Death of a Princess
A Film by Antony
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.
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.
KOPPEL, ABC News Nightline: A docudrama called Death of a Princess has stirred up an international hornets'
ANNOUNCER: Death of a Princess told the story of a
young Saudi princess who was publicly executed for committing adultery.
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.
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.
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?
GROSSMAN, PBS President: Well, certainly.
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.
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—
EMIRA": To relieve their boredom, these
princesses live the most intricate and busy sex lives.
ANNOUNCER: —and explore the central dilemma of the
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
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.
"TFX 306: I saw a princess die."
headlines: "Princess executed for love." "La princesse l'amant ...et le bourreau."
London, July 10, 1978
[a dinner party]
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
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.
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.
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.]
RYDER: [on camera] You were talking just now about the princess.
BADRA: Let me tell you about that
princess. Do you know who she was?
RYDER: [on camera] Well, I understand that she was a member—
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
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
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
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
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?
RYDER: Well, I've got to check a few facts
first. There are two people in
England who gave interviews to the press.
July 31, 1978
RYDER: How much did they pay you out there?
JACKSON: It was 275 a week.
RYDER: What's that, about five times what you
get in England?
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.
RYDER: Do you mind if I record?
JACKSON: No, no. I'm not bothered.
RYDER: Did you get any reaction from their
embassy when you gave your pictures and the story to The Express?
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?
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
RYDER: How many people were in the square?
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.
RYDER: Can I see the photographs?
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.
RYDER: He's not wearing any kind of uniform?
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.
RYDER: Sorry, can we go back to the
beginning. They led them out of
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.
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.
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.
RYDER: You mean they made the boy watch the
RYDER: What did he do?
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.
RYDER: How did the crowd react?
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]
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.
RYDER: I'm not picking on anyone. I'm just trying to find the facts.
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
RYDER: [voice-over] Elsa. Elsa Gruber. For 18 months, Elsa was employed as a nanny by the princess's
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.
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.
GRUBER: I feel with them. I feel their dilemma. It's their way. It's their law. He had to do it to her.
RYDER: [on camera] Who had to?
GRUBER: Her grandfather, of course.
RYDER: You mean, the old prince?
GRUBER: Yes, the king's elder brother.
RYDER: But he wasn't responsible. The princess was tried before a court.
GRUBER: I know, my dear.
RYDER: But why did you say he had to do it?
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.
RYDER: Can I ask you one basic question? You've heard my version. Now all I need to know—
GRUBER: I'm not answering any questions, not
until those lousy bums in your office get off their backsides. I'm not—
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.
RYDER: Is the story I've been given true, or
at least, true in all its essentials? Because obviously, if it isn't—
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—
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.
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!
RYDER: What are you talking about?
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!
RYDER: I haven't been near The Express.
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.
RYDER: Fleet Street! I had lunch with an Arab friend in the city. You're incredible!
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.
a photograph album]
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]
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,
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
RYDER: As you do.
KAMEL: As I do, yes. I want to be.
[hotel dining room]
RYDER: Are you sure about the Beirut
SALHAWI: Absolutely. The girl was at the Beirut Women's College, '73, '74. The boy was at the American University.
RYDER: [voice-over] Elie Salhawi.
SALHAWI: No, just a student.
RYDER: He was still executed.
SALHAWI: The price of meddling with somebody
RYDER: What do you know about the husband?
SALHAWI: Not much.
RYDER: [voice-over] Salhawi, professional gossip and
raconteur, with his own private network of informers and contacts.
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.
RYDER: Do you accept Badra's version?
SALHAWI: Absolutely. With the exception that he missed out one important fact.
CHRISTOPHER RYDER: What was that?
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.
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
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.
RYDER: But she was condemned by a court, not
by her grandfather.
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
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.
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]
RYDER: [driver] It's
over there. It's that gate
there. Yes, that one. OK. Fine. Thanks. That's three.
