We were sitting in the living room, eating yesterday’s leftover pizza, and grinning like idiots.
“Oh my god,” my housemates kept saying to one another.
“I know!” I’d reply, scrambling forward to turn the volume up.
For the next few hours, we’d have that exact same exchange again and again in various pitches and tones while refusing to tear our eyes away from the TV screen. This show was like a magnet. Or maybe a mirror. We looked into the screen and found Sana Bakkoush, of the cult series Skam, one teenage protagonist for Muslim girls like us.
Skam, translated as “shame” in English, is a Norwegian series that focuses on the lives and issues of a group of teenagers attending the Hartvig Nissen School in Oslo. I started watching the show at my sister’s recommendation, intrigued to see just why she’d abandoned rewatching Gossip Girl for the third time. And within a few episodes, I knew the reason. My housemates knew, too. There is a humour, a gravity, an awareness of exactly how fucked up life can get for young people in Skam that feels familiar. It speaks the language of its audience without speaking down to them. Characters have Instagram accounts that function as though they belong to real people. Clips are intended to be uploaded at the same time of day as the events occurring in them. It all helps to provide an intimacy, an immersion in the story, that I’ve never really experienced with anything before.
Over Skam’s four-season run, it tackles issues ranging from loneliness, breakups, and social exclusion, to emerging sexuality, Islamophobia, and date rape. The series feels like facing the uninhibited sincerity of my teenage self – the melodrama, unraveling and coming together – before the self-consciousness took root. It feels like sitting down with a group of fictional friends and being told that all of that stuff, the difficult stuff, the formative stuff, was, and is, okay.
It was Sana Bakkoush, appearing onscreen, dark-lipped and smoky-eyed and all in black, who really convinced me of that. Played by Iman Meskini, Sana is a recurring character in the first, second, and third seasons, and the central character of the final fourth season. My housemates and I cheered at her entrance, at her visibly Muslim, take-me-or-leave-me, casual, complex glory. It’s unquestionable, watching her walk down the street with her girl gang, the beautiful fact of their friendship soundtracked by Peaches, Robyn, Young Thug, Lorde, that she is what we didn’t know we were waiting for. She is what we didn’t know we could have.
Sana speaks with certainty. She swats at microaggressions with a roll of her eyes and curt, silencing sentences. She goes to parties and rejects boys with all the coolness self-assurance can bring. She offers sage advice to her lovestruck friends. She isn’t very good at peeling carrots for her mother. Best of all, she is portrayed as more than her religious identity. Though it informs every aspect of her existence, what makes Sana so compelling to watch is the vulnerability she shows in trying not to let this side of her spill over or become politicised.
“Of course I’m a loser,” Sana says, rolling her eyes, early in the first season. “I’m a girl with faith in a faithless country.” I remember being impressed with that statement, and how much it encapsulated my own worries. How much my experiences aligned with this girl’s, from watching her display her loyalty – constantly jumping in to defend her friends Noora, Eva, Chris, and the naive, often incidentally offensive Vilde – to watching her organise parties and fundraisers and attend them, knowing full well that she would face a judgment none of her friends would. Sana spreads herself between two cultures, of Norway (her country and her friends) and of Morocco (her roots and her religion and her parents.) It felt like watching her dare to ask, like so many of us do, why she couldn’t be enough for both. The loneliness of that position, occasionally flickering into view on her face, silenced me and my housemates. In those moments, the girl on the screen shared our familiar exile, searching for a place to belong.
Sana’s struggle to find a room to pray in at a party – and her hurried exit as a couple barrel in to snog on the bed – is reminiscent of so many parties I’ve been to. It feels like a friend turning to me, a few years back, to ask if she’d ever get to see my “wild” side. If it exists.
Sana holding on to a bag of weed for a friend with no intention to smoke it feels like all the joints being lit in front of me at university, and me being passively referred to as “safe” to do this stuff around. “I judge no one,” Sana says before swiftly changing the subject in one of the later episodes.
Sana at her prayer mat, asking God to bless her friends, is a scene that is so familiar that it hurts. It’s the manifestation of words she says beforehand – how her faith outweighs everything else – that has her praying for the wellbeing of those who try to understand her, who probably don’t even know she prays for them.
I once read that being completely and utterly yourself in a world that is so unlike you is one of the bravest things any one of us can do. It was a text sent from a friend who’d caught me crying after a social one night at uni. We’d spoken about the difficulty of being the only hijabi in the room and how so often a simple look, a throwaway comment, was enough to have you fighting a fight you didn’t always want to be engaging in. I hadn’t thought about it for a while. But an episode of Skam brought it back to my mind in full force: Sana sits with her friend Isak, the pair facing forward on a park bench after a social media bust-up at school.
“Do you know how fucking tiring it is?” She turns to him. “To walk out the door every day knowing it’s another day where you have to prove to a whole country that you’re not oppressed?”
When I heard that sentence I couldn’t fight the smile that took over my face. Because it meant so much to have her say it, to translate her actions, her ice-cold exterior, her suffer-no-fools morals, and her huge, giving heart to a global audience and let everyone know what it was like to be like us. To have to turn an entire existence into a point that must be proved.
And though Sana’s mother frets, letting her know how easy things could be if she had more friends “like her”, Sana’s resilience, her want to be a part of the dominant narrative, feels revolutionary. For girls like me, watching her join in with Norwegian festivities despite the fear of policing by members of the Muslim community, and seeing her feel a particular type of not-alone-but-alone, surrounded by people who, despite everything, are different to her, transforms her into a teenage hero. She feels, I realised while hearing her voice her insecurities and wondering if she’ll ever be “Muslim enough”, “Norwegian enough”, “pretty enough”, “cool enough”, like me. And then my housemate said the same thing. And my sister had been saying it for a while. So had so many voices on the internet.
In her insistence on her own independence, her biting remarks, her hastily made mistakes, Sana Bakkoush became our Molly Ringwald: the girl to root for, because she was so refreshingly, so unforgettably, so wholeheartedly like us.●