By Sarah Osman
The spooky adventures in this Netflix/Egyptian-produced series are entertaining enough to deserve a second season.
When I first visited my Egyptian relatives in Cairo, my dad (Baba) launched (for the millionth time) into telling me the story of his ghost. For years, Baba has claimed a spirit has been following him around ever since he had lived in Southampton, England. According to Baba, the ghost has the bad habit of yanking the sheets off of him. (Perhaps the poltergeist has a chill?) Baba told this story to our cousin, who warily looked at him and asked if he was up for setting a trap to catch the ghost. He mimed catching it as though it were a bug.
As I watched Netflix’s Paranormal, the first original Egyptian show produced by the streaming service, I couldn’t help but think of Baba. The protagonist is far more neurotic than my father, but they are both equally awkward in large social settings.
The series is based on a popular book series by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, which was published in the early ’90s. Paranormal centers on Dr. Refaat Ismail (played by Ahmed Amin, usually cast in comedic roles), who finds himself unwittingly drawn into the world of ghosts, spirits, and angry (aren’t they always?) mummies. Ismail normally bases his decisions on all things science (another trait he shares with my aerospace engineer father). He has even come up with a list of empirical laws that help him make sense of his encounters with paranormal things that go bump in the night.
Revelations of Ismail’s story bounce between the ’40s and the late ’60s. When the series opens, it’s Ismail’s 40th birthday. His overbearing sister, Raeefa (Samma Ibrahim), has invited him to dinner with his family and his cousin/fiance, Huwaida (Aya Samaha). On his way to this impromptu gathering (that he doesn’t want to attend), he runs into his former colleague/love interest Maggie McKillop (Razane Jammal). Against his better judgement, he invites Maggie to dinner — much to his family’s chagrin. The will they/won’t they dynamic between Maggie and Isamil begins, as well as the instigation of an amusing love triangle between Ismail, Huwaida, and Maggie.
It turns out that Ismail, in the past, had his own otherworldly encounter with a young girl named Shiraz. Ismail and his siblings lived near a creepy mansion where they would often go to play. The poltergeist took a liking to Ismail. At one point, Shiraz led him to the railing of the mansion; he fell and, luckily, was caught by his older brother. Another member of Ismail’s extended family, his nephew Reda (Ahmad Dash), can also see Shiraz (and other ghosts).
Given all these encounters with spookiness, it should come as no surprise that Ismail becomes an impromptu ghost searcher when he grows older. The series’ setup is a bit like Supernatural. Each episode presents a ghost/paranormal mystery to solve, with Maggie often serving as Ismail’s partner in ghost hunting. This is a well-worn structure, but it works well enough for the series, a lockstep that is enlivened by the plot’s romantic entanglements. (Samaha is Paranormal‘s breakout star; she gives the sweet and naive Howaida spot-on dabs of convincing sincerity.)
Part of the fun generated by Paranormal comes from how it revels in its 1969 setting. The characters (Howaida in particular) wear some pretty groovy outfits (her dresses rival the get-up on the girls on Mad Men). Just as pleasing is how the series takes authenticity seriously, from a branded box of Nefertiti cigarettes to surrounding street signs.
As an Egyptian-American, I am familiar with Egypt’s postwar history, though many around the world will not be. I appreciated how Paranormal incorporates parts of Egypt’s past into the script (such as 1969’s Israeli air raids). The inspiration would seem to be (once again?) Mad Men and how that show provided a compelling perspective on American history. Paranormal plays it smart by keeping a balance: it should appeal to Egyptians who are familiar with the popular books, but also intrigue (and educate) international audiences.
As for the scary quotient, it is not that high. Those who want to be frightened will be disappointed. Paranormal focuses more on the eerie, thanks to macabre sets and a darker-than-usual color palette. There is also a great deal of dry humor, particularly from the pragmatic Ismail. Amin draws effectively on his comedy skills; his good doctor treats ghosts with a dismissive apathy that is unexpected for the protagonist of a paranormal series.
My Baba, an amateur ghost hunter, has yet to catch his poltergeist (it has, for the moment, “disappeared”), but Ismail is well on his way to becoming a bona fide expert at corralling spirits. His spooky adventures are entertaining enough to deserve a second season. And, if nothing else, this Egyptian/Netflix series offers an alternative view of the Middle East for a global viewership. They are ghost-busting there as well.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.