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Pop Culture in the Arabian Peninsula: Societal Expressions, Commercial Issues and State Cooptations

Ma fi gerger ziyada: the South Asian Character in Gulf Cultural Productions

Ma fi gerger ziyada: le personnage issu du sous-continent indien dans les productions culturelles du Golfe
Frédéric Lagrange


Comment l’Autre subalterne non-citoyen est-il représenté dans les productions culturelles du Golfe ? Alors que les études sociologiques affirment que les États du Golfe ont défini un récit national centré sur une identité purement arabo-islamique excluant les héritages persan, africain et sud-asiatique, la manière dont les productions culturelles de la région abordent le clivage citoyen/non-citoyen, la hiérarchie local/étranger et remettent implicitement en question la construction de l'identité et la position des étrangers dans la région est plus nuancée. L'identité nationale et l'altérité sont davantage perçues comme un continuum que comme des catégories étanches. Ces “signaux contradictoires” envoyés par les productions culturelles de la région du Golfe sont analysés ici à travers leur représentation des relations historiques entre la péninsule Arabique et le sous-continent indien, et la manière dont la langue reflète la porosité. L'article examine enfin la corde raide sur laquelle marchent les productions culturelles entre la nécessité de "discipliner le moi golfique" et d'éradiquer le racisme à l'égard des ressortissants du sous-continent, et la tentation de "discipliner l'autre" afin de le rendre apte au type de modernité auquel aspirent les États et les sociétés du Golfe.

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  • 1 Emirati Arabic for “maid.”

1One of the most common and recognizable elements of Gulf contemporary pop culture is the trans-peninsular figure of the South Asian barber, car mechanic, baqāla owner, or, for its female counterpart, the Indian nanny or bishkāra.1 This group of characters is likely to be found in most Khaleeji cultural productions, from highbrow to lowbrow, as well as in the gray zones in between.

2My will to work on this instantly identifiable and common figure stemmed from a dissatisfaction with what I perceive as a relative blind spot in the current cultural anthropology of the region: the way the noncitizen subaltern other is portrayed in Gulf cultural productions, and more precisely, the Hindī male or female.

  • 2 Longva 2005, pp. 114-135. Also see Advani 2019: “The suppression and dehumanization of noncitizens (...)

3Since the turn of the century, sociological studies have shown how Gulf states defined a national identity and a national narrative centered on a purely Arab-Islamic identity, excluding the Persian, African and South Asian heritage, creating what Anh Nga Longva has coined as an ethnocracy.2 This suppression is a reality in many enactments of the national narrative. As signaled by Laurence Potter:

  • 3 Potter 2014, p. 8.

“The result of state-sponsored history, as presented in school textbooks and tourism brochures, as well as museum exhibits, is a skewed portrayal of the pre-oil Gulf, with a loss of the diversity and ambiguity that characterized it. Thus the Bedouin heritage is emphasized to the exclusion of other elements. For example, in the Dubai Museum, mannequins depicting shopkeepers in the suq are clearly Arab, whereas we know from eyewitnesses that in the 1950s in Dubai and Abu Dhabi they were mainly Indians and Persians. Museum exhibits and displays in most Gulf cities feature images of distinctly non-African individuals performing tasks that historically were performed by Africans.” 3

4In a later stage, Neha Vora and Natalie Koch challenged the kafāla/ethnocracy angle in the study of Gulf societies and advocated the need to:

  • 4 Vora & Koch 2015, pp. 540-552.

“move beyond the rigidity of exclusion-centred narratives about the Gulf and instead consider the various ways that Gulf nationalisms themselves hail the non-citizen presences, and how non-citizens participate in discourses and practices of nationalism […] in ways that cannot be reduced to nationality, class, race or religion.”4

  • 5 Baycar 2022.

5Although the phrase “Gulf nationalisms” is not assigned to a specific agent in the authors’ analysis, I understand it as covering a variety of actors that participate in the production of the local national narrative, from the state itself and state-sponsored initiatives to intellectuals, artists and entertainers, whether citizens or non-citizens. Very recently, Hamdullah Baycar, taking the UAE as a case study, expanded Vora and Koch’s approach, while focusing on the political level, and showed how exclusive vs. (more) inclusive approaches to national identity correspond to specific historical phases: he presents the top-down promotion of “unity through diversity,” tolerance and multiculturalism as a second phase following the “relatively successful development of an identity among its nationals” and answering geopolitical needs as well as internal agendas when some of the “privileged” citizens deplore the supposed dilution of identity.5

  • 6 The novel was translated into Arabic in 2015 and published by Kuwaiti publisher Maktabat fāq. The (...)
  • 7  Lenze 2019 and 2021.

6The South Asian subaltern’s experience in the Gulf region has been a source for various cultural productions in English or South Asian languages: fiction literature, with, for instance, Benyamin’s acclaimed novel Goat Days (2008), the story of Najeeb Muhammed, an Indian emigrant to Saudi Arabia forced to become a goat herder in the desert,6 or Deepak Unnikrishnan’s collection of short stories Temporary People (2017) set in Abu Dhabi, or online skits made by “non-resident Indians” in the Gulf (i.e., not living in India).7

  • 8  In their introduction to Arabian Humanities’ recent special issue on Gulf-Asia relations, the thre (...)

7But what appears to be missing is a study of the cultural productions of the region made by and for citizens that propose representations of the citizen/non-citizen divide, address the local/foreign hierarchy and implicitly question the construction of identity and the position of foreigners in the region, whether in a dramatic or comical mode. Mainstream media discourse usually manages to mix two oversimplifying analytical perspectives on Gulf cultural productions, one denouncing the suppression, invisibilization or mockery of the South Asian Other, consistent with the exclusive national narrative, while applauding any instance of supposedly positive inclusion of Indo-Pakistani characters or cultural elements in Khaleeji cultural products and hailing it as a long-awaited recognition of a diverse identity in the contemporary nations of the region.8

  • 9  Al-Musawi 2014.
  • 10  Hudson 2020. In his former article “Locating Emirati Filmmaking within Globalizing Media, 2017, H (...)
  • 11  Dakkak 2022.

8Exceptions are few: Muhsin al-Musawi,9 in his presentation of the historiographic value of the region’s fiction literature, devotes a small section of his chapter to the representation of foreign labor and instances of desire between foreigners and nationals. Dale Hudson examines how citizens are portrayed alongside other Arabs, Europeans and South Asian expatriates in Emirati cinema, whether in art-house productions or slapstick comedies.10 The closest work to what I am attempting to do is Nadeen Dakkak’s seminal essay11 on the comedic video representations of migrant workers in the Gulf, which carefully analyzes a group of humorous web series produced in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Dakkak argues that the figure of the migrant worker is usually associated with two kinds of images: the “worker as a threat,” a representation deriving from the exclusivist discourse on national identity — which I will exemplify in the third section — and the “worker as victim,” an image that paradoxically deprives these workers of agency, however generous the creators’ intentions may be.

9I will argue that cultural productions from the Gulf region do not necessarily conceive national identity and otherness as air-tight categories but as a continuum: there can be middle terms between the self and the other in cultural productions. I must, however, insist that the corpora analyzed here are all fictitious representations of reality. This paper does not aim at presenting a mitigated vision of the experience of subalternity lived on a daily basis by South Asians of various social backgrounds in the Gulf region. Rather, it aims at pinpointing the contradictions and ambiguities between the way South Asians are perceived and represented, and the conscience that Arab citizens of the Gulf region have of South Asians’ actual minoritized position in Gulf societies. Representation and reality entertain complex relationships, the study of which can benefit cultural anthropology. This article argues that the Hindī, an emic category lumping together Indians, Pakistani, Bengalis and Sri Lankans, non-Muslims as well as Muslims, is an example of “close otherness” in Gulf fiction representation, illustrating a median stance between the polar point of alienness and that of kindred.

  • 12  Al Hussein 2021.

10Obviously, other groups in the Gulf region can be concerned by this liminality, whether citizens or foreigners. Gulf citizens of African or Iranian descent also experience this “interpolar” position between insider and outsider. In her moving essay “Weaving the Khaleeji Fabric: Growing Up Ajami,”12 Mira Al Hussein points out that all citizens aren’t equal, and that even those who were lucky enough to be naturalized and obtain the precious Kuwaiti/Emirati/Qatari/Saudi passport can feel a bit afar from the nodal identitary pole culturally constructed by Gulf nations: “An unspoken hierarchy existed whereby the Bedouin Arab reigned supreme, while the rest of us languished in the purgatory of the ‘naturalized but never natural’ citizen.” As an Emirati woman of Persian roots, born in Dubai of parents born in the Trucial States and Oman, but whose origin could be betrayed by a single word, she concludes that:

  • 13 ibid. p. 84.

“Arab or not, Persian or not, a lingering truth defines our transnational Arab Gulf community: neither on this shore nor on the other fronting shore are we completely indigenous. We are in fact the ‘Gulf’, simultaneously separating the two shores and linking them through invisible threads of history and culture.”13

  • 14 Limbert 2014.

11But Iranian/Persian presence in Gulf cultural productions is much more discreet than that of South Asians. The reason for this, apart from the obvious political tensions between the Iranian regime and Gulf monarchies, might be that while an important number of Gulf citizens of Iranian origin “made it” into the national fabric and managed to blend in (however imperfectly, as suggested by Al Hussein), naturalized citizens of South Asian origin or mixed Arab-Indian origin, although present, remain more rare. The liminality of most South Asians is of the “outer-rim” sort, and it is the representation of this liminality that I am interested in exploring. Another “liminal” category in contemporary Oman would be citizens whose origins trace back to Zanzibar, whatever their ancestors’ status was there: Arab, Africans or Bayāsir (lower status Arabic-speaking immigrants from Oman).14

  • 15  See Thiollet 2016: ”Les États du Golfe ont initié dans les années 1990 une stratégie de réponse so (...)
  • 16 Vora 2013, p. 175, “In the United Arab Emirates, the category of citizen and the idea of the nation (...)
  • 17  Literally “reject, scrap of the sea. This slur is directed at Saudis of “foreign” origin. It is p (...)
  • 18  “Neighborhood” in East-Peninsular Arabic, used from Kuwait to Oman.

