Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
One of the most important social rituals during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia is watching special television drama series, especially after iftar, the daily meal marking the end of daylight fasting during the holy month. This year, the second season of the series “Al-Asouf” (Winds of Change) – produced by the majority Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center – has sparked much discussion. It is the first Saudi television show to address the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, an event that marks one of the critical turning points in the kingdom’s history and which still generates fierce debate. In an interview with Arab News about the show, Ali Jaber, MBC’s director, observed that the event “turned life in Saudi Arabia upside down and pushed the country and society to a more conservative way of life.”
Starring Nasser Al Qasabi, a Saudi actor famous for his popular but controversial tv show “Tash Ma Tash” (No Big Deal), “Al-Asouf” depicts the history of the kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s through the experiences of the Saudi Al Tayan family living in Riyadh. In daily 35-minute episodes, the family adjusts to the many sweeping socioeconomic changes of the era – Saudis moving from mud brick homes to large suburban villas to traveling on jet aircraft to using cassette players, televisions, and other consumer electronic devices. “Al-Asouf” also shows family members reacting to the key political events of the era, including the Camp David accords, Iranian Revolution, seizure of the Grand Mosque, assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, rise of the Islamic revival, or Sahwa, and the war in Afghanistan. The show features a life-size replica of Mecca’s Grand Mosque along with several dramatic battle scenes worthy of a Hollywood feature film. And woven throughout the show are the works of important Arab singers, including Saudi-Bahraini superstar Rashed al-Majed, who sings, “Al-Asouf,” the show’s theme song.
At the heart of the show is Qasabi, who plays Khalid, a well-connected real estate developer. The pivotal episode has Khalid praying with his elderly uncle, Abu Yaesh, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca just as it is seized by 200 male and female armed civilians. Calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government and for religious reform in the name of the Mahdi, or messiah, the insurgents take Khalid, Abu Yaesh, and others hostage. Yaqub al-Firhan, who plays Juhayman Al-Otaybi, the rebels’ leader, both physically resembles the real Otaybi and portrays him as a crazed and violent figure. In an emotional scene, Otaybi kills Abu Yaesh for attempting to escape, only moments before the Saudi military frees Khalid and the other hostages. Notably, only Saudis are shown liberating the hostages and planning the operation – a depiction of the event that contrasts sharply from the one presented by many Western scholars, including Yaroslav Trofimov, who argues that elite units from the French National Gendarmerie helped the Saudis free the hostages. Whatever the case, a day after the episode about the liberation of the Grand Mosque aired, Qasabi tweeted a picture from the scene that evoked a “Pietà” and the paintings of Jacques-Louis David. In the picture, Qasabi’s exhausted character is sitting on the ground covered in dust in a lit foreground, his white thobe stained in blood and his dead uncle lying peacefully on his lap.
The tweet is indicative of the way the episodes and themes of the show have been picked up and amplified through social media. Throughout Ramadan, Qasabi has discussed the show on Saudi television and Twitter, where he has 2.2 million followers (a large number in a country of 30 million people). Qasabi has previewed important plot twists while providing critical commentary on it. Many Saudis have responded vigorously to these posts and those of fellow fans, sometimes using memes based on scenes from the show. Some of the most popular memes feature strong female leads, such as Khalid’s wife, Juhayer, played by Reem Abdullah, delivering forceful rebukes in her arguments with Khalid, such as her saying to him “kul tibn,” a phrase that literally means “eat hay” but is widely used to say “shut up.”
Although Khalid returns home from the Grand Mosque safely, he and his family face new dangers from the political and social forces that the siege has unleashed, including the government’s efforts to find anyone who might have had knowledge of the siege before it occurred. Khalid’s brother-in-law, Sheikh Muhammad Said, voices ideas that are consistent with those of the Sahwa while convincing Saad, Khalid’s nephew, to embrace the movement. Saad calls on his brother-in-law to quit his job with Saudi state television – stating that music, singing, and painting are haram (forbidden) – and then throws the family television set and VCR into the street, smashing them both to pieces. Over the next two decades, men like Saad would usher in the “conservative way of life” that Jaber referred to in his interview with Arab News.
Strikingly, some of the show’s leading female characters, including Hilla, the powerful Al Tayan family matriarch, are shown embracing the Sahwa’s principles, thanks in part to the work of Saida, Said’s sister, who provides them with religious guidance along with cassette tapes of Muslim clerics delivering fiery sermons. Hilla, in a heated exchange with Khalid, even defends Saad’s decision to smash the family television in the street.
The broadcasting of “Al-Asouf” coincides with an era of change in Saudi Arabia that may be as momentous as the one that followed the events in Mecca in 1979. Since his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, ascended the throne in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promoted Vision 2030, a vast series of reforms designed to end the country’s dependence on oil exports and reduce the influence of the Sahwa.
To reinforce public support for his reforms, Mohammed bin Salman has built bridges to the country’s burgeoning creative class, which, over the last two decades, has created a vibrant artistic movement in a variety of genres. He has created a Ministry of Culture, appointed artists to key posts in government and the nonprofit sector, and incorporated the work of artists into his own rhetoric. In a speech to international investors in 2017, Mohammed bin Salman used language that closely echoed an exchange from the 2016 Saudi film “Barakah Meets Barakah,” during which a young Saudi, played by Hisham Fageeh, chastises his father’s generation for neither protecting the country from the Sahwa nor fighting harder to retain the values that had defined the country before 1979.
Few have worked harder to take advantage of the new opportunities than Qasabi, who fled the kingdom for Dubai in 2003 after he received death threats from Sahwa figures due to his work on “Tash Ma Tash.” In his eyes, what is happening today heralds the rise of a Saudi entertainment industry that will give him and other Saudis new acting opportunities with dramas specifically designed for television. “Television series … have become more important than movies, especially in the West,” Qasabi recently observed. “So why wouldn’t we follow this industry that is fast-paced and has well-developed plots in order to have better [artistic] results, which would please us and make us proud in front of our audience?”
Qasabi has responded to critics who accuse “Al-Asouf” of misrepresenting the country’s past by asserting that the television series is a drama meant to provoke its audience rather than educate it. “Drama is not about history,” he argues, “but about telling a story.” When he makes these arguments, the Saudi actor is not downplaying the importance of remembering past events accurately but instead is signaling the influence that his series and other heroic dramas like it can have on a country’s culture and society. What they touch is not historical truth but human emotions. “Al-Asouf” vividly captures this trend of telling Saudi stories with Saudi actors and its power in shaping the public’s perceptions and aspirations.
is a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University and specializes in the history of the Middle East and the cultural, political, and religious trends in the wider Islamic world.
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