Why rising Saudi actress Maria Bahrawi says she’s lucky to star in ‘Norah’

Maria Bahrawi takes the lead in ‘Norah,’ the first Saudi movie to be filmed in the historic region of AlUla. (Supplied)
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Updated 14 July 2022

Why rising Saudi actress Maria Bahrawi says she’s lucky to star in ‘Norah’

  • The young actress stars in Tawfik Alzaidi’s movie, filmed in AlUla

ALULA: On a beautiful day in AlUla, Saudi actress Maria Bahrawi is fielding questions from reporters for the first time in her life. As the star of the first Saudi project to film in the historic region, the 16-year-old is experiencing her first taste of stardom, surrounded by flashing lights, cameras and presenters she once watched television, each now pointing to her as an inspiration for a new generation of young Saudi girls. 

There are tears streaming down Bahrawi’s face. It is not the moment that overwhelms her, it is the glimpse she catches of her mother, standing just off camera. She runs to hug her, knowing how much she owes this moment to her — and a family that empowered her to dedicate her life to pursuing her dreams. 

“From as young an age as I can remember, my mother never held me back from pursuing anything I was passionate about. My family always supported me, never put restrictions on me, and without them I could never have become an actress. I love you, mama, so much,” Bahrawi tells Arab News. 

Maria Bahrawi on the set of ‘Norah,’ in AlUla. (Supplied)

While Bahrawi’s face may well become a symbol of the next generation of Saudi artists, women in Saudi Arabia from generations past did not have the same opportunities that she does. That’s something she’s become keenly aware of while making “Norah,” a film that explores those themes.

Set in rural Saudi Arabia during the 1990s, the film follows an artist named Nader, who has given up painting due to societal restrictions and has become a schoolteacher, where he meets a young woman named Norah (Bahrawi), an illiterate orphan who seems to have no path forward to pursue her own dreams, facing an arranged marriage she doesn’t want and full of emotions she doesn’t know what to do with. 

“The first day that I walked onto that set in AlUla, I was transported back in time. Suddenly I could understand how people felt. I had watched so many videos of people back then, but I had to be there to really feel it,” says Bahrawi.

In the film, Bahrawi’s character carries a cassette recorder everywhere she goes, recording her thoughts and feelings into it as if whispering them down a wishing well. Cassette recorders were but one thing that the 16-year-old had not even known existed from that time period.

“That was something I learned about on set. Tawfik (Alzaidi, the film’s Saudi director) had to show me how to fix it, how to play it,” says Bahrawi. “I’d never seen one before.”

Bahrawi, who was born and raised in Jeddah, even had to learn from her family the way that women would wear an abaya and niqab.

“My family have lived that life, but I didn’t know how they would wear it, how they would take it off, how their clothes would look from below. How to fasten the niqab on top of it all. It was all new to me,” she says. “Of course, I know the niqab, but the precise way women used to wear it was all new to me. My family taught me how to do it just like they did.”

On the set of ‘Norah’ in AlUla. (Supplied)

Bahrawi was cast in May of this year after auditioning in person only once, driving with her family to AlUla from Jeddah on the off chance she may land the role. Early on in filming, only weeks later, Bahrawi found herself overwhelmed.

“I was expecting it to be hard, but I really thought I might not be able to do it. To get myself through it, I would have to remind myself that this is bigger than me,” says Bahrawi.

Actor Yaqoub Alfarhan plays Nader in the film. (Supplied)

Bahrawi’s co-star Yaqoub Alfarhan, who plays Nader, was invaluable to the young actress. Alfarhan, who has quickly become arguably Saudi’s hottest rising young star after starring in the MBC smash hit “Rashash,” rehearsed with Bahrawi again and again until she felt comfortable, offering her a safe space on set when she needed guidance.  

“He really helped me a lot. We did reads together of almost every scene, and we rehearsed the really difficult scenes over and over. I was still balancing school and my outside life as a 16-year-old, but Yaqoub taught me how to isolate myself mentally and forget everything when I step on set so we could all focus and be in the moment together. I’ll never forget that,” says Bahrawi.

Perhaps the most important lessons, though, came from the character of Norah herself. As Bahrawi immersed herself in the role, coming each day to the real-life small village they filmed in, it was the journey of this young woman who slowly discovered the power within herself and refused to compromise the convictions that changed her, and will help her become the woman she wants to grow into.

“She taught me to be myself, to be true to my own spirit, and stand up for myself despite all the challenges,” says Bahrawi. “From now and for the rest of my life, because of Norah, if I don’t find support, I will support myself. I want to find success, and I’ll do it against all odds.” 

Director Tawfik Alzaidi. (Supplied)

While the experience of playing Norah is one that has opened her eyes in countless ways, the young actress is already looking towards the future, and the many roles she could play that could explore life in a vastly different Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom that she grows prouder of each day. 

“I want to explore a role that's speaking about the current time, and speaks about my generation of young women at this time in Saudi Arabia. There are challenges now, too. There are many things that women are going through, and many positive things as well that have yet to be shown on screen. There are so many things that have happened that would be great to show in a film, and that’s something I would love to be a part of,” says Bahrawi.