DRIVER: Thank you.
CHRISTOPHER RYDER: [to security guard] I've come to see Mr. and Mrs. Haddad. They're expecting me.
HADDAD: You made it!
RYDER: Who are all these people?
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.
RYDER: [voice-over] Nabeel Haddad, architect and close
HADDAD: Thank God, I persuaded Mona to go back
to London and stay out of it.
RYDER: And the children?
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
RYDER: I know. I've seen it.
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?
how is your work going, your princess?
RYDER: I feel absurd talking about her— here,
HADDAD: Not at all. We felt that story intensely here in Lebanon. Of course, you know the boy's uncle is
their ambassador here.
RYDER: No, I didn't.
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.
RYDER: Do you know the ambassador personally?
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.
RYDER: Would he talk to me now?
HADDAD: No, Christopher. It wouldn't be right. I'm sorry. Are you getting any closer to the girl?
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—
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]
MARROUCHE: Oh, Mr. Ryder. I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting.
RYDER: No, I'm sorry. Whenever it's convenient for you. I just wanted to have a few words about
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
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
MARROUCHE: We all have to learn how to adjust, Mr.
the girls as responsible adults, capable of making the choice from all the
possibilities that we offer.
RYDER: Yes, but what about those girls from
very conservative backgrounds? I
mean, how do they cope with the sudden burst of freedom?
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.
RYDER: What have been your worst experiences?
MARROUCHE: Some of the girls come in to me—
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.
MARROUCHE: —but most of them have no choice at
all. They're forced to go home.
RYDER: Dr. Marrouche, the girl who was
executed, The princess?
RYDER: Did she come and talk to you? Did she tell you how she felt before
MARROUCHE: Oh, she was never a student at this
RYDER: She was here in '73, '74, I'm sure.
MARROUCHE: No. I've been here since 1965. She was never a student here.
RYDER: You're quite certain?
MARROUCHE: Oh, I'm positive. You're welcome to see our records, if
[Ryder's hotel room]
RYDER: [telephone rings] Georges! I thought you
might get stuck in the lift. The
generator just went. Right, I'm on
my way down.
RAFLA: I think this is what you want. Monday Morning, February 6th. It's a weekly magazine published here.
RYDER: "Killer love."
RAFLA: Yes. The article caused quite a stir.
RYDER: Yes, I'm sure.
RAFLA: That's the man who took the pictures of
RYDER: Yes, I've already met him. "They met in Beirut." Where did they get these photographs of
her at the women's party?
RAFLA: The nanny, of course. After this was published, internal
security was so angry that they shut the paper down.
RYDER: They must be dead scared of them.
RAFLA: Be very careful, my friend. Be very careful.
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
RYDER: Not just you, Georges.
of machine gun fire in street]
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
Oh! Victor Zoughby, Christopher Ryder.
ZOUGHBY: Nice meeting you. Aha! La belle princess. Actually, I knew her.
RYDER: You knew her?
ZOUGHBY: Met her a few times.
ZOUGHBY: At Tramps discotheque, near to the
International Hotel. This girl,
dancing, dancing— fantastic. She
took over the whole floor.
RYDER: Who was she with?
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
RYDER: Do you think I could meet your cousin?
ZOUGHBY: I don't think that would be such a good
RYDER: Absolutely confidential.
questions Rafla in Arabic]
RYDER: Look, I just want to meet someone who
really knew her.
ZOUGHBY: Leave it alone, Mr. Ryder. Just leave it alone.
[registrar's office, American University of
CLERK: When did you say they were here?
RYDER: I'm told the boy was here in '73, '74.
CLERK: No, nothing. Have you tried
the Arab University?
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]
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.
RYDER: How old was she when she died?
GRUBER: I would say about 19.
RYDER: Where did she meet the boy?
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.
RYDER: Yes, now can we start at the
beginning? Now, you went out there
early '76, about 18 months before she died.
