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Death of a Princess

A Film by Antony Thomas

Based on interviews recorded in London, Paris, Beirut
and Arabia between July and November 1978.


ANNOUNCER: Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1980, as 53 of its citizens were held hostage in Iran, America was at another crossroads in the Middle East.

ISOBEL COLEMAN, Council on Foreign Relations: The whole region seemed to be bursting into flames, and the Saudis were the stable ally. And the U.S. had an interest in maintaining strong relations with the Saudis.

ANNOUNCER: That spring, the PBS series World, the precursor to FRONTLINE, broadcast perhaps the most controversial film in the history of public television.

TED KOPPEL, ABC News Nightline: A docudrama called Death of a Princess has stirred up an international hornets' nest—

ANNOUNCER: Death of a Princess told the story of a young Saudi princess who was publicly executed for committing adultery.

SA'EED BADRA: She forgot who she was— a royal princess, a married woman.

ANNOUNCER: When the film was broadcast in Britain and the U.S., the Saudi government threatened economic sanctions and ordered the British ambassador to leave the country.

ALI AL-AHMED, Saudi Activist: The government of Saudi Arabia, the ruling family, portrayed this as an attack on Islam, as an attack on our values.

ANNOUNCER: In the U.S., both Mobil Oil and the secretary of state pressured PBS not to air Death of a Princess.

TED KOPPEL: You have been taking an awful lot of heat these last few days from the government, from the administration, from Congress, from the oil industry. Can you stand up to that?

LAWRENCE GROSSMAN, PBS President: Well, certainly.

PETER MCGHEE, V.P., National Production, WGBH Boston: However displeased the government was, the program was broadcast. And it made its own statement.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE presents a new edition of this landmark film, a dramatized documentary based on interviews conducted by journalist Antony Thomas.

ANTONY THOMAS, Writer, Director: When I traveled through the Arab world, the story was celebrated. Everyone had their own version of that story, all very, very different.

ANNOUNCER: Thomas's investigation took him into the heart of one of the most closed societies in the world.

SAMIRA: These people pervert Islam. They use Islam. They scare people to death with their barbarous, illegal punishments.

ANNOUNCER: It was a journey that would reveal the intimate lives of the Saudi royal family—

"THE EMIRA": To relieve their boredom, these princesses live the most intricate and busy sex lives.

ANNOUNCER: —and explore the central dilemma of the Arab world.

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: It's the story of 200 million people. How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating?

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, a reporter's search for the complex truth about The Death of a Princess.


Arabia, July 15, 1977

Saudi men praying in a mosque. A caravan of cars travels along a desert road to a car park in a souk. Curious men coming out of the mosque assemble around the car park. A truck dumps a large pile of sand in one corner. A woman covered in a black abaya is taken from the back of a panel truck, made to kneel in the sand. A gunshot.

Telex: "TFX 306: I saw a princess die."

Newspaper headlines: "Princess executed for love." "La princesse l'amant le bourreau." "Kopf ab!"

London, July 10, 1978

[a dinner party]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] It's curious how an after-dinner conversation could open a trail that led me through five capitals, a civil war and the private lives of dozens of friends and strangers. It was a last minute invitation. Somebody more important had probably dropped out.

SA'EED BADRA: —that the West understand our problems. We are a society in a delicate balance. On the one hand, there's Islam, the teachings of the Holy Quran, a way of life that has remained unchanged since the days of the Prophet, 14 centuries, unchanged. On the other hand there's oil.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] He's immensely influential. In his own country, a power behind the throne, a man to reckon with. Let's call him Sa'eed Badra.

SA'EED BADRA:: But how to strike that balance. That's what your press fails to understand. Look at the way we are treated in your newspapers. Take that story of the princess. They said about that— [women at the table speak to him cordially in Arabic, he answers. The women leave.]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [on camera] You were talking just now about the princess.

SA'EED BADRA: Let me tell you about that princess. Do you know who she was?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [on camera] Well, I understand that she was a member—

SA'EED BADRA: Her grandfather is the king's eldest brother. She was his favorite. He loved her. She traveled all over the world. Her parents gave her everything she wanted. And when she was at the right age, the family chose a good husband for her, a royal cousin.

But the young lady had ideas of her own. She rebelled. She refused to fulfill the marriage contract. She wanted to go the university, to Beirut. The family agreed. The husband, he had no choice.

You can imagine the influences in Beirut— radical Arab politics, women's liberation, Palestinians, Western influences all pulling, and all pulling in different directions. And then she— she met a boy from our country, a student. She completely lost her head. She forgot who she was— a royal princess, the king's niece, a married woman.

You see, in our country, execution for adultery happens very rarely. There have to be four independent and honorable male witnesses or eight independent and honorable female witnesses. They have to witness — excuse me — the actual penetration. Now, the only other way that the accused can be condemned is out of her own mouth, by saying three times in front of a court of law, "I have committed adultery." Three times.

Well, that girl stood before the court. She was asked and she said, "I have committed adultery." Well, immediately the king stopped the proceedings. He loved her. He summoned her to his private rooms. "Do you realize that if you admit your guilt for a second and a third time, I can't save you, your grandfather can't save you. Go back. You only have to say one thing, that you will never see this boy again. Please."

Well, she went back to that court and she said, "I have committed adultery. I have committed adultery." Three times. In five seconds, she had condemned herself and the boy.

[in the cafeteria at the University of London.]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [on camera] She was pulled three ways. There's Western feminism, Arab radicalism, and then the law of Islam.

[voice-over] I shared the story with a close friend. To protect his identity, we'll give him a new name and a new setting, as we must with everyone else that was interviewed. Let's call my friend Dr. Marwan Shaheen and make him a lecturer here at the University of London.

I wanted his reaction because I found it hard to believe that a girl would deliberately return to that country, with her lover, and die for her principles.

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: Look, I don't come from her country, but I am an Arab. I understand that girl. And I understand her family. It's the story of 200 million people, the whole Arab predicament. How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating?

I've not told you this before. My own father has never traveled more than 10 kilometers on a donkey. To this day, he still believes the world is flat. And I am here.

You know, Christopher, to survive as an Arab one has to become a schizophrenic. One has to learn to live in two worlds at once. It's difficult. For some, it is impossible. Like your princess. What a story! As you say, all the pressures, first the West, then the radicals in Beirut, and finally, when she's forced back into the desert matrix again, she says "No. No. No." She would rather destroy herself, and the boy she loves.

She could be any Arab girl in any Arab country. You know, if you can tell that story— where are you going to start?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Well, I've got to check a few facts first. There are two people in England who gave interviews to the press.

Yorkshire, England, July 31, 1978

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How much did they pay you out there?

STEVE JACKSON: It was 275 a week.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What's that, about five times what you get in England?

STEVE JACKSON: Aye, and the rest. In three months, I'd earned enough to put down a deposit on a new house. This is me mum's place. I'm moving in a month, and then me and Jeanette can get married, soon as we like.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Do you mind if I record?

STEVE JACKSON: No, no. I'm not bothered.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did you get any reaction from their embassy when you gave your pictures and the story to The Express?

STEVE JACKSON: No, I never heard nothing. I wouldn't chance going back, though. But don't get me wrong. Even if it weren't for execution, I'd be hard pressed to go back there again. From the moment I landed, stepped out into that heat, I thought, "This isn't the place for me." Smelly tip. Rubbish all over the place, brand-new buildings, you know, falling apart, cats running in and out. Stray dogs, heat, no bloody booze. We had one day off a week, and I tell you, we used to wish we were back on site. There's nowt to do, you see. Down to the pool, a bit of something to eat, happen a game of cards in that crummy hotel, back to the pool. Chock boring. I never spoke to one women all the time I were there, not one. Well, I never even spoke to a local, come to that.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How did you come across the execution?

STEVE JACKSON: Well, we'd just knocked off work. I knew there were summat up, like, because they'd stopped all the traffic. They made us walk the rest of the way back up to the hotel. That were roughly half past 12:00. Anyway, I went in the hotel and I spoke to the little Lebanese guy behind the counter, and he told me that some guy were up for the chop. He didn't say nowt about a princess, like. I thought it was just one guy that were going to get it.

