Slowly the cars move, shimmering in the desert heat. Women, shrouded in black cloth and veils, sit immobile, like strange dark statues in the back seats.
The voice of an actress depicting an Arab woman plays over the TV tableau. She is talking of the princesses in the Saudi royal family. To relieve their boredom, she says, they carry on the "most intricate sex lives . . ." She intones, as if some oracle speaking only the truth: "In a society as strict and tight as this, women are the predators . . ."
On the TV screen, cars approach in the other direction. In one of them is a handsome male in white robes.
"They choose a man," says the voice" "If it works, it works." A pudgy male passes by and grins. "If it doesn't -- they just move on. . . ."
Now on the screen men-for-hire are shown dancing in a circle to pulsing Arabian music, as the shrouded women watch, in some 20th-century switch on the Arabian Nights.
And now comes another voice, as Hala Maksoud, a Moslem watching the film, "Death of a Princess," explodes: "That's terrible! No one I know has ever heard of that happening. Even if it is true for a few, the way it's presented it's as if it's all true -- it's like saying that 14th Street is all of Washington!" Arab Outrage
Hala Maksoud is sitting in her living room, not in Jidda or Beirut or Mecca, but in her Washington apartment. She is adding her protests to those of the Arab community who have been so inflamed over "Death of a Princess," the controversial British docudrama that has become an international cause celebre.
In the film, actors portray people interviewed by a journalist in his odyssey to find the story behind the real incident -- a Saudi princess publicly shot and her alleged lover beheaded for adultery.
Along the way, the journalist reaches for generalizations on Islamic culture, religion, women -- blurring fact and fiction as fast as the eye can blink, giving weight to innuendo and gossip, and, as happens in the docudrama format, never sifting or supporting allegations or viewpoints.
Through it all, the elements of sex, vast wealth and Arabian Nights intrigue give the film a slightly lurid touch that has made it a hot contraband item in Saudi Arabia and that contrasts a better - and what they feel is a much more accurate -- image for Western viewers.
Hala Maksoud and a circle of Arab friends discussed the show intensely, as might be expected in the wake of the thundering opposition to the film. After it was shown in Great Britain, the Saudis expelled the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia; congressmen influential in the funding of PBS have railed against it; Mobil Oil, a $3-million-a-year angel to PBS, huffed and puffed in ads; and several PBS affiliates refused to show it.
The whole incident had all the elements of a great cultural fissure. In the interests of a couple of hours' entertainment, would America overly try its relations with important Middle East allies?
Today, the whispered word from Saudi corners is that nothing monumental will happen. But what remains is the feeling, strongly echoed in a discussion among Arabs in the Maksoud apartment Monday night, that East and West are still in twain; that their culture, which emphasizes the family over individualism, will never be seen through Western eyes except in sterotype.
Hala Maksoud said to an American who pointed out that at times the film seemed to be dealing with the conflicts and complexities in Arab life: "There are some constructive statements, but what you're left with is all the negatives. Distorted aspects overruled the whole story. The impression you are left with is that women go into the desert to find lovers, go to the boutiques to find men. We have Abscam and Arabs are shown as white-slave traders and gamblers - and now this, "Death of a Princess.'" The Arab Woman
Hala Maksoud is well-educated, from a family of high-ranking Lebanese government officials, the niece of a Lebanese suffragette whose house was stoned after she publicly removed her veil in 1920. She is the wife of Clovis Maksoud, the Arab League representative to the United Nations, who appeared in a commentary program following the film on PBS.
Hala Maksoud taught math in Lebanon, then when she and her husband moved to America five years ago, her visa did not permit her to work. "I went to parties -- and I went crazy," she says with a laugh at the boredom of it all.
She is getting her PhD in political philosophy at Georgetown. "I am doing this for myself. I am Clovis' wife of my father's daughter, but in studying, I am myself. I am doing this for Hala. That's what keeps my sanity."
At 36, Hala Maksoud is the very picture of a Westernized woman -- red painted nails, attractive dark hair well coiffed, fashionable silk dress, slim helled sandals, a cigarette constantly in hand. But as Hala Maksoud talks, the complexities of her role begin to take shape.
"In Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab countries, lots of women are getting educations in the West. We're all a little bit schizophrenic in a way. We do have Western values inculcated in us. At the same time, we cant't get much away from the past. It is very important to belong. If you stray very far from your traditions you become an aberration.
"Who is to say what is right or wrong about a society? I do not have the arrogance to say what is right or worng; that, say, an American woman should not work and stay home with her children. And who am I, a Moslem, to rebel?
"Your whole society is based on the individual, while ours is based on the community. The basic concept is authority. For me to say no to my father is very, very difficult.
"Take the fact that women can't drive cars in Saudi Arabia. I drove since I was 12 but still I don't believe in being Westernized just because that's the way it is done in the West. Look at Iran. They went back to the chador just because they pushed too much. Not that we women have all the rights we should have, but I don't think it help to copy others.