As the sun sets in AlUla, however, Bahrawi pauses to reflect on how lucky she is to be a part of this at all, and to make history in the first Saudi film to take in the majesty of that very special place.

“Every day we pass historic landmarks such as Elephant Rock and Hegra, exploring these amazing mountainous areas and landscapes. I can’t believe we’ve gotten to do this together,” she says.

“Right now, I’m living the dream. Inshallah, I’ll reach bigger and higher goals. I have all the opportunities in the world, now it’s up to me to take them.”

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

Updated 25 May 2024

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

  • Speakers, performers pull out from scheduled appearances in protest over Baillie Gifford sponsorship
  • Boycott organizer: Hay must shun future sponsorship by companies with links to ‘Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide’

LONDON: The UK’s Hay literary festival has dropped its main sponsor over a boycott criticizing its links to Israel and fossil fuel companies.

Speakers and performers at the festival pulled out from scheduled appearances in protest over investment firm Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, The Guardian reported.

On Friday, the festival said it was canceling its sponsorship deal with the firm.

Singer Charlotte Church and comedian Nish Kumar had earlier pulled out of appearing at the event.

In a statement on her social media channels, Church said she had taken part in the boycott “in solidarity with the people in Palestine and in protest of the artwashing and greenwashing that is apparent in this sponsorship.”

Fossil Free Books, the group that has led the campaign against Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, has demanded that the firm divest from companies “that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide.”

More than 700 writers and publishing professionals have signed a statement by FFB concerning the Hay festival campaign.

Kumar shared the statement online in announcing the cancelation of his appearance.

An FFB organizer said: “Hay festival is right to listen to the concerns of hundreds of book workers who are working to create fossil-free and genocide-free festivals.

“Hay must now develop a fundraising policy that rules out any future sponsorship by companies that invest or profit from the fossil fuel industry, Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide, and any other human rights abuses.”

Hay CEO Julie Finch said the festival’s decision to cancel the sponsorship deal with the firm was taken “in light of claims raised by campaigners and intense pressure on artists to withdraw.”

She added: “Our first priority is to our audience and our artists. Above all else, we must preserve the freedom of our stages and spaces for open debate and discussion, where audiences can hear a range of perspectives.”

Baillie Gifford began its relationship with the festival in 2016 as a principal sponsor. A spokesperson said: “It is regrettable our sponsorship with the festival cannot continue.”

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

Updated 25 May 2024

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

DUBAI: Saudi film “Norah,” starring actress Maria Bahrawi, this week received the Special Mention accolade, which recognizes films for outstanding achievements, at the 77th Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard awards.

The cast and crew, accompanied by director Tawfik Al-Zaidi, stepped onto the stage to accept the accolade in front of a full house.

The film, shot entirely in AlUla, is set in 1990s Saudi Arabia when conservatism ruled and the professional pursuit of all art, including painting, was frowned upon. Besides Bahrawi, the movie also stars Yaqoub Al-Farhan and Abdullah Al-Satian. It follows the story of Norah and failed artist Nader as they encourage each other to realize their artistic potential in rural Saudi Arabia.

“Norah” had its official screening at the festival on Thursday, becoming the first film from the Kingdom to screen as part of the official calendar at the event.

The movie was backed by the Red Sea Fund — one of the Red Sea Film Foundation’s programs — and was filmed entirely in AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast and a 40 percent Saudi crew.

Un Certain Regard’s mission is to highlight new trends in cinema and encourage innovative cinematic works.

Chaired by Canadian actor, director, screenwriter and producer Xavier Dolan, the jury included French Senegalese screenwriter and director Maimouna Doucoure, Moroccan director, screenwriter and producer Asmae El Moudir, German-Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, and American film critic, director and writer Todd McCarthy.

Chinese director Guan Hu’s “Black Dog” won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.

Marking Guan’s debut at Cannes, the film follows a former convict who forms an unexpected bond with the titular animal while clearing stray dogs in his remote hometown on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The jury prize was awarded to “The Story of Souleymane,” directed by Boris Lojkine, marking his return to the festival after a decade since his 2014 feature “Hope.”

The film portrays the journey of a Guinean food delivery man who must create a compelling narrative for his asylum application interview in Lyon within a two-day timeframe.

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

Updated 25 May 2024

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

RIYADH: Cameras flashed and crowds cheered as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit the red carpet at Roshn Front’s VOX Cinema in Riyadh on Friday night to mark the fourth installment of the “Bad Boys” film franchise.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” arrives 30 years after Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, played by Smith and Lawrence, respectively, teamed up as the infamous buddy cops.

The latest film, exclusively in cinemas on June 6, shows how the characters have changed over the years.

“Their backs have gotten weaker, and their knees hurt more,” Smith said jokingly.

“Part of what we wanted to do with the franchise is to have the characters grow in an age-appropriate way,” he told Arab News.

“We are trusting that the audience wants to grow with us, wants to go with us, and wants to follow the natural progression of life and what these characters would be going through.”

