Maisah Sobaihi: Heard the one about the Saudi woman at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Nick Clark meets a performer who wants to tell a different Arab story

A female Saudi academic will become the first person from the Arab country to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – in a play designed to smash Western pre-conceptions.

Maisah Sobaihi hopes her one-woman show will demonstrate how women “are contributing to society and social development” in Saudi Arabia – and stress the recent positive developments in a country notorious for its sexist attitudes.

The academic, writer and performer will stage Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia for two weeks at Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall, starting later this month.

She has spent seven years developing the show – which has a light-hearted tone and is not intended as a protest work – to lift the veil on what it is like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia.

Ms Sobaihi, who lectures at a Jeddah university, told The Independent: “Women have always been a very positive force in Saudi Arabia; they are just a bit more visible now.

“It’s a reality that we can’t drive, but that does not define us. We are productive women and that is something I would like to put forward.

“Women are contributing to society and social development. The fact that there are 30 women in parliament is a development. I’m trying to show some positive elements. Yes we have challenges but we’re facing them.” 

Ms Sobaihi said there was a “need for greater dialogue between the West and Saudi Arabia. Little is known and women are portrayed from the outside in a certain light that isn’t correct. I’m sure people are surprised a woman can stand on the stage in the first place.”

From 2015, women will be able to vote for the first time, and King Abdullah has implemented some reforms, but women still face restrictions on travel abroad, driving and cycling, and some are electronically monitored.

Ms Sobaihi has spent much of her savings to bring the play to the Fringe, but she said that being the first Saudi to perform there – according to the organisers – gave her “goosebumps”.

“So little is known about Saudi Arabia, but more and more Saudi artists are coming to the outside world now. I am happy to be a part of that group,” she said. “It just so happens I’m hitting Edinburgh first.”

It has been a long time in the making, as the academic and performer said she had first planned to come to the Fringe six years ago.

“It was too ambitious as I didn’t realise it would be so expensive. So I realised I had to keep saving,” she said. “It took me a few years but now I’m putting in most of my savings to come and create that dialogue.”

While Ms Sobaihi was born in Saudi Arabia to Saudi parents, part of her childhood was spent in California and she studied for a doctorate in London at Kings College.

She defines herself as “conservative” and said she had never fallen foul of the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. “I have been working on the norms. My objective is not to upset anyone but move forward in a way that is better for everyone. “

Ms Sobaihi predicts that the performing arts are set to enjoy a boom in Saudi Arabia, helped by the construction of the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture and Arts, in the Eastern Province, which is due to open in 2015.

“The arts in Saudi Arabia have been really growing. I’m proud that Head over Heels was born there. I want to continue developing there.”

For the moment she is looking forward to bringing her play to Scotland, adding with a grin: “I have the confidence now to face the British critics who can be a bit harsh. I send them the message to go lightly on me.”

Tymoshenko pays a flying visit to fringe

Yevhenia Tymoshenko caused a stir in Edinburgh this week as she paid the festival a fleeting visit to support the play about the imprisonment of her mother, the former prime minister of Ukraine.

Who Wants to Kill Yulia Tymoshenko? prompted muted protests on its world premiere on Thursday with two Ukrainians, believed to be supporters of the current government, picketing the production. The production focuses on the former prime minister’s growing friendship with her cellmate, a prostitute framed for murder.

Nick Clark

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little