Suha Al-Khalifa ’95
Bridging Cultures and Breaking Barriers
Screenwriter, novelist, and psychotherapist Suha Al-Khalifa ’95 was deeply impacted by her time at GDS despite attending only the 9th and 10th grades. She said at GDS she learned to value her own voice, women’s perspectives, and authentic storytelling. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the publication of her historical romantic vampire fantasy Heir of Darkness, cowritten with husband, Richard Bellamy. The pair also cowrote Rashash, an eight-episode crime drama for the Middle East Broadcasting Center’s (MBC) 140 million daily viewers. Rashash, which began airing on January 21, 2021, is inspired by the true story of a group of young criminals who became notorious for their escapades in the Saudi Arabian deserts.
Suha and her sisters Sala ’93 and Noora, daughters of the Bahraini ambassador, arrived at the GDS High School just after the Gulf War ended in 1991. With little English, their first semester in 9th and 11th grades respectively were “incredibly grueling,” Suha recalled. In addition to the language barrier—imagine grappling with Shakespeare when your previous exposure to English was imported American television—Suha and Sala experienced culture shock at GDS.
“My Arabic school [in Bahrain] was very authoritarian with teaching based on intimidation and fear,” Suha said. “Students were not being recognized or praised for being individuals, nor were they allowed to think freely and independently.”
She remembers her disbelief at being greeted upon her arrival by the GDS High School principal with the mind boggling, “Hi, I’m Paul.”
A Dream Deferred
“GDS was the place that taught me the importance of having a unique, individual voice,” she said. “The teachers spoke to me with dignity and cared to see me perform at my best.”
Suha recalled drama class with former teacher Andrea Oram, 9th grade English with John Burghardt, and 10th grade World History with Sue Ikenberry and credited those experiences with helping her to become a writer. “Drama class got me out of my shell, English opened my mind to literature, and World History offered me an expansive view of culture and insight,” she wrote. She recalled speaking in class about her familiarity with the kind of scheming and family rivalries they were reading in Macbeth. “Being listened to wasn’t something I was used to,” she said.
Though Suha had to return to Bahrain in 1993 to finish high school, she successfully lobbied her family to send her to an American Department of Defense Dependents School (DoDDS) in Bahrain rather than back to a Bahraini school. She also wanted to attend college but was denied a scholarship in Bahrain because she is female. Her family was pressured not to send the girls abroad for college.
“That broke my spirit,” she said. “I ended up battling depression for years, then cancer, and I had Hodgkin's disease.” Her recovery took years, partly aided by attending whatever psychology and literature courses the University of Maryland offered on the Bahraini naval base. “My psychotherapy learning [in college] was my therapist.”
After graduating, her mother told her that if she paid her own way, she could attend the New York Film Academy in London. Suha worked two jobs—one in TV and radio airtime sales and the other for a salon with a distant cousin—and raised enough to leave for London. When she returned to Bahrain with a film diploma, she carried with her the dream of being a filmmaker—something practically unheard of in the country. “It’s a profession for women with no shame,” Suha recalled being told.
Eventually Bahrain TV approached her with a job, and during her time with the network, Suha was able to change perceptions through her film expertise and the respect with which she treated her production team members. Over time, she became more aware of the immense need for psychotherapeutic services in Bahrain, where staggering and crippling incongruencies persisted between people’s public and private selves. After a few years, she left television to continue her studies and be of service to families in need. Even while practicing, she continued in her chosen creative career. She wanted her person-centered therapy, and later her writing, to explore and ultimately broaden tribal mentality.
Heir of Darkness and Rashash are both tribal stories that focus on individuals who transcend barriers between distinct groups and find acceptance across lines of difference. MBC values the way her storytelling emphasizes the strength of women, the legitimacy of good husbands, and the worthiness of loving families. Her upcoming barrier-breaking work for MBC includes new episodes of a female-centric Saudi Arabian detective show, currently on hold due to COVID-19, and a new historical drama about a female Muslim warrior almost written out of history. Perhaps the most exciting of her near future projects, Suha was also asked to write the first female superhero film in the Middle East, her first international-level feature film.
“I think of GDS a lot,” she said. “I wish I had appreciated it more when I was a student...Ultimately, GDS gave me a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. I learned strategy and planning within an ethos of ‘hard work but come to me if you need help anytime.’ I am indebted to GDS, so if there is anything the school needs, I’ll happily do it. I cherish my two years at GDS.”
Suha lives in London with her husband and three young children. Her sisters Sala and Noora, who also attended GDS, both work in education in Bahrain. Sala has served as the principal of a primary school and Noora is a high school principal.