12As I alluded to above, the dominant trend in cultural anthropology of the Arabian Peninsula argues that since the 1970s, the Gulf States have initiated a strategy of cultural response to the massive presence of foreigners on their soil by defending and creating a contemporary Khaleeji identity solely based on Arabic and Islamic elements of turāth, often emphasizing the bedouin lore, thus building the nation on an invented/reinvented tradition that partly obscures other components of the national melting pot.15 The category of citizen and the national imagined community are therefore, as argued by Neha Vora, “produced precisely against the foreign resident bodies.”16 Prior to the 1970s and the oil era, some of those who are presently viewed as “foreign bodies” were already integrated into the national, or in certain cases, pre-national, fabric, whether originating from Iran and Sind, Africa, the Arabic-speaking world, India, etc. They were absorbed and became citizens, although the common infamous Saudi label ṭarsh baḥr17note that this slur is not used outside of the Kingdom — confirms that nationals are not a monolithic block and that ethnicity might play a role in local social hierarchies. Past the 1970s, the adoption of a strictly non-integrative model of economic development resulted in the way these new states dealt with outsourced workforces. This went parallel with a relative invisibilization of the non-Arab non-tribal element in the creation of the national narrative, making citizens complicit in this suppression. I say “relative” because published accounts of oral history frequently mention the exogenous elements and do not paint the frīj18 of yesteryear as a purely Arab Islamic universe; it does include the Irani baker and the bride from Mumbai, and even the local rabbi (in the controversial Kuwaiti TV series Umm Hārun [(2020]). Then again, the “foreign bodies” encountered in the region are quite often Arab-Islamic themselves. The definition of a Khaleeji identity is both linguistic (based on the local dialects of the region), tribal, and cultural, a set of common references in which a particular relationship with the Indian subcontinent ironically plays a part, to an extent unknown to other regions of the Arab world, in order to differentiate oneself from other Arabs. Surely, the main bulk of the “foreign bodies” encountered in the region originates from the subcontinent, but its otherness is partly blurred when speaking of the past, and much more visible when the present is dealt with.

13The messages and signs conveyed by cultural productions are certainly mixed and ambiguous: the South Asian character in films, TV dramas and internet memes can be an amusing harmless fellow or a menacing ill-tempered bachelor spitting out abuse in his faulty pidgin Arabic, flaunting his kafīl’s threats of canceling his visa, or dismissing complaints and objections with a harsh ma fi gerger ziyāda (“No need for chit chat”). But this threatening foreigner is also paradoxically recognized as “one of us,” from local pioneer television dramas to recent Ramadan fiction and internet skits.

14These “mixed signals” sent by the Gulf region’s cultural productions will be analyzed through three lenses: the first part of this paper will examine how historical relationships between the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent are pictured in cultural productions, between fears of a “great replacement” expressed ever since the mid-twentieth century, and a will to reconnect with the past that may include the desire to honor a debt vis-à-vis Indian culture and paying a tribute to a beloved legacy through the topos of “Gulfic indophilia.” The second part of this paper will deal with language. It will first examine the use of “survival Hindi/Urdu,” expected to be mastered by Gulf nationals in fiction, and its significance as a common feature of the Khaleeji identity. It will subsequently analyze the ambiguous habit in Gulf fiction of using a type of pidgin Arabic attributed to South Asian speakers. Whereas such a pidgin exists and is documented by sociolinguists, it becomes a convenient fictitious tool to characterize South Asians, far exceeding its natural domains of use. The last section of this paper will address the tightrope walked by many productions, between the need felt by contemporary authors to “discipline the Khaleeji self” and root out racism and abuse toward South Asians, and the temptation of “disciplining the other” so as to render him suitable for the type of modernity Gulf states and societies aspire to.

15A note on this paper’s methodology is required at this point: unlike Nadeen Dakkak’s cautious choice of dealing with a particular and coherent type of cultural production, i.e., comedic video skits on the internet, the documents examined here pertain to extremely different genres, from literature and nabaṭī poetry to TV serials, cartoons, songs and internet comedy. This drift netting technique is not intended to be exhaustive, and it has both its perks and disadvantages: a large array of artistic and/or commercial expressions can be observed and allowed to present a nuanced and at times contradictory survey of representations, for reality is contradictory and paradoxical. But these productions do not have comparable legitimacies, nor the same distribution in the cultural and media spheres, nor the same relationship with the state; some can be more or less independent, or can be directly or indirectly sponsored by the state, and therefore espouse or partly mirror its long-term goals in terms of identity building.

1. Reconnecting with the past: the debt and the legacy

  • 19  See Holes & Abu Atheera 2011, pp 115-6, Arabic text p. 206.

16The lament over the massive presence of the South Asian working force in the region, including racist overtones and the fear of what the French far-right has labeled “the great replacement,” has been a traditional discourse found both in pop culture and in highly acclaimed and legitimate lore such as nabaṭī poetry. Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Atheera mention that in the1970s, Sharjah poet ‘Abdallāh bin Dhībān (d. 2021)19 complained that in the old fish market:

Today, though lots of pushy guys

The sale of fish monopolize

Indian types, not Arab men

Salim, Sayf won’t come again

Muslim’s gone, his family too

‘Ubayd, Rashoud, The whole damn crew

I no more see a friendly soul

Who’ll sell me fish that’s fresh and whole

Bangladeshis everywhere

I’m furious, I want to swear.

  • 20  ‘Abdallāh 2013.

17In another piece, Yā mākhidh il-hindiyya (You Who Wed an Indian), the same poet complained about Emirati men marrying Indian girls, presumably during their trade trips in long stopovers in Mumbai, for their dowry is cheaper than the large sums demanded by Arab families — a theme also mentioned by ‘Abdallāh ‘Abd al-Raḥmān in his Finjān qahwa (Cup of Coffee) oral history trilogy.20 It must be noticed that the type of interethnic wedding mentioned here is the “traditional” Arab-Indian encounter, i.e., linked to maritime commerce between the Eastern coast of Arabia and the Western coast of India, with an Arab merchant marrying a Muslim Indian girl. This type of union is different from present-day Gulf citizens marrying South Asian partners.

  • 21  See Peterson 2014.

18Contemporary examples of similar xenophobia flirting with racism will be analyzed in the third section. But I would argue that such an opening gives a somewhat biased impression. A closer examination of cultural productions from the Gulf region, whether highbrow such as fiction literature and arthouse cinema, or pop media objects such as TV drama, internet satire or slapstick comedy, reveals a much more ambiguous relationship with the Indo-Pakistani Other. Unlike other foreigners, either Arab, European or South East Asian, who are also part of the daily life in Gulf societies, the South Asian character is at times conceived of as “one of us,” as a figure that cannot be dissociated from the original nodal identitary frīj. Even more so because citizens are acutely aware that their ancestors might have been linked to Sind or India, and that the subcontinent is their natural cultural neighbor on the eastern and southern side, as is the Arabic-speaking world on the western and northern sides of the Peninsula. As for citizens of Balush origin (al-Balūshī is a common family name in the region), they form a considerable part of the Omani population and have a special role in the army and the police force in most Eastern Peninsula states.21

  • 22 Holes 2006.

19Indian languages are present in the colloquial Arabic by Khaleejis itself, through loanwords. As underlined by Clive Holes:22

“Hindi/Urdu and, to a lesser extent, Punjabi and some South Indian languages have always been widely understood by sections of the population in all the Gulf States. Trade links with India have been strong for centuries if not millennia, and for a hundred years, until 1947, the whole area was governed by British India from Bombay. The doctors, nurses, minor civil servants, engineers, and teachers who came to the area from India to build its infrastructure also incidentally made Indian languages more widely understood. Gulf Arabs working in certain trades, such as jewelry making, have long been familiar with these languages because India is a main source of gold and precious gems, and many local businesses employed Indian craftsmen. Before the advent of modern education in the Gulf, it was normal for the comfortably well off to send their children to India to be educated, and until the 1970s, many Gulf residents would routinely go to India for the medical treatment until then unavailable in the Gulf […] As a consequence of these various types of long-standing contact, the Gulf Arabic dialects are permeated with Indian borrowings, especially in employment-related vocabulary and terms for domestic equipment, clothing, and cooking.”

20Until today, jūtī for shoes, sīda for straight ahead, ṣālūna for stew, alū for potato, etc. are still commonly used, although some words might be generational: alū vs baṭāṭā (potato) for instance.

21In order to analyze cultural productions dealing with the Indian subcontinent and with South Asian characters, I suggest that three points should be taken into account:

22(a) The relationship with India that cultural productions reflect — in particular but not exclusively with a mythified version of Mumbai — needs to be distinguished from that with the South Asian worker, male or female. In other words, India as a space is one thing, al-Hunūd as a generic label is another.

  • 23  See Onley 2014.

23(b) The influx of laborers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh from the 1970s onward changed the perception of the “Subcontinental Other” for the generations born after what the Saudis call the ṭafra, the economic boom. This is not to say that the South Asian workforce wasn’t present before; in addition to merchants, there were numerous workers in the region ever since the exploitation of oil began, especially in Saudi Arabia, 23but I suggest that the citizens’ perception of the South Asians changed, along with the social status of the majority of South Asians in the region.

24On the one hand, one finds the South Indian character as an Ibn al-ḥāra/Ibn al-frīj (son of the neighborhood) character; on the other hand, the sheer number of foreign workers is constructed by some cultural productions as a direct threat to the type of identity put forward by the Grand National Narrative spun by Gulf monarchies.

  • 24  Both collections of essays edited by Lawrence Potter tackle this issue, see Beeman 2008: “The Gulf (...)

25(c) The relationship with the Indian subcontinent and South Asian cultures and people is both idiosyncratic and collective, and deeply linked with a sea vs. land identity on the Arab side. In other words, India might not mean the same thing in Jeddah, Kuwait, Dubai, Sharjah, Muscat, Manama, Aden (all ports on the Indian Ocean or the Red Sea) on the one hand, and Riyāḍ, Al-ʿAyn, Nizwa (cities of the hinterland) on the other. Individuals and creatives coming from a port city and stemming from families that have had a connection to maritime traffic at some level might not perceive India and South Asians exactly in the same way, since they were part of a common identity separating them from the inlands.24

  • 25  Al-Nābulusī 2019.

26It is therefore quite expectable that the very indiophiliac novel Tamr wa-masālā (Dates and Spices),25 authored in 2019 by a Palestinian from the UAE, has as a main character a national from the port of Sharjah, a well-known point of contact between the Gulf and India. Māyid, the Emirati hero of the novel, is encouraged by a college teacher — an Emirati who reveals to him that his own grandmother was from Kerala —to follow his passion for Indian cuisine and become a cook after an initiatory journey to Kochi. India and the Gulf find harmony through cooking, and in this fantasy, the young Emirati man is ready to learn from Indian culture and come back to his homeland enriched by his itinerary and eager to work as a cook of Indian food, i.e., as a subaltern, since this occupation to this day is seldom practiced by male “locals,” except celebrities cooking traditional or modernized Arab food.

Celebrating the Arab Bombay

  • 26  Albedwawi 2017.
  • 27  Season 1 was aired in 2020, Season 2 in 2022, with a scenario authored by the young and successful (...)
  • 28 Episode 1, 22’24.

