As part of the Edinburgh fest-a-thon, Sarah Irving attended Maisah Sobahi’s “Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia”:

Theatre in Saudi Arabia has struggled as an art form, as opposed to more “private” literary occupations, such as novel-writing.  Since 2009, there has been a slow growth in Saudi theatre, but as Dr Mona F Hashish noted on Brian Whitaker’s blog in 2011, “Since there is no theatre institute in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi theatre counts on Saudi amateurs and professionals who have studied theatre abroad.”

Although al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that Jeddah theatre artists “ruled out” calling for a Saudi “theatre spring,” the Saudi Gazette noted Sobahi’s participation in the Edinburgh Fringe as a break-through for Saudi theatre; it certainly was much-covered in UK press. Irving reviewed the show: 

By Sarah Irving

head_over_heelsHead Over Heels in Saudi Arabia is a one-woman show by Maisah Sobahi, in her day-job a lecturer at a university in Jeddah and now the first ever Saudi performer at the Edinburgh Fringe. It depicts various characters – including Maisah herself – caught up in the merry-go-round of marriage, divorce and ‘misyar’ marriage – private, often secret marriage agreements which allow Saudi men to take second wives without the first one knowing, and avoiding the potential financial liabilities involved in taking on a whole new family. Sometimes the situation can be exploitative, at others it may suit the needs of the different parties. Pretty much like all marriages.

Sobahi is obviously talented, delivering her lines in a fast-paced, snappy way and with elegant, expressive hand movements and facial expressions that allow her to ‘change’ character with only the addition of a different-coloured headscarf or adoption of some new vocal mannerisms. The material is mainly interesting, challenging some stereotypes of Saudis, probably adding to the knowledge of most audience members, whilst confronting gender issues. Sometimes things get a little weird – especially when Sobahi delivers a rendition of Phil Collins’ monstrous hit ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, complete with audience participation – but in general she has the charisma and verve to pull it off.

But…

But, firstly, the show badly needs cutting. Some of the monologues are simply too long and wander off on tangents.

And, more seriously… there is a bizarre diversion onto the subject of the drivers that many Saudi women use because they aren’t allowed to drive themselves. This unnecessary section veers very close to out-and-out racism, recounting how many Saudis call their drivers by new names because they can’t pronounce their real ones. This is expressed by an anecdote about the personal hygiene – or lack thereof – of a driver who has just been fired by – is it a character in the show? Or Sobahi herself? It’s unclear, unpleasantly so. Given the way in which foreign workers, especially those from India and Bangladesh, are famously mistreated in Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, and especially given the fact that the driver’s real name which Sobahi can’t pronounce sounds suspiciously like an Indian one, this really is not good.

A section about phoning the hapless driver at 3am to send him out for chocolate bars and a Pepsi adds a distasteful class element, too, compounded by Sobahi’s easy, and repeated, statements that ‘we’ve all done this’. Really? Who is the ‘we’ in that sentence? There is a kind of chick-lit, girly complicity about the way this is said that is profoundly disquieting and trivialising.

If it were part of the comedy, that would be fair enough. But it is delivered in one of the quasi-anthropological sections in which Sobahi seems to be aiming to give light-hearted insights into the lives of middle-class Saudi women. But there is no questioning, beyond a faint guilty snicker, that this is a bad thing to do, or consciousness that it betrays a very specific and privileged economic position. All in all, it leaves a pretty bad taste.

Editor’s note: Head Over Heels In Saudi Arabia is showing until 26th August at Spotlites at The Merchants’ Hall, 22 Hanover St, Edinburgh. Click here to buy tickets.

More opinions/coverage:

‘Saudi theater artist to shatter stereotypes in Edinburgh fest’, Arab News

‘Heard the one about the Saudi woman at the Edinburgh Fringe?’, The Independent

‘First Saudi comedienne takes to the stage at Edinburgh Fringe’, The Telegraph (with video)

First Saudi woman to play Edinburgh Fringe Festival lifts the veil on Arab female stereotypes, Daily Record

[http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.

This post first appeared on Sarah’s blog.