"Saudi Arabia is much tighter and conservative [than Lebanon]. They feel they are the protectors of Islam. Mecca is the sacred holy place. And then, over there, Jidda is different than Mecca in attitude." Women are not supposed to work with men in Saudi Arabia, she says, but her cousin is an example of the more Westernized women in that country. "She is the editor of the aviation newspaper."
In "Death of a Princess" the princess reportedly confessed to adultery in front of witnesses. It is the one version that makes sense of her death for many Moslems.
As Hala Maksoud, watching the television, says: "In a way her death was an aberration, but it is part of our custom. One whole tribal system. We should obey our elders." On the film, the princess is a crumpled black heap of veils and cloth after being shot. "If they let a princess set such a pattern, then everything else goes. When she admitted that, it was suicidal. They had no other choice."
In Lebanon, if Hala Maksoud had told her father she had committed adultery, would she be killed for it? "If I said it to somebody else I might. My father just happens to be a very modern man. I might have received a slap from my father." After a moment's reflection, that "might" is changed to "for sure." Royalty & the Law
The discussion of Moslem women and men and princesses and life in Saudi Arabia continues as friends arrive, the telephone rings and other Arab friends expound on the film via telephone.
Now with Hala are:
Mustafa Zein, a Lebanese Moslem, oil consultant, educated in Lebanon and America, and a frequent visitor in Saudi Arabia.
Joe Abraham, graduate student in contemporary art studies, son of Lebanese parents but born and raised in America: studied in Egypt.
Tara Khaleel, young Lebanese, in jeans, works for the Arab League.
Mustafa Zein fiddles with his worry beads and eats pita bread and Arab dip as he expands what Hala Maksoud has said.
"I was in Saudi Arabia at the time she was executed, three years ago. Everybody was wondering -- not everyone knew she had confessed in front of witnesses. That put everybody [in the family] in a corner. She was caught and she admitted it and they have to follow the strict rule of Islam, otherwise the whole regime is threatened. The royal family is Saudi Arabia.
"Islamic law is very just and merciful. You need four witnesses to the exact act. Now who is going to allow that? They have to pass a string between the two," says Zein, gesturing as if with a string, "and if it sticks, they're committing adultery. This is strictly to prevent hearsay. But if she admits it, the law means death."
What about letting her go? Hala Maksoud interjects: "You can't. It's like knowing about Watergate and letting the president go. Our value system is so tight. We can't live life with the idea of shame against a family. What must be done to cleanse the shame must be done. It's a code of honor you don't challenge."
Joe Abraham interjects a different note, the only really positive comments about the film of the night. "I think it was a fairly accurate portrayal. There was a serious effort to present different segments. I find the idea of execution -- not just hers, any execution -- repulsive. I think nothing justifies it."
Mustafa Zein leaps in. "The whole thing boils down to where the Saudi royal family is above the Islamic code. The grandfather wanted to prove for the sake of the regime he was not above the Islamic code. When she confessed, he had no other way."
The film's emphasis on an aimless royal existence of women living together in palaces, playing music and buying fancy gowns, moves Joe Abraham to ask of Mustafa Zein, "Do you think Saudi princesses are bored?"
Mustafa Zein: "They are bored. Every rich woman is bored. Look at our Lebanese women in Paris and Cannes. But you cannot separate the Saudi royal family from the regime itself. It is the very core of stability in the Middle East at this time. If anything happens to the Saudi royal family, with all its mistakes and complexities, the whole Arab world will go into flames."
Hala Maksoud interjects to Abraham: "These princesses feel they are princesses. Who are you to take the myth out of them? You're imposing your values on them."
Zein adds to Joe, "Supposing you had tomorrow $14 million to play with?"
Joe says: "We [educated] have the ability to make some kind of contribution."
Zein: "But are you so sure you would? If you had all the money in the world?" The Storm of Politics
The political importances are never far from the discussion of Arab culture. Zein talks of the shah and his Western ways and how he set himself above the people and how Khomeini "took extreme actions to shake everybody to the roots." Does that bother Zein? He shrugs. "It's the price you have to pay, if society has been corrupted for so long. With 250,000 martyrs, what do you expect the reaction would be? You are ready to go into the Third World War over 53 hostages when my home town of Tyre is being bombed by American planes, piloted by Israelis -- what do you think I feel?"
Zein feels that if the princess had been allowed to go free, "the whole family, the whole regime is in jeopardy. I know for a fact the king tried three times [to intercede] . . . If he did not follow the law it would have gone very bad, if it looked as if the royal family could get away with it, with the religious people.Look at Iran.