Any road, I went up to me room to get changed. And me window, it looked out onto this car park, like, big open area. People were already starting to gather. They were dumping this big pile of sand. So I decided to take me camera. I cut a piece out of a cigarette packet, like a little window, for the lens, and I stuck me Instamatic inside it.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How many people were in the square?

STEVE JACKSON: I'm not much good at crowds. But by the time I'd got down there, you see, they were coming out the mosques. It's funny, isn't it, straight out of church and off to see a bloke get chopped. By the time I got to the car park, there must have been, oh, 3,000 or more.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Can I see the photographs?

STEVE JACKSON: Aye. I thought you'd want to. Here they are. There were all these uniformed police, soldiers, whatever they are, most of them armed, 'round the edge. In the middle, these two trucks. You can see them better here. Jeeps like, with no doors on the back. There's the princess. There's the bloke. And that's the executioner. There he is.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: He's not wearing any kind of uniform?

STEVE JACKSON: No, no, just dressed like any old Arab you'd see in the street. He didn't have a great, big, massive, shining sword, neither. About that long it were, and none too sharp. Five blows, the lad still weren't beheaded. His head never did come off. They chopped him round his neck, both sides, and the back of his head. And after they'd finished with him, his head were just resting on his shoulders. And that were it. Like there were nothing holding it on. And that were it.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Sorry, can we go back to the beginning. They led them out of the trucks—

STEVE JACKSON: Aye. They led them into the middle of the square. The guy's hands were tied behind his back. He looked as though he had been drugged or beaten up or something. He were wobbling about all over the place. He weren't resisting. They led the girl off to the right-hand side, as I were looking at it. She were veiled, I didn't see her face. Any road, they knelt her down by this pile of sand. It's daft, but you see, I'd still no idea what were going to happen to her. I mean, I knew she weren't a passer-by or aught like that, but as far as I were concerned, there were just one guy were going to get done.

I kept trying to get a better view. And there were these big iron wheels at me back, and there were all these Arabs, like, perched on the wheels and on the wheel behind, just like vultures. Anyway, I ran round the back of the crowd and I made towards them. I were about half-way there and the shooting started.

The girl were already dead. She were just a black heap. They'd knelt her down like, in front of the sand, and shot her. And then they blindfolded the boy.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: You mean they made the boy watch the girl die?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What did he do?

STEVE JACKSON: Well, he hadn't got a right lot about him. I don't think I would have had, in his boots. They practically had to carry him into the middle of the square. And then they made him kneel. I tell you, I was shaking. I'd never seen anything like that before. And all through the execution, there were this guy sitting next to me, and he never watched the execution, he were watching me all the time. I were a bit wary, like, but I carried on.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How did the crowd react?

STEVE JACKSON: Well, it weren't like Wembley, just the odd clap when it were being done. You see, in their eyes, it's like ridding themselves of a murderer. It's against their laws, you know. They're dead set in their ways. And then these blokes, police or whatever they were, piled the bodies onto stretchers and chucked them into the back of the trucks. Then the crowd pissed off, and that were it.

[Elsa Gruber's apartment]

ELSA GRUBER: Why do you keep picking on those people? Their only crime is that they are living centuries behind us. They have different things, and we have different things.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I'm not picking on anyone. I'm just trying to find the facts.

ELSA GRUBER: Well, you better watch your step. I tell you, you can kiss goodbye! A block of concrete round your feet. Splash! That's it. No questions asked. They're so powerful.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] Elsa. Elsa Gruber. For 18 months, Elsa was employed as a nanny by the princess's grandfather.

ELSA GRUBER: We were sisters. We were just like that. We shared the same bedroom here in London. Can you imagine how I felt? I was stiff from here to here. I couldn't eat, I couldn't do anything. I was so delirious, I locked myself up. I was hysterical. One day, I just phoned them up, "I want to go home." But that's none of your business.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] This is our fourth meeting. When STEVE JACKSON broke his story to the press, Elsa rushed in to the family's defense. Now she's writing a book.

ELSA GRUBER: I feel with them. I feel their dilemma. It's their way. It's their law. He had to do it to her.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [on camera] Who had to?

ELSA GRUBER: Her grandfather, of course.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: You mean, the old prince?

ELSA GRUBER: Yes, the king's elder brother.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But he wasn't responsible. The princess was tried before a court.

ELSA GRUBER: I know, my dear.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But why did you say he had to do it?

ELSA GRUBER: You tell your story and I'll tell mine. Then we'll see who's the prize idiot. I've already told you too much. You just tell your people to get off their backsides and work on that contract.

I had a rotten damned family. That was the first family I ever had. I was treated like a queen down there— looked after, provided for, taken 'round the world. What more do you want? I adore the way I've been treated, and that's what I'm going to write about in my book. My book is not going to be about the princess. She's just there to get attention.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Can I ask you one basic question? You've heard my version. Now all I need to know—

ELSA GRUBER: I'm not answering any questions, not until those lousy bums in your office get off their backsides. I'm not—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Listen, it's not their fault. We're actually waiting for your people, but let's not go into all that again. Just one basic question.


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Is the story I've been given true, or at least, true in all its essentials? Because obviously, if it isn't—

ELSA GRUBER: I was the only person who lived in that country and was witness to all of those things. I am the only person who found that out. I'm not going to—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] For weeks, Elsa's book overshadows all our discussions. She won't give me anything without consultations with lawyers, a contract, a guaranteed fee, and so on. And in the meantime, we play intricate games.

ELSA GRUBER: You're a rat! A rat in ermine! All this smooth talk on the outside, and you're just a dirty little common cheat underneath!

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What are you talking about?

ELSA GRUBER: I know what you were up to today! You were down at The Daily Express. You were trying to get all their notes of my interviews. You're trying to cut me out. Well, I didn't tell them a damn thing!

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I haven't been near The Express.

ELSA GRUBER: Don't give me that! I phoned your secretary. She said, "Mr. Ryder will probably be too busy to phone you today." You had interviews all over the place. You were down on Fleet Street.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Fleet Street! I had lunch with an Arab friend in the city. You're incredible!

ELSA GRUBER: Sit down. If you're fair with me, I'll be fair with you. We'll still be friends. My agent would kill me if she saw what I was doing. Mind you, don't tell her. Don't tell her anything. I always play this when I'm upset. Remember, not a word to my agent.

[opens a photograph album]

There she is. That's her. She was so beautiful, slim, something of a wild animal. The parties, they were fun. Just women. She and I were just like that.

[Dr. Shaheen's apartment]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I've seen the girl in the palace. I've seen her execution in a parking lot. Now, I know that she met the boy in Beirut. I have to go there and find some of her classmates, or his. Why did he go back with her? Why did she go back? And why did she stand up in front of that court and condemn herself to death? Jesus. Who was she?

Beirut, September 12, 1978

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] The fourth year of the civil war. Bab Idris, the old heart of the city. How much would a girl here at university have been affected by the pain of Beirut?

[on camera] He took her off into his private room. I mean, she was his favorite. He said, "What are you doing? You're going to kill yourself. If you carry on like this, there's nothing even I can do to save you." She went back in the court—

[voice-over] I spent that first evening with my closest friends in Beirut. Even though this was one of the worst nights of fighting in the city, it was the story of the princess that seemed to touch a personal nerve.

[on camera] —insisting on her own death.


SAMIA: She was so honest. I feel, you know, I love this girl. I think she was, you know, a free soul. She was like a bird. She was— she wanted to live, to be happy, to sing, to love. And I think that, you know, when she weighed it out, she thought that if she carried on living the way they wanted her to live, you know, she would have also destroyed herself. So in that way, you know, she felt that she still had her dignity. That's very important.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: In a car park? I mean, I still don't grasp what she thought she could achieve.

VIOLET: I can feel why she did this. As a Palestinian, when I was deprived of all these things, of my homeland, of everything that belonged to me, I had the feeling of revolt. I wanted to express it. In the first place, I thought somebody would listen to me, but there was no way. I tried over the years to make somebody listen to my pleading. But nobody gave me an ear. So the outcome of all this feeling was I felt sometimes that I was going to explode. So— and I am sure she came to that point herself. She had no other expression, except to die.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Violet, Samia, I mean, you're identifying with someone from a highly privileged society, with every material possession. I mean, a princess.

