A comedy out of life's tragedies

The chequered life of a Saudi woman has prompted her to write a play based on her experience and that of her countrywomen.

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JEDDAH // Wajnat al Rahbini, a former Saudi television star abandoned by her husband and disinherited by her brother, is readying the Eid debut of a play based on her real-life struggles as a woman in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Although movie theatres are not allowed in the country, playhouses are acceptable, and the all-female cast will be using the Jeddah municipality's theatre to perform Fat Fat Café, which will be open to women on the fifth day of Eid, at the end of next week.

Fat Fat Café is a comedy that chronicles the tragedies and victories of Ms al Rahbini, who is also the lead actress, and will serve as an exploration of many issues facing Saudi women. The eponymous Fat Fat, a common nickname for Fatimah, is a stand-in for Ms al Rahbini, who was married in her early 20s and then divorced at the age of 35, after being abandoned by the father of her three children. Adding to her misery, her rightful family inheritance was taken, by force, by her brother.

"I was silent for more than 20 years about my personal misery with my family, but I think it's the time to transform my misery into a comedy that entertains as well as informs the public on the injustice a Saudi female can endure," said Ms al Rahbini. "In our society we must respect the family name and solve our problems inside the family, but I suffered for long years because I was deprived from my father's wealth. I think my family will understand why I did this play," she said, while confirming that her family's female members are planning to attend.

Just as Ms al Rahbini did, Fat Fat opens a café to support her family after the divorce. However, in the play Fat Fat opens a female-only café with the help of her aunt, who contributes a portion of her house to the endeavour. The café becomes a place where women gather to discuss the joy and bitterness of their lives in a comic manner. In reality, Ms al Rahbini opened, at first, a café in one of Jeddah's business districts, populated almost entirely by men.

"I worked at that café for 18 years selling food and soft drinks to male customers, and because of that I was arrested many times by the religious police," she said. Although she obtained a special permit from the governor of Mecca to sell to males in public, the powerful and semi-autonomous police regularly arrested her for violating public conduct laws. Ms al Rahbini then opened a small restaurant that sold traditional Hijazi food for Saudi families. The restaurant attracted media attention in early 2008 after religious extremists attacked her at the restaurant and destroyed some of the kitchen equipment there.

Ms al Rahbini, who is originally from Mecca, began acting in 1970, after her divorce, and eventually became famous for her role as a Hijazi woman on many of the Saudi channel MBC's popular soap operas. She originally went into the restaurant business because her salary as an actress, at least in the early years, was barely enough to support her children. Even after finding success on television, she maintained her restaurant, which eventually led to problems.

Her popularity as a Saudi actress provoked the anger of many conservatives, who regarded her appearance on public television as a disgrace to Saudi traditions. "The people who attacked my restaurant told me that I'm a kafir, a disbeliever in God. This is only because I appeared on TV with other males," she explained. One of the men involved in the attack filed a defamation case against her because she described him as a "terrorist" to the media.

"This is [one of] the normal struggles that Saudi women face in the country," said Soaad al Shammari, an activist and the kingdom's first female to defend women in Saudi courts although she has no law degree. "Wajnat was deprived of her father's wealth after he died ... this is a common practice in many parts of the country," added Mrs al Shammari, who co-produced the play with Ms al Rahbini. "I invested money in this play because al Rahbini's personal struggle with her family, her husband and the male-dominated society to earn a living is similar to [many] Saudi women's struggle," she added.

"The religious institutions are controlling the lives of women to the extent that they are becoming an obstacle for them to earn a living in a proper manner," Mrs al Shammari said. A number of Ms al Rahbini's friends and former colleagues are joining her in the play although all of them are appearing on stage for the first time. "I'm an actress in the public radio. This is the first time for me to act on stage in front of a live audience, but I'm acting in this play to support its noble cause," said Aisha Farhan, one of the supporting actresses.

The play will be directed by the Saudi director Hanaa Saleh al Fassi, who started her career as a documentary filmmaker and TV advertisement director almost five years ago after graduating from the media college at Ain Shamas University in Egypt. "The cast is inexperienced and our capabilities are very limited but I think we will succeed in this play," said Ms al Fassi, who is directing a play for the first time.