Inside Mohammed Saeed Harib’s ‘Rashid & Rajab’

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'Rashid & Rajab' is Mohammed Saeed Harib's debut as a live-action feature film director. (Supplied)
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Mohammed Saeed Harib. (Supplied)
Updated 12 June 2019

Inside Mohammed Saeed Harib’s ‘Rashid & Rajab’

  • The creator of the wildly popular animation ‘Freej’ discusses his feature-film debut
  • "With Emirati and Egyptian culture, there are so many local inside jokes and so many Egyptian ones that they start to clash with each other and they start to flourish and bounce off each other."

DUBAI: In the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed Saeed Harib is a something of a national hero. Since “Freej,” his animated series chronicling the lives of four older women living in a secluded area of Dubai, launched in 2006, Harib has become one of the most visible chroniclers of Emirati culture, both in his country and abroad. It began as a loving portrayal of the Gulf for the Gulf, airing on free-to-air television — now it’s become a global phenomenon, even airing in Japan earlier this year.

Harib has used his platform to portray his own perspective of his culture, complete with accurate — if exaggerated — representations of language, dress, and traditions, as well as loving lampoons. Not everyone agrees with his perspective of course, but, as he tells Arab News sitting in his office in Dubai, this is his perspective, no one else’s. If people want to see a different viewpoint, they should come up with a way to tell it their way — this is his.

With “Rashid & Rajab,” which hit cinemas in the GCC on June 6, Harib is making his debut as a live-action feature film director, and the material is fully in his wheelhouse. In the film, a poor Egyptian deliveryman swaps bodies with a rich Emirati entrepreneur. The film gave Harib the opportunity to explore not only the two cultures, but the ways in which different nationalities and classes interact in his home country.

“Body-swapping movies are a genre, so there’s nothing original about the set up, but the uniqueness comes from merging the two cultures that you think can click and work,” he says. “You might get two nationalities where there’s nothing in common, and you don’t see any (crossover). With Emirati and Egyptian culture, there are so many local inside jokes and so many Egyptian ones that they start to clash with each other and they start to flourish and bounce off each other. We live in a community where we have a lot of nationalities that kind of blend in. It would be very interesting to see the lifestyles — how to go from being rich and entrepreneurial to becoming a family man, or suddenly having a hot wife. The matrixes of office work and delivery work. We give each one of those characters a purpose to fulfill and discover what they were missing in life.”

To find the humor, and to give the film purpose, Harib had to once again look closely at his own culture — this time not from the perspective of four older women watching a nation change before their eyes, but from two men in the prime of their lives; closer to Harib himself. Pushing boundaries is not something Harib is scared to do — in fact, he’s been doing it since “Freej.” 

“We spoke about a lot of taboos (in ‘Freej’). I got slapped on the wrist a couple times. It’s fine,” he says. “(With ‘Rashid & Rajab’), it’s the same taboos, but how do you approach them? How do you say it on film?

“By the second day of shooting, we had a round of scenes that we thought would be challenging, culturally, to go through and we were finding a smart way to tell that story,” he continues. “It’s like a tango, almost. This is when I really started laughing. You unwind in a way, but in a funny way. It’s very clever. The actors instantly knew what I meant — they took what I thought, and they heightened that mood further.”

Harib tells Arab News that the film purposefully sets the tone from the start, and then slowly gets more satirical as it goes on, once the audience has been made comfortable. You have to build to the best jokes, he explains, adding that there are jokes half-an-hour into the film that he probably couldn’t have gotten away with in the opening minute.

On the day that Arab News visits Harib’s office, the team has just finished showing the final mix to test audiences. He’s relaxed and in a great mood, because, even so long after we visited him on set in 2016, the film still makes him laugh — and makes audiences crack up, too.

“It’s funny because when these things come out, you’re already somewhere else, and you’ve had other shows and other experiences and I’m now engaged with other things, but I’m so happy that finally this film is now presented to the world,” he says. “I was sitting there with the executive producers and we still laugh — after so many screenings, there is still something funny. Hopefully when audiences see it, they can laugh at the jokes like when we saw them the first time.”

Although Harib had already made a name for himself, “Rashid & Rajab” was still his first feature film, so he surrounded himself with the top talent in the country behind the camera. Ali Mostafa, director of “City of Life” and “From A to B,” Majid Al Ansari, director of “Zinzana,” and Rami Yasin, director of the upcoming “Three Four Eternity,” served as producers.

“I have directors as producers in this movie. Nobody gets that luxury! It comes with peer pressure — a lot of peer pressure — but it’s fun to constantly be on your toes while you’re doing this,” says Harib.

With so many experienced collaborators, Harib had to assert himself to get his vision to work, and to make the humor his own.

“There was a fear that I would bring an overacting methodology to this, because I’m in cartoons so everything is over the top, and most of the actors who are in the film are from the TV comedy space, so they get to overact and some of them are a bit theatrical,” he admits. “We were shooting, and (during) the first few scenes we were cracking up laughing, and some of the producers were skeptical. I was like, ‘Listen, this is a body-swap film. We can’t be too serious about this. And if everyone on the set is laughing, then it’s working.’”

To get the film to work, Harib had to let his actors explore their roles and make them their own, rather than just reading the words off the page.