KAMEL: Was she a princess? I mean, she was a princess by identity, obviously, that she comes from a royal family. She has all the comforts and the material comforts of life. She rejected this. As far as she is concerned, as a human spirit, she had nothing. She was not a princess.

VIOLET: She was not free to move. Like the Palestinians. She was not allowed to do so many things, and the Palestinian is not allowed to do so many things. He doesn't have the liberty to travel wherever. He hasn't got a passport. He hasn't got an identification. The same with her.

KAMEL: They contained her, actually, like the way they tried to contain the Palestine revolution. They contained her by giving her all the material comfort in life. She refused that material comfort. She didn't want it. She wanted to be, and not only to have.


KAMEL: As I do, yes. I want to be.

[hotel dining room]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Are you sure about the Beirut connection?

ELIE SALHAWI: Absolutely. The girl was at the Beirut Women's College, '73, '74. The boy was at the American University.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] Elie Salhawi.

Was he married?

ELIE SALHAWI: No, just a student.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: He was still executed.

ELIE SALHAWI: The price of meddling with somebody else's wife.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What do you know about the husband?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] Salhawi, professional gossip and raconteur, with his own private network of informers and contacts.

ELIE SALHAWI: —the type who'd like his wife to stay at home and raise many, many children. That wasn't her kind of life, so she refused to live as his wife.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Do you accept Badra's version?

ELIE SALHAWI: Absolutely. With the exception that he missed out one important fact.


ELIE SALHAWI: The girl's grandfather. He is very important. He was the ruler's elder brother, a typically reactionary prince, one of those who rode out of the desert, sword in hand, side by side with their father, a very notorious person.

Actually — and this is the irony of ironies — he was one of the original Arab playboys. In the early '50s, he used to go abroad every year, drink, gamble, women. He used to do everything. A very notorious person. Do you know what they called him? "The father of two evils," not just one evil, but double evil.

Now, when he heard what his granddaughter had done, he flew into a rage. He thought she had besmirched his honor publicly. He had to prove to everyone that he was still [Arabic], the fearless one, that he had the balls to take away the life of his favorite granddaughter in order to save the image of his honor publicly.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But she was condemned by a court, not by her grandfather.

ELIE SALHAWI: Of course, but the old man was so powerful. He could, of course, have ordered the husband just to divorce her, and then there would have been no case.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, but the girl was also responsible for her death. If she'd pleaded not guilty, then the case would have been called off and the grandfather would have been powerless.

ELIE SALHAWI: Absolutely right. But instead, they were both set on this collision course. You see, they say the girl was very much like her grandfather. She carried the old man's seeds, as they say, followed his traits. She was also fiery-tempered, a bit wild. She acted first and then thought afterwards. I quite agree with Badra. I think he was right. The girl brought it all on herself.

[in a taxi, nighttime]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [driver] It's over there. It's that gate there. Yes, that one. OK. Fine. Thanks. That's three.

TAXI DRIVER: Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [to security guard] I've come to see Mr. and Mrs. Haddad. They're expecting me.

NABEEL HADDAD: Christopher!


NABEEL HADDAD: You made it!

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Who are all these people?

NABEEL HADDAD: Oh, refugees, neighbors, even people from the south. They come here because they feel safe. You know, the gate, the walls. It's complete civic breakdown. Please.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] Nabeel Haddad, architect and close friend.

NABEEL HADDAD: Thank God, I persuaded Mona to go back to London and stay out of it.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And the children?

NABEEL HADDAD: They're here with me. "We're Arabs," they said, "we belong here." We don't give the orders. Out there, 12-year-olds are carrying machine guns. They give the orders.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I know. I've seen it.

NABEEL HADDAD: The ordinary Lebanese, they are the victims. They have to bear the burden of everyone else's fight— the Russians, the Americans, the Israelis, the Arab left, the Arab right. And every way, we lose. If the peace initiative succeeds, the rejectionists will hit us. If it fails, the Israelis will do it for them. I love my country, but it's finished. I'm 45 years old. Where can I begin again?

Christopher, how is your work going, your princess?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I feel absurd talking about her— here, now.

NABEEL HADDAD: Not at all. We felt that story intensely here in Lebanon. Of course, you know the boy's uncle is their ambassador here.


NABEEL HADDAD: Oh, yes. His guardian, in fact. The father is dead. You know, he wasn't even told about the execution. They didn't even tell him. He loved that boy.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Do you know the ambassador personally?

NABEEL HADDAD: Oh, yes. He heard at 4:00 o'clock in the morning, a telephone call a day after. A shock. He went away for a long time. He wouldn't speak to anybody, not even his closest friends.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Would he talk to me now?

NABEEL HADDAD: No, Christopher. It wouldn't be right. I'm sorry. Are you getting any closer to the girl?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Not really. I had one glimpse of her in a London flat. All the rest is second-hand. I'm relying on the Women's College tomorrow. If I can just get the names of some of her classmates—

SA'EED BADRA: She rebelled. She wanted to go to a university, to Beirut. You can imagine the influence there; radical Arab politics, women's liberation, Palestinians, Western influences— all pulling and all pulling in different directions. She met a boy from our country, a student. She completely lost her head. She forgot who she was.

[Beirut Women's College]

Dr. MARROUCHE: Oh, Mr. Ryder. I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: No, I'm sorry. Whenever it's convenient for you. I just wanted to have a few words about the college.

Dr. MARROUCHE: Well, you've come at a bad time, really. We're at quarter strength, and every one of us doing three or four jobs at the same time. What was it you wanted to talk to me about?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Well, this is one of the few places where girls congregate from all over the Arab world. I thought I could learn something about the problems of adjustment.

Dr. MARROUCHE: We all have to learn how to adjust, Mr. Ryder.

We treat the girls as responsible adults, capable of making the choice from all the possibilities that we offer.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, but what about those girls from very conservative backgrounds? I mean, how do they cope with the sudden burst of freedom?

Dr. MARROUCHE: That's the least of our worries, Mr. Ryder. The girls on campus help them over this thing quickly. What really worries me is when the girls have to go home.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What have been your worst experiences?

Dr. MARROUCHE: Some of the girls come in to me—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [voice-over] It's a sad fact of our profession that to learn, we often have to deceive, hold back the crucial question, skirt around the subject until the moment feels right.

Dr. MARROUCHE: —but most of them have no choice at all. They're forced to go home.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Dr. Marrouche, the girl who was executed, The princess?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did she come and talk to you? Did she tell you how she felt before she returned?

Dr. MARROUCHE: Oh, she was never a student at this university.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: She was here in '73, '74, I'm sure.

Dr. MARROUCHE: No. I've been here since 1965. She was never a student here.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: You're quite certain?

Dr. MARROUCHE: Oh, I'm positive. You're welcome to see our records, if you want.

[Ryder's hotel room]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [telephone rings] Georges! I thought you might get stuck in the lift. The generator just went. Right, I'm on my way down.

[Beirut nightclub]

GEORGES RAFLA: I think this is what you want. Monday Morning, February 6th. It's a weekly magazine published here.


GEORGES RAFLA: Yes. The article caused quite a stir.


GEORGES RAFLA: That's the man who took the pictures of the execution.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, I've already met him. "They met in Beirut." Where did they get these photographs of her at the women's party?

GEORGES RAFLA: The nanny, of course. After this was published, internal security was so angry that they shut the paper down.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: They must be dead scared of them.

GEORGES RAFLA: Be very careful, my friend. Be very careful.

GEORGES RAFLA: [indicating man at next table] That's Victor. He's 24, went to the gulf two years ago with $5,000 in his pocket. Now he's worth a million. Beirut, the capital of the Levant. For 4,000 years, a city of merchants. Perhaps we have to pay the price.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Not just you, Georges.

[sound of machine gun fire in street]

GEORGES RAFLA: That's not about Christians and Muslims. Do you know what they say out there? "You've shown us your world, and we don't want it. Take us back. Give us something that's ours, something that we understand. Take us back to the tribe." Pakistan, Iran, turning to Islam. In Teheran, even in Cairo, university girls are actually saying, "Put us back behind our veils. Take us back."

Oh! Victor Zoughby, Christopher Ryder.