27Commerce with India and month-long halts in Mumbai are regular features of oral history accounts from the region, mentioning a stable Arab community in the Indian port consisting of Eastern Arabia merchants, from Jeddah to Kuwait and from the Trucial States to Oman. The Emirati historian Saif Albedwawi has investigated “Gulfic Bombay” in the first half of the 20th century, between merchants who were permanent residents in India (tujjār) and eventually blended into the local fabric, and ṭawāwīsh, pearl merchants who would travel back and forth.26 Contemporary Gulf fiction is only beginning to deal with “Indian Arabia” or “Arabian India.” No novel, to my knowledge, takes place in Mumbai’s Muhammad Ali Road, the heart of the “Arab quarter,” and the only ambitious fiction which documents traders from the Gulf and their lives in India is a Kuwaiti Ramadan TV series which actually takes this iconic food bazaar artery, Muḥammad ʿAlī Road,27 as its title. Although entirely shot in a studio in Kuwait, the Hollywood of the Gulf region, with no actual exterior scenes filmed in India, the series opposes poverty and deprivation in the Gulf with a life of sophistication and luxury in India, and depicts Arab families adopting Indian culture in food, music and clothing habits, while maintaining their Arab-Islamic identity through language and Islamic faith. Muhammad Ali Road follows two overlapping plots, one in Mumbai and one in Faylaka Island and Kuwait City in the 1940s, before the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent. Characters on the Mumbai side are shown as bilingual, speaking perfect Kuwaiti Arabic and remaining proud of their Kuwaiti origin, while speaking Hindi/Urdu more or less fluently. The main female character on the Mumbai side is Najlāʾ (played by Omani actress Buthayna al-Raʿīsī), the daughter of a ruined Arab merchant, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (Saʿd al-Fajr), who is eager to marry her off to Mūsā, the son of a commercial partner, in order to pay off his debts. Najlāʾ is unenthusiastic at the prospect of this marriage with this half-Kuwaiti, half-Indian boy who wants to take her to dull Karachi, while she has lived all her life in Mumbai. Najlāʾ and Mūsā both code-switch between Kuwaiti Arabic and Hindi when talking to each other, and Najlāʾ loves to recite poems in Urdu, while the groom’s mother speaks Indian pidgin Arabic (see infra) with Najlā’s aunt, who refuses to speak any Hindi in spite of her twenty years spent in India.28 Najlāʾis mistaken for an Indian lady by the young and dashing Kuwaiti hero Ḥusayn (Ḥusayn al-Mahdī) when he inadvertently hits her with the cart he is rolling on crowded Muhammad Ali Road, probably because the young lady’s head is not covered and because she is wearing a western dress, whereas all women in the 1940s Kuwaiti counterpart of the musalsal (TV series) wear a traditional ʿabāya.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Najla strolling in the streets of Mumbai on Muḥammad Ali Road (2020)

  • 29  Episode 4, 8’50 and forth.
  • 30  Episode 1, 23’00 and forth

28It is love at first sight between the two young people, and it appears obvious from the end of Episode 2 that Najlāʾ will sooner or later reconnect with her Arab background, leave Mūsā the half-Indian, and choose Ḥusayn the pure Arab. At her wedding party with Mūsā, during which she will flee with the help of Ḥusayn, she is wearing a traditional sari.29 Her aunt previously suggested that she wear an Arab darrāʿa (wedding gown) but Najlāʾ, who considers everything Indian more refined and suitable for her sophisticated appearance, argues that since her groom’s mother is Indian, she has no choice but to wear a sari.30

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Najla wearing an Indian sari at her wedding.

29However, in the thirtieth and final episode, when all the subplots involving greedy merchants and gold smuggling are resolved, Najlāʾ ultimately marries Ḥusayn in Kuwait City, where the whole family has returned. At this stage, our girl is naturally donning the beautiful darrāʿa that she wouldn’t consider at the beginning of the story, and the qawwālī singer of her aborted wedding night in Episode 4 has been replaced with traditional ṭaggāgāt (traditional female singers of the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq) and naʿʿāshāt, i.e., women waving their long hair in front of their face in the iconic Khaleeji way.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Najla reconciled with her Arab identity in the season's finale.

  • 31 Episode 4, 29’00.

30What India has to offer is partly summed up by the semiotic value of clothes in the story: the country under colonial rule is a gateway to cosmopolitanism and modernity, as well as a space allowing for an acceptable and limited exercise of self-empowerment, such as a girl’s right to freely choose her partner, wear Western clothes and ultimately to be herself, not “the merchant’s daughter or the merchant’s wide, but me, Najlāʾ.”31 But wearing a sari and preferring Hindi poems to the Arabic language to the point of blending in this foreign identity is a red line ascribed to a daughter of Kuwait, badly in need of learning her homeland’s culture and participating in the building of the nascent nation.

31Whereas Kuwaiti households in the show are reenacted to appear ocre and dusty and suggest deprivation, Mumbai households are colorful, luxurious palaces: Abd al-Wahhāb’s flowery interior garden even features a live peacock. Parallel to showing Mumbai as a cosmopolitan space, the show also paints it as an orientalist dream; the failed wedding party’s rites in Episode 4 might owe as much to Bollywood as to historical research on how families of Arab descent in late colonial India actually performed weddings. But beyond this interesting instance of “Oriental Orientalism,” Mumbai interiors of the 1940s also prophesize what Kuwaiti villas will look like years later, when the sons and daughters of the homeland will have learned enough abroad to aptly use the rent provided by oil to develop their country. It is remarkable that at the same time that the Kuwaiti TV drama industry celebrated the days when Gulf people found wealth and modernity in India, it also remembered when the first delegations of female students were sent to Cairo in the mid-1950s and Beirut in the mid-1960s to pursue higher education, before the foundation of Kuwait University in 1966: Dufʿat al-Qāhira (The Cairo Class, 2019) and Dufʿat Bayrūt (The Beirut Class, 2020) were huge Ramadan TV successes and appear to be settling a debt, through popular fiction, to the foreign roots of Khaleeji modernity (India, Egypt, the Levant) at a time when racism can be rampant in the region.

  • 32   op. cit.

32The merchant ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s final return to Kuwait with his household in the musalsal is in line with historical data: most of the Arab families established in India actually traveled back to the Gulf after the 1950s, according to Saif Albedwawi,32 who however mentions a Yemeni merchant, Muḥammad Bagash, whose sons are now Indian nationals and barely speak Arabic. An Emirati informant also told me that her grandfather still lives in Mumbai to that day and hardly ever visits the UAE.

Ibn al-Frīj al-Hindī

33When attempting to trace the presence of South Asian characters in Khaleeji audiovisual fiction, one cannot fail to notice that “historical drama,” i.e., more or less idealized representations of the early or mid-20th century pre-oil village community living in barasti dwellings, either coastal or in the hinterland, does not suppress the South Asian element. It does suppress other elements of reality, notably the colonial or imperial presence, since an interesting feature of Khaleeji fiction is to almost never conceive of the region’s societies as post-colonial, contrarily to Middle Eastern historical fictions in which the British or French presence is always mentioned and the national identity built through opposing and defeating the colonial oppressor — but since 1978 Ashḥafān, an Emirati TV comedy taking place in an undefined “before,” there always seems to be a jovial Indian or Pakistani character in the background, as “one of ours” or at least one of our traditional universe. Another example could be found in the Emirati serial Lil-asrār khuyūṭ (2009), taking place in the 1940s, with a homely Indian merchant explaining that the price of merchandise is rising because of pressure from the big bosses in India.33 In this sense, pop culture representations construct the Indo-Pakistani character as a sort of “Ibn al-Frīj al-Hindī” (Indian son of the neighborhood). This is one of the reasons that account for the Arabic language being used for communication with the South Asian character: while the Westerner or the Eastern Asian is not expected to understand Arabic — once again, we are speaking of representations vs. realities since Filipino nannies are addressed to in Arabic — the linguistic element allows the South Asian to be a liminal character, both an insider and an outsider, as we will see in section (2).

  • 34  The current emir of Sharjah (1939-), aside from his fifty-year-long reign, is also a historian and (...)

34One exception to the absence of a post-colonial perspective would be Khorfakkan [Khūrfakkān], a long-feature film produced in 2020 by the Sharjah Broadcasting Authority, sold to Netflix and also shown in theaters in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The screenplay, written by Syrian Ghassān Zakariyyā, is based on Sulṭān bin Muḥammad al-Qāsimī’s34 account of the 1507 invasion of Hormuz by Alfonso de Albuquerque and the resistance of this small coastal town situated on the eastern side of the UAE to the Portuguese invaders. The inhabitants of 16th-century Khōrfakkān are shown as a united homogeneous Arabic-speaking community (there are three soundtracks for the film: Modern Standard Arabic, Emirati dialect and English), wearing white or beige gowns and turbans reminiscent of the contemporary national dress (although not totally identical), and appearing to form an ethnically coherent group fighting the European invasion. At one point, a visiting Indian merchant, played by Emirati actor Manṣūr al-Fīlī, asserts:

— We consider ourselves of this country

— So are you!

Answers the local hero.35

35At a later stage, the Indian warns the hero :

  • 36  Around 21’30”

— We Indians have seen what these Portuguese do wherever they go. They show no mercy for young or old, and they have weapons we do not have. They will not quit the war path until they control every trade route between their country and India, and they care nothing for those in the middle. Look at their ship: can a small city like Khorfakkan stop an army like this?36

36Since the whole cast of the film is Emirati, including the Portuguese warriors, the fact that no South Asian actor is used for this short role is only moderately meaningful; it is arguably easier to find a South Asian supporting cast than Portuguese-speaking actors in contemporary Sharjah or Dubai, but the highly unusual points in this dialogue are (1) the implicit recognition of a Gulf identity encompassing the Indian element (a wealthy merchant, however, not a laborer) and (2) the shared destiny and the complicit understanding between peoples subjected to European imperialism or colonization that unites the two shores of the Gulf of Oman. Whether the Emir of Sharjah or the Syrian screenwriter chose to insert this short scene, it nevertheless reveals Sharjah's own specific tune in its relationship with the postcolonial West.

37But there is a significant difference affecting the Indo-Pakistani figure in audiovisual productions, whether the action takes place in the old times described by “historical” series or in present-time fiction. The wealthy merchant or the shopkeeper, slightly or significantly wealthier than the “Arab locals” before “rags” turned to “riches,”37 as the national narrative would have it, becomes a working class individual serving his wealthier patron in an urban environment or in a frīj that is about to become a suburb. This is the modern identity of South Asian characters that can be observed in comedies such as the famous Saudi series Ṭāsh mā ṭāsh,38 or Emirati ‘Ajīb Gharīb (2015),39 or on the drama side in Ali Mostafa’s City of Life (2009), with Basu, an Indian taxi driver in Dubai, attempting to rise above his condition by participating in a famous Bollywood actor look-alike contest.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

The South Asian shopkeeper in Dubai TV’s late 1970s series Ashḥafān.

2. From the Bollywood Fascination to Slapstick Pidgin Wala: the issue of language

  • 40  Bū Malḥa 2017, p. 202.

38Emirati historian Ibrāhim Bū Malḥa40 writes that Cinema al-Watan in Dubai was opened in 1953:

“The movie theater used to show many Indian and Egyptian movies, especially those with a Bedouin plot. A lot of young men were mesmerized by Indian films, and they learned Urdu by means of watching these movies. Indian actors became famous, and the youth would imitate their hairstyles and their dress. This cinema and the films they were showing contributed to educate the younger generations, to grant them access to art and culture. They understood a lot of what was happening in the Indian society or in the Egyptian society. It taught them history […] This cinema remained open until the early 1970s, when it was torn down and replaced by a new building.”

  • 41  It would be hard to classify this film between arthouse and slapstick comedy; a rather amateurish (...)

