What do you do when your husband decides to take another wife? Well, if you live in Saudi Arabia, where men are legally permitted up to four wives, there’s not much you can do. It is, you see, one of the social responsibilities the kingdom’s men are charged with; single and divorced women must be married to avoid immorality. Maisah Sobaihi’s solo show Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia is full of such insightful revelations about her homeland. Using a couple of different female personae, the academic from Jeddah wittily illustrates how those who happen to be born women live and love in a society where men make the decisions.
Returning to the question above, Maryam’s reaction is desperate and unsurprising. She tries to subvert her husband’s serious conversation on the topic into a joke until she realises how determined he is. Then she turns to trying to find other, alternative social responsibilities which he could try instead, like road safety. Layla, on the other hand, is divorced and in need of some male attention. She opts for a type of secret marriage, where husband and wife live separately, seeing each other only when it is convenient (for the man). In theory, such an arrangement is mutually beneficial.
Sobaihi’s style is charismatic and engaging, quickly winning over the audience with her funny impressions of Layla’s excitement after her Parisian shopping trip with her new hubby and Maryam’s cunning intelligence gathering about the second wife. She pulls people up to join her dancing at a Saudi wedding, evidently enjoying being able to share something of her often-misunderstood culture. This extends to language as well; Sobaihi made sure to include plenty of curses and outbursts in Arabic, which did suggest authenticity but also disrupted the flow of the stories. As a non-Arabic speaker I sometimes struggled to guess the meaning of what had been said.
Part documentary, part storytelling, Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia is a wonderfully comical and enlightening window onto life in the kingdom. Saudi women may live in a society which looks radically different, but Sobaihi’s stories show us that beneath it all, we’re all much the same. The search for true love is something we can all relate to.