No Man’s Land, a gripping multicultural series on Hulu, is set mostly among a fierce female Kurdish militia known as the YPJ, fighting ISIS on the border between Syria and Turkey. Into this mess stumbles French man Antoine Habert (Félix Moati), who is looking for his estranged sister, Anna (Mélanie Thierry). She was an archeologist who was killed by a bomb in Cairo several years ago. Except Antoine thinks he saw her on current news footage about the conflict in Syria, so he rushes to the middle east to find her. Meanwhile, three longtime friends who grew up in the projects in London, Paul (Dean Ridge), Nasser (James Krishna Floyd) and Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed), arrive in Syria to join ISIS. But one of them has a secret that endangers all of them.
A Quick History Lesson
The YPJ in No Man’s Land is a real women’s protection unit that fights in Syria. They are mostly Kurdish women, although there are a few western volunteers, most famously Anna Campbell, a British YPJ fighter who died a few years ago in battle. It is particularly galling to Muslim men to be killed by a woman, because if they die by the hands of a woman, they can no longer be considered a martyr for Allah. YPJ started in 2013, and is an outgrowth of YPG, which is the Kurdish men’s brigade. YPJ fighters are known to be fierce, valuable soldiers who have been crucial both on the battlefield and in liberating women from arranged marriages, domestic abuse and sexual slavery.
Antoine is recently married to an airline pilot that he met after Anna’s death. When he sees news footage of a YPJ militia in Syria, he is sure that his sister is one of the fighters. His wife and grieving parents assure him that he’s wrong, but he feels certain, so he sneaks off to Syria to find Anna while his wife is on a flight. When he arrives in Turkey, he finds a shady guy to sneak him over the Syrian border so he can look for the YPJ. Instead, they find him. Turns out, shady guy was selling Antoine to ISIS. Luckily for him, the YPJ attacked. Unluckily for him, they assume he is ISIS and treat him as a prisoner. At this point, the audience has to wonder, “What in hell was he thinking? Was he just going to stroll into a civil war in the desert?”
Nasser, Paul and Iyad
Meanwhile, three young British men are hurtling down a desert road in a rickety ambulance, giddy with fright. They are headed to a village that is held by ISIS. The road into the village is monitored by the YPJ, however. Despite a leveling machine gun attack by the YPJ, the ambulance makes it into the village. Except it’s not carrying medical supplies. It’s carrying weapons. The three men, Nasser, Iyad and Paul are celebrated as heroes and welcomed into ISIS. In a flashback, we learn that the three men grew up together in the projects in London. Iyad and Nasser taught Paul the Koran, and he became a devout Muslim. Somewhere along the way, they got radicalized and headed to Syria. Naturally, their ISIS brigade is the one that Antoine’s YPJ brigade is fighting. One of the three is secretly working with Stanley (James Purefoy), a mysterious figure with ties to a large entity that pulls strings in the middle east.
Our Take on No Man’s Land
Fans of the blog know that I love a show that opens my eyes to a different reality than my own, and No Man’s Land hits the mark. I had no idea about the YPJ and their role in keeping ISIS from overtaking Syria. But I also like No Man’s Land because it starts with a few disparate threads of a story and unravels them slowly, until they all connect. Using a flashback structure, we see how each character arrived at their present situation, which makes the final episodes more powerful. The seemingly simple story of a man searching for his sister leads to the overarching idea that in war, there are no good answers, and our characters have to reckon with their actions, even if they were manipulated into taking them.
*Interesting note: The TV critic for Haaretz in Israel considers No Man’s Land to be fluff, especially compared to the creators’ other show Valley of Tears (HBO) about the Yom Kippur war. And there are probably American shows about which I feel the same. But for me, No Man’s Land is solid entertainment that introduced me to something, the YPJ, even if the representation was shallow.
Looking for more of the best in foreign TV? Don’t miss our other great reviews HERE!