39Various Emirati films nostalgically portraying life in the 1960s to 1980s frīj allude to the fact that the present-day generation of Khaleeji creatives were breastfed with Egyptian and Indian pop culture. One scene from the Emirati film Frīj al-ṭayyibīn (The Good People’s Neighborhood, 2018)41 sums up this fact in seconds, with an old man switching back and forth on his television set between Adel Imam’s Shāhid mā shāfsh ḥāga (1976) to Amitabh Bachchan in Naseeb (1981). However, it is noteworthy that the one character in the film who is obsessed with Indian songs happens to be the village’s simpleton. This might be intended to signify that a local Khaleeji pop culture was coming to life at the very same time (late 1970s and early 1980s): the other young men in the frīj were already drifting away from Indian references and listening to Arabic songs from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, consuming new regional references.

40Bollywood culture appears as a common denominator for Khaleejis who grew up between the 1960s and 1980s. One of the UAE’s best known actors, Manṣūr al-Fīlī, (born in 1961), already mentioned supra, even played a small supporting role in the Indian blockbuster Dishoom (2016), thanks to his ability to speak correct Hindi. He explains his command of the language and love of contemporary Indian pop culture in a TV interview,42 stating that ever since he was a ten-year-old child, he followed Bollywood movies that he would watch at an open air Deira theater called Cinema al-Shaʿb, spending all his pocket money on films. His father worked as a supervisor at the Dubai Water Company, where all the workers were Indian or Pakistani and they also helped him perfect the language.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

Scene from Frīǧ al-ṭayyibīn: old man watching Egyptian comedy.

41In 2016, a Bahraini group of comedians led by Ahmad Sharīf, who has produced a number of amusing webseries,43 authored a parody of Bollywood action movies taking place in Manama among South Indian car washers, Nafar mū zēn (Bad Guy),44 with an all-Bahraini cast of actors speaking in South Indian Pidgin Arabic. All the clichés attributed to Indian commercial cinema — slow-motion fights with exaggerated sound effects, endless scenes of agony with fake blood, men discovering they are brothers from a tattoo, etc. – are cleverly inserted, in addition to a singing and dancing scene with voluntarily inane lyrics:

taʿālū semʿū intu same ikhwān

hāzā dunyā kullu nafar lāzem fī nūʾān [nūʿān]

fī nafar zēn, fī nafar mū zēn

khudū minni hāzī naṣīḥa

la la la la la la la

(sung imitating raga repertoire ascending and descending trill)

Come here, you are like brothers

in this world, there are two types of people

good guys and bad guys

take from me this advice, no no no no no...

42The skit ends with the dead hero rising from his pool of blood upon hearing that market inspectors are coming to check papers. Except for the narrator, all the protagonists are illegal workers afraid to be sent back to India. Aḥmad Sharīf obviously walks a thin line between homage, mockery and cultural appropriation. Bahrainis are clearly a dominant group appropriating cultural elements from the dominated South Asian one, and the action takes place in a social milieu constructed as subaltern and servicing the locals (i.e., Arab citizens): car washers. The dominant group’s power is reaffirmed in the final twist with the Indians fleeing from the police. And yet, however ambiguous, the show is intended to be a tribute to popular Bollywood movies that this whole generation of comedians have watched in their teens. Humor and political correctness are uneasy bedfellows. On the one hand, migrants are reduced to an unruly workforce, and on the other, the culture they represent is one of the mainstays of the regional imaginary.

43Fig. 6

Parody of Bollywood dancing scene in Nafar mū zēn (2016).

  • 45 Hindi and Urdu, although national languages of India and Pakistan respectively, can be considered a (...)

44The Emirati comedy Khallik Shanab (Man up, 2018) offers another instance of Bollywood fascination when Emirati actor ʿAmmār Raḥma crashes an Indian wedding in the northern emirate of Ras al-Kheima and inadvertently marries a millionaire’s daughter instead of the old geezer she was promised to, and then participates in an impromptu dance show in which he shows that he somehow masters the right moves, learned from the dozens of Bollywood movies he has watched as a child and teenager. Unlike the Bahraini show discussed above, this scene does not involve South Asian workers — who appear in other scenes in the movie, notably as angry shopkeepers after one of the heroes rummages their shop while drugged — but Indian bourgeoisie, allowing one of the actors to show his talent at speaking survival Urdu and establish communication with Hindi speakers.45 In this slapstick comedy, the Egyptian and Indian convention of inserting singing and dancing scenes that are somehow disconnected with the main plot is eagerly adopted. One here wonders whether the Bollywood dance scene in the movie is to be analyzed as a gag or as a cinematic device thought of as an enhancement of the film’s value. The song is certainly not original, unlike what would be the case in the two main referential cultures irrigating Khaleeji pop culture, but the audience certainly knows it and can enjoy the show à l’émirati.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Indian wedding scene in Khallīk Shanab (2018).

South Asian Pidgin Arabic as fictional convention

45South Asian Pidgin Arabic (SAPA) is a linguistic reality that has been described in various academic articles. But it is also used as a fictional “marking device,” allowing Khaleeji actors to impersonate South Indian characters, while playing on skin color and facial traits that enable some performers who are in the gray zone between Middle Eastern and South Indian features to slip from one identity to another through costume and language. In a hilarious scene from Telfaz11’s Khambala (Nonsense) series,46 a group of young Saudi men, unduly occupying an empty villa and watching action movies while eating popcorn, suddenly turn into Pakistani cleaners and workers and twist their tongues to speak SAPA when the realtor sends two clients interested in renting the place. If citizenship is produced against “foreign bodies,” it is also because foreign and local bodies can be at times highly resemblant, and as a consequence, the difference must be all the more signified. This is a point that is rapidly alluded to by Dakkak in her excellent analysis of Telfaz11 and Aḥmad Sharīf productions. South Asian bodies are “racialized through a process of differentiation that dehumanizes them,” and therefore, “when Saudi actors play the role of South Asian migrants, they challenge racial boundaries.”47 Indeed, some Saudi, Emirati or Bahraini actors can “pass as” South Asian, provided they modify hairstyle and dress codes. The constant game of “passing as” Arab <=> South Asian that is played on comedy shows, internet skits or films48 is arguably the opposite of male <=> female travesty in pop culture. While the latter usually aims at reinforcing codes of masculinity and femininity by ridiculing the crossover, the former game proves that bodies are not the dividing frontier between nationals and foreigners, Arabs and non-Arabs, citizens and non-citizens. The true frontier is language. This is perhaps why SAPA, as a buffer zone between Gulf Arabic and South Asian languages, is such a ubiquitous and dramatic device.

46Originally, SAPA is thus explained by linguist Clive Holes:

  • 49  There are numerous references in the field of sociolinguistics on SAPA, among which: Smart 1990, H (...)

“The presence of many immigrant laborers from the Indian subcontinent who work in an Arabic-speaking environment but know little or no Arabic has led to the formation of an Arabic pidgin in some of the Gulf States […]. This pidgin is typically used in market transactions, work environments, and other limited speech contexts […] and is remarkably uniform. Like all pidgins, it exhibits a total loss of inflectional morphology and a drastic reshaping of syntactic structures through the grammaticalization of lexemes. A non-Arabic (Hindi/Urdu) set of syntactic templates and word order seems to underlie it, with ‘frozen’ verbal, nominal, demonstrative, copular, and negative Arabic elements being slotted in.”49

47I might add that in spite of being indeed quite uniform, there are some nuances dictated by common adjectives or modifiers in a given region: a “very bad man” such as in the Bahraini show cited supra would be nafar marra mu kwayyes in Saudi Arabia vs. nafar wayed mu zēn in Kuwait; but this pidgin is however instantly recognizable as such in the whole Peninsular region.

48While SAPA is a real thing, I suggest that it is used in Khaleeji fiction outside of the “limited speech contexts” identified by linguists, and functions as either a comic device, as comedy can appear as a consequence of word deformation induced by non-Arabic pronunciation of certain phonemes, or a convention that immediately signals a fictitious character’s ethnic identity. Although many South Asians actually do not speak SAPA, because this linguistic device’s use is limited to a few professions where it is needed, or on the contrary, speak perfect Arabic with almost no foreign accent, while most communicate through English, South Asian characters always speak SAPA to express any subject in Khaleeji fiction. One wonders whether this linguistic cliché is not a direct inheritance of Egyptian cinema’s various linguistic clichés, from the Ṣaʿīdi (Upper-Egypt) character to the Khawāga (Italian or Greek foreigner living in Egypt), since Egyptian slapstick comedy was the template followed by nascent Khaleeji audiovisual drama. As a consequence, Indian, Pakistani or Bengali nationals with a good command of Arabic are perceived as wonders of nature, such as Ahmad al-Kashekh (Classy/Elegant Ahmad), a young man from Kerala, imitating various Arabic dialects and getting two million views on YouTube.50

  • 51 See Ẓāfir 2018.

49A remarkable case of indiophilia and Bollywood fascination mixed with a puzzlingly generalized use of SAPA is Talal Maḥmūd’s comic and music play Bombay Wala (The Bombayite/Mumbaikar), performed for Eid al-Fitr of 2018 in Ajman (UAE).51

Fig. 8

Fig. 8

Poster of Bombay Wala.

  • 52 Dubai Ahly Theater, 03/03/2021.
  • 53  The play’s script was generously provided by M. Ṭalāl Maḥmūd. This is a scan of scene 2, p.23.

50Ṭalāl Maḥmūd, born in Sharjah, has been fascinated by India since his youth, as he explained in an interview I conducted with him.52 Like many boys of his generation, he was fed on Indian films shown on local television and developed a passion for Indian songs. As a teenager, when he asked his parents for money to buy his first video game, his father sent him to earn his money through hard work in a plastic factory owned by his uncle, and he became friends with a Pakistani and an Indian worker who both competed to teach him the words he needed in order to understand the lyrics of his favorite songs. Since that time, Ṭalāl Maḥmūd has been traveling to Mumbai on a regular basis, and while on a serious note, he has produced a short film on street children, Bombay Wala is a fantasy play that takes place in the touristic Colaba district of the Indian metropolis, in a fantasy time mixing the present and an Arab presence in the city that is reminiscent of the pearl trade era. In this comedy, Emirati Ḥamīd Adīdās comes to Mumbai accompanied by his uncle, searching for Nūr Jīhān, his cousin. Multiple subplots involve Emiratis coming to India for treatment, Arab tourists, evil plotters of both nationalities, love stories, and even an Egyptian fūl restaurant owner who has become so Indianized that he addresses his Arab customers in mock Urdu, a source of linguistic humor:53

Fig. 9

Fig. 9

Scan of the play’s original text, graciously lent by the author #1.

Ḥamīd : (Emirati Arabic) I am Ḥamīd Adidas

Niʿmāt : (Egyptian Arabic) Are you here for medical care or tourism or business ?

Shalabī : (EgA) Wait, don’t tell me… Tourism for sure.

Ḥamīd : (EmA) No I came with my uncle, we have things to do.

Shalabī : (EgA) Certainly treatment or commerce…

Ḥamīd : (EmA) No, you’ve seen my uncle, he just stepped out of the hotel.

Shalabī : (EgA) Your uncle is the one that was with Mukhtār, right ?

