JEDDAH: Lately, there have been many gasps by the Western media over the Saudi government’s decision to allow movie theaters and cinemas in the Kingdom.
Ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ushered in a more tolerant, acceptable and modern era, there has been a sea change in Saudi society.
The fear of the harbingers of darkness were put to rest when, despite shrieks of hellfire and damnation and the wrath of the Almighty, nothing happened. Art, culture and music festivals were held in an atmosphere of total propriety. There were no unwanted incidents as Saudi men and women, families, young and old, mingled and behaved like any normal spectator would around the globe.
As far as movies are concerned, they are not new phenomena: To people like me and to senior citizens in Jeddah, Makkah, Taif and even Madinah, movies were shown. My uncle visited Riyadh in 1956 and saw a movie there.
Aramco had its theater in Dhahran. Petromin had a weekly movie show on Kilo 4, the old Makkah road which had a mixed congregation. The most famous was the Jamjoom Theater. It was owned by Fua Jamjoom, a Jeddawi with a cavalier attitude who dared those who came to close the theater. Tickets for an air-conditioned hall were priced at SR5. Non-air-conditioned seats cost SR3.
Movie-goers at Jamjoom Theater would always grab a bite at Shawarma Shakir, either before the cinema or after. It was a famous shawarma joint that many enjoyed, along with refreshments. Across the city, near the seaport and in the Hindawiya district, there were several other makeshift theaters which showed both Arabic and English films. The area would be sprayed with “Raid” mosquito repellant. At the Jamjoom center, I saw many movies. My mom was a great fan of James Bond, and we saw several ones: “From Russia with Love,” “Goldfinger” and “Dr. No.”
I remember my mother crying during “Love Story” when Ali MacGraw’s character became ill. We saw “Deliverance,” starring Jon Voight, the father of Angelina Jolie. And of course many Arabic ones, especially those with Ismail Yaseen, the famous Egyptian comedian.
Al-Attas Hotel also had a hall where we used to go to see movies with my cousins. It was a normal life. Music and culture flourished. At the Jeddah radio station where I worked part time, we were our own disc jockeys.
I saw the play “My Fair Lady” in Jeddah, where the audience was entertained in an almost Haymarket-type of presentation. The famous Moroccan singer Abdelwahab Al-Doukkali performed a concert live on stage at the Ministry of Education hall in Al-Baghdadiah district in Jeddah. Yes, the Ministry of Education!
He sang his classic song “Marsool Al Hobb” (Messenger of Love) to an enthusiastic crowd. As Mary Hopkin would say: “Those were the days.” And then a pall of gloom and darkness descended in 1980. However, I do not wish to focus on that period but am stating now that this new change needed a political will and a person who would pick up the cudgel and say “enough is enough.”
The Saudi people are like others around the globe. They want to be a part of that world culture, music, art and beauty. And Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has opened that door.