GRUBER: February '76. I had seen this job advertised, and a friend of mine—
RYDER: Yes, you were going to look after the
old prince's baby grandson. Now,
were did you live?
GRUBER: I lived with the daughter. She was divorced. A palace full of women.
RYDER: And did the princess live with you?
GRUBER: Oh, she lived in another palace with
her father, who was the old prince's son.
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.
GRUBER: Nine palaces! Everyone had a palace in the capital, another palace by the
sea and a palace in the mountains.
RYDER: And when you're talking about a palace,
you mean a large modern villa?
GRUBER: Yes, except the old prince. He had this wonderful palace, and the
RYDER: Yes. Now, when did you meet the princess?
GRUBER: About three weeks after I had
arrived. We were all in the
capital sometime in March.
RYDER: March '76.
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.
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.
understood each other from the beginning. At first, we talked nothing but rubbish.
RYDER: You talked to each other in English?
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.
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.
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.
RYDER: And after that, did you see a lot more
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.
RYDER: Apart from all this eating and the
partying, what did the princesses actually do?
GRUBER: Nothing. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing!
RYDER: Did they ever take any exercise?
GRUBER: Only, hopefully, making love! [laughs]
RYDER: So there was a lot of that. I mean, this idea that she was the only
one who broke the rules—
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.
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—
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.
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—
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.
RYDER: Did she ever have a serious discussion
GRUBER: Her kitchen English, my Arabic?
RYDER: But did she seem serious about
anything? Religion, for
instance. Did she pray?
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.
RYDER: Did she read?
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.
RYDER: But didn't she do anything or say
anything that would suggest a growing resentment against all this, defiance,
GRUBER: Oh, she was always defiant. She loved Western pop music, but the
servants hated it.
RYDER: No, that's not exactly what I meant.
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.
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."
RYDER: The grandmother. How often did you see the grandfather?
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.
RYDER: The old prince, what was he like?
GRUBER: Very calm, very generous. He was so simple and quiet when he
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.
GRUBER: They call it a majlis — that's Arabic —
the head of the family with all the womenfolk around, very formal, very polite.
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
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.
RYDER: Was it her first visit to London?
GRUBER: I don't know.
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?
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.
RYDER: Did she meet the boy here?
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."
RYDER: And was the boy in the photograph the
boy who was executed?
GRUBER: I told you, I don't know. I never saw those two together.
RYDER: What happened when she went back?
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
GRUBER: She didn't come to our home any more.
RYDER: What happened?
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."
RYDER: The beach! What was she doing?
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."
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]
RYDER: So they thought she'd drowned, and then
they caught her. Did anyone talk
to you about a trial?
GRUBER: There has to be a trial.
RYDER: Yes, but if there was a trial, there
has to be either four witnesses to the sexual act—
GRUBER: What's wrong with that?
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
GRUBER: A religious person is very loyal. They can't fiddle and make lies, like
RYDER: But the princess? Was she the type who could die for her
GRUBER: I told you, none of us is going to know
what happened in that court.
RYDER: But why was she condemned to
death? You said that all the other
women were having affairs.
GRUBER: She had brought public shame on her
family. Everyone knew what she was
doing. It was public!
RYDER: So it was public. So it wasn't the immorality, it was the
RYDER: Why? Had she been defiant, had she been advertising the
relationship, or was she just stupid and careless?
GRUBER: You can do anything if you don't get
RYDER: So it was stupidity.
GRUBER: No. I don't know. No!
[Dr. Shaheeen's living room]
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?
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
RYDER: So you think her execution was a
deliberate political act, they had to make a public example of her for the
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.
RYDER: Yes. You see, I still feel I haven't met anyone who actually knew
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
MAN: Hello. Welcome. My
name is Tanaka. This is Mr. Sato.
BUSINESSMAN: Cummings. Cummings. "S"
like in "sugar."
BUSINESSMAN: Hello? Is that the White Fish Authority?
