Why not I thought? An Arabic-language comedy. It was a long flight, so if it turned out to be horrible I had time to choose something else. I’d been spending some time with Arabs – and they don’t come with subtitles. The movie did.
It’s a pretty simple story, one you’ve seen and read a million times before. Boy meets girl. Except this is Saudi Arabia. You can’t just go out on a date.
Barakah is a young man with a first crush. He really doesn’t know what to say or do. Bibi is a model and a social media star. Much more worldly, somewhat amused by his devotion and chafing at the restrictions of Saudi society. They are from worlds apart, but there is that attraction. It isn’t quite Romeo and Juliet, but you wonder if their fate will be the same.
“I don’t understand how this land has become so narrow,” she says. “We accept a lot of things that are not logical in our lives.”
That is the central theme of this movie, a subversive document disguised as a romantic comedy. It is a lament for a more westernized Saudi society that used to be and a rejection of the strict interpretation of Islam that has been imposed on the country today. Not a rejection of the faith itself, but of the trappings, such as the religious police who are constantly on the lookout for moral infractions. (There’s a certain amount of folk Islam here too, something that would horrify a purist but seemed very familiar to me from time spent in Africa where Islam has mixed with tribal religions.)
The two young people just want to get to know each other, but social (or is it religious) convention does not allow that. Their only possibilities are a “chance” meeting in a convenience store or a pharmacy. Of course, they can text, but it isn’t the same.
Humour is a dangerous tool. The powers that be don’t like being laughed at. As I was watching I wondered if this film has been banned in Saudi Arabia (and probably a few other Arab countries). It wouldn’t surprise me to find that is the case, but I didn’t feel like doing the research. Blasphemy (or conversion to Christianity) carries a death penalty in Saudi Arabia. The religious police are an instrument of repression and fear wielded by the government. To have them as objects of ridicule for their pettiness is not what Saudi authorities would want. This film is probably not one of the offerings on flights to Riyadh. Or maybe I just don’t understand the culture (that’s quite possible).
As a comedy I found it rather juvenile. It elicited the occasional mild chuckle, but no real laughs. Maybe that was the translation, or maybe Arab humour is different. It was entertaining enough though to keep me watching to the end.
I do wonder though how Arabs and Muslims react to it. Does the humour make them think? Or do they just laugh and ignore the deeper questions the film is trying to raise?