VICTOR ZOUGHBY: Nice meeting you. Aha! La belle princess. Actually, I knew her.


VICTOR ZOUGHBY: Met her a few times.


VICTOR ZOUGHBY: At Tramps discotheque, near to the International Hotel. This girl, dancing, dancing— fantastic. She took over the whole floor.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Who was she with?

VICTOR ZOUGHBY: Some friends. When this story came out, my cousin Ziad said to me, "Don't you remember that girl? That was the princess." She was the one at Tramps.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Do you think I could meet your cousin?

VICTOR ZOUGHBY: I don't think that would be such a good idea.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Absolutely confidential.

[Victor questions Rafla in Arabic]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Look, I just want to meet someone who really knew her.

VICTOR ZOUGHBY: Leave it alone, Mr. Ryder. Just leave it alone.

[registrar's office, American University of Beirut.]

CLERK: When did you say they were here?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I'm told the boy was here in '73, '74.

CLERK: No, nothing. Have you tried the Arab University?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I've tried all three universities. Look, would you mind going back in your files for the last 10 years?

CLERK: Our records go back to 1870. Nobody by those names.

[Elsa Gruber's apartment]

ELSA GRUBER: [laughs] University! Of course, she was never at university. I could have told you that. If you had paid me first before you started all this flying about— university! Her mind was like a 15. But her instincts, her feelings, that was different. In those things, she was a woman.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How old was she when she died?

ELSA GRUBER: I would say about 19.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Where did she meet the boy?

ELSA GRUBER: How should I know? I wasn't there watching her like rats' cheese, I had my arms full with the baby. I never saw the boy, and that's what I'm telling you.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, now can we start at the beginning? Now, you went out there early '76, about 18 months before she died.

ELSA GRUBER: February '76. I had seen this job advertised, and a friend of mine—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, you were going to look after the old prince's baby grandson. Now, were did you live?

ELSA GRUBER: I lived with the daughter. She was divorced. A palace full of women.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And did the princess live with you?

ELSA GRUBER: Oh, she lived in another palace with her father, who was the old prince's son.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So the old prince lived in his palace, his daughter was in the women's palace, where you lived, and his son was in another palace with his daughter, the girl we're talking about. Three palaces.

ELSA GRUBER: Nine palaces! Everyone had a palace in the capital, another palace by the sea and a palace in the mountains.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And when you're talking about a palace, you mean a large modern villa?

ELSA GRUBER: Yes, except the old prince. He had this wonderful palace, and the garden—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes. Now, when did you meet the princess?

ELSA GRUBER: About three weeks after I had arrived. We were all in the capital sometime in March.


ELSA GRUBER: Yes. One morning, I woke up, and the palace was full of rubbish, a mess. There had been a big party the night before, and all the princesses were still sleeping. No one moved all day, except the servants. Then about 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon— I remember it so well— she was literally like a child.

She started calling the baby, "my husband, my husband." Those royals all marry cousins. She said she was just going to wait until the little boy was old enough to marry her.

We understood each other from the beginning. At first, we talked nothing but rubbish.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: You talked to each other in English?

ELSA GRUBER: Oh, she spoke a sort of kitchen English. She had all the dirty words, though. [laughs] I'd picked up a bit of Arabic by then. The rest was just a sort of feeling.

She wanted to know all about my lovers here! She told me about her husband. In the first five minutes, you found out she'd never loved him. It was an arranged marriage.

The way she talked about him was just [Arabic word]. [laughs] But you can't say that! He had left her to live his own life in the States, and she was banished into staying with her parents, like all the divorcees, back to Mama and Papa.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And after that, did you see a lot more of her?

ELSA GRUBER: Oh, she was always popping in and out, sometimes for the night, sometimes staying for weeks. That's the way they do things over there. Maybe a party, then everyone sleeping until 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon. I mean, no one ever got up before 12:00.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Apart from all this eating and the partying, what did the princesses actually do?

ELSA GRUBER: Nothing. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing!

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did they ever take any exercise?

ELSA GRUBER: Only, hopefully, making love! [laughs]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So there was a lot of that. I mean, this idea that she was the only one who broke the rules—

ELSA GRUBER: What else could you do? I mean, if you're so damn bored, caged up in those palaces, there's nothing else on your mind.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I'm not being critical, I'm just trying to establish what she did that was so different, so exceptional, that brought everything down on top of her. I mean, if all the other women—

ELSA GRUBER: My contract is to talk to you about the princess, not the others. Those things are not for you. Not for me, either. I mean, if I wanted to write a best-seller, I could tell such things! But I'm not going to say a word.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: OK. OK. So a life of total boredom, caged up, as you said, servants doing everything. I mean, when a princess undresses, she drops her clothes on the floor, a servant picks them up—

ELSA GRUBER: And when she dresses, the servant has to lay out 11 costumes, so she can choose. And the servant has to go 'round to the boutique and bring back all the latest Paris fashion, all on approval. And when she has a bath, the servant runs her water, and talks to her to cheer her up, and towels her dry. And the servant cuts your nails, and combs your hair.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did she ever have a serious discussion with you?

ELSA GRUBER: Her kitchen English, my Arabic?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But did she seem serious about anything? Religion, for instance. Did she pray?

ELSA GRUBER: Praying is for daytime, when she slept. In our palace, praying was for the servants. Sometimes she'd lie down and listen to recordings of the Quran. Oh, but just for relaxation. It's very soothing.


ELSA GRUBER: Oh, only those film magazines. Her special hero was Abdul Haleem. As soon as he came up on TV, she blew kisses at him. TV was the big thing. Not the local programs, they were rubbish, but cassettes. We were always getting films and foreign programs. We saw Sound of Music a dozen times. They knew every scene by heart. Top of the Pops used to come every week, fresh from London.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But didn't she do anything or say anything that would suggest a growing resentment against all this, defiance, rebellion?

ELSA GRUBER: Oh, she was always defiant. She loved Western pop music, but the servants hated it.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: No, that's not exactly what I meant.

ELSA GRUBER: Her favorite song was "Save Your Kisses for Me." It's sung by the Brotherhood of Man. All she could say was "Kisses for me." That's as far as she got. She would play it, and the servants would sit there with cross faces. And she'd play it again, and the servants would get even crosser. And again, 20 times. And she'd laugh at them.

Smoking— that was strictly forbidden, but she didn't care. Her grandmother would come sniffing about, and the princess would laugh and point to me and say, "It's her."

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: The grandmother. How often did you see the grandfather?

ELSA GRUBER: Oh, about once a month. All his women would go up to the palace, the daughters from his other wives, the granddaughters, the cousins, one by one in those chauffeured cars, beauty after beauty, dressed up like a peacock. As each girl entered the palace, she'd drop her veil. It was like a wedding, every girl trying to outdo the other. Then we'd all wait by the doorway of this big room, wait for Papa.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: The old prince, what was he like?

ELSA GRUBER: Very calm, very generous. He was so simple and quiet when he came.

ELIE SALHAWI: He's the king's elder brother, one of those who rode out of the desert, you know, sword in hand, at his father's side. But also — and this is the irony of ironies — he was one of the original Arab playboys.

ELSA GRUBER: They call it a majlis — that's Arabic — the head of the family with all the womenfolk around, very formal, very polite.

ELIE SALHAWI: They say that the girl carried the old man's seeds, that she had his traits. She was very much like her grandfather, also very fiery-tempered, a bit wild. She acted first and thought afterwards.

ELSA GRUBER: It was just little bits of gossip, but if you looked into his eyes, how satisfied and happy he was with all his family around him. His behavior and quietness was almost holy.

We came to London in November, 1976. She was like a child, big-eyed. She wanted to be a hippie, wear jeans.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Was it her first visit to London?

ELSA GRUBER: I don't know.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But earlier in the year, when she was sitting in her nightgown, talking to you about London, did you have the impression that she'd been here before?

ELSA GRUBER: No, not really. The old prince was living in the Boltons, and the princess and I asked if we could stay at the Park Towers and he said OK. At night, we used to creep out of the hotel, down the back stairs, and have fun.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did she meet the boy here?

