Why Rising Saudi Actress Maria Bahrawi Says She’s Lucky to Star in ‘Norah’
ALULA: On a beautiful day in AlUla, Saudi actress Maria Bahrawi faces questions from reporters for the first time in her life. Starring in the first Saudi project filmed in the historical region, the 16-year-old is experiencing her first taste of fame surrounded by the flashes, cameras and presenters she once saw on TV, who are now all pointing to her as an inspiration for a new generation of young Saudi girls.
Tears run down Bahrawi’s face. It’s not the moment that overwhelms her, it’s the glimpse she catches of her mother standing right next to the camera. She runs to her to hug her, knowing how much she owes this moment to her – and to a family who have empowered her to devote her life to pursuing her dreams.
“For as long as I can remember, my mother has never stopped me from doing something I was passionate about. My family has always supported me, never set any limits, and without them I would never have been able to become an actress. I love you mom so much,” Bahrawi told Arab News.
While Bahrawi’s face could well become a symbol of the next generation of Saudi artists, women in Saudi Arabia from previous generations did not have the same opportunities as her. She became aware of this when she made “Norah”, a film that deals with these issues.
Set in rural Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, the film follows an artist named Nader who has given up painting due to societal restrictions and has become a teacher, where he meets a young woman named Norah (Bahrawi), an illiterate orphan who is the seems to have no way forward to fulfilling her own dreams, facing an arranged marriage she doesn’t want, and filled with emotions she doesn’t know what to do with.
“The first day I walked onto the set at AlUla, I was transported back in time. Suddenly I could understand how people felt. I had seen so many videos of people back then, but I had to be there to really feel it,” says Bahrawi.
In the film, Bahrawi’s character carries a tape recorder with her everywhere and records her thoughts and feelings on it as if whispering them into a wishing well. Cassette recorders were just one thing the 16-year-old didn’t even know existed at the time.
“I learned that on set. Tawfik (Alzaidi, the film’s Saudi director) had to show me how to fix it, how to play it,” says Bahrawi. “I had never seen one.”
Bahrawi, who was born and raised in Jeddah, even had to learn from her family how women wear the abaya and niqab.
“My family lived that life, but I didn’t know how they would wear it, how they would take it off, what their clothes would look like from the bottom. How to attach the niqab on top. It was all new to me,” she says. “Of course I know the niqab, but the exact way women used to wear it was new to me. My family taught me how to do it, like they did.”
Bahrawi was cast in May this year after auditioning only once in person and traveling with her family from Jeddah to AlUla to get the part. When filming began, just weeks later, Bahrawi was blown away.
“I was expecting it to be tough, but I really thought maybe I couldn’t make it. To get through this, I would have to remind myself that this is bigger than me,” says Bahrawi.
Bahrawi’s co-star Yaqoub Alfarhan, who plays Nader, was invaluable to the young actress. Alfarhan, who quickly became arguably Saudi’s hottest rising young star after starring in MBC hit ‘Rashash’, rehearsed with Bahrawi over and over until she was comfortable and provided her with a safe place on set when she needed guidance.
“He really helped me a lot. We read almost every scene together and rehearsed the really difficult scenes over and over again. When I was 16, I was still balancing school and my outside life, but Yaqoub taught me to mentally isolate myself and forget everything when I step on set so we can all focus and be in the moment together . I will never forget that,” says Bahrawi.
Perhaps the most important lessons, however, came from the character of Norah herself. As Bahrawi immersed herself in the role, coming each day to the real-life small village where they were filmed, it was this young woman’s journey that slowly discovered the power within herself and refusing to compromise the beliefs that will transform her and help her become the woman she wants to grow into.
“She taught me to be myself, to stay true to my own spirit and to stand up for myself despite all challenges,” says Bahrawi. “From now on and for the rest of my life, if I can’t find support, I will support myself because of Norah. I want to be successful and I will do it against all odds.”
While the experience of playing Norah is one that has opened her eyes in countless ways, the young actress is already looking to the future and the many roles she could play that reflect life in a very different Saudi Arabia could explore, a kingdom she is building prouder of every day.
“I want to explore a role that speaks about the current times and speaks about my generation of young women at that time in Saudi Arabia. Even now there are challenges. There are many things that women go through and also many positive things that have yet to be shown on screen. So many things have happened that would be great to show in a film and I would love to be a part of that,” says Bahrawi.
However, as the sun sets in AlUla, Bahrawi pauses to reflect on how lucky she is to even be a part of it and make history in the first Saudi film to capture the majesty of this very special place.
“Every day we pass historical landmarks like Elephant Rock and Hegra and explore these amazing mountainous regions and landscapes. I can’t believe we did this together,” she says.
“Right now I’m living the dream. Inshallah, I will achieve greater and higher goals. I have all the opportunities in the world, now it’s up to me to use them.”