Ḥamīd : (EmA) No idea… Oh, right, Mukhtār. Where did they go ?

Shalabī : (EgA) I don’t know. What do you want to eat, Sir ? Hamara bas seb kaj !

Ḥamīd : (EmA) Who’s an ass, here ? (ḥimār/hamāra)

Niʿmāt: (EgA) It means we have everything here, but he’s saying it in Hindi. You know, five years ago we just came here as tourists, but thank God we succeeded and now we have this business and a home and everything…

  • 54  Scene 2, p. 19.

51In this very multilingual play, Emiratis speak Emirati Arabic, Egyptians Egyptian Arabic, Indians SAPA, and everybody speaks some Urdu/Hindi, in addition to English. Such plurilingualism supposes the audience has (at least partly) the same linguistic proficiencies in order to get all the puns. In another scene, it is quite necessary that the Emirati audience understands “I love you” in Urdu/Hindi, or at least the word “piyar” (love) and the dummy-verb “kerta” (to do) in order to get the joke, written like this in the script:54

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

Scan of the play’s original text, graciously lent by the author #2.

Muftāḥ : (EmA) I’ve been waiting for you for ages, where have you been since this

morning, you haven’t opened your shop!

Shalabī : (EgA) We were finalizing the paperwork for my wife Niʿmāt, she wants to open a salon here.

Muftāḥ : Really?

Niʿmāt : (EgA) Yes Mr Muftāḥ, I will open a Beauty Center [in English] here. Bhot ajahi

Muftāḥ : (EmA) You’re still... [speaking Hindi to me]

Niʿmāt : (EgA) Why Sir, I speak Hindi fluently, look : “ham temsé piyar kertahé

Muftāḥ : (EmA) Shalabī, hold your wife, what’s that she’s telling me “piyar kertahé”?

Shalabī : [EgA) Woman, this is something you tell to no one but me ! That’s sweet talk, pay attention!

Niʿmāt : (EgA) I just wanted to show him my talents…

  • 55  My deepest thanks to Waleed Sardar and Muhammad Ahmad Babar in Abu Dhabi for their invaluable help (...)

52Unlike other parts of the play where Hindi/Urdu utterances are explained in the following lines, or can be passed over by the audience because they are unimportant for the plot, the expression “ham tamsé piyar kertahé” is both important and left unexplained. This “I love you,” actually broken Urdu although very understandable for a native speaker,55 is written in the script with Arabic letters but follows the phono-graphematic rules of what would be recognizable for an Arabic speaker, without knowledge of the proper spelling in Urdu, for instance joining in as single word (تمسي) what are originally two separated words in Urdu:

[ہم تم سے پیار کرتا ہے] (instead of more correct form [میں تم سے پیار کرتا ہوں].

53It seems that Ṭalāl Maḥmūd’s bet on the audience’s proficiency in Hindi worked: the playwright confirmed to me that the Emirati audience did understand those basic sentences, and that his point was to use common idioms that every Khaleeji (supposedly) knows. The audience, he added, particularly laughed at Egyptians speaking Hindi/Urdu. There might be a generational factor to take into account, though; one Emirati informant reported to me a conversation she had with her grandmother, when she marveled at the fact she could speak “Indian”: titkallimūn ingilīzī, naḥin nitkallim hindī, said the old lady (You guys speak English, we speak Hindi).

54Understanding some elements of Indian languages and of course understanding SAPA is seen as a typically Khaleeji ability, as pictured in a scene from the film From A to B56 in which the Saudi protagonist, played by stand-up comedian Fahd al-Butayrī, is the only one in the group of three friends (one Lebanese, one Egyptian and one Saudi) who can understand the Pakistani body shop owner who rips them off by installing an ill-fitting windshield, while playing the Muslim solidarity card to convince them of his honesty, and closing the discussion with the famous mafi gerger ziyāda phrase.57

  • 58  Bizri 2018.

55I would, however, exert more caution than Fida Bizri, who argues that:58

“Arabic Foreigner Talk is further analysed [here] from the perspective of the linguistic strategies deployed by Arabs to exert power over the migrants: self-facilitating, excluding, and mocking strategies. However, from a tool of communication and/or exclusion, the pidgin is also becoming one of transgression used by both Arabs and the migrants to oppose their respective hegemonic cultures – that of the masters for the migrants, that of religion for the Arabs”

  • 59  Dakkak, 2022.

56and Dakkak’s contention that: “Simplified Arabic in language and concepts implies the intellectual incompetence of migrants, especially when they are addressed in an “infantilizing manner […].”59 SAPA is obviously used as a cheap comic tool in most productions, and this easy choice does not coincide with this pidgin’s actual domains of use in real life. It does indeed reinforce the linguistic divide between insiders and outsiders which, as I argue in the beginning of this article, is the real line separating the foreign from the local and assimilated. But then again, Levantines are portrayed as speaking Levantine Arabic and Egyptians as speaking Egyptian Arabic in cultural productions, even when living for decades in the region, which is both a reality and an easy characterization of fictitious figures, and in the case of Egyptians, it does come, like for SAPA, with a mix of mockery and homage. The fact that SAPA can also be used in (melo-)dramatic fiction to interrogate identity and citizenship, as I will examine below, may advocate for a more ambiguous status of this language in Gulf cultural productions.

3. Disciplining Oneself / Disciplining the Other

57Many Gulf region pop culture productions are acutely aware of the foreign workforce’s harsh living conditions, and of a xenophobic trend in society, and aim at unrooting it, using either humor or drama.

Satirizing xenophobia

58In one of its episodes, the Kuwaiti satirical web series Shenuya3ni pokes fun at ostentatious generosity during Ramadan as an easy way to atone for total disinterest towards foreigners for the rest of the year, with a sketch in which a national selects the first South Indian-looking person on the street and films himself on his mobile, offering him food (the character is actually played by a Kuwaiti actor on the show), and gets rewarded with the rice thrown at him and the South Asian character shouting: “I’m not poor.”60

  • 61  Masāmīr and other Saudi satirical shows are analyzed by El Alaoui, Alajlan & Pilotti 2020.
  • 62 I thank Khadija El Alaoui for signaling this source to me, as well as other sources from Saudi cart (...)

59The famous Saudi cartoon Masāmīr (nails)61 also denounces haughty and condescending attitudes towards the South Asian workforce. In the episode Muthaqqafjī (2012)62, when a disillusioned Saudi intellectual decides to slum with “the people” and repudiate intellectualism in a cheap cafeteria, his true nature shows and he can’t help but abuse both his local working class friend as well as the South Asian waiter:

Fig. 11

Fig. 11

Scene from Masāmīr episode Muthaqqafjī.

— [to his guest] Intellectual ! Reactionary ! Chauvinist [shūfīnī] !

— What’s wrong with me [shū fīnī]?

— Clean this, Indian guy [bū hannūd]. I’m better than you, look at me. I came here with my money, I am Saudi, do you wanna pick a fight you Yemeni?

— Indian, Indian…

— You Indian. Where Residence permit you [in SAPA]?

— You born after 9 month me born 9 month, you Saudi me Pakistani, no problem. You are rude

— Dirty Indian

60A spin-off from the Masāmīr series, Arwā wa-Laṭīfa, goes further in satire, showing how South Asian bodies are imported, used, tossed away and replaced.63 The two Riyāḍ empty-headed socialites who are the anti-heroes of the show turn a muscled-up Indian macho, who came from his homeland as a servant, into their slave. He is named Arjūn but they call him Za‘tar (Thyme), refusing to pronounce his name, in a manner reminiscent of Black eunuchs being decked out with a comical moniker in classic medieval sources. They make him their driver, and in a few months, he is almost turned into a corpse.

— We are sorry that you cannot stay with us any longer...

— What happened to you? When you arrived here, you were so strong!

61Significantly, Arwā and Laṭīfa will replace Arjūn with a robot. I would suggest that Arjūn’s oversized figure also alludes allegorically both to India’s size as a nation and to the South Asian workforce in the region, and the way Gulf societies manage through the kafāla system, to rein it in and absorb its menace.

Fig. 12

Fig. 12

Arjūn the bodybuilder in Arwā wa-Laṭīfa.

62The kafāla system in itself was the theme of the famous satirical rap piece Mā fī khōf min kafīl (I’m not afraid of the kafeel in SAPA),64 produced as part of its Al-Jisr series in 2015 by Telfaz11. This YouTube TV network was created by Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh [Faqīh].65 The skit begins with a Saudi kafīl abusing his Pakistani handyman, barging into his small room while the other is resting: “Do you think I made you come from Pakistan to read the newspaper or watch TV? Did you bring the groceries Madame told you about?” When alone, the rap (performed by a Saudi actor) begins:

كلو نفرات لازم يسمع كلام حقنا / انا شيل كل شي فوق

نفر سعودي زيادة عباطة / فكر انا خوف

كل حاجة انت سوي انا شوف / أنا مافي خوف من كفيل

مين سوي كل حاجة في سعودية / مين سوي بنا تحتية

مين شغل 100 100 / مين سوي كباري مين سوي مجاري؟

مين شيل زُبالة ؟ / مين شغل بِقالة ؟

كلو سعودي ناسي / مين شغل تكاسي؟

أنا مافي خوف كفيل

Everybody he need listen us / me bring everything up

Saudi man very stupid / Think me afraid?

Everything you doing me see / Me not afraid kafeel

Who do everything in Saudi? / Who do infrastructure?

Who work perfect / Who do bridge, who do sewage?

Who carry garbage? Who shopkeeper?

All Saudi forget/Who drive taxi

Me not afraid kafeel

Fig. 13

Fig. 13

Mā fī khōf min kafīl rap video (2015).

63This reminder of the foreign workforce’s centrality in building and serving the nation also illustrates the fact that when the subaltern’s voice cannot be heard because of fear, self-censorship or suppression, a voice coming from the dominant group takes its place to impersonate it. But to what extent is satire effective? The question remains open, when a quick reading of YouTube comments by viewers merely reveals a series of laughing emojis...

64If the self needs to be disciplined in order to adopt more humane standards in the way it deals with the foreign workforce, some audiovisual productions suggest that this workforce also needs to be disciplined and that local society is rightly entitled to protect itself from the working-class males who, when they occupy traditional neighborhoods, quickly turn them into slums. Other productions suggest that this uneducated workforce should be exposed to the light of modernistic values. In recent productions, xenophobic overtones, when heard, are usually linked to the figure of the “foreign bachelor,” constructed as a source of danger for the traditional neighborhood’s local identity and as a menace to women. Emirati cartoon Freej, in its 3rd season episode Mira Muhalla — “Our hood” in Urdu, a wink to the title of the series — expresses this fear at its peak.66

  • 67  There isn’t any branch of the Dubai police force actually labeled as such, but settling neighborho (...)