ELSA GRUBER: She had a lover. I don't know who he was. I never saw those two together. She used to wear this thing around her neck, black worry beads with a gold locket in the middle. Once she showed me a photograph of the boy in the locket. Habibi. Habibi. That's Arabic. "My darling, my darling. The beads are from my darling."

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And was the boy in the photograph the boy who was executed?

ELSA GRUBER: I told you, I don't know. I never saw those two together.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What happened when she went back?

ELSA GRUBER: The same old life— a different film every night, Grandma sniffing about, the princess popping in and out. Then suddenly, I felt something was wrong.


ELSA GRUBER: She didn't come to our home any more.


ELSA GRUBER: One day, I'd taken time off to go swimming at a friend's place. I got back about 7:00, and the whole palace had been evacuated. There was only my servant and the little boy. I said, "What's the matter?" and she said, "They've all flown to the seaside palace. She's drowned." Everybody was searching because they thought she was drowned. I put the baby to bed at once.

I tried to phone again and again, but the line was always engaged. Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, the phone rang. "Hello, Princess Hude. What happened?" "Elsa, she went for a midnight swim. She got drowned, and they found her clothes on the beach. The police and everyone is out on the water."

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: The beach! What was she doing?

ELSA GRUBER: That's what I tried to find out, but the line was always engaged. A week went by, maybe more. Then at last, a phone call. "How's the baby?" It was his mother. I said, "Never mind about the baby, what's with the princess?" And she said, "Elsa, she knew exactly what she was doing and the shame she brought to our family, and they had to be killed, both of them."

Can you imagine? The last thing I heard was that she was drowned. I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Elsa, this is our law and this is our country's habit. And if she had thought properly about it, she wouldn't have done it. And there was no choice." And I said, "What happened? What did they do to her?" And she said, "They hurt her until she died." [weeps]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So they thought she'd drowned, and then they caught her. Did anyone talk to you about a trial?

ELSA GRUBER: There has to be a trial.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, but if there was a trial, there has to be either four witnesses to the sexual act—

ELSA GRUBER: What's wrong with that?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Nothing, except it's practically impossible. Or there must be an admission of guilt. Now, was the girl you know the type who could stand up in a courtroom and condemn herself to death?

ELSA GRUBER: A religious person is very loyal. They can't fiddle and make lies, like we do.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But the princess? Was she the type who could die for her religion?

ELSA GRUBER: I told you, none of us is going to know what happened in that court.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But why was she condemned to death? You said that all the other women were having affairs.

ELSA GRUBER: She had brought public shame on her family. Everyone knew what she was doing. It was public!

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So it was public. So it wasn't the immorality, it was the indiscretion.


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Why? Had she been defiant, had she been advertising the relationship, or was she just stupid and careless?

ELSA GRUBER: You can do anything if you don't get caught.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So it was stupidity.

ELSA GRUBER: No. I don't know. No!

[Dr. Shaheeen's living room]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: It's a totally different version of the girl. Never went to university. Scatty. But of course, that doesn't necessarily change the truth. She could still have taken on the system. You don't have to go to university for that. But if she didn't go to university, where did she meet the boy? Was she ever in Beirut? Did she even meet him outside her country? Because if she didn't, half of Badra's story has gone. All that business about the confrontation. Was it just an act of her grandfather's vengeance?

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: No, I think this was much more than an act of vengeance. No, it goes far deeper than that. The fate of that girl is symptomatic of a deep social conflict in the country. It's the women, you see, who are in the thick of it— travel, money, exposure to Western values. It's had a much greater effect on the women.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So you think her execution was a deliberate political act, they had to make a public example of her for the women?

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: Absolutely. Within a week of that girl's death, two draconian laws were passed in the country. One reduced even further women's very limited rights to work, and the other took away all their freedom to travel. Without the written permission of the head of the family, a woman can't budge.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes. You see, I still feel I haven't met anyone who actually knew her.

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: If they ever give you a visa and you're allowed in, I want you to go and talk to my niece. I've already written to her about you.

Arabia, October 1, 1978

[hotel foyer]

JAPANESE MAN: Hello. Welcome. My name is Tanaka. This is Mr. Sato.

1st BUSINESSMAN: Cummings. Cummings. "S" like in "sugar."

2nd BUSINESSMAN: Hello? Is that the White Fish Authority?

1st BUSINESSMAN: Yes, sir. I was supposed to call along about this hour this morning to talk to either the director or his personal secretary.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Excuse me. Can you look up this telephone number for me please?

ENGLISH GUEST: I have been waiting here long before these people.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Could you please look up—

OTHER GUEST: Excuse me, please—

TELEPHONE OPERATOR: Yes, sir. It's 458-645-5038.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes. Those are the same numbers that I have. Look, the ministry is permanently out of order. Nobody answers at the school. All the other lines are engaged.

TELEPHONE OPERATOR: Take a taxi. It's faster.

[at the ministry]

MINISTRY OFFICIAL: His excellency is not in the kingdom at the present time.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But Mr. Na'zir assured me he was flying here directly from Washington.

[British diplomat's party]

GUEST: Do you mind if I crack another bottle of Beaujolais?

DIPLOMAT: Help yourself, old boy.

GUEST: Thank you.

DIPLOMAT: Courtesy of the diplomatic bag! You were saying?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, the execution. What did you make of it?

DIPLOMAT: Personally or professionally?


DIPLOMAT: The Foreign Office asked for a report when the story first broke to the press. No chance. Total clampdown.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: So you had to accept the official version.

DIPLOMAT: And I'd advise you to do the same. They're very touchy. I wouldn't want to have to come to your rescue. But off the record, I did hear a very interesting thing at an American Embassy party. They were saying that the girl's still alive in a clinic in Geneva. Apparently, she's a schizophrenic.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How do you account for the execution?

DIPLOMAT: Well, the story is that the old prince paid a Bedouin family a vast sum for one of their daughters, and she substituted for the princess. They'll do anything to save the old bugger's honor.

[Mme. Quataajy's fashion boutique]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: No, on the contrary, it's very kind of you to see me.

Mme. QUATAAJY: Really, I don't know how can I help you.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Well, it's very important for me to talk to women here, and I've been told you're one of the exceptional few, a woman, with a business of her own. And apart from that, you're the only woman I know with a telephone that works.

Mme. Quataajy, I don't understand the rules. I know women have to wear the veil in public, then I can walk in here and see them unveiled. Also, I understood that men and women are forbidden to work together, and yet you have a male assistant.

Mme. QUATAAJY: Well, there is some confusion. Last week, for instance, the matawa — you know, the religious soldiers — broke into another boutique. They smashed all the mannequins in the window with their sticks. They'd been there for years. But if your shop has a good reputation and it's strictly a boutique, and you don't have any hanky-panky business going on, you'll be all right.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What do you mean, strictly a boutique?

Mme. QUATAAJY: Of course, Mr. Ryder, there are women, mainly foreign women, who complain about restrictions, that they can't do everything they want. They can't drive, for instance. But why should I drive? If I have an accident, must I start screaming in the street? Must I be arrested by the police, like— like a man. I have somebody to take me from my home to the shop. What could be nicer than that? The abaya? There's no hardship in that. The veil is very feminine, if you know how to wear it.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I've heard that since the execution of that princess, things have become much stricter.

Mme. QUATAAJY: Oh, no. Not at all. It's only that there are certain rules and regulations that cannot be broken. What happened was very unfortunate, but I can't be wiser than the men who took that decision.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, to us, that seems very extreme.

Mme. QUATAAJY: Mr. Ryder, she committed a very grave crime against Islam. We are strict here, not like your country, where burglars can come into your home and kill you and rob you and get the lightest punishment, where you can't walk in the street for fear of rape. We're safe here.

[coffee bar at Ryder's hotel]

TEEBY: I think you're wasting your time, Mr. Ryder. Let me tell you the whole story. You see, that girl was never the granddaughter of the old prince, just a distant relative of the royal family. Nobody had heard of her until the trial.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But there was a trial?

TEEBY: Of course. There has to be. You see, she'd left her husband, taken a lover, gone abroad to have his child. Then she came back. That was her mistake. Of course, if she'd stayed in Paris, there would have been no problem.


[public sitting room in Ryder's hotel]

MOHAMMED KHAYAT: And I'll tell you something else. The press treatment of that story is part of a deliberate campaign against the Arabs. That Englishman who gave the story to the press? A CIA plant. Pictures are not forbidden at executions, so why did he make all this story about hiding his camera?

