Netflix Instant Files: Sabah: A Love Story

diner date

Duty to family isn’t always one of our primary values here in the West.  It’s not that we ignore our families altogether, but putting our entire lives aside, or on hold, for our families, not for emergencies but just because that’s the way it’s done, isn’t a concept to which we’re amenable.  But that’s Sabah’s entire life.

The titular lead of Sabah: A Love Story is a 40-year-old Syrian immigrant living with her family in Toronto.  Her other siblings have their homes and lives, but Sabah lives with her ailing mother as her primary caregiver.  Since her father passed, her brother Majid is the authority figure in the family.  That’s something he takes too seriously: he makes Sabah explain all of the purchases she makes, and tells her she can’t resume her childhood hobby of swimming, because it’s not appropriate for her to wear a bathing suit in public.

Sabah goes swimming at the local pool anyway.  That’s where she meets Stephen, and begins to question some of her choices.  She doesn’t abandon all of the principles by which she was raised, ditching her heritage to fully embrace Western culture.  Instead, she realizes that although her life revolves around her family, she still doesn’t know everything about them, nor they about her.

It’s inconceivable to us that a grown woman would have to sneak around and lie to her family just to spend an hour swimming at a community pool.  Sabah learns that, despite what she thinks, most of her family wouldn’t care that she does so.  They expect her to stay home and take care of her mother, to not really have a life outside of others, because that’s how it’s always been.  The shy, withdrawn Sabah hasn’t ever made a peep that she wanted anything more, so her family assumed she didn’t.  They shouldn’t have done so, but maybe she should have spoken up for herself sooner.

shy swimmingIt’s easy to become insular in another country.  It’s imperative to Sabah’s family that they not lose their connection to Syria, to not allow their physical life in the West to dominate their cultural lives as well.  It’s been the hardest for Sabah and her niece Souhaire to find a balance: Sabah, because she doesn’t have anything in her life outside of the home, and Souhaire, because she was born in Toronto.

Sabah’s family tries to set Souhaire up with young Muslim boys; not wanting her family to dictate her life, Souhaire writes all of them off.  One day she meets one of them at a club, and sees that maybe she shouldn’t have judged him offhand.  Sabah slowly begins to take steps to form a life for herself outside her household duties.  I love that she started not with a man, but with swimming.  It’s something she did to reconnect with memories of her father, something that’s entirely for her and no one else.

Of course Sabah can’t sneak around forever.  Her family is too close-knit for them to never notice anything.  There’s no real suspense to this film; it’s a story about one’s duty to family and about communication.  Sabah can be everything her family needs her to be and still have her own life, she just had to talk it out with her family.  Once they really start communicating they learn to find the balance between still being Syrian and really living in Canada.  Their conversations lead them to discovering the real reason why Majid is so strict, much sterner than the father he’s trying to emulate.

sabah and majidSabah’s family has always asked too much of her.  She never noticed or minded, because she thought it was her duty, and never had much of anything else going on anyway.  But her family never meant to take advantage either, not any more than Sabah and the rest of her family meant to unknowingly take advantage of Majid.  True devotion to one’s family is made up of more than giving of one’s time and self.  It’s about always communicating, always learning more about each other, of that give and take being equal.

I can only understand Sabah and her family’s situation on an intellectual level: I can never truly know, or even more so feel, what they’re going through.  I can’t relate to the specifics of their situation, know what it’s like to live somewhere so different from one’s home, to feel marginalized or on the edge of society.  What really draws me to Sabah, though, is that despite the disconnect that I have, I can still relate to other elements in the story.  I know what it’s like to struggle with what my family expects of me.

Just about anyone can find something to which they relate in the film.  We have tensions within our family, problems and communication issues.  It’s up to Sabah and her family whether they want to follow the dictates of their community, or do what they feel is best for them.  To do so they have to communicate and listen to one another.

That’s why I like Sabah so much, even though it’s just a little movie on Netflix Instant: it’s a sweet little movie on Netflix, but there is more to it than that.  Its central conflict is layered enough that everyone can relate to a piece of it, and some can relate even more than others.  On top of all of that, it’s plenty adorable: watching this with my friend we kept hugging the sofa pillows and curling our toes.

opera dateStephen has the sweetest smile, and an adorable habit of sending smitten glances Sabah’s way.  Sabah is also really cute; the first day she swims at the pool she’s furtive, slipping out the moment others come in.  I’ve done the exact same thing (literally, when I first started swimming at a college pool).  I can see the uncertainty and emotions flicker on her face, the awkward pauses that she makes as she fiddles with her clothing, trying to decide what to do.  Everything in the story is relatable and sweet, particularly Sabah and Stephen’s playful relationship.  Sabah: A Love Story is fluff, but it has substance.


Watch Sabah: A Love Story on Netflix Instant, or find the DVD on Amazon.