I don't always understand why a lot of the blogs in the Saudi Blogosphere (this and this, for example) are loaded with bitterness about the social and cultural scenes there.
When in fact, and in matter of daily practice, is not so bad, really. When was the last time you went out in Jeddah? Sure, Jeddah isn't exactly London or Lebanon, but it's not Lhokseumawe or Kabul either.
Maybe I hang out with the deviant and elite crowd too much, but allow me a minute to explain what's so ordinary about being in Jeddah, compared to being in Jakarta or Johannesburg.
The Coffee Shop Scene
The last time I was in Jeddah, Ramadhan 1429H/2008AD, felt like I never got into the Saudi borders. Most of the people I hung out with – either at home or somewhere in Hamra or Khalidiyyah – weren't acting like my old school friends from tahfeez elementary school.
Let's break up my definition of a group into individuals. In a randomly chosen photo taken from one these hangout events, you'll see guys sitting beside girls who are sitting beside older women who are sitting with their toddlers. The only Saudi-ish thing about this scene is that all the girls are wearing the same dress-colour, since Abayas aren't yet accepted in any other color than black.
In another memory snap, a non-Saudi guy sits beside his not-very-Saudi girlfriend, trying to steal kisses from our international (American, Lebanese, Saudi, Indonesian, Jordanian) rolling eyes. We hold back a gag reflex, but we don't yell at them to get a room or anything, after all, we're still in Saudi, right?
[A guy can't bring a girl to his hotel bedroom without marriage certificates. So, not hooting at them actually discourages from theft and fraud. Not the sex. And that's very Saudi, by the way. But that's beside the point.]
In a third frame, three uncovered Saudi girls: One with a very-Ghamdi nose looking at an Asian, who is looking at a genetic confusion of a Chinese-Arab-Indian, who had an ear to ear grin; pantomiming a gesture of an indecent thought. Did I mention that it didn't feel very Saudi in Jeddah anymore?
I think this is what's so cool about Jeddah, being it the gate to the cities of pilgrimage: People are less, much, much less xenophobic than in, say, Riyadh. At least compared to the social scenes written by bloggers from Riyadh. You know who you are.
The Gulf Film Festival Scene
Just off the borders of Saudi Arabia, in an even more laid back town called Dubai, we find an international film festival with participants and viewers from the Arab Region.
Unlike the femininely-barren scene of Saudi professional sports, the Saudi Movie Industry flourishes the Gulf Film Festival (GFF) red carpet with a whopping number of 27 movies. Which is considered a huge number considering the fact that photographs, music and acting were all considered haram in my tahfeez school days.
Not to mention the mixing of opposite sexes during movie production. Not to mention dating or having a bunch of guys giving a farewell-party for a departing girl. Which is the setting in my brother's movie, by the way.
The Scenes from "Badri?"
All indoor scenes were shot in my mother's basement, who must've smiled and waved at every boy and girl passing by her study/TV room, while half-heartedly worried about the religious police noticing the traffic.
The movie's cast and crew were recruited based on blood relationship, availability from college exams, or coincidentally being in Jeddah due to iqama renewals (the lead actress is currently in South Africa, the lead singer is in Pakistan).
Behind the scene and during post-production stage, Anggi discovered that he had shot too many takes for every single scene, which was reasonable during production stage because his lead actors had to live their normal lives off and abroad of Saudi Arabia. But it also resulted in a lot of film garbage piling up and months of reorganizing and classes to skip and exams to flunk; to eventually come out with the simple, symbolically responsible story that made the soul of "Badri?" as beautiful as it is.
Which resulted in my phone getting occasionally hailed with messages of frustrated garble; similar to the swings that artists would have to go through in redemption for their genius.
Which is why the movie is so fun to watch.
The Closing Scene
I don't really know what it's like in other Saudi towns, but looking at how Jeddah's youthful energy have molded its current scenes, I dare say that we've gone a long way; culturally, socially and – yeah – clerically.
Maybe because time has changed since 9/11. Maybe the King is more reasonable these days. Maybe the voices heard on the Saudi blogosphere, nagging for improvements really have finally been heard.
I won't bet on finding women driving so fast around here, nor even getting respect for showing up on TV, but I dare put all my chips on the belief that – one way to another – the folks in Saudi, and especially in Jeddah, are heading in the right way.
I hope to see you there soon.
"Badri?" will hit the big screen in Gulf Film Festival on Sunday, April 12 at 15:30, and Wednesday, April 15 at 14:15. Be there for me. Yes, you too.