[a pavement cafe in the souk]

EL BABLI: At your service. His Excellency is very honored to meet you. As editor of one of our national newspapers, he wishes to give every assistance to a British colleague.


EL BABLI: For nothing.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Could you ask Mr. Jaabir, what was the reaction here to the overseas press reports about the execution of that princess?

[El Babli and Mr. Jaabir converse at some length in Arabic]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What did he say?

EL BABLI: His Excellence says, "What Princess?"

[in the souk car park where the princess died]

STEVE JACKSON: They led the girl off to the right-hand side, as I were looking at it. She were veiled. I didn't see her face. I mean, I couldn't swear it was the princess, but it was the right week. I've heard nowt about any other executions at that time. It's daft, but you see, I'd still no idea what were going to happen to her. I mean, I knew she weren't a passer-by or aught like that, but as far as I were concerned, there were just one guy were going to get done.

[Ryder's hotel room]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [the phone rings] Yes. Yes. I'm fine. Who? Al Zamel. Can you hold on? Can you spell that for me? Z-A-M-E-L— Zamel. Thank you. Ten o'clock, yes. I know the ministry building. I know the Ministry of Information. Ministry of the Interior? Oh, well, you'd best give me the address, please.

[Shaikh Mohammed al Zamel's office]

SHAIKH MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: I urge you to make a proper study of our investment in the West. This is a crucial theme. If I were a responsible journalist, my first duty would be to inform my public of the part that this country plays in helping to support the whole Western economy.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Oh, I think that most of us are well aware of—

SHAIKH MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: Of trivia and lies, Mr. Ryder. Take the case of the princess.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Which princess?

SHAIKH MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: That was a case of a private domestic issue being deliberately twisted by your press. This girl had offended her family, her country and her religion.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: You mean the princess who was executed for adultery?

SHAIKH MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: That's our law. We don't turn a blind eye to certain excesses of our royal family, as others do, but we are nevertheless human. Can you imagine the prince's distress? Not only the death of his favorite granddaughter, but the vilest publicity. What exactly is this film you want to make, Mr. Ryder?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Well, I'm chiefly interested in the development of the women's role. For instance, I've heard you have an excellent girls' school here, Dar el Oloum.


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Well, I'd be grateful for an opportunity to take a look at that.

SHAIKH MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: Perhaps it would be more profitable to visit the new faculty for women at the university.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I'd like to see them both.

SHAIKH MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: If you wish. I will arrange for someone from the Information Ministry to accompany you.

[Dar el Oloum girls' school. Young women arrive as passengers in cars and buses, all wearing black abayas. Inside the school courtyard, there are no veils, as some girls play an energetic game of volleyball and others cheer them on. Ryder, Samira and the Information Ministry escort in Samira's office.]

SAMIRA: How is my uncle?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Oh, he's fine. I saw him last week. We're very good friends, you know.

SAMIRA: Yes, I got a letter saying you were coming. What can I do for you?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Well, I'm doing research into the development of the women's role in the Arab world— that is, the problems they face, the adjustments they have to make. And I was wondering what sort of careers the girls from this school take when they leave.

SAMIRA: Oh, women are free to choose any career they wish, provided, of course, their work doesn't bring them into contact with men. This is a segregated society, Mr. Ryder. Take this school, for instance. The teachers, the secretaries, the accountants, the cleaners, the maintenance people are all women. We have male drivers and porters, who are not permitted beyond the inner gate. We give them orders by telephone.


SAMIRA: Yes, by telephone. Sometimes we invite male lecturers for the more advanced classes. The ministry has just installed a new studio so that these classes can be give over short-circuit television. The lecturer sits in one room and speaks into a camera. The girls sit in another room, and they watch him on a television monitor. Of course, each girl has a telephone on her desk, and this means that she can communicate to the male lecturer directly.


SAMIRA: By telephone.

[Samira's apartment]

SAMIRA: Come in. Come in.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I'm sorry. I'm late.

SAMIRA: Not at all. Thank you for your patience this morning.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Look, am I putting you in any danger at all by coming here?

SAMIRA: No, I can take care of myself. Besides, we have a chaperone, my mother-in-law. We have some tea ready. Would you like some?


SAMIRA: So how long are you staying?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: A week, maybe two.

SAMIRA: Could you take these back for me?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, of course.

SAMIRA: Thank you. So to ask the question again, how can I help you?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I don't know that you can.

SAMIRA: Are you really doing anything about the status of Arab women?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, I am. One particular woman, but her story is tied up with everything else.

SAMIRA: Who is that?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: The princess who was executed.

SAMIRA: Have you heard the true story?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I've heard a dozen true stories. You lived in America for some years, didn't you?

SAMIRA: Yes, during my teens.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did you find it difficult to come and live back here ?

SAMIRA: No, on the contrary. There I was, an Arab and a Muslim in a country that didn't understand either. I had to come back to find myself, my roots.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But how does someone like you cope with living in a fundamentalist Muslim society like this?

SAMIRA: This isn't a Muslim country. These people pervert Islam. They use Islam. They scare people to death with their barbarous illegal punishments. That is not the way with Islam. A woman is nobody's property in Islam. There is no veil in Islam.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Wasn't it introduced by the Turks?

SAMIRA: Exactly, nearly 1,000 years after the death of the Prophet, a deliberate colonial act to destroy the Arab family. Before Ottoman rule, Arab women led armies, were equal partners in marriage, until they were silenced by that veil.

[Ryder gestures to his cassette recorder]

SAMIRA: Yes, of course. Look, it's so important that you understand. The way they applied the law in that girl's case has nothing to do with Islam.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What do you mean?

SAMIRA: Skimpy evidence, killing her. Do you think there were four witnesses? Do you think she admitted freely? That is the only way with Islam.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Are you saying that the princess wasn't properly tried?

SAMIRA: Of course, she wasn't!

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Then why was she executed, publicly executed?

SAMIRA: Because they wanted to make an example out of her.


SAMIRA: Because she defied them. By her actions she was saying, "Look at this blasphemy. Look what is being done to our women." She couldn't teach, as I do. She couldn't mix with people in the streets. She had to die to make her point.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Which was what, exactly?

SAMIRA: That this autocratic regime has nothing to do with Islamic thought, feeling or ideology. Islam is democratic. There are no kings in Islam. The Quran says that the leaders must be elected by the people and that the people have the right to criticize them.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes, that's the theory, not the practice.

SAMIRA: And who's the blame for that?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What do you mean?

SAMIRA: This regime is your responsibility. The West took over after the Turks, and you've always sided with the enemies of progress in the Arab world because you want to control us. It was the same in Iran.

Christopher, these things aren't published. In 1969, the air force attempted a coup, not communists, not right-wing colonels, but the cream of our educated young men. A CIA tip-off, and do you know what happened? Three hundred officers and men were put on planes — American planes — were flown over the desert and pushed out. This regime is your responsibility.


SAMIRA: To bring society back to the pure democratic spirit of Islam. The movement has already begun.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And you think that the princess was somehow involved in that struggle?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes. What you've give me is another version of the truth. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but I wish I had some facts, simple facts. If I could just speak to somebody who knew her.

SAMIRA: Perhaps I can help you, if you'll give me time.



CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Somebody on the inside?



SAMIRA: Let's just say she's someone with close connections with the royal family.


SAMIRA: Someone we all respect very much. She knows what's going on. She may agree to see you, with my guarantees. And if she does, there will be no recordings, no notes, no mention of her identity to anyone— not to your employer, not even to my uncle.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And you won't say—

SAMIRA: I told you, we're not going to discuss her [_pointing to tape recorder]_ and certainly not with that thing going.

[sitting room in "the Emira's" villa. Ryder is accompanied by Samira]

"THE EMIRA": How much do you know about palace life, Mr. Ryder?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: A woman's life?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Not much. What I've been told. The women are bored, caged up, expensive clothes—

"THE EMIRA": And no education. Does that strike you as a good life for a woman?


