to go and fight (or stay and commit acts of terror) are an extremely small minority. Or that in contrast, it might serve to entice more young believers to leave their families and sacrifice their lives for a bitter cause.
But I was very soon drawn in to the lives and feelings of the two central characters – Jalal, played by Sam Otto, and Shakira, played by Ony Uhiara. Both were utterly plausible, as devout believers initially willing to accept the severe restrictions placed upon them and to comply with the attitudes of the regime they had gone to join, but becoming increasingly conflicted the more they were exposed to the horrors it perpetrated. As a viewer I was equally conflicted. While remaining horrified by the atrocities portrayed, I could still empathise with the young people attempting to reconcile these with their beliefs.
Jalal has come out in the footsteps of his brother, to find out more about his death as a martyr. Shakira is a doctor who has travelled to Syria with her 9-year-old son, Isaac. Unlike the other young women we see receiving ‘tuition’ about their future roles as wives to the jihadis, she is determined to work as a doctor. She also wants to keep her son uncontaminated by the vicious training he begins to receive in his new ‘school’. This is one point in the plot that had me inwardly protesting: “But you can see what’s going on. You’re an intelligent and educated woman. No matter how strong the ideals that brought you here and convinced you that this was also the place for your son, now that you know the truth, why don’t you take him away?” Although, of course, one realises that this would not be an easy matter to achieve…
I felt similar incomprehension about the gradual acclimatisation of Jalal, who despite his innate gentleness and sensitivity gets drawn further and further into complicity with acts of violence. But my resistance to aspects of the storyline in no way detracted from my appreciation of the acting, which was impeccable throughout. We could sense on Sam Otto’s tender face the growing conflict in Jalal, while Ony Uhiara, usually confined to a full veil, showed an extraordinary capacity to reveal all Shakira’s emotions through the eyes alone. As for Isaac, her son, the development of his character from sweet innocence to nascent brutality was brilliantly portrayed by Nana Agyeman-Bediako.
I found myself being constantly amazed at the amount of research that must have gone into the production: how could a non-jihadist acquire such apparent knowledge of the situation? I was equally impressed by the casting of all minor as well as major characters, by the understated depiction of the relationships between them; and by such details as the innovative treatment of language. Some of the Arabic dialogue was subtitled and some was left to become clear from the context, but a brilliant touch was that when parts of the English dialogue contained Arabic elements, particularly Islamic terms, these would instantly receive an unobtrusive onscreen explanation. So for example, “mahram” would appear in small white italics, closely followed by its English translation: “male guardian”. Or, “din / religion”. Thus we were effortlessly able to absorb key items of Arabic without interrupting the narrative.
Another delightful linguistic device (which may be in real use in such situations, for all I know!) was that one of the new British brides, who knew no words of Arabic, got her new husband, who knew no English, to repeat what he said into a mobile phone, and thus obtained an instant translation. Despite this language barrier, the forced nature of their union, and a colossal culture gap, the fondness they managed to establish for each other was utterly credible.
Touches such as these are indicative of Kosminsky’s ability to create in his audience an increased understanding of an alien system without condoning the violence that underlies it. If you haven’t seen The State, make sure to catch it on iPlayer.