65Old Umm Khammās explains to her friends that their greedy neighbor, Umm Jamīl, rented her daughter’s house to bachelor workers and that she couldn’t sleep for the whole night because of people coming and going, people of all colors. They demand explanations from Umm Jamil, who should be concerned since she has a daughter, but she laughs off their fears since they’re all over seventy years of age and argues that she is not the only one; all local families who moved did the same: rent their properties to workers. The four friends feel menaced by these South Asian workers, and Umm Khammās tries her best sentences in Hindi before fleeing. Even the neighborhood’s traditional Pakistani baqāla owner is displeased with these new low-income inhabitants. Indiophobia and indiophilia seem to be inextricably intertwined: the South Asian local shopkeeper is a homely figure of the traditional frīj, as seen before. But for the South Asian to be considered an insider, he must be perceived as pertaining to a minority. When foreigners become overwhelming, the only solution suggested by the show is to get help from the Dubai Social Police.67 The police officers try to reason with Umm Jamil: in order to keep social order, houses cannot be rented to bachelors but to families, preferably of the same background (i.e., locals). The officer expresses himself with his administrative lingo, but outspoken Umm Saʿīd provides a frank translation:

— In good Arabic, if you keep on going like that, there will not remain in this frīj but Raju, Babu and Shankar.

Fig. 14

Fig. 14

Freej episode Mira Mohalla and the menacing South Asian workers.

66The UAE’s official institutions are extremely attentive to eliminate any traces of outspoken racism or xenophobia in public discourse: local newspapers regularly report the advancement of the construction of gigantic Hindu temples in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while the vlogger Ṭāriq al-Mihyās was arrested in 202068 after siding with Kuwaiti actress Ḥayāt al-Fahd’s anti-immigrants’ rant, and explaining that she meant South Asian as an excuse. Meanwhile, influencer Khālid al-ʿmirī, the “PR representative of the UAE’s shining face,”69 has a “How Indian is the UAE?” video70 saluting the Indians’ remarkable part in building the modern nation. But this does not mean that the tolerance ideology put forward by the State cannot sometimes come at odds with the “preservation of cultural identity” discourse.

67However, Umm ʿAllāwī remarks in this same scene I discussed that “the workers did nothing wrong”: ultimately, the responsibility for the disturbance is Umm Jamīl’s, since she allowed her greed to obscure her “national good sense.” We find a similar image of “environmental dilapidation” as a consequence of a local’s supposed moral failure in the opening sequence of the Qatari series Naʿam wa-lā (2007),71 written by acclaimed scenarist Widād al-Kawārī: the camera shows an unending line of Indians queuing in front of a posh villa and buying “karak tea” and “chapati” in plastic bags from a Qatari citizen. Strangely, the Qatari keeps making sure the police are not around. The viewer understands in the next scene that what he is selling to South Asian workers is actually homemade booze… Here again, bringing the foreign riff-raff into the neighborhood is a consequence of a citizen’s betrayal of the community’s values.

Bringing the lights of female empowerment

68Qalb al-ʿAdāla/Justice (2017), an Emirati series of 18 episodes produced by Image Nation and bought by Netflix, offers rich content to examine the image of contemporary relationships with the Indo-Pakistani workforce, since the show takes place in 2017 Abu Dhabi. The image of South Asians here is necessarily different than what appears in fiction dwelling on the deep historical relationship with India, or using the friendly figure of the “Indian of the nodal frīj.” Indian characters appear twice in this judicial show: Episode 13, in which an Indian school bus driver is accused of raping a 12 year old Egyptian pupil and threatens a female Indian school employee to cover for him — she ultimately denounces him and he is rightly condemned — as well as a longer story which pans over the last three episodes of the series and also portrays the working-class South Asian male as a danger for all women, whether those of his own kind or Arab bodies.72

69In attorney Ḥasan’s (Manṣūr al-Fīlī) household, Fāṭima, his wife, tries to convince the Indian family of their beloved cook, Asha, to let her take a culinary course in Dubai, but with little success: they don’t seem convinced by the virtues of female autonomy that she advocates for. Ultimately, Asha’s brother and father will trespass on Ḥasan’s villa, where Asha sought refuge, with the intent of killing her. Fāṭima feels threatened and shoots them. Arrested and trialed (on the very next day, as unlikely as it may seem), the prosecutor rejects her claim of self-defense and accuses her of having such a strong feeling of entitlement that she would kill those people who did not share her views on what her employee should do with her life. Her attorney/husband defends her by arguing, in his closing statement, that Fāṭima has always considered the maid as her own daughter and that females are raised in this household to take their own decisions, whether regarding career or marriage. The Arab patriarch, in this scene, clearly renounces and disclaims patriarchy itself.

70Parallel to the “White Savior” discourse so common in Western cinema, we find here an instance of “Emirati Savior” syndrome. Emirati society portrays itself as helping its former reference of civilization, worldliness and openness, India, now pictured as less advanced in this topical marker of progress that is women’s empowerment. This empowerment is, however, linked to class: whereas Ḥasan’s daughter Faraḥ, played by Fāṭima al-Ṭā’ī, is a successful lawyer who studied in the USA and opens her own practice against her father’s initial advice, the housemaid in this indophiliac family will simply take cooking lessons in Dubai. Class relationships remain unquestioned.

  • 73  Black head scarf for females.

71But there are two layers of female emancipation to be observed here. The first is Faraḥ the lawyer, a role model for Emirati women watching the show. She occasionally encounters male chauvinism and clumsy attempts at enforcing patriarchal rule, but she easily overcomes these obstacles and proves the males wrong. The second layer is the Indian maid, who is faced with a coarser, unrefined version of patriarchal dominance. She can only overcome it with the help of the more advanced Gulfic model, not the Western one. The liberated Emirati female remains attached to her local identity markers: “Bring my shēla,73 orders Faraḥ’s sister to the other Indian maid, before meeting her fiancé. Naturally, one wonders to which extent this double layer is intended as a didactic device for the Khaleeji viewer; this referential India might be created by the writers as a mirror of Khaleeji society’s own patriarchy, and the South Asian Other could be interpreted as an image of the self that the viewer is invited to repudiate and disown. This reading gives a stronger meaning to the scene in which Fāṭima shoots Asha’s father and brother: allegorically, the Emirati woman kills the remnants of a perceived traditional oppression of female bodies in the name of honor that might have been or still are in parts of the regional history — suffice it to mentionʿAbdūh Khāl’s novels taking place in Saudi Arabia, from Tarmī bi-sharar to Fusūq.

Fig. 15

Fig. 15

The shooting scene in Qalb al-ʿAdāla (2017).

Samīra al-Wahībī as a Khaleeji-Indian bridge

  • 74  “Samīra al-Wahībī: Aftakhir bi-an takūn wālidatī min al-jinsiyya al-hindiyya, Al-Anbā’ (Kuwait), (...)

72This subplot of the Qalb al-ʿAdāla series is also an opportunity to examine the career of actress Samīra al-Wahībī, who plays the part of the maid Asha in this mini-series. This Omani actress presents herself as half-Indian. She recently declared in an interview that:74

73“My relationship with Hindi is related to the fact that my mother is Indian. My brothers and I are very proud of her, and she was the one who agreed or refused to let me impersonate Indian characters on screen. When I embodied Carona in [the Kuwaiti soap] Iqbāl yawma aqbalat, it was after her agreement, although all my brothers were against it. My mother, may her soul rest in peace, was a cultured woman. She told me: ‘Your brothers are not artists; they cannot understand this role. I know that my daughter can do what no other can.’”

74In addition to Omani and Emirati musalsalāt, al-Wahībī frequently acts in Kuwaiti soap operas. Some of her roles are of Khaleeji nationals but she has somehow specialized in the roles of Indian maids: she was the maid in the 2019 Emirati comedy Rashed wa-Ragab75 who admits trying on her boss’s posh dresses, she has a part in Muhammad Ali Road, which we already discussed, as well as in many other Kuwaiti soaps, such as Iqbāl yawm aqbalat (2017), with a didactic take on the way to treat household personnel in a scene in which the main character, Iqbāl (Hudā Ḥusayn) reprimands her daughter Ḥiṣṣa and calls her a racist for hitting the maid Carona.76

حصة: قوة عينج، قليلة الحيا 

إقبال : حصة! انتي شلون تمدين ايدينج عليها؟ أحنا من أُمّتىَ كان الطق اسلوبنا؟  

بنت إقبال: [ساخرة] إي صح… 

إقبال : ما أعتقد إن كَرونا تستاهل الطق. ما وصلت مرحلة من الوقاحة إن احنا نمدّ إيدينّا عليها

حصة: شنو ما تستاهل؟ لا تشيخينها علينا ترى اقصاها خدامة

إقبال: بسكم عنصرية! بسكم عنصرية خلاص! ما اختارت هذي المره اتّغرب ولا انتو تعبتوا علشان تلقون اللي يخدمكم؟ بعدين هذي أرزاق قسمها رب العالمين علينّا 

حصة: يمه هذي خدّامة يعني ياية هني علشان راحتنا ! رديها ديرتها وانا اييبلج الف وحده احسن منها. 

إقبال: سكتَي ! باچر تشوفين عيالچ ينذلّون عشان لقمة عيشهم سكتَي أحسن لچ! بعدين هذي أحسن منكم مليون مرة، أحسن منكم بأخلاقها…

Ḥiṣṣa: How insolent! Be respectful!

Iqbāl: How dare you lay your hand on her? Since when is hitting part of our habits?

Iqbāl’s daughter: Yeah, sure…

Iqbāl: I don’t think Carona deserves to be hit! She has never been cheeky to the point that we would lay a hand on her

Ḥiṣṣa: What do you mean she does not deserve? Don’t make her feel superior to us, she can’t rise up to being more than a mere servant

Iqbal: Enough racism, she hasn’t chosen to emigrate, and did you ever work so that you would get someone to serve you? This is destiny that God chooses for us…

Ḥiṣṣa: Mother, she’s a servant, she’s here to ease our lives. Send her back to her country, I’ll get you a thousand better than her!

Iqbāl: Shut up! Tomorrow you’ll see your own children forced to humiliate themselves for bread, just shut up! She’s worth a million of you, she has true morals!

75The presence of Samīra al-Wahībī on the Khaleeji TV fiction market and her success in secondary roles account for her parts progressively growing and may be one of the reasons why Kuwaiti popular television seems to open up to the discussion of racial issues in Gulf societies. Such sensitive issues find an echo outside this small nation’s borders, considering Kuwait’s pivotal position in Gulf dramas. The hardship lived by Gulf nationals of dual origin, men and women, has been addressed by Kuwaiti novelist Saʿūd al-Ṣan‘ūsī in his acclaimed novel Sāq al-Bambū (2012), in which the main character is the son of a Kuwaiti man and a Filipino maid. This same novel was turned into a TV series. The hardship of being “half-Khaleeji” has been the subject of at least two Emirati short films.77 The 2019 Kuwaiti Ramadan series Anā ‘indī naṣṣ (I have a script) deals with the issue in a more melodramatic mode, suitable for the Ramadan drama codes.78 Samīra al-Wahībī plays the role of Madhuri, the Indian mother of a half-Indian half-Kuwaiti man. A former Christian, she converted to Islam and tried to blend in, but cannot erase the indelible stain of being the former maid of the patriarch for members of a traditional conservative Kuwaiti family.

Fig. 16

Fig. 16

Samīra al-Wahībī in Ana ʿindī naṣṣ (2019).

