In 1980 the British Television channel ATV and the American television network PBS broadcasted a controversial docudrama called ‘Death of a Princess’ which told the true story of a Saudi princess named Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud who had been executed for adultery along with her 20-year-old lover Khaled Mulhallal al Sha’er. She had allegedly committed adultery by becoming romantically involved him, a serious no-no in Saudi society for the simple fact that they were unmarried. She tried to escape from the country disguised as a man but was caught along with Khaled at the Jeddah Airport and promptly returned to her family.
Under Saudi law, to be convicted you had to produce four male witnesses to the actual act of adultery or simply have one of the accused confess three times to having committed the offence. The princess’s family begged her not to confess and simply promise not to see the young man anymore. She refused and readily admitted to the charges, as a result she was condemned to death. At least that was the official version from the Saudi government. In reality, it’s probable that there had been no trial and she had simply been executed, on charges of adultery, for simply bringing dishonor to the family, which after all was ruling the roost in the country. Her execution had taken place in 1977 and received international coverage but soon died out. It was only after the film was broadcasted that her execution and the events surrounding it received wider audiences and shocked people about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
It’s also important to remember that in 1980, the Islamic world was put under a big microscope by the outside world due to events that were unfolding within its geography. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 had just overthrown the Shah of Iran and American diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran. The Grand Mosque in Mecca had been seized by militants and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Here in Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ programme was under full swing and Egypt had just signed a peace treaty with Israel. With all these seismic events taking place, many countries, particularly the Western nations were taking a greater interest in the politics and culture of the Islamic world. The so-called ‘Islamic revival’ made people in the West sit-up and take a closer look at the people, who in all essence, held the keys to the petrol pumps that were generating their economies.
No Middle Eastern country back then and now, held a greater economic value to the West than Saudi Arabia. It had the world’s largest oil reserves and as the birthplace of Islam was symbolically very important as an ally in the politics of the Cold War. Due to this ground reality, the West has normally looked the other way when it comes to the Kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, particularly when it comes to women. Having said that it is also important to note that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative society and the people there, including women, don’t take too kindly to outsiders lecturing them about democracy and human rights. The late Edward Said wrote in his book ‘Covering Islam’ that Muslim countries have always resisted the critical eyes of the West. Saudi Arabia and the criticism of its closed society is a case in point.
So when British director and journalist, Anthony Thomas first heard about the story of ‘the Princess who died for love’ at a London dinner party in 1977, he became intrigued. He pitched the idea about making a film about the incident to Britain’s ATV and Boston’s WGBH (which was a member of PBS) and received the green light. Having raised money from the two corporations along with companies in Holland, Australia and Japan, he then proceeded to conduct several interviews with people in the Middle East who had allegedly seen the execution or had heard about it and were deeply affected by it. In the end he directed the movie in the vein of a docudrama for an added dramatic effect.
In the film, Thomas is played as a journalist named Christopher Ryder (Paul Freeman) who like his real counterpart becomes fascinated by Princess Misha’al and her execution. Haunted by her story, Ryder travels to Beirut and ‘Arabia’ to interview people who knew the princess well, felt a sense of solidarity with her dilemma or simply condemned the actions that brought about her death. Whether it’s a German nanny who worked for the Saudi royal family, or ordinary Arabs trying to make sense of the events surrounding them, they are all affected by her story. One Arab in the film (played by Zia Mohyeddin) sums it up best, the princess was a symbol of the “whole Arab predicament; How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating?”
Despite hearing all these testimonies and views, Ryder is still baffled. Each person gives a ‘Rashamon’ style view of the events. Whether it Palestinians, Lebanese or Saudi officials, everyone has an opinion. They either support her rebellious action against a patriarchal society or criticise her for forgetting who she was and what was expected of a person of her background. The more liberal and secular Lebanese and Palestinians support her, while conservative Saudi citizens feel that she got what she deserved.
Whatever the viewpoint may be, Ryder is confused and simply cannot make head or tails of it. This bewilderment in a sense symbolises the inability for Westerners to understand Arab and Muslim societies. Issues such as honor, family, respect for cultural sensitivities and traditions don’t mean much in modern Western countries, but it does mean a great deal for the Arabs. In the end, Ryder returns to the UK and ends up the same as he was at the start of the film, completely bamboozled and unable to put a full stop to the princess’s story.
When ‘Death of a Princess’ finished filming, director Anthony Thomas apparently asked an Egyptian if he felt that there would be a backlash against it by the Saudi government. The Egyptian told him that they probably wouldn’t give a fig about. As it turned out Saudi officials had gotten word about it and were outraged by it, especially after they had seen an early viewing of it in London. They then responded with a thorough condemnation accusing the filmmakers of smearing the Saudi society. Under pressure, but refusing to shelve the film, ATV decided to put an introductory quote to the film which simply states:
“The program you are about to see is a dramatised reconstruction of events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world.”
But this didn’t satisfy the Saudi government who as it turned out threatened to cut diplomatic relations, along with lucrative business deals with the UK, over the film. This raised alarm bells in the corridors of power in London.
The British Foreign Office issued a statement stating;
“It is most unfortunate that Anglo-Saudi relations should have been damaged by a film for which the British government was in no way responsible and which it could not prevent from being shown on British TV or elsewhere. We hope it will be possible to restore relations on their normal level as soon as possible.”
At the same time many free speech activists were aghast at seeing democratic governments kowtowing to an absolute monarchy over a docudrama.
One Labor Party MP said that;
“It is undignified to see a British Foreign Secretary virtually apologising to a reactionary feudal state about what has been shown on TV in this country.”
The Saudi’s eventually did sway several Arab countries to ban the film, including Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon and Egypt. The Egyptian actress Suzanne Abou Taleb, who played the princess in the film, was severely criticised for participating in the production of the film. With the exception of Israel, no other country in the Middle East allowed the film to be broadcasted on television. However, with the advent of VCR’s at that time, copies of the film did filter through into several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
This film is important for several reasons, the most important of which is that the controversy that surrounded it in 1980 and the issues that were raised by it still resonate to this day. Whether it is about striking a balance between freedom of speech and respecting cultural sensitivities. Or simply the friction that comes about with a more interdependent world, all that is weighed in here.
Another important point to make here is that technology and the free flow of information makes it virtually impossible to shut out controversial subjects. Having an obscurantist approach to issues does not help; in fact it only makes things worse no matter how legitimate the grievance is.
You can call this film propaganda, a mishmash of facts or whatever else. But it was a landmark in the docudrama genre and showed how international relations can seriously be affected by film making.
*Quotes used in the review are from a study on the film titled “Death of a Princess” controversy by Thomas White and Gladys Ganley; published by Harvard University.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org