Saudi National Day turns spotlight on cinema’s golden years

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Fouad Jamjoom, pictured in the background in a TV studio, set up a chain of eight cinemas. (Supplied)
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Cinema Al-Ahwash (backyard cinemas) operated in a coutryard or yard. (Supplied)
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A movie poster for the Egyptian film ‘Years of Love.’
Updated 23 September 2019

Saudi National Day turns spotlight on cinema’s golden years

  • ‘Daring cinema pioneer’ opened theaters around Saudi Arabia
  • End to the cinema ban is paving the way for a new generation of Saudi filmmakers 

JEDDAH: More than half a century ago, cinemas were a popular source of entertainment in major cities in the Kingdom. Westerners working for the California State Oil Company (later Aramco) were the first to introduce cinemas to Saudis, setting up large screens in their residential compounds during the 1930s to watch American and European films. Cinemas soon spread to the four major Saudi cities: Riyadh, Jeddah, Taif and Abha. There were more than 30 theaters in Jeddah alone, with admission prices ranging up to SR10 ($2.80).
Thuraya Arafah, 70, who worked with the General Administration of Girls Education in Jeddah, recalls visiting Cinema Jamjoom and Cinema Al-Attas in Jeddah.
“They used to show Egyptian films with Farid Al-Atrash, Anwar Wagdi, Shadia, Faten Hamama and Abdel Halim Hafez, all leading actors and actresses still adored to this day,” she told Arab News.
Jomanah Khoja, producer of Al-Arabiya’s documentary Cinema Al-Ahwash (Backyard Cinemas), said the popular movies at the time were mostly Egyptian. “There were also many American movies like James Bond, for example.”
Ticket prices varied from one yard cinema to the next. “The variations of prices, according to some owners we interviewed, said tickets were sold for 2 SAR while others were 20 SAR. The price of the ticket also depended on the movie: If it was a new movie, prices were more expensive.”
The introduction of VHS cassettes was “a key factor in the disappearance of these cinemas,” Khoja said.  
However, in the wake of the 1979 terror attack on the Grand Mosque by Juhayman Al-Otaibi and his followers, conservative voices increasingly spoke out against the spread of cinemas, TV and music. A major social shift occurred that led to cinemas being banned from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Saudi screenwriter Yasser Hammad said that there were cinemas operating in Taif and Madinah, while in Riyadh cinemas were opened at the Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Shabab sports clubs. Cinemas were also still in use at Aramco facilities in the Eastern Province.
“Jeddah had several. They were called Cinema Al-Ahwash (backyard cinemas). They operated in a house courtyard or in an adjacent yard used initially to accommodate pilgrims with their camels, so I figure this might be their off-season use of the space,” he told Arab News
The city’s theaters included Al-Attas Hotel cinema on the beachfront; Cinema Al-Hindaweya; Cinema Al-Baljoon in Al-Sharafiya district, just off the Old Airport Road; and Cinema Abu-Saffiya, near Bab Sharif, as well as cinemas in the Egyptian and Jordanian embassies. Most were operated by wealthier families who had money to buy or rent cinema projectors, he said.
“The projector would be a 16mm along with a mix of chairs. Films were rented out, and the 16mm film roll was cut into parts, so each cinema would rent out a part of the film and then swap them in the middle. Cinemas had triple bill film screenings, showing an Egyptian film first, followed by either an Italian or an American movie, and finishing  with an Indian movie.”
Hammad said the leader of the era was Fouad Jamjoom, who first went to Egypt in the mid-1950s.
“He was fascinated by cinema and was chasing his dream. He opened a cinema in Tanta, Egypt, which got him more involved in the process of distributing films, which evolved into producing.”
Jamjoom returned to Jeddah in the early 1960s and set up a chain of eight cinemas. “Cinema shops also rented out projectors, films and even promotional material such as film posters. Eid specials showed the latest James Bond films, “Khally Ballak men Zouzou” and other blockbusters,” Hammad said.
Jamjoom censored the films himself, “even though cinema at the time didn’t require much censoring.” He also held premieres and invited Egyptian stars such as Ahmed Ramzy, Farid Shawqi, Magda El-Khatib and others.
Hammad explained that the yard cinemas had only male audiences, except for a few houses that held private screenings for women. “Even the young male audience went to the cinema without their parents knowing,” he said.
“Jamjoom wanted families to attend, and made a theater with a roof and air-conditioning in the mid-1970s that had seating for women in the upper section.”
Hammad said that cinema at the time appealed to a young audience with little to do during their free time. “National television wasn’t as impressive as watching ‘King Kong’ on a large screen,” he said. Shehab Jamjoom, a close relative of the Saudi cinema pioneer, said: “Without a doubt, he was daring, ambitious and had so much determination. He had so much love for the field and would try to overcome any obstacle.
“He was fighting to bring entertainment to people — innocent entertainment — and today it has become accepted and licensed.”
Cinemas officially returned in the Kingdom after a 35-year hiatus in April 2018, with the first screening of Marvel’s “Black Panther” at the AMC cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District. In January 2019, Jeddah witnessed the opening of its first cinema, Vox, at Red Sea Mall. The return of cinema has paved the way for a new generation of Saudi filmmakers.
“Roll ’em,” a drama produced by an all-Saudi team, made its way to movie theaters in March 2019. The lifting of the ban on cinemas is part of widespread social reforms led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


