El Principe, the hit Spanish television series about drug trafficking and jihadism in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, is fun to watch. It’s amusing to see the lead villain, Farouq the drug baron, speak Spanish with a Cuban accent, and then curse loudly in a Moroccan dialect, “Din dyemak!”
It’s hilarious to see how all the sympathetic characters have green eyes and spend a lot of time exchanging glances. It’s even fun to witness the musical orientalism: Every time a Muslim character appears, a wailing melody starts to play and a mosque appears in the background.
El Principe is a curious mix between a US terrorism series like “24” and a steamy Mexican or Brazilian telenovela. The series is entertaining, until one realises that this show is actually shaping public perceptions of Islam and Spain’s Muslims, and that the six million Spanish viewers who tune in every Tuesday night take the show quite seriously.
Viewers don’t see it as a comical, distorted depiction of North Africa, but as a reliable source of information on Islamic culture and Muslim family life. In reality, El Principe is evidence of just how backwards Spain’s discourse on diversity and immigration is.
Ceuta is a Spanish city on the northern coast of Africa, sharing a western border with Morocco. It was from here that Tarik ibn Ziyad launched his invasion of Visigoth Espana in 711. Ceuta was ruled by various Berber and Arab dynasties from the 8th century until it fell to the Portuguese in 1415. The enclave has belonged to Spain since January 1, 1688.
The population of Ceuta today is around 90,000, with Christians having a slim majority (estimated at 52 percent), and the Muslim population at just over 45 percent. El Principe, the Muslim neighbourhood on the city’s northeast hills boasts 12,000 people and is often described by Spanish media as “the most dangerous neighbourhood in Spain”, because of the violence, drug trafficking and more recently, religious extremism.
It is this troubled neighbourhood that forms the setting for TeleCinco’s hit series. There are several storylines. There is the rivalry between Farouq – the drug lord played by the green-eyed Cuban actor Ruben Cortada, and Anibal, his adversary.
Morey's romance with Fatima recycles the most vulgar, racist fantasies that white men have of Arab women.
There is the special agent Capitan Morey played by heart-throb Alex Gonzalez, who is sent by Madrid to investigate the shadowy world of El Principe. He ends up falling in love with Fatima – the sister of Farouq, played by the green-eyed Tunisian-Spanish actress Hiba Abouk.
In the first episode, Fatima tells the newly-arrived Morey the hard truth about life in Ceuta: “Here you’re either a Moor or a Christian, Moroccan or Spanish, but we can’t be both.”
If the aim of the series was to show that being Spanish and Muslim is not a contradiction, El Principe has not been successful.
The Muslim men are in effect cultural monsters. With his Armani suits and Caribbean accent, Farouk tries to portray a domineering Muslim patriarch – even ordering his sister Fatima to obey him instead of the police. This ultra-macho character, we find out, is actually sterile, yet instead of seeing a doctor, he blames his wife Leila for their infertility.
Vulgar, racist fantasies
It often seems that the clean-shaven Morey was sent to Spain’s North African colony not to investigate corruption, but to liberate its Muslim women from tradition and patriarchy; to show them that their freedom lies not in allegiance to family, but in loyalty to the Spanish state (ie the modernity that Morey represents). But, of course, Morey’s romance with Fatima recycles the most vulgar, racist fantasies that white men have of Arab women. In one episode, Fatima spends five long minutes disrobing for Capitan Morey, her veil falling to the floor in slow motion.
“The series is an embarrassment. It offers a superficial, stereotypical view of El Principe – it’s filmed in Madrid anyway,” says Rachid Hamidou, a lawyer and member of the newly formed Movimiento para la Dignidad y la Ciudadania, a political party seeking to empower Muslims in Ceuta.
“This neighbourhood has its problems – it is a ghetto … Ceuta is a very segregated city – very few buses come to El Principe from downtown. There is poverty and joblessness. It was only in 1986 that Muslims – who have been here for centuries – could apply for Spanish citizenship. Arabic is still not recognised as an official language,” Hamidou argues.
“The series doesn’t address any of these policy issues and makes it seem that the problems in El Principe are all because of our culture and religion – as always.”
Perched atop the hills of Ceuta, and with its mix of colourful pastel and brick buildings, El Principe is reminiscent of a Brazilian favela. The series is clearly influenced by popular Brazilian telenovelas like El Clon and Salve Jorge that address cultural encounters between Latin America and the Islamic world.
Yet, the Brazilian series – despite the veiled dancers and extended song routines – are actually well-researched and politically sympathetic to the people of the favelas and the Muslim world. Both groups are portrayed as victims of state violence and discrimination.
If only El Principe sought to protect Spanish Muslims from the stereotyping of global media.
The most insidious character in the Spanish series is Hakim, a Muslim Ceuti and a member of the local police force. He is a hyper-nationalist and insists on being called Joaquin: “Me llamo Joaquin – no Hakim – soy Espanol!” (My name is Joaquin, not Hakim. I am Spanish.)
Of course, this hyper-nationalist turns out to be a jihadist and a double agent. The message to Spanish viewers is clear: even your most patriotic Muslim neighbour might be a terrorist. This is irresponsible. El Principe is perpetuating injurious stereotypes of Spanish Muslims at a time when the PP government is passing draconian security laws targeting minorities in Spain.
“I think the most offensive part of El Principe is the repeated use of the term ‘moro’,” says Hamidou. “Every character uses it casually – the producers don’t seem to realise that the term is pejorative and insulting. In Ceuta, the term is not used. When Christians refer to us, they say Musulmano or Musulmana. The history of Muslims in Ceuta is rarely represented in Spanish media. There are streets named after colonial leaders like Enrique El Navegante – who killed thousands of us – but little about our contributions. And when a series finally talks about us, we’re moros and terroristas.”
The series shows alienation in the form of angry, pipe-wielding young men, but makes no effort to understand why youth may gravitate to gangs or religious extremism. There is no mention of Franco’s colonial policies, or the policies coming from Madrid, Washington and Rabat that produced this level of despair. Instead, like the labyrinthine streets of their neighbourhood, the residents of El Principe are mysterious, exotic and dangerously inscrutable.
Spain has a long history of “convivencia”, or peaceful coexistence. And it is very impressive that, in all of Western Europe, Spain and Portugal are the only countries that do not have far-right, anti-immigrant movements. Let’s hope it stays that way – and that this silly television series doesn’t stir up xenophobic sentiment.
Yasmina Aidi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages at Princeton University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.