"THE EMIRA": I have a friend, a princess. She's divorced, like so many of them. Do you know what her greatest pleasure is? Get into her car at night and have the chauffeur take her to the Hotel Intercontinental. She cannot go inside. He buys a hamburger for her, and she sits there in her car, in the dark, for hours, just to watch people coming in and out.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I have met some professional women, women who are leading—

SAMIRA: We're talking about the royal family. Princesses. Obviously, there are bourgeois women who—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Yes. Of course. Excuse me. What rights and privileges do you have as a princess?

"THE EMIRA": Sex. Maybe that's a privilege. To relieve their boredom, these princesses live the most intricate and busy sex lives. Very little romance, quick liaisons, sometimes cruel, always dangerous.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How do they make contact with the men?

"THE EMIRA": The chauffeur and personal maid. They make the contact and have the secrets. Of course, they're bribed, heavily bribed. The irony is that it's the women who chose the men. Yes, in a society as strict and tight as this, women are the predators. Men cannot choose because of the veil. Quelle chance la voile! You know, Mr. Ryder, you ought to make a film about the veil.

There's a road in the desert. Women go there to look men over every evening at about 5:00. When they choose a man, if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, they just move on. If they find a man attractive, they write down his number and tell the chauffeur to make contact.

There's always ways of finding a man. The sword dances on national days, for instance. This is the great opportunity for men to show off. At night, in the desert, the women sitting in their cars in the dark, watching men, selecting their men. The men, of course, know that they are being watched, so they excel themselves.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: And you disapprove?

"THE EMIRA": Not on a moral basis. In fact, I even admire their guts. But I despise the hypocrisy. Do you understand?


"THE EMIRA": Do you? Do you know what it once meant to come from this place? To be straight, direct, to submit to no one. We were never colonized Mr. Ryder, until now.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Can we talk about the princess?

"THE EMIRA": Poor child. Poor silly child. She paid for all of them.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: She came from the sort of society you describe?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: You knew her well?

"THE EMIRA": Yes. You heard about her trip to London, I suppose?


"THE EMIRA": The irony is that her grandfather took her. He was exactly the same, like a sword. Until his first trip to Paris, he didn't learn the lesson. He thought he was giving her privileges, opportunities, and all he did was confuse her.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Did she meet the boy in London?

"THE EMIRA": No, on television.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Television? I don't understand.

"THE EMIRA": Well, she saw him here on television. He was playing a guitar, and that was fantastic to her. It just took her. So she sent to him a note through her chauffeur, telling him that an important letter was waiting for him in a boutique. It's an old trick, but he wasn't a prince or someone accustomed to these sort of games, just an ordinary boy, a student at the university. And there she was, a royal princess.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: She met him here, not in Beirut or London?

"THE EMIRA": No. She saw him here.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How old was he?

"THE EMIRA": Twenty— twenty-one.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: But wasn't he aware of the dangers?

"THE EMIRA": Of course he was. He was very frightened at the beginning. But she was a powerful little thing.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How long did the relationship last?

"THE EMIRA": It was pathetic. From start to finish, three weeks.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Three weeks! Did they carry on openly? Is it true that they deliberately went out of their way to flout public opinion?

"THE EMIRA": Not in that sense. They planned to meet during her next holiday in Europe and then run off together. But grandfather was upset by the behavior of the women last time, and he gave the orders, "No trips abroad." And she was trapped in that palace, beating her wings against the bars, until she saw an opening.

There's a popular beach 20 miles from here. The family has a chalet there. She persuaded her mother to let her go for a midnight swim. The boy was waiting for her. She left a set of clothes on the beach to fake a drowning, and she went with him. There's a small hotel five miles further up the coast. That was their hiding place.

[reception area of the hotel]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Can I look at a room please?


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Do you have a room overlooking the sea?

HOTEL CLERK: All the room look at the sea, please.

[the hotel terrace, another hotel guest at a nearby table]

GEORGES: Georges. Georges is the name. Doing some business?


GEORGES: Always business.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What do you do?

GEORGES: A bit of this, a bit of that. Import, export. What you say your name?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Ryder, Christopher Ryder.

GEORGES: I know what you do. You're from the newspaper.


GEORGES: Many people, many, many people, they all want Georges. I saw them. I saw them with my eyes.


GEORGES: [to waiter] Tea. More tea for my friend.

Police boats, helicopters, frogmen, everybody shouting about the princess. She drowned. All the time, she was up there. [indicates upper room]


GEORGES: The girl came out on the balcony, then the boy. Boy very angry.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: How did you know that that was the princess?

GEORGES: Afterwards, I see photos. They both disappeared on Monday. On Friday— [draws finger across his throat]

["The Emira's" apartment]

"THE EMIRA": They'd wasted time. Four days, and still no sign of a body. Then there was a catastrophe. On the afternoon before she faked her drowning, she left a letter with her maid, with instructions that it would not be delivered for a week, whatever happened. It was just to tell her mother not to worry, that she was safe. Of course, when the search went on day after day, the maid got scared. She just handed over the letter. Everybody was alerted on the very day they were trying to escape.

She could have traveled under the veil with the passport of a servant, any woman. We have a saying in Arabic, "A thief isn't caught unless he wants to be caught."

[The princess, unveiled, at the airport check-in. A security buzzer sounds. Security men grab her and take her to an office. The boy jumps up, pushes back through the crowd at security. He bursts into the office where the princess has been taken. The boy is held by the security men. The princess looks up at him in tears.]

[The central courts. A policeman, another boy in handcuffs being led up the stairs and down a corridor. A judge sits behind a desk in a courtroom, a clerk with a ledger at his side. The accused, his relatives, witnesses argue the case. Ryder and Dr. Khaldy in the audience.]

[Dr. Khaldy's office]

Dr. KHALDY: The basis of the Islamic law is the Sunnah, which sets down the acts and practices of the Prophet. Now, it is the duty of every Islamic lawyer to relate modern circumstances to those basic precepts.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Dr. Khaldy, are all the courts the same?

Dr. KHALDY: Exactly the same.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: That princess who was tried for adultery—

Dr. KHALDY: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: The king was never in a place like that, the old prince. Where was she tried?

Dr. KHALDY: There was no trial. The execution was a matter of public policy. The balance of power is delicate. Grandfather is the king's older brother. The king needs his support. The couple were taken straight from the airport to grandfather's palace. On the following Friday, they were executed by the prince's own bodyguards. The king was against it, but then the prince is outside the law. Honor. He who gives life has the right to take it away. That's not the law of Islam, it's the law of the tribe. He didn't even use the Square of Justice. They were both killed in a car park. You can just see it from here.

[Dr. Shaheen's living room in London]

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Why the bloody hell did Badra tell me that!


CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Obviously the story's more than PR, but it's so unlike him, so naive, to misrepresent the facts.

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: Ah, the facts.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: All that rubbish about a trial, then the king interrupting the proceedings.

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: Perhaps those weren't the most important—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Of course, there are still gaps. There are crucial gaps. Between the arrest and the execution, four days. What happened? Did the old grandfather meet them in a towering rage, lock them up in a couple of rooms while he arranged his vengeance for the sake of his sanctimonious bloody honor?

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: Christopher, Christopher. There's one thing you don't seem to understand, the gap that separates the two of us. Come.

[A London street at night]

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: The difference between your world and mine is that most of us still search for inspiration, for belief, and above all, meaning. For you, life is defined by facts and details by which you make your judgments. And yet the crucial questions escape you. Why did she die? Who is responsible for preserving a regime capable of an act like that? Whose interests are served? Your concern is what happened to the girl during those four—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Oh, and you think that's not important?

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: You already know what is important— for you, for Mona, for your Palestinian friends, for all of us, even for Badra. A girl who challenged the system, who put her life—

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Look, Marwan, an uneducated, immature teenager was just on some hopeless bloody escapade!

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: But she acted. Don't take that away from her. Christopher, can't you see? You've just been taken on a journey through the private center of the Arab world because that princess always remained beside you. She created the spark, not you. She gave your journey meaning.

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Meaning! A 19-year-old girl was stuck in front of a pile of sand and shot!


Reflections on Death of a Princess

ANTONY THOMAS, Writer, Director: Twenty-five years ago, there I was, trying to find out the story of this princess, the girl who willingly accepted to die rather than compromise over the love she felt for a boy.

