WADJDA AND UM HAROUN
“Wadjda,” a 2012 production, is Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour’s feature-length film. I was only recently able to watch it when it was screened at the IKSV (The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts) film festival.
It seems that Wadjda opened the world’s doors to Mansour’s career as a director. It shot her straight to the top, as she gained the support of the U.S. and world film markets. Such that she was invited to speak at the Davos Forum in 2019. The film was shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, backed by the king, and crowned with numerous international awards. The fact that it is also the first film made in Saudi Arabia on the theme of women is interesting. The film touches on everything that is taboo for women in Saudi Arabia, with all the topics gathered under about 27 items.
The flow of the story centers on the freedom of girls to ride bicycles. It does not have the same potential and acerbity as “Unorthodox,” but a great deal has been conveyed. The story of a mother and daughter, and a co-wife who joins them is told behind closed doors. The scenario belongs to the director as well. Bahrain-based Mansour’s career and her other films are equally interesting. After all, she is a Muslim director favored and praised by Western media!
Wadjda is a young girl in the "Matilda" phase of her life who has her rebellious moments. While in school, she befriends Abdullah, who is from her neighborhood. They have minor conflicts but Wadjda never allows anything to slide. She doesn’t even let him have her sandwich. During these small conflicts, Wadjda ascertains that the reason behind the male child’s superiority is his owning a bicycle. So, throughout the film, she tries to obtain one. Despite the warning that “girls do not ride,” she does not give up and risks everything. As a matter of fact, in order to buy the bicycle with her own money, she works as a messenger between the older girls and boys and delivers their letters. Of course, she gets caught every time! When Wadjda’s efforts to earn money prove fruitless, she unwillingly joins the school’s Quran recitation competition and wins. When the teacher asks during her award speech what she is going to do with her prize money, her response, “I am going to get a bicycle,” causes a chill in the school hall. The school principal does not allow it and announces that Wadjda “donated the award to her Palestinian brothers and sisters.”
Here I would like to mention a TV series that reflects the changing balances in Arab-Israeli relations, and which has been occupying the agenda during Ramadan: “Um Haroun,” in other words, Haroun’s mother. This series turns upside down all theories of the Arab world regarding Palestine. Hence, don’t be quick to say, “It’s just a TV series, take no notice,” because cinema is always political.
Um Haroun, which is broadcast on Saudi Arabia’s MBC1 channel, started airing in Ramadan and is set in Kuwait. The series is an important step toward persuading the masses during the process of normalizing Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel. It takes a look at the relations between the Jews and Muslims in Kuwait during the 1940s, and the exile of the 200 Jewish families there. In the opening speech, one of the Jewish characters says, “We will be defeated by time before our footsteps disappear and our lives become memories. We are the Gulf Jews born on Gulf lands.” In the series starring Saudi and Kuwaiti actors, Jews are portrayed as being “deprived of justice” in an Arab country. Additionally, focusing on the Jews of Kuwait and their relations with their Muslim neighbors presents an entirely different perspective for Arab television. The film is discussed in Israel. Israel’s military speaker says, “The conclusion we have reached from the anti-Jewish reactions seen during the broadcast of Um Haroun is that we are not a victimized nation making calls for help today,” while an Israeli journalist states, “We want Kuwaiti citizenship.” The original title deeds of those who have homes and shops there has come up on the agenda. Kuwaitis saying that there are numerous errors in the series and arguing that it is twisting history have taken the matter to parliament.
The dialogues in the series that support the theory that Jews have been on those lands since the beginning of time reverse the whole discourse established upon rejecting the existence of the Israeli state until now. The message, “We are now friends with Israel,” is clear in the dialogue between the actors. The character played by Saudi actor Rashid al-Shamrani says, “Like it or not, Israel exists,” and also encourages his daughter’s friendship with Israeli children through online games. The entirely changed discourse and the responses to objections are all included in the series. The scenario points out that while Palestine is the nation most helped by Saudi Arabia, they are also the ones who act as the greatest enemy. The claims in this series, which aim to normalize relations with Israel, are currently being applied. It was discussed a great deal on social media two days ago. The Palestinian administration reacted harshly against the aid sent from the UAE (one of the financiers of the series) which was delivered to Ben Gurion airport without notifying Palestinian administration officials. This incident was interpreted as an indication that Israel will be the sole addressee concerning Palestinians.
Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Abdulrahman Al-Rashed’s article regarding the series which was published in Turkish is also important. “The claim that co-existing with Jews reflects the reality of today,” and Rashed mentioning Turkish series, should be considered the Saudi administration’s claim and purpose. Do not call it a mere TV series.