Telling Saudi Stories

The personal stories offer a portrait of Saudi society at its most intimate

After starring in Saudi Arabia’s first romantic comedy, Fatima al-Banawi, 30, learned that the story of a much loved movie character can sometimes overshadow an actor’s own. As a Saudi woman, she also knew what it was like to have her story told for her—­defined by what she had to wear (an abaya) and by what she couldn’t do (drive, travel freely).

So by the time she finished her master’s degree in theology at Harvard, al-Banawi was determined to find a way for Saudis to tell their own stories, in their own voices. In 2015, she started with a couple of simple kiosks placed in the popular cafes of her hometown, Jeddah. Each was equipped with a stack of blank paper, pens, a submission box and an exhortation to “Write your story.”

Al-Banawi turned the anonymous one-page submissions into performance art pieces. She also shared some on Instagram alongside illustrations she commissioned.

The Other Story Project was meant to run for six months. At first, Al-Banawi says, the personal stories were stilted and bland. Saudis were uncomfortable with the medium, and with breaching a tradition of privacy. But the longer the kiosks stayed up, the better and deeper the submissions became.

Fatima al Banawi
Ayesha Malik for TIME

“We tend to think we are the only person on earth feeling this way. But when we share, we realize we aren’t alone,” she says. “This feeling of togetherness and connection was something we were missing.”

The stories offer a portrait of Saudi society at its most intimate, ranging from angry screeds to heartfelt confessions to wry meditations on life, love, family and identity. Two years and 5,000 submissions later, al-Banawi is publishing a book, in Arabic and English, that displays the original handwritten submissions next to the artwork they inspired.

She hopes it will allow Saudis to reclaim their narrative in the world. “We learn about other cultures through what they provide in film, art and literature, and I feel that we in Saudi Arabia have a shortage in that area. This is my contribution.”

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