NARRATOR: Twenty-five years later, for director Antony Thomas, the memories of making Death of a Princess and the enormous controversy it created are still fresh.

ANTONY THOMAS: What happened was that I took the film to Cairo about two months before it was broadcast because I didn't know how it would be received. I had no idea. And I had a showing for the minister of culture, who'd given me permission to film there. And it was a very, very emotional screening. And afterwards, we were discussing it. I said to the minister of culture, "Are you afraid of the Saudi reaction?" And he said, "Mr. Thomas, the Saudis are much too sophisticated to publicize your film by making a fuss."

JOHN CHANCELLOR, NBC Nightly News: The royal family of Saudi Arabia has been enraged this year by the showing of—

NARRATOR: But of course, the Saudi government did make a big fuss, loudly condemning Death of a Princess and insisting the execution of Princess Misha'al had been carried out strictly according to Islamic Shar'ia law.

DAVID FANNING, Writer, Executive Producer: The difference between the official version, which was the girl was killed because she was found guilty of adultery, and the truth of it, which turns out that she was, in fact, murdered by the king's elder brother in an act of tribal vengeance in a parking lot in Jeddah, was, in fact, the heart of the controversy because that was the part that, of course, the royal family could not countenance. And that was the great outrage.

NARRATOR: In preparing this rebroadcast of the film, FRONTLINE asked for an interview with the Saudi ambassador in Washington to explore his government's view of the film today. We were told that this time, the Saudis would have no comment on Death of a Princess.

ANTONY THOMAS: When I set off 25 years ago to investigate this story, whoever I spoke to, whether they were Palestinians, whether they were conservative Saudis, whether they were radicals, they attached themselves to this princess. She'd become a myth. And they identified with her and they kind of co-opted her to their cause.

There was not one person I spoke to who would agree to appear in this film. So it was absolutely understood that, "Everything I'm telling you now, Antony, is in confidence. You will never refer to me, you will never expose me, will you?" I mean, you know, it was absolutely— you couldn't make a documentary. It was impossible.

DAVID FANNING: So while we had background interviews and recorded interviews with people, we were faced with transcripts of interviews that we could never use. And so we made this crucial decision to dramatize the interviews, and in so doing, to be able to hide or to mask the people's identities to protect them.

GEORGES RAFLA: Be very careful my friend. Be very careful.

ISOBEL COLEMAN, Council of Foreign Relations: When the movie occurred in 1980, you know, it was a time of a lot of flux in the region. And today you've got Iraq, you've got 9/11, you've got terrorism within the kingdom. You've got an unprecedented level of scrutiny, international scrutiny on this country. You know, what is going on in Saudi Arabia?

SAMIRA: This a segregated society, Mr. Ryder. Women are free to choose any career they wish, provided, of course, their work doesn't bring them into contact with men.

ALI AL-AHMED, Saudi Activist: This film really exposed the status of women in Saudi Arabia. The status of women in Saudi Arabia has not improved very much since the film aired in 1980. The women who were veiled then are veiled now. The women who were segregated then, segregated now. Women cannot drive and cannot vote. They cannot decide if they want to get married. The father has to approve, or the brother or the son has to approve.

MONA ELTAHAWY, Arab Journalist: A woman cannot go to a hospital unless she gets the signature, the written kind of approval of her male relative. She cannot leave the country unless a male relative approves her departure. She cannot file for divorce. If she files for divorce, she might have to give up custody of her children.   Many people have no understanding just what Saudi women face in their daily life.

ISOBEL COLEMAN, Council of Foreign Relations: But today, the change has been so dramatic, and the change for women has been so dramatic. Having just returned from Saudi Arabia, I met with women who run businesses, women who are deans of colleges and universities, women lawyers, women doctors. In one generation, the literacy rate for women has gone from 2 percent to over 90 percent. It's a huge change.

NARRATOR: The Saudi government has also shown a new openness to democratic reform. In February, for the first time, they scheduled municipal elections throughout the kingdom.

MONA ELTAHAWY, Arab Journalist: But even in this first instance of kind of baby steps towards elections and democracy, women were barred. So— and it makes no sense to me, as an Arab Muslim women, why in the year 2005 you will only allow half of your population to take part in that reform.

Amb. EDWARD WALKER, U.S. State Department, 1967-2001: But they gained out of that election the pledge that they would vote the next time. And when I talked to the crown prince before the elections, he thought that you had to take this thing one step at a time. And as he said at the time, "I'm going to take one step forward, and I'm never going to take a step backwards." They are trying to balance between change that is important for maintaining a popular base and change which can create a counter-action in the very traditional society that Saudi Arabia still is.

ISOBEL COLEMAN: The Saudi kingdom has a very strong base in its religion, and the religious conservatives have an enormous influence in the country, and particularly enormous influence on the way that women lead their lives still today.

MONA ELTAHAWY, Arab Journalist: Saudi Arabia looks like a modern society. It has all these kind of trappings and gleamings of modernization. But when it comes to women, when it comes to the family, this is the one area where it will point to and say, "Look, we might be awash in money. We might have satellite dishes. We might have the Internet. But we still keep our families closely, and our women are chaste and virginal. And they have not gone the Western way." Because anything Western in those debates about modernization and tradition is considered bad, is considered evil, and in the case of women, considered loose.

Amb. EDWARD WALKER: I think that the Saudis have felt that this is a very sensitive issue because you start to break down these traditions, and then suddenly, is it OK for a daughter to defy her father's orders, or a son? The whole family structure begins to break down.

MONA ELTAHAWY: So when it comes to modernization, it's OK to take the trappings of the West — the highways, telephone system, mobile phones and the Internet — but it's not OK to take, quote, unquote, "modern" or "Western" ways of life or living for women. So it's almost— it's this paradox. The more open and modernized you become, the tighter you must hold onto women, in particular, and children, to show what a good Saudi you are or what a good Muslim you are. And unfortunately, it's women who often pay.

SAMIRA: Are you really doing anything about the status of Arab women?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: One particular woman. But her story is tied up with everything else.

SAMIRA: Have you heard the true story?

CHRISTOPHER RYDER: I've heard a dozen true stories.

ISOBEL COLEMAN: I think one of the interesting things about the movie is the recreation of this journalist's search for the truth, and you get different versions of truth. And still today, you get different versions of truth about Saudi Arabia. You get one version, depending on who— you know, if you speak to one person, and a very different version if you speak to somebody else. The country is going through reform and it's really making deep changes, according to some. According to others, nothing's changed. You know, it's just simply window dressing.

Dr. MARWAN SHAHEEN: Christopher, can't you see? You've just been taken on a journey through the private center of the Arab World because that princess always remained beside you.

ANTONY THOMAS: It reached into people, this story, in the Arab world and touched buttons. It's a sort of crucifixion story. It has that same sort of resonance. And that stirred things in people. And that was what the film was about, that stirring.

"THE EMIRA": Poor child. Poor, silly child. She paid for all of them.


ANNOUNCER: Explore more about the film Death of a Princess and its impact at FRONTLINE's Web site, where you'll find further discussion on the controversy and politics surrounding the original broadcast, FRONTLINE's extended interview with filmmaker Antony Thomas on the making of this film and the people and events he investigated in his search for the truth of what really happened, analysis on what has or hasn't changed for Saudi women and Saudi society 25 years after the film first aired, and more. Then join the discussion at

Next time on FRONTLINE: They're rolling back prices.

WAL-MART SUPPORTER: Wal-Mart has given an increase in income to every American.

ANNOUNCER: Rolling back competition.

Prof. NELSON LICHTENSTEIN, U.C. Santa Barbara: It's more efficient, more powerful. It is destroying competitors.

ANNOUNCER: And rolling jobs overseas.

Prof. GARY GEREFFI, Duke University: Wal-Mart basically tells its suppliers, "You need to move to China."

STEVE RATCLIFF, Unemployed Worker: Wal-Mart's putting people out of work. That's what it's doing.

ANNOUNCER: Is Wal-Mart Good for America? next time on FRONTLINE.


Educators and organizations can purchase a copy of Death of a Princess by calling PBS Video at 1-800-PLAY PBS. [$59.95 plus s&h]

Funding for this program was provided by the Ford Foundation, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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posted may 5, 2005

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