Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - In the summer of 2006, I partnered with my friend Dania Nassief to establish our own production company in Jeddah. We wanted to tell the world the stories hardly ever told of Saudi life and culture.
The paper chase was long and drawn out. Currently, Saudi Arabian regulations require the general manager of a production company to be male. As women, we not only wanted to own the production company ourselves, but we also wanted to manage it. It took us some time to petition the government for this right. But finally, two years later, Dania and I are licensed and practicing.
Our goal at Eggdancer Productions is to produce inquiring and moving programs that examine social, cultural and religious issues. We believe in using the media to affect social change and are committed to fostering dialogue and greater understanding amongst the people of this region, and to bring their stories, concerns, values and ideas to the rest of the world.
Most people probably wouldn’t put Saudi Arabia on their list of vacation destinations. Unless you’re coming for work or pilgrimage, there is no easy way to get into Saudi as a tourist. In general, people don’t get to see Saudi Arabia unless it’s in the news where it is usually painted in a less than flattering light.
Eggdancer Production, serving as the field coordinator for a programme on the Travel Channel, recently had the opportunity to show the world a little bit about Saudi Arabia – that Saudi women can be strong in charge, that we have malls similar to those in America, and that we like to enjoy our time with family and friends, like everyone else. I had won the first-ever “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations FAN-atic Special” casting call competition for a television show on the Travel Channel. The contest required individuals to send in videotapes explaining why the show’s host, chef and author, Anthony Bourdain, should visit the contestants’ hometowns.
When I first met him in New York City as he was vetting the contestants, Tony asked me repeatedly whether I thought he would have fun in Saudi, reflecting a common bias in Western media that Saudi Arabia does not value leisure and recreation, and that local inhabitants are sombre, serious, or even evil.
When he arrived in Jeddah, we dined together at a local fast food restaurant, went fishing for fresh fish in the desert, and played air hockey at the local Red Sea Mall. His answer to my frequent question – “So, are you having fun?” – was a resounding “yes”.
Although Tony never spoke to me about his expectations of Saudi Arabia, in the narration of his Jeddah episode he commented how he was surprised to find that Saudis were people with a sense of humour and who could laugh at themselves: “There’s a cheerful, whimsical, good-humoured and sophisticated atmosphere very much at odds with the kinds of humourless fanaticism I was led to expect”.
I think Tony’s revelation helped a lot of people see a different side of Saudis than that depicted on television or in movies.
In other attempts to transform perceptions, we have filmed people performing the Hajj for the documentary, The Straight Path: Pillars of Islam, a teacher’s aid for high school and university students in the West. Using interviews and observational footage filmed in colourful locations in Mecca, the documentary introduces a non-Muslim audience to the basic tenants of a Muslim’s faith.
We are in a unique position because of our ability to understand both the Eastern and Western mentality and to navigate seamlessly between both worlds. Although I live in Saudi Arabia now, I was born in Bismarck, North Dakota, and spent many summers there with my mother’s side of the family. I later went to school at both the University of San Diego and San Diego Sate University. I still spend a lot of time in the United States visiting friends and family whenever I get the chance. And Dania lived in the UK for a few years while she was attending graduate school.
We are lucky to be on the ground in Saudi. It is difficult to obtain visas and shooting permissions when coming from abroad, and in a time when all eyes are on Saudi Arabia, we are able to leave our offices, cameras in hand, and tell the story without going through that hassle.
Most stories in or about Saudi Arabia are done from the perspective of non-Arabs or non-Muslims, and are sensationalised versions of the same story being told over and over. We want to tell different stories, from the perspective of the people on this side of the world, tailored for a western audience so that we might do our part to help build bridges of understanding between these different parts of the world.
* Danya M. Alhamrani is a co-founder, along with Dania Nassief, of Eggdancer Productions, an independent film and television production company based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 September 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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