How does one find true love in a repressive society where a man and a woman, who aren’t related, are not allowed to be seen together in public?
How does one enjoy a first date when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder for fear of being ambushed and arrested by the federally-sanctioned Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (a.k.a, the Religious Police)?
This is the dilemma that is posed and explored in the Saudi Arabian romantic comedy, Barakah Meets Barakah.
In the film, Barakah Urabi, a male municipal code enforcer in the coastal city of Jeddah, and Barakah (Bibi) Harith, a female Instagram star who hails from a wealthy family, feel a “cosmic connection” that goes beyond their shared forename.
Yet, they have a hard time connecting face-to-face in a society where wealthy families still dictate who their offspring will marry; where a woman who posts selfies and vlogs on Instagram is considered loose; and where men are still playing the female roles in stage productions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Amazingly enough, the film was shot in Jeddah, the country’s second largest city; and was Saudi Arabia’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2017 Academy Awards.
This was a bit surprising to me, because the film is quite critical of how the country’s laws are stifling entrepreneurs, artists and romantics in search of love.
Yet, perhaps the government’s approval and support of this film is an optimistic portend of less repressive policies to come. A year after Barakah Meets Barakah debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival, Saudi Arabia announced women would be allowed to drive starting in June 2018.
The film itself is really well-written, with layers and nuances and plenty of old-fashioned longing and angst – both the romantic angst of a young man who has a good job and a good heart, but has never had a first kiss; and the angst of a young woman who longs for the societal freedom to live life on her own terms.
The film also provides a brief history lesson that Saudi Arabia hasn’t always been so repressive and repressed. In fact, before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government was much more liberal. Women were free to wear short skirts and socialize with men; artists were celebrated and able to express themselves; and public life did not revolve solely around the dictates of interpreters of the Koran.
Hopefully in the pendulum that is life and history, Saudi Arabia is slowly beginning to swing back in the other direction.
Some films inspire me to travel to a place. Barakah Meets Barakah is not that kind of film. I’m sure there are many lovely sights to see and experiences to be had in Saudi Arabia, but as a woman, I prefer to journey to places where I can walk around freely and safely, not having to don a burqa or pretend a man is my husband.
I have been to Muslim countries, like Turkey and Jordan, where women are not treated and viewed as second-class citizens to the extent to which they are in nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Instead, what Barakah Meets Barakah provides, especially to people who have not journeyed in the Middle East, is a glimpse into what life is like in an Arabian society like Saudi Arabia.
There is much beauty and poetry and joie de vivre to be found on the Arabian Peninsula and surrounds. From the traditional way some men dress – in pristine, white thawbs (robes) that look masculine, pure and sexy (on some men) all at the same time.
To the jaw-droppingly intricate designs, wood carvings and tile work to be found inside the cool sanctuary of a centuries-old mosque.
To the teas and the shawarmas and the hookahs!
All of these make an authentic appearance in the film, alongside the reality that people and families in Saudi Arabia are just like you and me in so many ways.
They worry about finding love, they don’t like their jobs, they look to older family members for advice, they try to talk their way out of getting a ticket, they have illogical superstitions, they celebrate births, they hate The Man, etcetera.
Every human society is repressive in one way or another, some more than others. For those of us who live in less repressive societies, we take for granted things we don’t even know we can take for granted. Like the ability to go on an innocent date in public without fear of being locked up and publicly shamed by the Religious Police.
So, the next time you find yourself on a bad date – after you’ve texted your friend to call you in 2 minutes with an emergency so you can abandon ship – just smile and think:
How lucky am I to have the freedom to be on this awful trainwreck of a date in the first place!
Available on Netflix (as of January 2018)
Runtime: 1 hour 28 minutes