Don't get your history from TV dramas

Ramadan series have become the latest vessels of political messaging, because of the huge audiences that tune in. Viewers looking for accuracy should refer to books.

Don't get your history from TV dramas

TV series, movies and plays are not accurate sources of historical knowledge. This is especially true in the Arab world, where political, religious, sectarian, and cultural factors inform drastically different views of history.

But this doesn't stop TV dramas from trying to push their version of the truth. Even more decent works striving for historical accuracy can deviate from the truth.

This can be intentional, to toe the ideological line of show producers—or unintentional to make the story more dramatic and attractive to viewers.

For example, HBO's mini-series Chernobyl, which tells the story of the Soviet-era nuclear reactor explosion of 1986, shows that dramas that go to great lengths to be accurate, winning the admiration of critics and audiences alike, resort to dramatisation for viewer engagement.

Actress Emily Watson plays a scientist, Ulana Khomyuk, who monitors the conditions of those infected with radiation and determines the true extent of the damage. It goes far beyond what the authorities have acknowledged.

Watson’s role is central to the story. But there was no such scientist as Ulana Khomyuk. The character was created to illustrate the real-life efforts of many scientists, researchers, and doctors who were concerned with the conditions of the injured and worked hard to prevent the spread of the effects of radiation among citizens. Through these efforts, they saved thousands of people

Even shows striving for historical accuracy can deviate from the truth, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Of course, it was impossible to insert dozens of characters into the dramatic context to depict the work of scientists who carried the burden of protecting people, treating patients, and revealing the massive dimensions of the leak.

Selective interpretation

Things get more complicated when dealing with multiple and contradictory sources. Selective interpretation is especially common in religious narratives.

Movies about Jesus often integrate elements from different Gospels, as no single text offers a comprehensive account of his life.

Similarly, productions exploring the early days of Islam, including the life of the Prophet Muhammad, his companions, and historical Islamic conquests, draw from a multitude of accounts.

In this case, the scriptwriter wields enormous influence over how the story is told based on his/her personal ideological or religious beliefs.

In historical fiction, such as the Vikings series, creative liberties often lead to anachronisms, where characters from disparate times and places interact in ways they could not have historically, even if they had existed.

Such artistic choices—including the portrayal of characters whose historical existence is debated—are not flaws in the storytelling but deliberate decisions.

Problems arise when historical narratives are shaped to serve political agendas, a practice that dates back to ancient times.

The creators are not trying to depict history accurately but trying to capture the essence of an era that profoundly shaped the histories of different European nations.

Pushing political agendas

Problems arise when historical narratives are shaped to serve political agendas—a practice that can traced back to ancient times, such as the pottery tablets of Mesopotamia and the murals of Egypt.

Ramadan series have become the latest vessels of political messaging, because of the huge audience that tunes in during the holy Muslim month.

The Assassins, which premiered this Ramadan, covers the spread of Ismailis across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt and the controversial decisions made by its cult leader, Hasan i-Sabbah, known as "Hassan the Pious," particularly his suspension of Islamic rituals.

Unfortunately, the storytelling reflects a shallow grasp of history. Therefore, those looking for historical accuracy should avoid TV shows and movies and refer to books.

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