“The characters have such a vibrance to them that was never shown in the scripts,” he says. “When you write scripts, you make sure the jokes are as funny as you can, but the moment that an actor picks it up, you see it in their eyes. I just wanted it to be a reflection of the energy that I and the entire cast have. The script has the jokes, but I think there was a huge layer that was added on by discovering the personalities from these actors: Marwan Abdullah (as Rashid), Shadi Alfons (Rajab), and Sheema (Latifa). I think every day we laughed. There was a constant generation of ideas while we worked. This isn’t the kind of movie where you have to stick to the script — it’s the kind of movie that begs for you to explore their personalities and find the comedy.”

It wasn’t until filming began that Harib was sure the film would work.

“Honestly speaking, I love that when I got the script to read this movie of course it was interesting, but whether it was interesting to the level that it would reach my taste in comedy, I wasn’t sure. I come from an animation background, we’re very slapstick without looking cheesy and sounding cheesy,” says Harib.

“I was waiting for them to tell me what they wanted to do with these characters. Suddenly, we see Marwan appearing like a Charlie Chaplin person visually. Because I’m an animation director, this is music to my ears, but I didn’t want to push it into the movie so much until it showed itself and I capitalized on that. I said, ‘OK. We’re doing that kind of movie!’ It’s animated in its movements,” he says. “I didn’t want to (push for that) per se, but when I started seeing glimpses of the characters being animated, I capitalized.”

Saudi Arabia with a rich history and home to archeological treasures

The discovery of several ancient sites has put Saudi Arabia on top of the list of those countries with a rich history and home to archeological wonders. (SPA)
Updated 31 May 2020

Saudi Arabia with a rich history and home to archeological treasures

  • For centuries, the remains of several ancient cities that once thrived in this area lied in ruins away from people’s attention

RIYADH: Modern-day Saudi Arabia is home to several archeological treasures, evidence that this part of the world was once the cradle of ancient civilizations.

Several cities that once thrived in this area lay in ruins away from people’s attention and, until a few decades ago, this part of the world was considered to be a vast and uninhabitable desert. However technology has made excavation easier in difficult terrains and changed that perception for good.

The discovery of several ancient sites has put Saudi Arabia on the list of countries that have a rich history and are home to archeological wonders.

An exhibition called “Roads of Arabia: Archaeological Treasures of Saudi Arabia Across the Ages” has been hosted by prominent museums around the world in order to introduce this heritage and legacy to international audiences.

One of the artifacts includes a sandstone statue known as the “Suffering Man.” The masterpiece, dating back 6,000 years, was found near the town of Al-Kahafah, 200 km south of Hail.

It depicts a man with sad sunken eyes, a downturned mouth and his hands extending toward his heart.

“It was discovered during excavations by the archeology department in the Hail region,” said Saudi archaeologist Dr. Saad Al-Rashed. “It dates back to the 4th millennium B.C. and exhibits a mixture of tenderness and serenity. It also reflects funerary expressions.”

He said that transporting the piece was subject to approval from the highest authorities, under the guarantee of international covenants, including insurance and personal accompaniment from the country of origin.

Another famous Saudi artifact is the “Eye-Stele.” It was discovered in Tayma and dates back to the 5th century B.C. It is a memorial tombstone featuring a human face and Aramaic inscriptions citing the name of Taim bin Zaid, a prominent figure of his time.

This important piece, which is well-known among archaeologists around the globe, is the only clear evidence of the existence of cultural contact between Tayma and the northwest and southern Arabian Peninsula, where similar monuments have been found.

Another item is the “Head of a Man.” The bronze statue dates back to the 1st century B.C. and was discovered in Qaryat Al-Faw, 700 km southwest of Riyadh. It shows the face of a man with a Roman hairstyle typical of that period.

The ‘Suffering Man’ was discovered during excavations by the archeology department in Hail region. It dates back to the 4th millennium BC.

Saad Al-Rashed, Saudi archeologist

Two more bronze statues have also been discovered in Qaryat Al-Faw. The first is the statue of Byzantine Emperor Hercules, who is grabbing a club with his right hand and a lion’s skin with his left. The second is of the Egyptian Pharaoh Herbocrath, who is wearing the pharaoh’s double crown.

The masterpieces from Qaryat Al-Faw include a colorful mural of a prominent figure of Kinda Kingdom that dates back to the 1st century B.C. The mural depicts a man with thick hair and a light mustache, grapevines swirling behind him, and two servants. It features a banquet and shows the influence of the Dionysian painting style that was popular in the East during the 1st and the 2nd centuries A.D.

A small statue of “Thaj Girl” was found with Thaj treasures discovered in a burial chamber in Jubail in 1998. These include a gold mask, pearls, bracelets, rings, necklaces, a gold placard inlaid with red carved rubies, and other gold pieces that date back to the Hellenistic era more than 2,000 years ago.

The 46-centimeter statue of the girl dates back to the 1st century A.D. and is made of bitumen, iron and lead. During that era the Arabian Peninsula was linked to the Mediterranean’s major trade routes.

Incense convoys in southern Arabia crossed these routes, some of which passed through Thaj city. This trade may have been the source of wealth that enabled wealthy men to put luxury items into the tomb.

Historical research and archaeological excavations indicate that settlement in the Thaj region dates back to the Stone Ages, and that the region flourished between 332 B.C. and the 1st century A.D.