Play explores the real lives of Saudi women

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Updated 25 March 2015
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Play explores the real lives of Saudi women

Dr. Maisah Sobaihi’s “Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia” was a fun, light-hearted play through which she explores the lives of Saudi women and addressed many of the questions raised about the Kingdom to enable people to appreciate and value the contributions women make to its society and social development. The entertaining play was held at Effat University in Jeddah recently.
Sobaihi is an academic, writer, performer and director, who has received international acclaim for her theater work that tackles social and cultural issues.
Being the first Saudi woman to perform at the leading International Arts Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2013, she was honored for her work in theater with an award for Excellence in Pioneering at the Global Thinkers Forum (GTF) in Athens.
In her solo play, she helped uncover a true image of Saudi women while harmonizing the sensitive issues and showing the common womanly bond intensifying past boundaries. During the show, she played two different characters of Saudi women and portrayed their consequences in married life, divorce situations and the ‘misyar’ marriages. With her skills and sense of parodying serious issues into lighter fun subjects, Sobaihi considers her play to be a balanced piece of art.
The idea to bring her thoughts in the form of a one-woman play was inspired by her own life journey and that of other Saudi women she met. “I believe Saudi women can be represented by a Saudi woman only and since I am one of them, I could to an extent portray the reality and the hidden issues in a more convincing and acceptable way. I feel it’s always more realistic when someone talks about what they know after being there and living there and that’s what the play is really about,” she said.
Her fictional comic characters are from different backgrounds — Maryam is from the upper class of society while Layla is Maryam’s husband’s second wife. The show depicts how Saudi women tackle different consequences and situations. Sobaihi said: “I didn’t want the show to be negative or to be about criticizing men or anybody at all. I wrote the script in a light way and made sure that the sentiments and emotions are not hurt during any of my performances.”
Talking about challenges, she said “I performed a couple of times in Jeddah in private gatherings and the reactions from Saudi men were positive, which encouraged me to take it to an international platform.”
Sobaihi added that the play purely depicts to the audience, both nationally and internationally, the pressures and challenges of being a modern and educated woman discussing love, marriage, and careers in a traditional male-controlled society, where gender segregation is the norm and women are forbidden to drive. Moreover, through her play, she revealed that women in Saudi Arabia have turned into an active and positive force in Saudi society. They are not what the international media shows them to be.”
At the Global Thinkers Forum, a non-profit initiative and a platform to create dialogue that aims to bring current and future leaders together to discuss governance, society, progress and the future, Sobaihi was honored alongside other international leaders, including David Frost (Excellence in Media), Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative for the UN Alliance of Civilizations (Excellence in Leadership), Shahira Amin (Excellence in Gender Equality), Tu Weiming (Excellence in Cultural Understanding) and Dirk Brosse and Ludwig Wicki (Excellence in Cultural Creativity).
“This award is a wonderful endorsement of the potential of performing arts, which I hope will bring about a very positive social change. Moreover, I hope more people attend and enjoy the show. The aim is mainly to introduce the culture of theater in Saudi Arabia and to have people enjoy it,” said Sobaihi on receiving the award.

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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.