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New book traces Egypt’s cassette culture

DUBAI: Every Ramadan, a star is born. In 2022, it was Saudi actor Mohammed Alshehri, the breakout performer in MBC’s hit show “Road Trip” (Sikat Safar), a hilarious and heartfelt dramedy about three brothers who set off across the country after the death of their father. 

The show was trending on social media throughout the holy month, as people across the Kingdom and the wider region got talking about a show unlike anything Saudi Arabia has produced — or seen — before.

“I was excited when I found out this would be a primetime Ramadan series, but at the same time I was afraid. When you have a project like this in Ramadan, you have to prove yourself, because you’ve got one shot. If you miss it, you’re not getting another,” Alshehri tells Arab News. 

Sikat Safar is a hilarious and heartfelt dramedy about three brothers who set off across the country after the death of their father. Supplied

“This was also my first leading role in a series. I put a lot of pressure on myself to exceed people’s expectations — and to live up to my own. I didn’t know if I could do it. But when we started production, we all realized there was something special happening here. Now the whole country is feeling it,” he continues.

Three years ago, Alshehri was primarily known as ‘Hat Man’ — a TV presenter and viral star. It was a role he excelled at, and one he could have easily continued for the rest of his career. His skills as an interviewer had caught the eye of Netflix, who invited him to the set of “La Casa De Papel” — one of the streaming service’s most popular series — to see the filming first-hand.

The visit should have been one of the highlights of his life; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see behind the scenes of his favorite show at the peak of its popularity. Instead, Alshehri experienced a feeling he didn’t expect.

“I watched as the production come together — the genius of the cast and crew. I saw them making magic out of nothing. Between me and myself, I was crying,” says Alshehri. 

“I was talking with the actors, and I felt deeply that I’m a talent too, but I didn’t know how to show it. This was the first time I felt that spark come out. I took Diaa Elsadat, one of the Netflix team, aside, and told him, ‘I don’t want to continue standing here, where I am. I see myself there,’ and pointed in front of the camera,” Alshehri continues. “He told me, ‘You’ll get the chance one day.’” 

He returned home to Saudi Arabia with that mission fixed in his mind, determined to pursue his passion. 

One of Alshehri’s closest friends was a very successful writer for a hit MBC series. Alshehri knew his friend had a number of projects already in the works, and desperately wanted to ask him if he could be a part of one, knowing that could be his big break.

Rather than ask, however, Alshehri hesitated. 

Director Aws Alsharqi, Mohammed Alshehri, Saleh Abuamrh, and Saad Aziz on set. Supplied

“I couldn’t tell him what I was feeling. Even though I wanted to be an actor, and I respected him so much as a writer and creator, I didn’t know how to say it,” Alshehri says. “I felt like a narcissist telling my friend this. I couldn’t do it. So instead, I told myself, ‘Someday…’” 

Alshehri started auditioning for roles, booking his first series not long after, playing a police officer in a supporting role in “The Fate Hotel.” While it was only a small part, it proved to him that he could do it. And that something bigger could be on its way.

After the show aired, he contacted his writer friend to see what he thought. 

“He told me directly, ’I don’t like you as an actor,’” says Alshehri.

Rather than get discouraged, Alshehri held out hope that he could prove his friend wrong. The chance came soon after, when he received a call from renowned producer and director Aws Alsharqi, who was working on something with a unique spirit he felt Alshehri was perfect for — “Road Trip.” To play the other two brothers, Alsharqi approached Saudi actors Saad Aziz and Saleh Abuamrh, whom Alshehri happened to have known for years.

To capture the spirit of kinship needed for the show and make it believable for the audience, the four of them knew that they could no longer just be friends. They would have to become family. 

“In all the messages I’ve gotten since it began airing, the one thing people repeat is that they felt we really are brothers, and that’s exactly it,” Alshehri says. “The first thing we talked about was that we can’t come across as friends. The energy and the behavior of friends together is not the same, and every small detail makes a difference. We became brothers because we knew that was the only way that this show could work.” 

As Ramadan began and the show began to air, Alshehri found it nearly impossible to sleep.

“I was, like, watching my mobile every second. I kept checking Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and suddenly I started getting tons of notifications. I didn’t sleep, I just responded to each person. It makes me so happy. People knew me as a presenter, but no one knew what I could do as an actor. It’s given me so much confidence,” says Alshehri.

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He is already filming his next project, a top-secret animation film that he promises is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia. He’s ecstatic about the project, happy to be bringing new things to the Kingdom and humbled that he finally has the chance to show the world the talent he knew he had inside.  

As much as he wanted to, however, he did not call his friend the writer again — afraid he would hear the same feedback he received after his first project. Instead, after the third episode of “Road Trip” aired, Alshehri’s phone rang — it was his friend.  

“He called me from Riyadh, and started yelling at me down the phone, which I quickly realized he was doing with the happiest voice possible,” Alshehri says. “He screamed, ‘This is amazing!’ He asked why I didn’t tell him before, and I said, ‘You are one of my closest friends. That’s a lot of pressure on me to prove that I’m really an actor. But I knew I could do it. And I knew that someday, you would know too. I knew it was coming. And now, it’s finally here.’”