The film continues to mix action, drama and comedy, but also allows the characters to grow and develop spiritually.

“The core of the movie is about friendship, love, and family,” Smith said.

“And would you ride or die for your partner?” Lawrence added.

The film builds on the success of the third installment, “Bad Boys For Life,” released in 2020, with the directorial duo for the latest production, Bilall Fallah and Adil El-Arbi,  reportedly inspired by video games.

Lawrence said the “top notch” directors were great to work with, and inspired the actors to “come up with magic.”

Smith added: “It’s interesting working with non-American directors; there’s such a different perspective… You know, they were (young) when the first movie came out, so there’s such a reverence for the original films. They’re bringing that energy, but they also want to put their signature on it. Energetically, it was fun to work with them, and also their openness to the spirituality of the film was also refreshing.”

Action films, whether “Mission Impossible” or the more recent “Monkey Man,” have enjoyed a revival in recent years, and both actors believe the genre will always have a place in the industry.

“The physical wars of humanity represent the inner wars that we go through. So, I think human beings are always going to like watching a good visualized external battle that they can relate to,” Smith said.

“We all know internally that life is kind of a series of ordeals. How do you manage these ordeals and put things back together? And I think that this movie is a comedic look at two people trying to be friends, surviving ordeals together, which changes them without life breaking their relationship. It’s like a standard bromance.”

With the film premiere taking place in Saudi Arabia’s capital, both stars expressed their excitement over initiatives underway in the Kingdom.

Smith said: “I performed at Soundstorm and everything is brand new. The energy of 40 and 50-year-old people in Saudi is like the energy of 20 and 30-year-old people in America.

“It’s like there is this powerful sense of being on the cusp of the future. It’s showing up in music, it’s showing up in art, it’s showing up in architecture, and hopefully shows up at the cinema tonight.”

Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

Updated 24 May 2024

Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

DUBAI: US comedian Dave Chappelle performed to a packed audience at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena on Thursday as part of Abu Dhabi Comedy Week, where he also addressed the war in Gaza.

“What is happening in Gaza is a direct result of antisemitism in the West,” he said on stage.

“If you are in America, the best thing you can do is to make American Jews feel safe, feel loved and supported so they can know they don’t have to support a country that is committing genocide just to feel safe,” he added. 

Chappelle previously slammed the Israeli bombing of Gaza, as well as the US support for it, at a show in Boston in October.

According to people in attendance, an audience member asked Chappelle to shut up, which sparked a heated response from the comedian.  

“You can’t take tens of billions from my country and go kill innocent women and children and tell me to shut the f--- up,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Some members of the crowd began chanting “free Palestine,” to which Chappelle replied: “You are damn right, free Palestine.”  

World celebrities hit red carpet at Saudi-backed amfAR gala

Updated 24 May 2024

World celebrities hit red carpet at Saudi-backed amfAR gala

  • Red Sea International Film Festival sponsors for fourth year
  • Demi Moore was host, which Elizabeth Taylor held in 1993

DUBAI: Some of the world’s biggest stars, in the French Riviera for the Cannes Film Festival, made appearances on Thursday at the 30th annual amfAR gala as Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival took on the role of presenting sponsor for the fourth consecutive year. 


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Among those in attendance were Demi Moore, Michelle Yeoh, Heidi Klum, Kelly Rowland, Andie MacDowell, Diane Kruger, Colman Domingo, Michelle Rodriguez, Winnie Harlow, Robin Thicke, Diplo, Paris Jackson, Petra Nemcova, Karolina Kurkova, Natasha Poly, and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.


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The RSIFF’s CEO Mohammed Al-Turki and chairwoman Jomana Al-Rashid were also present.

The American Foundation for AIDS Research, or AmfAR, is dedicated to the support of AIDS research, prevention, education and advocacy. It has raised nearly $900 million since 1985.


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Demi Moore, whose film “The Substance” caused a stir at Cannes, hosted this year’s gala, a role launched by Elizabeth Taylor in 1993.

The red carpet at the Hotel du Cap, Eden Roc, was awash with models, actors, singers and fashion designers as well as plenty of festival movers and shakers.

A few celebrities opted for gowns by Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad including German model Toni Garrn, sports commentator Alex Scott and Brazilian model Thayna Soares.

Garrn wore a purple beaded strapless gown with scalloped edges and spider web-like details, while Scott was adorned with a rose gold off-the-shoulder sheer tulle beaded gown, and Soares opted for a hooded gold beaded short dress with a plunging neckline and embroidered tassels.

German model Kim Dammer dazzled on the red carpet in a glamorous halter-neck black gown, intricately embroidered with geometric shapes by Lebanese couturier Rami Kadi.


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Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran was championed by Turkish actress Hande Ercel, who wore a black gown adorned with red and blue beads and featuring a plunging neckline.

Egyptian actress Yasmine Sabri was also in attendance, wearing a sparkly silver dress by Lebanese designer Jean Pierre Khoury. The dress featured thousands of mirrored tube beads hand-sewn onto a corseted silhouette, according to the designer.