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SAUDI ARABIA: Going to the movies for the first time in decades

December 23, 2008 |  7:12 am

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For decades, Saudis have been deprived of the simple diversion of going to the movies. But last week, thousands of men, women and children in the conservative kingdom rushed to see a film in a movie theater for the first time in more than 30 years.

The Saudi comedy “Mennahi" was screened for nine days beginning Dec. 9 in conference halls in the cities of Jeddah and Taif.

The film was such a success that organizers said they had to show it eight times a day to absorb the eager crowds. One of the screenings even had to be canceled because of overcrowding in the waiting hall.

It is still not clear whether Saudis will have another chance to go out to the movies in their own country. The morality police, which imposed the ban on movie theaters in the 1970s, has not yet declared if it will allow the revival.

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The head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Ibrahim Gaith, said that religious authorities were "not against having cinema if it shows the good and does not violate Islamic law," according to the local press.

Gaith, who is the second most prominent cleric in the kingdom, commented during last week's film screenings, however, that cinema was an “absolute evil.”

Saudi Arabia follows one of the strictest interpretations of Islam. The morality police in that oil-rich nation have wide powers to enforce bans on alcohol and drug consumption and also can jail men and women for mixing in public, failing to perform their prayers or not abiding by the strict dress codes.

It is unclear why Saudi Arabia suddenly decided to lift the ban on movie theaters, at least temporarily. But behind the movie that was screened last week was the gigantic Rotana entertainment group, controlled by one of the most influential Saudi tycoons, Prince Waleed bin Talal.

But whatever the reason authorities changed their minds, many Saudis were thrilled for the chance to see the film, which tells the story of a naive Bedouin who gets entangled in Dubai’s stock market.

Salman Boghas, 22, a college student who watched the film, told the English-language Saudi Gazette:

“What’s wrong with having cinema? People enjoy cinema when they go abroad, but here it seems we are different from the others.”

Saudis typically watch movies on DVD at home. Some restaurants secretly show films to their customers. 

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photos: Top, a Saudi man shows his entrance ticket to a movie, the first screened in Saudi Arabia since a ban on movie theaters was initiated in the 1970s. Bottom, a crowd gathers in the theater lobby. Photo credits: AFP / Getty Images

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