A couple years ago, when I was writing for American Dad!, I needed an Arabic speaker for a small part. Our casting director recommended a Saudi comedian, who happened to be in LA for a couple months shooting a tv show. His name is Fahad Albutairi.
I looked him up. He was the first Saudi stand-up comedian to appear on stage professionally in the Kingdom, the “Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia.” He had a couple million Twitter followers. (He has none now; I’ll get to that.) He was, frankly, more interesting than the part.
The day of the recording, I walked to the booth to meet Fahad and direct his session – it was just a couple lines; I’d say hi, run it a few times, and we’d both be on our way.
Fahad was standing with a woman, who he introduced as his wife, @LoujainHathloul.
Loujain didn’t know anyone in LA, so she was tagging along with Fahad for the day. They were young, cool, cosmopolitan, and incredibly nice. I liked them right away. We chatted.
I asked Fahad about being a Saudi comedian – about doing something that didn’t exist before in his country. I had recently had breakfast with Trevor Noah to talk about a project, and it seemed like he was coming from a similar place...
...growing up without hearing other stand-ups and being unfamiliar with the standard rhythms. So Trevor had to create his own. Fahad was fascinated. Yes, he had had a similar experience. But his voice was also shaped by the fact that comedy in the Kingdom was...dangerous.
So now we dipped into politics.
I mentioned the young, “progressive” Prince Mohammed bin Salman. All the press in the US seemed pretty positive about the guy. He was meeting people in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Were they feeling optimistic about the future of Saudi Arabia?
They were hopeful but warned there was still a long way to go on human rights. Which is why they’d moved to the UAE.
“Huh. At least you’re safe,” I said. With millions of fans, he was too high profile to mess with. I looked at Loujain. “And his fame covers both of you, right?”
They looked at each other. “She’s much more famous than me in the Middle East,” he said. And then I realized who she was... one of the women’s rights activists who had been arrested for driving. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/meet-the-saudi-women-who-advocated-for-the-right-to-drive--and-are-paying-dearly-for-it/2018/06/23/bd977440-73cf-11e8-bda1-18e53a448a14_story.html …
I felt like an idiot. I had assumed she was the sidekick when she had already, by her mid-20s, done more for human rights than I ever will. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loujain_al-Hathloul …
We talked about her arrests. The toll it had taken when, just after their wedding, she had been picked up again and “disappeared” for a few days. They felt somewhat protected by their fame, but still... the Kingdom wasn’t safe.
They were a window into a world I only knew through small articles in the Times, and I could’ve talked to them all afternoon, but we had to do the record and get on with our days.
We exchanged info. We made plans to have dinner while they were in town.
We didn’t. Work/life/family. But we chatted occasionally over the next couple years. Loujain was trying to launch a talent agency for actors, comedians, and musicians in the Middle East; I gave her feedback on her website.
Fahad and I sent each other links to work we were doing...trying to make the gulf between our worlds a little bit smaller.
In 2017 I read that Loujain was arrested and reached out to Fahad to see if she was okay. He answered that she was already being released. It was scary but fine.
And then, last spring, they were both grabbed, blindfolded, and taken to Saudi Arabia. https://nyti.ms/2zYKoWD?smid=nytcore-ios-share …
Nine months later, Loujain is still in jail. I don’t know where Fahad is. He deactivated his Twitter.
I read that they are no longer married.
I’d like to see what they could do in this world, if they were given the chance.
I’d like the government of my country to not take payoffs to look the other way at human rights atrocities.
I’d like to have that dinner with them some day.
As the Democrats take control of the House, I’d like my fantastic @RepAdamSchiff to have Fahad and Loujain in his thoughts.
Maybe @Trevornoah can give them some of his attention, too – I know they admired him.
Apparently Loujain’s father’s Twitter was suspended last week after he tweeted about the torture she has suffered in a Saudi government prison. The story below is awful – any comment from @jack or @TwitterSupport?
(Thank you @EricaCher4 for finding) https://www.albawaba.com/loop/twitter-suspends-account-loujain-hathlouls-father-after-tweeting-about-her-torturing-and-sexual …
I‘ve been overwhelmed by the interest in and support of this story. It has been humanity-affirming – and the best possible expression of Twitter in action. My intention was to bring the plight of Fahad and Loujain to the attention of people who can do more for them than tweet...
And that is happening. While I fear for the answers we may get, the questions must be asked. Loudly. Repeatedly. History doesn’t speak well of waiting politely for people to do the right thing.
.@RepAdamSchiff already (amazingly!) responded that he would contact the Saudi Ambassador:
I hope he will have support from more elected representatives soon. In the meantime, many of you have connected me to incredible people, doing truly heroic work, looking for the same answers.
.@amnesty has this campaign:
Look, I’m just a writer who’s put a lot of dirty jokes on your tv (sorry about that.) But the last couple years have made it excruciatingly clear that we can’t take our responsibility as global citizens for granted. I know a lot of you are way ahead of me on that (again, sorry.)
So I’m going to keep trying to shine some light on the darkness that has enveloped Fahad and Loujain. I appreciate everyone’s help; I’m looking forward to helping others; and I’ll update with any news.
In between wry observations about traffic, parenting, Trump, etc.
You can follow @krudell.