BUSINESSMAN: Yes, sir. I was supposed to call along about this hour this morning to
talk to either the director or his personal secretary.
RYDER: Excuse me. Can you look up this telephone number for me please?
GUEST: I have been waiting here long before
RYDER: Could you please look up—
GUEST: Excuse me, please—
OPERATOR: Yes, sir. It's 458-645-5038.
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
OPERATOR: Take a taxi. It's faster.
OFFICIAL: His excellency is not in the kingdom at
the present time.
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?
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.
RYDER: So you had to accept the official
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.
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
[Mme. Quataajy's fashion boutique]
RYDER: No, on the contrary, it's very kind of
you to see me.
QUATAAJY: Really, I don't know how can I help
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
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.
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.
RYDER: What do you mean, strictly a boutique?
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.
RYDER: I've heard that since the execution of
that princess, things have become much stricter.
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.
RYDER: Yes, to us, that seems very extreme.
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
[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.
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]
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]
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.
RYDER: Thank you.
BABLI: For nothing.
RYDER: Could you ask Mr. Jaabir, what was the
reaction here to the overseas press reports about the execution of that
[El Babli and Mr. Jaabir converse at some
length in Arabic]
RYDER: What did he say?
BABLI: His Excellence says, "What Princess?"
[in the souk car park where the princess
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]
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]
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.
RYDER: Oh, I think that most of us are well
MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: Of trivia and lies, Mr. Ryder. Take the case of the princess.
RYDER: Which princess?
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
RYDER: You mean the princess who was executed
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?
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
MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: Yes.
RYDER: Well, I'd be grateful for an
opportunity to take a look at that.
MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: Perhaps it would be more profitable to
visit the new faculty for women at the university.
RYDER: I'd like to see them both.
MOHAMMED AL ZAMEL: If you wish. I will arrange for someone from the Information Ministry to
[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
SAMIRA: How is my uncle?
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?
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.
RYDER: 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
RYDER: By telephone?
SAMIRA: By telephone.
SAMIRA: Come in. Come in.
RYDER: I'm sorry. I'm late.
SAMIRA: Not at all. Thank you for
your patience this morning.
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?
RYDER: Oh, please.
SAMIRA: So how long are you staying?
RYDER: A week, maybe two.
SAMIRA: Could you take these back for me?
RYDER: Yes, of course.
SAMIRA: Thank you. So to ask the
question again, how can I help you?
RYDER: I don't know that you can.
SAMIRA: Are you really doing anything about the status of Arab women?
RYDER: Yes, I am. One particular woman, but her story is tied up with
SAMIRA: Who is that?
RYDER: The princess who was executed.
SAMIRA: Have you heard the true story?
RYDER: I've heard a dozen true stories. You lived in America for some years,
SAMIRA: Yes, during my teens.
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
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.
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
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.
RYDER: Are you saying that the princess wasn't
SAMIRA: Of course, she wasn't!
RYDER: Then why was she executed, publicly
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
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
RYDER: Yes, that's the theory, not the
SAMIRA: And who's the blame for that?
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.
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.
RYDER: And yours?
SAMIRA: To bring society back to the pure democratic spirit of Islam. The movement has already begun.
RYDER: And you think that the princess was
somehow involved in that struggle?
SAMIRA: I do.
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.
RYDER: Who knew her?
RYDER: Somebody on the inside?
SAMIRA: Let's just say she's someone with close connections with the royal
RYDER: Who is she?
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.
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]
EMIRA": How much do you know about palace life,
RYDER: A woman's life?
RYDER: Not much. What I've been told. The women are bored, caged up, expensive clothes—
EMIRA": And no education. Does that strike you as a good life for
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.
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—
RYDER: Yes. Of course. Excuse me. What rights and
privileges do you have as a princess?
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.
RYDER: How do they make contact with the men?
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.
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.
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.
RYDER: And you disapprove?