"You must look at the whole political situation in the Middle East. You cannot take this out of context. Since the Camp David accord, Saudi Arabia is left dangling alone in a storm of radicalism in the Arab world." The Arab Family
And, as in all the discussions, the concept of the family threads its way back in, an inescapable center of Arab life, royal and otherwise.
"Do you know the king cannot meet his eldest brother in the airport [the grandfather of the dead princess who did not interfere to stop her death]? As the elder brother, he takes precedence over a king -- and so he shuns public appearances so as not to take precedence over a king. That is why, when the king returns from a visit, they meet in private -- and the king kisses the elder brother's hand." Love & Death
Tara Khaleel offers a small comment that the show was "kind of good TV, even though it showed only one aspect of the Arab world. I was fascinated with the fact that they portrayed the ability of people to see what they wanted to see. To radical Palestinians she was a revoluntionary, to the teacher she was a rebelling feminist."
Some feminists in Saudi Arabia, in fact, do feel the film shows their inequities.
Joe Abraham says, "A teacher of mine in Egypt, a Moslem, taught six months in a girls' school. When she wanted to present a proposal for a class discussion to a male, she had to sit at one end of a long table and he at the other. She could not even hand him something but had to give it to a messenger. Now if you can explain that to me to somehow make that rational, fine."
Mustafa Zein: "A woman is always suspect."
Hala Maksoud: "Not the woman alone. Both are suspect."
Mustafa Zein: "She has the reputation. For someone like this woman, it is very necessary that the meeting is on the up and up and that there are witnesses."
Joe Abraham: "Because people might talk? Do you function on what people think."
Tara Khaleel offers her support: "The extremes they take it to in Saudi Arabia perhaps becomes an impediment."
But Hala Maksoud is quick to tell a story she had unfolded earlier in the evening. "I was the only foreigner in a class discussion of Cicero. Cicero had said, 'I would rather die than blush.' No one in the class understood it. I understood it. I would prefer to die than to be ashamed." Even if she knew she was pure at heart, Hala Maksoud was asked?
"Yes, I know, but it would affect my parents."
Tara Khaleel nods; "Nothing is done individualistically. Everything, everything, reflects on not only the person but the family, the background, the religion and social culture. Anything I did would go back to my uncle. He is the elder of our family."
But what of men having mistresses?
Mustafa Zein: "They have no reputation." Public Face, Private Face
What is seen as hypocrisy to many Westerners is looked on as private discretion to many Moslems. Men and women are not supposed to dine together but Saudis mix at lavish uppercrust parties that include foreigners. Drinks are offered in the privacy of home.
When a British journalist, defending the film on the commentary show, speaks of the "hypocrasy" of being offered drinks by Sheik Zaki Yamani "while drunks are flogged in the streets," Mustafa Zein and Hala Maksoud are aghast at the comment. "He doesn't understand. That's stupid. There are such things as a public and private life. That was very unethical, what he did, mentioning that on TV. And journalists wonder why we are suspicious."
Tara Khaleel: "A Saudi might let his wife go swimming in a bathing suit with Americans, in the knowledge that they accept that, but with the Saudis she would not be allowed to. If I want to wear a bikini with American friends I would; if I was with Arabs I would never."
Hala Maksoud: "It's the same with American women. If they want to find gigolos, they don't do it here, they would go over to Italy."
Mustafa Zein: "Bascially, there will always be a double standard, whether it's Saudi Arabia or not. It is true all over the world. It is what you call male chauvinism here. The reason is simple: The man has no consequences, I came here as an exchange student before the Pill. There were more puritans in Illinois than any place in the Middle East."
Zein recalls colliding cultures when he was at an American college and decided to go swimming.
"I had this very, very tiny bikini like we wear in Beirut. American friends were shocked and said I couldn't wear it, so I buy these shorts," he says, gesturing nearly to his knees, "and I thought, 'Oh God, I've come to a very traditional society.' And then I go by the pool and a man and a women are necking, I mean they are on top of each other, with all these kids running around. I was so shocked. I felt like taking those shorts off and putting my bikini back on!" New Days, Old Ways
Above all there is a general mood that West may not be best. Hala Maksoud muses about leaving behind some of the old ways. "Maybe that has caused all our troubles in Lebanon -- torn by civil strife -- and Iran." The return to strict traditional religion in some Arab quarters does not surprise her. "When you feel that life doesn't have anything to offer, you go back a lot, become more and more religious because you feel so futile."
Mustafa Zein adds: "When you have a society going from the Stone Age into the 21st century, you can leap backward into a decline without passing through the best of that society."
"You in Western society have no family anymore," charges Hala Maksoud. "In the Middle East you would never see grandfathers or grandmothers living in an institution. We have a great respect for the family."
And Mustafa Zein: "We have three servents in our house, but we will never accept food unless mother cooks it. It's always the women who played a major role -- wife and mother and running the family. If anything happens to a woman as the mother -- we have declined."