66 years later, first Saudi woman to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Maisah Sobaihi, a Saudi academic and artist, is presenting her first play, Head Over Heels, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, thus becoming the first Saudi actress to perform at the 66 year old event.
The play, in which Sobaihi plays a number of female characters, deals with the reality of Saudi women, but is not intended to portray the problems of Saudi women as expected by Western audiences. Rather, it approaches stories from the reality of women in Saudi Arabia.
The title implies falling in love, but when it was performed in Saudi Arabia, Sobaihi decided to retain the English title and transliterate it into Arabic. “I did not translate the title into Arabic as I don’t like the literal translation. When we were preparing the Arabic performance, we didn’t translate it but I did strongly consider the title ‘Congratulations’ for the play, particularly as it revolves around the topics of marriage and divorce,” the writer and performer said in an interview Asharq Al-Awsat.
“This is the first play I have presented. I have loved the theater since my childhood. I took part in theatrical activities at school and at university as well, and I have written other texts, but this is my first play to come into action and achieve some success”, she told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“I’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival before, and I realized that it was very expensive,” Sobaihi explains, as she tells how she had to save up before she could produce the play in its current form. Nonetheless, she managed to return to Edinburgh to become the first female Saudi artist to produce a play at the Fringe. In doing so, she joined the ranks of Saudi director Haifa Al-Mansour, whose film Wajda—which recently premiered in London—was the first feature length film to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia. “Many people told me this, and I hope to meet Haifa.”
Head Over Heels is entirely Sobaihi’s work—she is the producer and actor, as well as having prepared and supervised the theatrical lighting and decoration. “I won’t deny, of course, that I had a team working with me in Jeddah, but the main ideas were mine. I chose, for example, to split the stage into three different rooms and I also specified the lighting requirements.”
The play revolves around more than one character, and they are all played by Sobaihi. She narrates, connects the various segments, and calls on the spectators to interact with her as she goes out of character and speaks directly with the audience. She even invites those watching the play to participate in a traditional dance during a wedding scene.
The stories that are presented are inspired by society, she says. “It expresses the voice of Saudi women in various situations and is inspired by mingling with my friends in the community and the different stories surrounding their experiences of marriage and divorce, as well as my own experience and my life as a divorced woman in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia]”, Sobaihi reveals.
Before Edinburgh, Sobaihi presented her play at Effat College in Jeddah, and on a small scale in New York and Connecticut. There, she received encouraging feedback: “I was comfortable with the reactions—it was welcomed, supported and encouraged by those who saw the play.”
After showcasing her play in Edinburgh, Sobaihi is set to take her performance back to Saudi Arabia to present it in a number of different locations. “We shall take the show beyond Edinburgh, because many people haven’t seen it and are asking to see it. As such, we will show it in Saudi Arabia and perhaps other Arab countries”, she says.
In Sobaihi’s perspective, the play is an attempt to convey the voice of Saudi Arabian women to the outside world: “We want to show the world that we are active, and to break through the stereotype depicting Arab women as ineffective and oppressed within society.”
She hopes that “this message has successfully been transferred to the audience, since many people told me that the play affected them and changed their mind about women within the Kingdom.”