EMIRA": Not on a moral basis. In fact, I even admire their guts. But I despise the hypocrisy. Do you understand?
RYDER: I think so.
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.
RYDER: Can we talk about the princess?
EMIRA": Poor child. Poor silly child. She paid for all of them.
RYDER: She came from the sort of society you
RYDER: You knew her well?
EMIRA": Yes. You heard about her trip to London, I suppose?
RYDER: Yes. Yes.
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.
RYDER: Did she meet the boy in London?
EMIRA": No, on television.
RYDER: Television? I don't understand.
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.
RYDER: She met him here, not in Beirut or
EMIRA": No. She saw him here.
RYDER: How old was he?
EMIRA": Twenty— twenty-one.
RYDER: But wasn't he aware of the dangers?
EMIRA": Of course he was. He was very frightened at the beginning. But she was a powerful little thing.
RYDER: How long did the relationship last?
EMIRA": It was pathetic. From start to finish, three weeks.
RYDER: Three weeks! Did they carry on openly? Is it true that they deliberately went out of their way to
flout public opinion?
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.
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]
RYDER: Can I look at a room please?
CLERK: Yes sir.
RYDER: Do you have a room overlooking the sea?
CLERK: All the room look at the sea, please.
[the hotel terrace, another hotel guest at a
GEORGES: Georges. Georges is the
name. Doing some business?
RYDER: Yes. And you?
GEORGES: Always business.
RYDER: What do you do?
GEORGES: A bit of this, a bit of that. Import, export. What you
say your name?
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.
boats, helicopters, frogmen, everybody shouting about the princess. She drowned. All the time, she was up there. [indicates upper room]
RYDER: You saw them?
GEORGES: The girl came out on the balcony, then the boy. Boy very angry.
RYDER: How did you know that that was the
GEORGES: Afterwards, I see photos. They both disappeared on Monday. On Friday— [draws finger across his throat]
["The Emira's" apartment]
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.
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."
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.]
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]
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.
RYDER: Dr. Khaldy, are all the courts the
KHALDY: Exactly the same.
RYDER: That princess who was tried for
RYDER: The king was never in a place like
that, the old prince. Where was
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
[Dr. Shaheen's living room in London]
RYDER: Why the bloody hell did Badra tell me
MARWAN SHAHEEN: Why not?
RYDER: Obviously the story's more than PR, but
it's so unlike him, so naive, to misrepresent the facts.
MARWAN SHAHEEN: Ah, the facts.
RYDER: All that rubbish about a trial, then
the king interrupting the proceedings.
MARWAN SHAHEEN: Perhaps those weren't the most
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?
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]
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—
RYDER: Oh, and you think that's not important?
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—
RYDER: Look, Marwan, an uneducated, immature
teenager was just on some hopeless bloody escapade!
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
CHRISTOPHER RYDER: Meaning! A 19-year-old girl was stuck in front of a pile of sand and
Reflections on Death
of a Princess
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
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.
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."
CHANCELLOR, NBC Nightly News: The royal family of Saudi Arabia has been enraged this year by the
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
RAFLA: Be very careful my friend. Be very careful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are you really doing anything about the
status of Arab women?
RYDER: One particular woman. But her story is tied up with
SAMIRA: Have you heard the true story?
RYDER: I've heard a dozen true stories.
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.
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.
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.
EMIRA": Poor child. Poor, silly child. She paid for all of them.
ANNOUNCER: Explore more about the film Death of
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 pbs.org.
time on FRONTLINE: They're
rolling back prices.
SUPPORTER: Wal-Mart has given an increase in
income to every American.
ANNOUNCER: Rolling back competition.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN, U.C. Santa Barbara: It's more
efficient, more powerful. It is
ANNOUNCER: And rolling jobs overseas.
GARY GEREFFI, Duke University: Wal-Mart basically tells its suppliers,
"You need to move to China."
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.
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]
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.