76The main character of this fiction is the wannabe writer Asmā’, who is estranged from her family and reconnects with the other black sheep of her clan, her half-brother Khālid. His mother Madhuri, although having become a Kuwaiti national, still (improbably) speaks heavily accented pidgin Arabic. She embarrasses her son when she insists on wearing a sari in the street under her ʿabāya, or at the ‘iyāda (medical center) where she picks a fight when she is (understandably) mistaken for a foreign resident by a cocky Egyptian doctor. The latter addresses her in pidgin Arabic and wants her to follow an administrative procedure that citizens are exempted from. She then insists she is a Kuwaiti, in her strong foreign accent.

77Although Asmā’, a misfit, welcomes Khālid’s mother with open arms and encourages her half-brother to embrace his dual heritage, she is brought to breaking point when Umm Khālid/Madhuri reveals to her that she was tortured by her husband, Asmā’s father, and that she was forbidden to be seen with him. Asmāʾ calls Madhuri a liar and refuses to believe that her own father was responsible for such barbaric mistreatment. When Madhuri asks her stepdaughter to say her name, Asmāʾ can only mutter “Umm Khālid”, refusing to utter the Indian name. When forced to pronounce “Madhuri” and asked what it means (pretty girl), Asmāʾ resorts to misplaced irony and retorts: “Maybe this name can be found in Mukhtār al-Ṣiḥāḥ or al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ” — an English equivalent of answering “Perhaps this name is found in Merriam-Webster’s or in the Concise Oxford?”. But Madhuri forces Asmāʾ to see by herself the remaining traces of burns she endured at the hands of the revered paternal figure. All will be pardoned at the end of the musalsal when, in the final episode, Khālid marries a Kuwaiti girl who is not ashamed of the boy’s dual descent, and Madhuri appears in a traditional Indian costume at her son’s wedding. Mother India and her Kuwaiti son are therefore reconciled beyond former grievances when everyone embraces their multiple origins. The show boldly suggests that this might be a possible template for contemporary Gulf societies.

  • 79  All factual elements in this section are taken from a personal interview with Mrs Samīra al-Wahībī (...)

78It could be argued that actress Samīra al-Waḥībī’s own history and family background summarizes the region’s ambivalent relation with the Indian subcontinent. According to her own narrative,79

“My father was an orphan who worked in maritime trade between Oman and India. It was at that time a source of pride, my father told me, for a man to marry an Indian. My father went to the local mosque, and the imam mentioned that in this district of Hyderabad, all inhabitants were Indians of Yemenite descent, originally from Hadramawt. He found him a girl aged fourteen, and they got married. My mother’s name is ʿAlyāʾ al-Sayyid ʿAbdallāh Bāḥamīd al-Ḥaḍramī. She had Indian nationality and mixed with girls of all religions and origins, Christians and Hindus, but at home they kept Arab habits […] When we had guests, we all spoke Arabic, but when we were alone, I called her “Baji.” This word means “elder sister” and this is what we would hear on vacation in India when her siblings referred to her. […] I was wary of playing the part of an Indian, would I be able to express myself as easily as in Arabic? And there was the criticism, it went as far as people telling me ‘Gabīlish! ʿēb!’ [Think of your tribe! Shame on you!], you are Omani, how can you play the part of a maid?’ But at the end of the day, we’re all humans.”

79An Omani actress whose mother was an Indian of supposedly Arab origin has thus become Khaleeji drama’s favorite “Indian face” and a mouthpiece for positive inclusion of South Asians, although she insists in her own narrative on her Ḥaḍramī and tribal descent. Al-Wahībī’s career and roles interrogate Arabness and identity in the region, and deconstruct the mythical ethnic purity of modern nation-states.


80Through comedy as well as melodrama, the Gulf region’s particular relationship with India and with South Asians is constantly replayed and reexamined. It is only one in a nexus of identitarian interrogations linked to class, race, identity and ethnicity. But what makes it particular, in comparison with Africa and Iran – two other sources of cultural, commercial and ethnic inputs – is that the Indian subcontinent has a dual image and referentiality for the Arabian Peninsula. On the one hand, India (understood as encompassing all the regions of the British Raj and not simply the post-1947 nation-state) is the old commercial partner and a revered cultural reference, both of refined taste, sublime architecture, beloved foods and pop culture entertainment; it is also the place where one used to be cured before hospitals were built in the Gulf, then it was the country that doctors came from; it is the land of wonders and riches, with the local Muslim community being an efficient interface between Arabness and Indianness; it is the nation of skilled engineers who participated in the building of the new nations on this side of the Arabian Sea. This prestigious aspect of the subcontinent explains the constant homage that Gulf cultural productions pay to this component of the region’s identity. Language is also a binding element: in addition to Indian languages’ influence on local dialects, if South Asian Pidgin Arabic can rightly be analyzed as a tool of domination and sometimes mockery, it is also a common denominator of the Arabian Peninsula’s relationship with Arabic and a bridge between linguistic communities.

81But on the other hand, the subcontinent is the region from which the cheap labor that populates the Peninsula originates, and even forms the main bulk of the population in its eastern coastal states. Khaleeji cultural productions therefore balance between a call to discipline the self by recognizing social and cultural debt, embracing diversity and recusing racism, and between the need to discipline this close other, perpetuating the image of the “dangerous classes” and unruly males that constitute a danger for the local helpless females and for the modern states’ newly constructed Arab identity. The “Khaleeji man’s burden” or rather “Khaleeji woman’s burden” is now the enlightenment of individuals coming from societies that some cultural productions (more or less sponsored by the state) paint as overly patriarchal and traditional, by showing the “correct” way of reconciling universal values of female empowerment with local identity and Islamic values. But one is left to wonder to what extent the occasional representation of the working-class Other as backward and reluctant to embrace the shining promises of globalized post-modernity is not a metaphor for the dark part of the Khaleeji self.


  • 80 “Ṣunnāʿ musalsal Jāyba l-īd : naṭraḥ muʿḍila bilā iṣṭifāf li-raʾy muʿayyan, wa-l-drāmā laysat tamṯī (...)

82At the time of submitting a final version of this article to Arabian Humanities (November 2023), Netflix began broadcasting a Saudi romantic comedy mini-series called Jāyba l-ʿīd (lit. “You’re bringing joy, a common Gulf region colloquialism that is always used sarcastically ; the platform’s English title is Crashing Eid). The show follows Razān, a divorced 35-year-old Saudi woman living in London with her daughter Lamār, who has just taken the bold step of proposing to her boyfriend Sameer, a handsome but overly shy upper-class British-Pakistani. While visiting her family in Jeddah during Ramadan for the first time in years, accompanied by her daughter (who, though raised in Britain, implausibly speaks perfect Hijazi Arabic), she plans to drop the bombshell of her plans to remarry with a non-Saudi. Aiming to surprise her and under the false impression that she has already obtained her parents’ approval, Sameer crashes the family reunion. He is at first mistaken by the father for a South Indian repairman, until Razān explains who this stranger really is. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that in the fourth and final episode, which unfolds during Eid day, Razān and Sameer finally win the hearts of the whole family, including the reluctant and conservative mother, and will happily get married in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Britain. Quite reminiscent of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and similarly neutralizing the racial issues with a reversal of the usual class hierarchy in Saudi Arabia between citizens and South Asians, this light comedic show takes the opposite tack of Kuwaiti novelist Saʿūd al-Sanʿūsī’s conclusion in Sāq al-Bāmbu (The Bamboo Stalk, 2012): whereas in Sanʿūsī’s novel the “imported element,” the Filipino-Kuwaiti boy, could only acknowledge in the end his personal failure to be accepted, and the impossibility of integrating into the local social fabric, screenwriter Nūra Abū Shūsha chooses a happy ending, unescapable in the romantic comedy genre. This Jeddah family turns out to be surprisingly liberal — the screenwriter admits in an interview that she would never be as bold as her character in her own family, that Razān’s family is hardly representative of the average Saudi household, and that some conservative viewers expressed their anger at this portrayal of the Saudi family.80 Nūra Abū Shūsha’s reformist intentions are obvious, as well as the producers’ (and the platform’s) aim of presenting an amicable face of Saudi society that serves the current national agenda of de-demonizing the Kingdom for international audiences and consumers (Riyadh was just announced as the host of the World Expo of 2030). Taming the racist self is only one of the many goals of this fiction which presents the cultural globalization of the Saudi family as a promising “work in progress. Other social and cultural issues are tackled in the show, such as wearing the ʿabāya vs. jeans, covering one’s hair with a head scarf or not, domestic violence, and child custody and visiting rights. The show’s villain (Razān’s ex-husband) is a conservative who wants to impose the hijab on his daughter, as well as a racist and a wife-beater to boot. The viewer is however left with the impression that the dice are somewhat loaded on the anti-racist front. Even if the action takes place in Jeddah (Hijazis are usually pictured as less fussy than Najdis when it comes to preserving Arab ethnic purity), the show’s educational intentions come up hard against cultural and class prejudices. One cannot fail to notice that the Saudi woman that the community agrees to give away is a divorcee. Secondly, this union to which consent is reluctantly given remains a misalliance, insofar as it can only be lived abroad. The strange couple formed by Razān and Sameer is nicely invited to return to Saudi Arabia for the next vacation, but we viewers, as well as the main character, perfectly know that their real place is in England.

83Finally, the family's Pakistani driver, for whom Sameer has tried to intercede in order to have his real name restored and his passport given to him (he bears the same name as the family’s son's, and therefore had to be renamed), accepts his condition as a subordinate without flinching, and his character remains without consistency nor personality. He and Sameer do not partake in the same universe and literally have nothing to say to each other: class precedes race. This is why a well-educated and promising British-Pakistani husband is certainly a better choice than a wife-beater, admits the mother at the end of the concluding episode. Incidentally, the scriptwriter explains that she had initially envisaged Razān’s fiancé as a white Englishman, before changing her mind to make the character a British-Pakistani, believing that this would be less offensive to the audience. The character's religion is obviously the first reason: Sameer is a Muslim. We don't see him practicing at all during the show, though. But after a century of Wahhabi proselytizing to the Muslim world and explaining that Islam is not simply a matter of belonging to a community, but an orthopraxy, Saudi cultural productions (or at least those recent ones that promote a liberal discourse) now take the opposite stand: it is here suggested that in order to be integrated in Saudi society, all that is needed is to wear the Muslim label from birth. But yet another reason may be suggested for the (relatively) greater acceptability of this union: the liminality of the hindī character, half insider and half outsider.

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1 Emirati Arabic for “maid.”

2 Longva 2005, pp. 114-135. Also see Advani 2019: “The suppression and dehumanization of noncitizens normalizes a set of practices that become the state’s standard way of operating on everyone, including citizens. By co-opting the citizen population into perpetrating and benefitting from discrimination, the state deflects challenges from citizens for rights for themselves.”

3 Potter 2014, p. 8.

4 Vora & Koch 2015, pp. 540-552.

5 Baycar 2022.

6 The novel was translated into Arabic in 2015 and published by Kuwaiti publisher Maktabat fāq. The Wikipedia article devoted to the novel claims it is forbidden in KSA and the UAE, but an internet search conducted in July 2023 shows it can be ordered from Jareer’s online site in KSA.

