Saudi cinema goes back to the past ... and 1979 is gone with the wind

Saudi cinema goes back to the past ... and 1979 is gone with the wind

‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is a movie title that is engraved in my memory for one simple reason — I watched that film in a movie theater in Riyadh 40 years ago!

I watched it before cinemas were banned after the ‘1979 revolution’ in Iran, and their doors closed; closing with them a complete social lifestyle.

I was one of the lucky few who were away when these changes happened, as I had traveled one year before to continue my studies in the United States, so I wasn’t personally affected by the changes that affected a whole generation after mine.

Riyadh was a small city then, compared with what it is now; it was home to half a million people, and had three cinemas in sports clubs. The cinemas offered tea and soda, with cheese sandwiches. They were organized, the tickets were sold at the door, and the movie posters were hung on the walls inside. The biggest cinema, with 150 seats, screened two movies on weekend nights (one Arabic and another dubbed American), but only one on weekdays. They were usually crowded, and some people would suffocate us with their cigarette smoke, while others overreacted by whistling or clapping their hands at emotional scenes, or in support of heroes.

Western movies usually reached us late, sometimes a decade late. ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ featuring Clint Eastwood, was relatively old, but this didn’t stop us from enjoying that evening.

After that ominous revolution in Iran, the Riyadh I had known changed. It became a sad city. Hardliners tightened their grip on it from all sides, and the whole social scene was transformed.

It was devastated by extremists and zealots calling for additional religious activism in what was already one of the most pious cities in the world.

Before that, during the 1960s and 1970s, we knew Riyadh as a simple city; its residents were content with small activities to be happy. The boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited, and we waited for him eagerly at the water tower, the city’s main landmark. In 1978 Al-Hilal football club signed the Brazilian football star Rivellino, and the stadium was packed for every match. Even the nights of Ramadan were an opportunity for sports tournaments, mainly basketball and volleyball, and we were hardly able to find a seat, or even a place to stand.

So, last week, when the movie theaters opened their doors in Riyadh it was “back to the beautiful past.” This, symbolically, meant that the “post-1979 era” has now “gone with the wind.”

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

In addition to movie theaters, the capital was full of entertainment; there was a dedicated street in Al-Mourabba’a neighborhood where we could rent movies and a projector for the weekend. The economic situation of the city didn’t allow for a lot of entertainment, but in spite of this there were concerts, and at the main feasts we used to enjoy military marching bands, in addition to popular festivals that reflected the artistic heritage of the Kingdom.

This accepting, tolerant and enthusiastic spirit began to fade, gradually giving way to the jihadi chants over the war in Afghanistan. Religious extremists reigned and politicized schools and mosques, as the intellectuals and the enlightened retreated before the reign of a new generation of youngsters who were blaspheming them openly in official and popular platforms, even from pulpits.

Many decades went by; the young generation grew old, and a new open-minded generation have now opened their eyes to explore their past. It is the real past; the past of the ancestors who were more civilized and more tolerant, and the past that was subject to attempts to remove it from the people’s collective memory.

So, last week, when the movie theaters opened their doors in Riyadh it was “back to the beautiful past.” This, symbolically, meant that the “post-1979 era” has now “gone with the wind.”

Every nation passes through political and social setbacks; some bounce back, while some will remain broken. But there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is now willingly bouncing back stronger from the harsh experience it went through, an unenlightened era that hindered development and set society back. This era caused suffering in the past; and that suffering may continue for many years before society fully recovers.

Other nations have had similar experiences. China went through the era of the communist “cultural revolution,” which resembled our “Sahwa” (religious awakening) movement in labeling its opponents as traitors, harassing people and forcing them to follow its teaching. On that haunting Maoist era, I read “Wild Swans,” a novel by the British-Chinese author Jung Chang. It is shocking to discover the details of people’s suffering caused by narrow ideologies and utopian ideas.

Saudi Arabia’s experience will definitely inspire other nations suffering from similar problems, including Muslim countries, and Iran is one of them.

Saudi Arabia is important as it leads and inspires in the Muslim world. When the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that “we didn’t introduce anything new but were returning to the ‘pre-1979 era,’ and that from now on we will not allow any the extremist ideology to return,” he meant that he wanted to bridge a gap; to link two eras, interrupted by a 40-year halt in history because of the crisis caused by the Iranian revolution and its local by-products.

We are looking at change as being in line with people’s desires and options. No one will be obliged to follow, but everyone will have the right to take the options they want.

  • Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.

    Twitter: @aalrashed

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