By Lara Brunt
In a society where privacy is highly valued and people do not traditionally discuss their private lives in public, asking strangers to share their most intimate stories is quite an audacious concept. But in late 2015, that’s exactly what actress and artist Fatima Al-Banawi set out to do.
After completing her master’s degree in theology at Harvard University, the Jeddah native – best known for her starring role in Saudi Arabia’s first romantic comedy film, Barakah Meets Barakah –was keen to turn her academic study of issues such as identity, religion and culture into something more personal.
“There was a yearning to hear people’s stories in their own voices, instead of resorting to an intermediary. And having been the only Saudi at the Harvard School of Divinity, there was also a sense of exhaustion at being the spokesperson for [all] Saudis,” says Fatima.
She started collecting anonymous, handwritten, single-page stories at booths set up in cafés and bazaars around Jeddah. Since then, Fatima has gathered 5,000 real-life experiences from Saudi locals for her bold cultural experiment called The Other Story. The stories have been shared on social media, inspired a performance art series, and will feature in a soon-to-be published book alongside her own personal memoir of losing her grandfather.
“There was a yearning to hear people’s stories in their own voices, instead of resorting to an intermediary.”
Some stories, like a woman who starts driving herself after being less than impressed by her male driver’s skill behind the wheel, are funny and uniquely Saudi; others, such as those dealing with the death of a family member, are both deeply personal and poignantly universal.
“Initially, people were very shy and I was shy [about approaching strangers], but there was a belief in the power of storytelling which kept pushing me onward,” she says. The turning point came in 2017 when Fatima wrote and performed a piece inspired by the project at the annual 21,39 Jeddah Arts festival. Featuring five male and female performers, it weaved together 15 stories from the collection to tell the story of a young man from birth until adulthood, when he falls in love with a divorcee.
“The audience were crying and hugging and people immediately went to the booth to write their own stories,” says Fatima. “The stories also started to become deeper and more intimate – people allowed more vulnerability to surface. Since then, my name has shifted from being an actress to being ‘the storyteller’.”
The Kingdom is experiencing an unprecedented era of social change, fuelled by the explosion of social media and a millennial Crown Prince. “The project has happened in parallel with these social changes, but the first performance in Jeddah was before a lot of the official changes were implemented so there was definitely a sense of readiness,” says Fatima.
But it is not just the younger generation who are eager to embrace more openness towards sharing personal experiences in society. “A lot of the people who write their stories are actually from my mom’s generation,” says Fatima. “The emotional engagement tells me that there’s so much potential to connect, share and grow collectively than there ever has been.”
As the project has progressed, seven main themes have emerged, including travel, career choices, love and relationships, loss and grief, and family. “The themes happened organically – I just read the stories and noticed there were patterns. They are very universal, but perhaps some themes are more specific to Saudi or Muslim society, such as relationship stories,” says Fatima.
Anonymity and word of mouth have been vital in encouraging Saudis to willingly write about subjects for The Other Story project that society has long viewed as private, but Fatima is also keenly aware that society needs time to adjust to the changing mood. “There’s still a point where the storytellers are self-censoring,” says Fatima. “But I’m trusting the process and the time that people need to open up, and gradually we’re opening up and unfolding.”
To read some of the stories click here.
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Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has previously written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and World Traveller.
*This story has been corrected to reflect that there were five performers, not forty, in The Other Story project’s 21,39 performance.