It takes immense courage to stand up in a world that resists change and let your voice be heard – especially if you are a woman in Saudi Arabia. Maisah Sobaihi is a play-write, director and performer of her own work, the like of which hasn’t been seen in Saudi Arabia before. Her play, “Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia” was showing recently at the Effat College. It is not the easiest location to get to on a Thursday evening, but I am very glad that I bought my ticket and hauled myself across town to see my first adult Saudi play.
In keeping with Saudi custom, this one-woman show was open only to ladies. There were far fewer there than I expected, and being a Thursday night, very few expatriates. One of the main difficulties here is transport – one of the themes that Sobaihi raises in her play.
Her show is not so much a play as a satirical review, and part stand-up comedy (which she used to do at University). It starts out looking like a play, but as it progresses, you realize that she invites and welcomes comment and participation from her audience. It reminded me of some of the performances that I saw a few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival and she could easily take it there. She looks like she is enjoying herself and she obviously wants her audience to have fun too.
The curtain opened to a good stage: a backdrop painting of the familiar buildings of Old Jeddah, yet we are inside, not outside. There are three seating areas and she used these to move to as she became different personalities in her script. She is already on stage, and I was immediately struck by her beauty. She is simply dressed in jeans and a baggy shirt, with a head scarf, and a grey-ish open abaya with glamorous trumpet shaped sleeves in a patterned, satin fabric. As soon as she begins, you are aware of someone who is very good at what she does: she is completely comfortable on the stage and engages with her audience right away. Thankfully, her show is in English, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go, although a smattering of Arabic is essential if you are to get some of the funny aside comments she makes. She opens the show by telling us that she is in love – but that she was told she could never fall in love in Saudi Arabia.
Sobaihi goes on to tackle a subject that is dear to the heart of most women who have ever lived in Saudi Arabia, be they Saudi or expatriate, Muslim or non-Muslim: her subject is the condition of women in Saudi Arabia. What are their lives really like? How do they react when their husband announces that he is taking another wife? What are the career aspirations of educated young women? As she points out, in the West not a lot is known about Saudi Arabia and people ask questions like: “Isn’t that where you can get your head cut off?” or “Can’t men there have four wives?” (usually asked by men with an excited twinkle in their eye). She then addresses the topic of how most women she knows have reacted when their husband comes home and announces that he is planning to take a second wife. Because this is supposed to be done with the wife’s approval, we first see that side of it: “Oh, hi honey, did have a good day at work?” “Yes, I did, and I met a lovely young woman who I would like take as a second wife.” “Oh, honey, that’s great. Would like a cup of coffee or something to eat?” No. The reality is that the announcement of a wife number two (or three, or four) on the scene is not a welcome one and Sobaihi then goes on to let us know what the alternatives are: divorce; the part-time marriage; or (if your husband is wealthy enough) get him to top up your private bank account with a few million riyals and stay put as his wife – but in name only.
Then there is the matter of children. Here Sobaihi touches briefly on religion (a topic that she otherwise avoids) by questioning the public image of devotion that some men sustain by being seen at prayers five times a day. What they hide is a cruel personal life where they have forbidden their divorced wife to see any of her children for the past 7 years.
When she gets to the topic of weddings, Sobaihi gets her audience’s co-operation as she describes the “fun” of the Saudi wedding – which usually involves lingering until 5 a.m. She has been dispatched to the wedding of Wife Number Two by her friend to see what the new intruder is like. But the music is so LOUD that she can’t hear any of the answers to her questions! There is only one thing to do: dance. She moves on to careers. A young woman announces to her husband that she would like to be a designer. “Yes”, he says, “that is fine, but you can’t work anywhere where there are men.” “But,” says the young woman, “there are always men in areas where there are designers.” “Then you can’t work there. Be a teacher instead.” “But I don’t want to be a teacher.” “Well then, be a designer teacher!” It turns out, meanwhile, that he works in an environment where there are women; he travels abroad with his business where there are women working. But what is okay for him is clearly not okay for his wife.
Meanwhile, Sobaihi reminds us from time to time what her play is about: it is about her falling in love. As we near the end of the play, she tells us that we are going to meet the love of her life. She asks the audience to start applauding so that we give a big welcome to this new love. She disappears briefly, and to our loud applause reappears with … But no, I will not reveal this secret. It would be giving the game away and spoiling the show for future audiences.
Sobaihi is not telling her female audience anything new; most of the ladies in this particular audience were Saudi, but expatriate women can empathise with them and fully identify with the scenes about drivers, as well as others. But what she is doing is new. She is introducing live, satirical performance to Saudi female society. She is exposing their lives and the constraints surrounding them and making them laugh about it.