Maybe they'll rename it The Princess Who Would Not Die. Like some science-fiction creature, the Saudi princess who was executed in Arabia in 1977 for adultery has come back to life on British and American television. She is now a figure in an international controversy.
Monday night, as one of the people vastly overprepared for this public television event, I found the two-hour docudrama a culture clash both riveting and relatively tame. To the extent that "Death of a Princess" was better drama than docu, I was disappointed. To the extent that the American public protested more in favor of Saudi oil than the First Amendment, I was dismayed.
But the most intriguing aspect of the "Princess" brouhaha is a recurring and powerful theme of "understanding." The concerned message of the film, the irate message from the Saudi government, the compliant message from the pulic television panelists were all the same: we must look at things from the other point of view.
Increasingly now, we are instructed to walk a mile in some other culture's shoes, look at events from anothr country's perspective and even to witness the execution of a princess from behind another religion's own codes of law and honor.
In the conflict over the film's accuracy, the Saudis protest that their traditions are quite different from ours. In the conflict over the film's censorship, a member of Congress said of the Saudis, "They must understand our traditions are quite different."
Everywhere we look we find people and cultures who want to be understood. . . on their own terms.
I suppose these pleas and responses are proof that we live in a world of growing interdependence. After all, a person who is totally independent doesn't need to understand anyone else. A country that is overwhelmingly powerful has less reason to study its weaker neighbors.
The 19th century British, who were nothing if not secure, rarely looked at colonialism from the point of view of the "natives." The American pioneers were not renowned for walking a mile in moccasins.
We all -- parent or child, husband or wife, union or management -- want to be understood. But the exchange works only when there is a genuine sense of mutual need, interdependence.
As Americans, we are no longer the confident, even brash, pushers of gung-ho progress who define everyone else as backward," under-developed." We are more vulnerable, economically and in terms of our values, to the central question asked by an Arab in this film, "How much of our past must we abandon; how much of your present is worth imitating?" m
While we are appalled that their women's lives are shrouded by the veil, they are aghast that so many of our parents end their lives in nursing homes. When we hold their life styles up to their Koran, they hold our poor up to our Constitution.
But once we open the flood gates of mutual understanding, we can drown in points of view.
Should we look at the beheading of the young lover from the point of view of the Saudis? If so, which Saudis? Those who are rebellious like the princess, traditional like her grandfather, transitional like so many others? Even as we try to get a fix on a foreign world, that society itself is in conflict and change. It is like pinning down jello.
Furthermore, where does our new relativism lead us in foreign affairs? Does "understanding" mean that we can't make any judgements? Are we simply to describe the execution of a girl as a cultural phenomenon, neither right nor wrong, just different?
The conflict is particularly acute in terms of what we call human rights, because we so easily "understand" our way into a foreign policy whose only standard is our self-interest.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Saudis didn't want their vision and version of their culture exported. After all, we delayed exporting the movie "Grapes of Wrath." People are more sensitive to having their flaws shown outside "the family," out of a context of knowledge.
But as our interdependence grows, our need to understand deepens. If the Saudis expect us to see more than the execution of a royal adulteress, they have to become more accessible, more open, more willing to be known. In the end, this could be the legacy of "Princess."