MBC’s Alasouf boldly recounts 1970s Saudi Arabia and its women
Only a few days into its on-air debut, Alasouf has already captivated Ramadan drama TV audiences across the Arab world and in its home market, Saudi Arabia. The TV drama series sets the scene for an unconventional chain of events, taking place in 1970s Saudi Arabia; an era for Saudi society that sits in stark contrast with its reality today.
Based on late Saudi author Abdulrahman Al Waeli’s short novel Houses of Sand, Alasouf, directed by Syrian Al-Muthanna Sobh, is a lengthy and detailed recollection of Saudi Arabia’s transformation from one societal extreme to the other; the 1970s marking a turning point in this transformation with the emergence of religious fundamentalism, a period that was associated with an “awakening current” of sorts in the Kingdom.
MBC’s latest drama hit is not a one-sided, but rather, a multi-layered look at life in Saudi Arabia over five turnkey years in its sociocultural history, from 1970 to 1975; a depiction of the events, cultural and economic realities, public opinion and schools of thought, commerce and trade, and family units and dynamics in the Kingdom of the time.
The word “Alasouf”, itself deeply engrained in Khaleeji culture, implies, in its most proverbial sense, a “storm power” that drives winds of change. In Arabic, “to be faster than Alasouf” is a common expression used to describe record speed and, in the past, often referred to “strong winds”. In the context of Alasouf, the drama series, the word carries a double meaning, referring both to ideologies that radically transformed and reshaped Saudi society in the 1970s, and to the show’s more subtle call to reverses forces that intruded Saudi society.
Women of Saudi Arabia past
The show, starring the outspoken – and often, controversial – Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi, already found itself at the center of social media debates in its first few episodes; particularly on what was portrayed by the series as a forgiving, peaceful and goodwill society that treated women as equals in public and private life – from their state of affairs and rights, down to their fashion – before developments unfolded against them.
One particular scene from the show, where the character played by Saudi actress Laila Al-Salman receives her new neighbor, who goes by “Umm Rashed” (Rashed’s mother), for a visit, shows a laxer and unrestricted environment for Saudi women’s social and daily lives. Women in the show also donned simpler, less conservative and less traditional fashion – in contrast with today’s current compulsory code on women to cover their faces and, often, wear black.
The big deal
Naturally, while the show’s shock value and sensitive topic made for big ratings and critical conversations, it also made for a great deal of controversy. Many accused the show of attempts to defame the Kingdom’s and Saudi society’s image. Others came out with more serious accusations that Alasouf was promoting liberalism at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s deep-rooted values system.
Show critics came to the defense of post-1970s Saudi Arabia, an era they consider to have moved the society away from sinful ways of life, and closer to religious and spiritual commitment.
Still, many in the Saudi Twittersphere praised Alasouf , which they believed was a turning point in the history of Saudi arts, a bold and truthful masterpiece of Saudi drama.
The show’s supporters, pointing to the impossibility of a flawless society, said that arts played a central role in documenting an depicting a society with all its rawness and flaws, and in forcing it to reexamine itself and move forward – and in this sense, Alasouf will have done just that.
Al-Salman, who expressed her gratitude to take part in this turnkey drama for Saudi Arabia, hoped that the show’s historical and societal significance would leave its mark on both Saudi and Khaleeji audiences.
An established actress, Al-Salman admits to the great responsibility she felt playing her role, among a diversity of characters that the show portrayed. Also joining the series’ cast, Saudi actress Reem Abdallah echoed Al-Salman’s sentiment, adding that Alasouf had a lot of details that “other shows missed”. Commenting on her character, Juhair, who falls in love with her cousin and ends up marrying him, Abdallah describes her as a tough, but not imposing character, and one of her most favorite throughout her acting career.
The balancing act
Perhaps Alasouf’s timely and opportune context is all the more reason why it garnered so much attention – even if unwanted in many cases. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been leading a national drive for change tackling all facets of Saudi society, most notably, promising to eradicate “extremism”, and reversing its aftershocks to reestablish normalcy in the daily life of Saudi society.
Prince bin Salman affirmed that, while perceived as bold moves paving for change, his recent decisions were nothing more than a return to Saudi Arabia’s previous era of “moderate Islam”, and one that is open to all religions, traditions and people.
“We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness […] so that we coexist with the world and become part of the development of the world […] Some clear steps were taken recently and I believe we will obliterate the remnants of extremism very soon,” said the Crown Prince in one of his public appearances, adding: "I don't think this is a challenge. It reflects our values of forgiveness, righteousness and moderation. Righteousness is on our side."