MBC’s ‘Al-Asoof’ tells the untold story of the Makkah siege

Yagoub Al-Farrhan as Juhayman Al-Otaibi in the MBC historical drama ‘Al-Asoof.’ (Supplied)
Updated 23 September 2019

MBC’s ‘Al-Asoof’ tells the untold story of the Makkah siege

  • Arab drama explores the aftermath of one of Saudi Arabia’s most tumultuous events
  • Infamous Awakening movement 'turned life in Kingdom upside down,' director Ali Jaber tells Arab News

JEDDAH: As with any Arab drama series, a good storyline will always be the talk of majlis, or social gatherings. These days, the conversation might take place via Twitter or Instagram, but, nevertheless, it will remain a hot topic.

That was certainly the case with MBC’s “Al-Asoof” (“Winds of Change“), a historical drama that explored Saudi Arabia’s transition from its desert past to the regional powerhouse it has become today.

It was a story that all Saudis wanted to hear, with lingering questions many were asking: What changed in the Kingdom and why?

The series returned to television during Ramadan, with its second season debut depicting a watershed moment in Saudi history — the shift from a moderate to ultra-conservative ideology that followed Juhayman Al-Otaibi’s 1979 attack on Makkah’s  Holy Mosque.

The show focused on a Riyadh family during a time of social upheaval as it delved into the events surrounding the siege and its aftermath, including the infamous Awakening movement.

“Al-Asoof” was written by Abdulrahman Al-Wabil and directed by Muthanna Sobh. The cast included Naser Al-Gasabi, Abdul-Ellah Al-Sanani, Habib Al-Habib, Reem Abdullah and Yagoub Al-Farrhan.

The Dubai-based MBC Group is committed to providing content that “discusses important events and issues,” Ali Jaber, its director, told Arab News recently. “The second series of ‘Al-Asoof’ tackles a major historical event in Saudi Arabia ... an important process in the formation of the present society,” he said.

“The MBC Group wants to explore the reality of the audience’s life leading up to Al-Otaibi, who turned life in Saudi Arabia upside down, pushing the country and society to a more conservative way of life.”

“Al-Asoof” deals with major intellectual changes that took place in the Saudi capital during the past five decades, including some of the most controversial events in Saudi history. The series has drawn criticism mainly from conservatives, as veteran columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed pointed out in a 2018 column, entitled “Why the fight against Al-Asoof?” 

“Extremists are against it because they believe it is an attempt to destroy what they built during the following two decades, which they refer to as “the Awakening” — and they are right.”

University professor Fatma Zain told Arab News: “I’ve never been too keen on following shows during Ramadan, but ‘Al-Asoof’ told me a story I never lived through but felt the aftermath of when I returned from my studies in the US.

“I left Jeddah in the mid-1970s to pursue my university studies, just like many Saudis of my generation, and we never lived through the time when Al-Otaibi attacked the mosque. We heard the news on American news outlets, but never more than a few minutes on the subject. It was a confusing time for many of us,” she recalled.

“I saw the change after returning in the early 1980s. Though Jeddah was less conservative than the capital, we still felt it and saw hints of it. The religious police presence was more prominent than before and more women were covered up. After watching the show’s two seasons, I now know the story. I can make sense of it all.  The mere name (Juhayman Al-Otaibi) was taboo, and with time it was forgotten. But questions surrounding the terrorist attack still lingered.  ‘Al-Asoof’ provided answers that my generation needed and that the next generation can learn from.” 

Saudi actor and producer Yagoub Al-Farrhan, who played Al-Otaibi in the show’s second season, told Arab News that the series was relevant not only to his generation, but also to future generations.

“In an interview three years ago, I was asked about a character I wanted to play in a biography film. Funnily enough, I said Al-Otaibi,” said Al-Farrhan. “I gathered as much information as I could about his character and mindset, and tried to understand the mentality of someone prepared to commit such an act. That is something all extremists groups have in common, not to mention the narcissistic characteristics and similarities their leaders share.”

Al-Farrhan said that in his portrayal of Al-Otaibi he tried to show the fake religious charisma common among militants. He said that the absence of detailed information about the Makkah siege was a problem. But with help of memoirs written by Nasser Al-Hizaimi, a former member of the extremist group, along with videos and reports, he reached a point where he felt comfortable in the role.

“Al-Asoof” not only told the story of a major event that took place amid a difficult geopolitical climate, but also offered viewers an insight into the Kingdom’s changing society.

“It felt as if we were on a mission,” Al-Farrhan said. “We had many discussions along the way and ended up with all this love for those lost in this incident and other similar incidents, yet grateful for this amazing new era we live in now.”

LA Italian eatery Madeo delights the palate in Riyadh Season pop-up

Updated 15 December 2019

LA Italian eatery Madeo delights the palate in Riyadh Season pop-up

  • Despite minor setbacks he faced while setting up, Vietina considers the experience to be a positive one

RIYADH: Renowned Italian restaurant Madeo has opened up in Al-Murabba for Riyadh Season. 

The pop-up has started brightly, and head chef Gianni Vietina invited Arab News to sample the menu and chat about his experience.

Vietina, in Saudi Arabia for the first time, said that he loved the location he had set up in, and was very happy to be opening up in the Kingdom. 

“The location is gorgeous. At night, with all the lights on, the music going, it’s very nice.”

Despite minor setbacks he faced while setting up, Vietina considers the experience to be a positive one and that the response was even better than he had expected. 

“Like anything new, you have quests, you have problems. Up to now, we’re doing pretty good. We are up and running. We’re comfortable now, which is a shame as we’re leaving pretty soon,” he said.

He added that he would repeat the experience in a heartbeat if he could: “They were nice enough to ask me to stay in Saudi a little longer, but I can’t. I need to go back home. But I would love to come back.”

He said that while he was not planning to open up a permanent restaurant in Saudi Arabia, he would not rule it out completely.  “I’ve been offered options, and friends have offered to show me locations while I’m here, but I can’t do it right now, I just opened a new restaurant two months ago,” he said.

“I chose the dishes that I know that most of the Saudis that visit my restaurant in Los Angeles like.”

Gianni Vietina, Head chef of Madeo

The pop-up’s menu contains most of what the original restaurant offers, including his ever-popular penne madeo and spaghetti bolognese, with the chefs using a combination of imported and locally sourced ingredients. 

“I chose the dishes that I know that most of the Saudis that visit my restaurant in Los Angeles like,” he told Arab News.

For the pop-up, Vietina has stuck to using halal and alcohol-free ingredients. 

“It was challenging at the beginning. But the bolognese at Madeo doesn’t contain pork, and I realized after we tried cooking without wine that almost nothing changed. I actually prefer it,” he said.

Madeo is a favorite of Saudis visiting Los Angeles, with Vietina going so far as to describe the restaurant as a “Little Riyadh” on most evenings between July and September. 

He even recognizes some of the customers who have come into the Riyadh pop-up, and always stops over to greet them.

Upon sampling the menu, it’s easy to see why the food at Madeo has remained popular all these years. 

The eggplant parmigiana is a perfect blend of crusty cheese and silky smooth eggplant, with hints of basil and rosemary. 

The bolognese is rich, meaty and decadent, without being too heavy and greasy. And the penne madeo, which Vietina has been eating since his childhood, is a timeless classic of crushed tomato, basil, finished off with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano for a creamy, rich flavor.