Saudis unite in condemnation of US Navy base attack

Updated 08 December 2019

Saudis unite in condemnation of US Navy base attack

  • The attack, in which a Saudi gunman killed three Americans, is viewed as an act that does not represent Saudi people
  • The OIC has said the attacker did not represent the tolerant Islamic values that distinguish the Saudi people

From the king and top-level Saudi government officials to everyday Saudi citizens, all are united in condemning the attack on a US Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, calling it as “un-Islamic” and barbaric.

The shooting of three Americans by a Saudi gunman was an individual attack that does not represent the Kingdom’s people, it has been widely  stressed. 

For decades, many Saudis have lived in the US for work or attended universities across many states, becoming their own ambassadors. 

Nedda Akhonbay, a communications professional working in Jeddah, expressed her sadness when she heard the news.

“My condolences go out to the families of the victims as I hope they find peace in their lives after facing such a tragedy. As a Saudi-American and having spent many formative years in the US and made friends who became like family, I thought this attack was very close to home and I hope both people work together to get past it.”

“As a student who lived in the States, I never faced any problems for being a Muslim,” said Alaa Sendi, an American-Saudi lecturer working in Jeddah University.

Having obtained a PhD in electrical engineering, Dr. Nazih Al-Othmani lived between the states of Michigan and Pennsylvania for ten years in the late 1990s and was in the US during the 9/11 attacks. He recalled how Americans understood that such atrocious attacks never represented a community, and this one was no exception.

“The tragic event that took place yesterday does not represent us, this attack is unacceptable regardless of any reason and no sane person can ever accept it,” he said. “I lived in the States for many years, I was also there on 9/11, and made many American friends throughout my time there. They stood by us, they helped us, protected us and our relationship was very civil and courteous. We need to stand together to combat this dangerous tendency that can be found in every community.”

The attack at the US naval station in Pensacola, Florida, was the second incident at an American military base in this week, following another shooting at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Wednesday. (AFP)

Many Saudis are angered over the actions of this one individual. Dr. Al-Othmani expressed his concerns about those who would take advantage of the situation and try to point a finger at Saudis.

“Though right-wingers will take advantage of the event and attack Saudi Arabia, I don’t believe many Americans will see it that way. Americans are aware enough to differentiate between the nationality of an individual and his actions,” he said.

Al-Othmani recommends that Saudi students communicate, cooperate and extend a hand of friendship to their respective communities.

In the decades of friendship and cooperation between the US and Saudi Arabia, many Americans have come to work in the Kingdom and some have made it their home. 

Dr. Alia Mitchell, vice dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, is an American citizen who has been a Muslim for more than 30 years and has lived in the Kingdom for more than 20 years. She has chosen to live in the Kingdom as she sees the beauty of the religion interwoven into society, one that she believes is not represented by the shooter. 

“When something tragic that happens like this, it’s on the individual,” she said. “it doesn’t go back to the community or the society.

“I’m still sickened and mostly very, very saddened with this tragedy,” said Melanie H. “I’ve a son the same age as the shooter and can’t imagine what the pain and grief his actions would do to me as a parent. To learn that your son has caused so much hell… that he has taken others’ lives.”

She said: “I lived in Saudi Arabia for over 10 years and I have experienced Saudi’s hospitality, warmth — nothing like what I imagined or expected before arriving. It isn’t perfect but then what country or nation is?” 

“Now that the country has opened its doors to the world, people really shouldn’t judge the book by its cover especially when criminals like this shooter make such a false, misleading cover.” 

Melanie H continued: “Do not judge a people by an individual — that’s what we Americans are all about. No judging.”


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“This crime does not represent us as Saudis,” said Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, minister of Islamic Affairs, on his personal Twitter account. “We reject such criminal acts and we sympathize with the injured and the families of the victims. It is a horrible crime and a dishonest act.

“We condemn crimes anywhere and anytime, and we stress our complete rejection of such horrible criminal acts which Islam forbids.”

Saudi scholar and Imam of Quba Mosque in Madinah Saleh Al-Maghamsi shared the same notion. He said: “This incident should be stripped away from religion and from the country to which whoever committed this criminal act is affiliated. The Shariah does not approve of this act for it violates the texts of the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet, which is based on the principle of no bloodshed. Logic also does not approve of this action.” 

Opinion

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The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the aggressor did not represent the tolerant Islamic values that distinguish the Saudi people and all Muslims who believe in tolerance, moderation and coexistence.

The General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia also condemned the shooting incident in Florida and called it a heinous crime. 

Describing it as a crime against humanity, the senior scholars stressed that such actions were against the true teachings of Islam. They said that the Saudi people will continue to uphold their noble values and contribute to the progress and prosperity of the world and humanity.