Kuwaiti show The Exchange reveals the glam and roar of the 1980s stock market

The series tells the story of two cousins who became the first women on the country's stock exchange

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Netflix’s newest Arabic Original, The Exchange, follows the story of two women as they take on the Kuwaiti stock market in the 1980s, with all the glam and roar of the decade.

Before high-speed internet revolutionised the international market, the stock exchange was arguably an even more ruthless place than it is now, as traders had to jostle for shares in mosh pit-like swarms, under the chaos of telephone calls, wailing faxes and snaking duplicity.

It was no different in Kuwait. The country boasted the third-largest stock market, only behind the US and Japan, while it was still running in a parking garage — a site that had once been a camel market.

At the beginning of The Exchange, the Kuwaiti stock market has already become an official establishment, on par with its global counterparts. In the midst of this cut-throat bustle are cousins Farida and Muneera — characters who are inspired by the first women in the Kuwaiti stock market — disrupting the all-boys club while dressed in the best of 1980s fashion, including pencil skirts and padded shoulders.

“Muneera is a strong, independent woman,” Mona Hussain, the Kuwaiti actress who takes on the role of one of the show’s two protagonists, tells The National.

“She knows what she wants. She is focused on her goals. She meets her challenges with the aim of overcoming them. Even when she helps others, she has her own motives for doing so. She wants to be successful, that’s her main goal.”

While Muneera is driven by personal ambition, her cousin Farida, played by Rawan Mahdi, has another motive. Recently divorced and in a precarious financial position, she seeks to provide for herself and her daughter as she is faced with mounting tuition bills her ex-husband refuses to pay.

“It is also a coming-of-age story in a way,” Karim El Shenawy, who directed the series alongside Jasem AlMuhanna, says. “The series shows a woman going through a tough divorce and rediscovering herself. On the opposite side, there’s Muneera, who is strong and unstoppable.”

Despite being the only two women on the trade floor, there is also a searing rivalry between them.

“There’s no sisterhood between them,” El Shenawy says. “There’s actually competition between them, which made the story special. It’s not a stereotypical female drama. There’s quite a lot of tension between them.”

These elements, El Shenawy says, give The Exchange a universal timbre, ensuring that it will resonate with a larger audience beyond the Middle East.

“The story is set in Kuwait in the 1980s, but it may apply now in another country as well. It will still apply 20 years from now in different contexts.”

The Exchange is written by Nadia Ahmad, Anne Sobel and Adam Sobel. The show’s producer, Abdullah Boushahri, says a great deal is inspired by Ahmad’s childhood as she witnessed her mother take on the male-dominated stock market in 1980s Kuwait.

“It is inspired by true events,” he says. “Obviously some characters and events were fictionalised. It started with Nadia’s childhood story and then grew with Adam and Anne’s writing team.”

The Exchange is also alluring in the way it recreates 1980s Kuwait, which, El Shenawy says, was done by scouring antique shops and thrift stores in the country and the US.

El Shenawy explains he was initially worried about whether the show’s stylists and set designers would find all the props needed. When doing a period piece, one detail out of place can inhibit the audience from immersing into its world.

“It’s how you believe you’re in this era. I talked to the prop master of the show, and he took me into a room with old computers, televisions and keyboards, and I knew we were safe," he says.

"In a period drama, you can have great performances and a great storyline, but a wrong prop would take you out of this world. For the show to come this way is really a collaborative work..”

While the wardrobe goes a long way in establishing the year the show is set in, El Shenawy says the show’s stylist was also careful about faithfully replicating the hair and make-up.

“People wear things from the 1980s now in 2023,” he says. “It really was the hair and make-up that helped make that distinction.”

Boushahri has developed a penchant for producing period projects, including Netflix’s first Kuwaiti series The Cage, featuring several cast members of The Exchange, including Mahdi and Hussain AlMahdi.

“[It is] the same team that worked with me last year. We’ve done some period pieces and we’re lucky enough to have done those to lead us to this moment. It was almost like we were training for this moment in the stock exchange," he says.

While The Exchange presents a milestone in his career, Boushahri is intent on making more period features set in the region.

“I love period pieces,” he says. “Kuwait has a lot of history, the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s were rich in events, from war to fashion, sports, arts and politics. There are many stories I want to tell.”

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Updated: February 09, 2023, 4:29 PM