7  Lenze 2019 and 2021.

8  In their introduction to Arabian Humanities’ recent special issue on Gulf-Asia relations, the three editors also point out “mutual misconceptions at the same time rely on and produce dubious clichés,” see Alhasan, Pétriat, & Varrel 2023.

9  Al-Musawi 2014.

10  Hudson 2020. In his former article “Locating Emirati Filmmaking within Globalizing Media, 2017, Hudson appears overly uncritical of Emirati cinema’s representations of diversity: “Critical self-representation by Gulf filmmakers that question asala and cosmopolitanism, thus, is important both at home and abroad as a corrective to misrepresentations and erasures. By countering and ignoring foreign stereotypes, Emirati filmmaking contributes to the everyday practices of constructing and consolidating national identity, as well as ongoing contestations over national identity […].”

11  Dakkak 2022.

12  Al Hussein 2021.

13 ibid. p. 84.

14 Limbert 2014.

15  See Thiollet 2016: ”Les États du Golfe ont initié dans les années 1990 une stratégie de réponse sous forme de défense de l’identité khalījī ainsi que de certaines caractéristiques locales (politiques, culturelles, linguistiques et sociales) présentées comme des traditions et des éléments du patrimoine (turāth). Cette tentative idéologique et politique visait clairement à creuser les disparités entre ressortissants nationaux et étrangers; elle a été pratiquée dans plusieurs domaines (culture, éducation, politique du travail et politique migratoire), afin de bâtir la nation à partir d’une « tradition inventée.” Also see Carapico 2004, p. 23: “The GCC monarchies on the western edge of the Persian Gulf define themselves as a unique cultural subregion within the larger Arab and Islamic context. Their exceptionally strong cultural traditions are, according to the various official myths of the Gulf ’s dynasties, the values of the desert and of the Qu’ran, rendered icono- graphically in items such as the immaculate off-white dishdasha, stylized camel racing […]. Each GCC administration defines its own people and national character in special ways that verify the privileges conveyed via patrimonial lineage to ruling families and male citizens. So the people of the Gulf are the descendants of the Arabian founders of the modern Saudi and Kuwaiti and Emirati states, including sons and daughters who may be part Asian or African; but not the “immigrants” whose numbers would otherwise overwhelm the “indigenous” population.

16 Vora 2013, p. 175, “In the United Arab Emirates, the category of citizen and the idea of the nation as an imagined community are produced precisely against the foreign resident bodies.

17  Literally “reject, scrap of the sea. This slur is directed at Saudis of “foreign” origin. It is particularly used against inhabitants of the Hijaz by Najdi people. See for instance Al-Rasheed 2013, p. 187.

18  “Neighborhood” in East-Peninsular Arabic, used from Kuwait to Oman.

19  See Holes & Abu Atheera 2011, pp 115-6, Arabic text p. 206.

20  ‘Abdallāh 2013.

21  See Peterson 2014.

22 Holes 2006.

23  See Onley 2014.

24  Both collections of essays edited by Lawrence Potter tackle this issue, see Beeman 2008: “The Gulf community [...] is an “unimagined” community—a community in fact, but not in name and not in its social identification. The roots of its existence as a community are centuries old and are now so commonplace that few of the people of the region bother to think about it […] the denizens of the Gulf form a “Sprachbund,” an area of overlapping languages that mutually influence one another.” The second volume, op. cit. 2014, focuses on the ports of the region.

25  Al-Nābulusī 2019.

26  Albedwawi 2017.

27  Season 1 was aired in 2020, Season 2 in 2022, with a scenario authored by the young and successful writer Muḥammad Anwar Muḥammad, who authored other hit Ramadan TV dramas, such as Al-Dērfa (The Swing), 2019.

28 Episode 1, 22’24.

29  Episode 4, 8’50 and forth.

30  Episode 1, 23’00 and forth

31 Episode 4, 29’00.

32   op. cit.

33  Episode 28, see, 16’36”-18’00”.

34  The current emir of Sharjah (1939-), aside from his fifty-year-long reign, is also a historian and playwright.

35  English version available on Some limited information about the film is available on the database. Around 9’.

36  Around 21’30”

37  “From Rags to Riches, A Story of Abu Dhabi” is the title of a book by Mohammed Al Fahim (Muḥammad al-Fahīm), published 1995 (London, London Center for Arab Studies), of which a “student’s edition” in simplified English has been financed by the Emirates Foundation to be used in English class and taught to young citizens.

38  See for instance

39  See for instance episode Al-Binghālī,

40  Bū Malḥa 2017, p. 202.

41  It would be hard to classify this film between arthouse and slapstick comedy; a rather amateurish long feature, it is apparently aiming at the “local” (i.e. citizens) public and is available on Netflix in the Gulf region. The film features a puzzling scene in which two “local” young men of the village try attacking a South Asian worker passing by in order to steal his bike. The worker fights back and gives them a beating, leaving them on the ground before riding his bike and going away. The scene apparently comes from nowhere in the plot and has no follow-up, thus rendering any hypothetical allegorical meaning hard to decipher, beyond a childhood memory the director might have wanted to include in his work.

42  See, accessed August 2022.

43 Elements on Ahmad Sharīf and analysis of some of his skits in Dakkak 2022, who analyzes his 2016 “Get out of our lives” skit. Also see Corinne Stokes, “Performing Khaleejiness on Social Media: Authenticity, Hybridity, and Belonging” in this issue of Arabian Humanities.


45 Hindi and Urdu, although national languages of India and Pakistan respectively, can be considered as two dialects of the same language and are mutually understandable.

46  Episode Aʿzab (bachelor), 2016,

47  Dakkak 2022.

48  Also see 2016 Emirati comedy Ḍḥay fī Abū Ẓabī (Edhay in Abu Dhabi) with numerous SAPA scenes with an all-Emirati cast impersonating South Asian workers. But the Edhay movie series (In Dubai, in Thailand) actually satirizes the uneducated Bedouin from Fujairah, not the workers.

49  There are numerous references in the field of sociolinguistics on SAPA, among which: Smart 1990, Holes 2007, Al-Azraqi 2011, Holes 2011, Alghamdi 2014, Bizri 2018.

50 If the Emirati, Saudi Arabic imitations are actually good, and Syrian and Egyptian acceptable, some others are plain inaccurate.

51 See Ẓāfir 2018.

52 Dubai Ahly Theater, 03/03/2021.

53  The play’s script was generously provided by M. Ṭalāl Maḥmūd. This is a scan of scene 2, p.23.

54  Scene 2, p. 19.

55  My deepest thanks to Waleed Sardar and Muhammad Ahmad Babar in Abu Dhabi for their invaluable help in understanding and commenting utterances in Hindi/Urdu in all Khaleeji cultural productions analyzed in this article.

56  Directed by Ali F. Mostafa, 2014, screenplay by the renowned Egyptian writer Mohamed Hefzy (Muḥammad Ḥifẓī), assisted by Ashraf Hamdi and Ronnie Khalil.


58  Bizri 2018.

59  Dakkak, 2022.

60  Episode Ramaḍān ṭulayṭilī, accessed July 2023.

61  Masāmīr and other Saudi satirical shows are analyzed by El Alaoui, Alajlan & Pilotti 2020.

62 I thank Khadija El Alaoui for signaling this source to me, as well as other sources from Saudi cartoons. Episode available at, accessed July 2023.

63  Episode Zaʿtar,, accessed July 2023.

64, accessed July 2023. Also see on this rap song Dakkak 2022’s excellent analysis.

65  On this company, read Foley 2019, chapter 4 [Media companies and Filmmakers].

66  See episode Montage of significant extracts here.

67  There isn’t any branch of the Dubai police force actually labeled as such, but settling neighborhood issues is part of the services offered as “khidmāt muǧtamaʿiyya”/“community services, see

68  See, accessed July 2023.

69  Lagrange 2021.



72  Montage of scenes from final episode:

73  Black head scarf for females.

74  “Samīra al-Wahībī: Aftakhir bi-an takūn wālidatī min al-jinsiyya al-hindiyya, Al-Anbā’ (Kuwait), 11-05-2020, [سميرة-الوهيبي-أفتخر-بأن-تكون-والدتي-الجنسية-الهندية/]

75  Directed by Muhammad Saeed Harib, also producer of the cartoon Freej, discussed above. See Hudson 2020, who rightly notices in section 37 of his article that Maria the maid is not credited. I would however suggest that this is not an instance of invisibilization, since Samīra al-Wahībi is a famous actress in the region.

76, accessed July 2023.

77  Half Emirati (2012) by Amal Alagroobi [al-ʿAqrūbi], and Arasian (2017) by Aḥmad ‘Abdallāh al-Tunayjī .

78  Montage of significant scenes:

79  All factual elements in this section are taken from a personal interview with Mrs Samīra al-Wahībī, conducted via Zoom on 17 May 2021. Sentences here are reconstructed from the interview, in Arabic.

80 “Ṣunnāʿ musalsal Jāyba l-īd : naṭraḥ muʿḍila bilā iṣṭifāf li-raʾy muʿayyan, wa-l-drāmā laysat tamṯīl li-l-wāqiʿ al-muǧarrad (The producers of Crashing Eid: we present an issue without choosing our side, and TV drama is not a pure representation of reality), Esquire al-Saʿūdiyya, accessed 01/12/2023.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Najla strolling in the streets of Mumbai on Muḥammad Ali Road (2020)
Fichier image/jpeg, 315k
Titre Fig. 2
Légende Najla wearing an Indian sari at her wedding.
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Titre Fig. 3
Légende Najla reconciled with her Arab identity in the season's finale.
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Titre Fig. 4
Légende The South Asian shopkeeper in Dubai TV’s late 1970s series Ashḥafān.
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Titre Fig. 5
Légende Scene from Frīǧ al-ṭayyibīn: old man watching Egyptian comedy.
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Légende Parody of Bollywood dancing scene in Nafar mū zēn (2016).
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Titre Fig. 7
Légende Indian wedding scene in Khallīk Shanab (2018).
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Titre Fig. 8
Légende Poster of Bombay Wala.
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Titre Fig. 9
Légende Scan of the play’s original text, graciously lent by the author #1.
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Titre Fig. 10
Légende Scan of the play’s original text, graciously lent by the author #2.
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Titre Fig. 11
Légende Scene from Masāmīr episode Muthaqqafjī.
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Titre Fig. 12
Légende Arjūn the bodybuilder in Arwā wa-Laṭīfa.
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Titre Fig. 13
Légende Mā fī khōf min kafīl rap video (2015).
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Titre Fig. 14
Légende Freej episode Mira Mohalla and the menacing South Asian workers.
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Titre Fig. 15
Légende The shooting scene in Qalb al-ʿAdāla (2017).
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Titre Fig. 16
Légende Samīra al-Wahībī in Ana ʿindī naṣṣ (2019).
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Référence électronique

Frédéric Lagrange, « Ma fi gerger ziyada: the South Asian Character in Gulf Cultural Productions », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Frédéric Lagrange

Sorbonne Université / CERMOM

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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