A drama series aired on mbc television during the holy fasting month of Ramadan has drawn attention for tackling a period of Saudi history that is seldom addressed.
Prominent Saudi actor Nasser al-Qasabi stars in “Al-Asouf”, the drama that has become the talk of the people and social media throughout the Arab world.
Nasser bin Qassem al-Qasabi, 56, is one of the most famous actors in the Arab world. He kicked off his career 34 years ago. Asharq Al-Awsat sat with him to address the controversy surrounding the show and the current artistic scene in Saudi Arabia.
The actor has courted controversy every year, to which he remarked: “I do not know why that is. It appears that our society is a bit too conservative and our media too calm.”
“Of course, it is not deliberate otherwise it would be silly because you would come out as obsessed with riling a certain segment of society. This is not conducive to a healthy environment,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat by telephone.
Saudi society does not seem accustomed to viewing programs that openly address its customs and traditions.
“People will disagree or differ with you when you address sensitive issues or when they have bizarre ideas about issues that should be off-limits,” Qasabi said. “They also have a tendency to exaggerate the idea of an ideal society. When you speak about this society, the so-called ‘enlightened’ ones are quick to attack you.”
“‘Al-Asouf’ is a drama show, not a documentary. Had it been so, it would have been shot differently,” he went on to say.
The series depicts a family that lives in a traditional neighborhood during the 1970s and the developments that take place there, as well as on the overall Arab scene.
“The developments include the 1973 war, the Israeli invasion, the death of King Faisal and the Iranian revolution,” revealed Qasabi. “We are pointing out to the viewers the history that the family is experiencing without really documenting that history. We are not concerned with that.”
“The issue of the Muslim Brotherhood has been at the foundation of our work for several years. We had a clear stance from the group even before it transformed into a terrorist organization for us. We had started work on the show over seven years ago and we completed the first part over four years ago. We knew at the time which path the Brotherhood was going to follow.”
“The show is not a documentary, even when it addresses the Brotherhood. The majority of the dialogue is simply about making observations, without going into details of events.”
“We sought to avoid delving into the details of the Brotherhood, but we sought to highlight its infiltration of society,” Qasabi told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“Al-Asouf” completed filming two years ago, but was not aired until 2018. Qasabi denied that censors were involved in the delay, explaining that it was set to air four or five months before Ramadan, but structural changes at mbc led to its being broadcast two weeks before the holy month.
“This is confusing, even for me as an actor,” he admitted.
The series will have two more seasons. Season two was wrapped in early 2018 and the third season will be filmed after three months, he revealed.
Commenting on criticism that the show does not represent Saudi Arabia or its people, Qasabi responded: “Everyone has the right to criticize any work. They also have the right to like it or not. What bothers you though is that the general media and cultural scenes judge you on your work and impose themselves on you. They do not even understand the game.”
“They look at you as if you come from Hollywood or Cairo’s artistic environment. They do not see that you have to work in a very poor artistic environment that does not even have the basics to produce a dramatic work, whether they are writers, directors or photographers,” he explained.
“I would respect anyone who has an objective opinion, but not when they speak down at you,” he stressed. “You should not be so critical when I present a series from such a modest artistic background.”
“Thank God that we are now starting to realize the importance of theater and drama. We will now be able to pave the way for artistic scene of the future that would be able to produce works to rival and even possibly surpass Egyptian ones,” he stated.
Despite the criticism, Qasabi said that “Al-Asouf” was a success.
“Its value lies in drawing attention despite its flaws,” he explained. “No work of art is perfect, but the series has achieved its goal by reaching the people and provoking several of them. I have called this the ‘Great Provocation’ because it has stirred controversy and broken taboos.”
“Our society must grow accustomed to such issues. Other more powerful issues and stories will be put out in the open in the future. It will not stop here.”
“This is the nature of conservative societies. Taboos will be broken with time,” he declared.