I am sitting in a bedouin tent, listening to traditional flute music played by a local dressed in regional costume with flowers in his hair. These flowers are put in their hair to help it smell nice, as they can’t wash frequently due to the lack of water.
But let’s start at the beginning of the day...
The day began with a visit to the Al-Miftaha artists’ village in Abha - a space for artists to work in their own studios. This location was the beginning for artists Ahmed Mater, and Abdulnasser Gharem and is what eventually led to the independent arts initiative, Edge of Arabia. After having heard so much about it, it was sad to see the place so quiet and ghost-like. We were shown around one working studio, splashed with paint and a creative vibe. It is a shame that the potential of this place has been allowed to fade away. I wonder what has gone wrong?
We then visited Saudi’s highest point – the air was thick with clouds, preventing us from seeing down into the valley… probably just as well! The place was attractive in its own way, and as always the journey to get there was also a huge part of it: winding roads, views of fields, and baboons in clusters.
We have now just finished a delicious barbeque of chicken, bread, and salad, in an open-air tent. The red carpets create a very colourful setting, and the darkness of the night is wrapped around us like a cloak. Perfect.
The expedition is coming to a close, and we are filled with mixed emotions of joy and sadness. It will be great to go home and create something from what we have learnt. But it will also be sad to leave Saudi and the new friends that we have made.
This journey has been eye-opening for me, but has also not been easy. Fitting into a new culture where women are expected to live quietly and cover themselves was a challenge. Further, this experience was far from a holiday - each day we have been working, taking notes, blogging, taking photographs and videos and making sketches. What we have to take away with us therefore, is something amazing and something unique. We have witnessed daily life in a country that is rarely seen by outsiders and we have learnt about the struggles faced by individuals within the art world. It has made me realise how lucky I am in that I can easily express myself creatively in the UK. It has also made me feel sad that British culture has lost the close family bonds and the simple values that are still thriving in Saudi. Technology should not rule, people should. They are what matter and we should learn to take care of each other. The love and dedication that others have for their religion is admirable. It is not negative, but positive.
I know for sure that the journey does not end here, and that I will continue learning throughout the rest of my life. The beauty is that there is always something more to learn, and if this involves breaking down negative stereotypes of Muslims in the Western world, then I will be honoured to add my drop into the ocean.
Today has left me speechless. I have to pause and think to reflect on what I have seen. We first visited the local museum, which is full of fascinating information about Madain Saleh. Then we travelled to the real thing. Breathtaking. The atmosphere was so calming and peaceful, and the scenery was stunning. Palm trees, sand, mountains, old tombs, and blue sky. Khaled, the guide, took us round and showed us the holes inside the tombs where bodies were buried.
The sun beat down as we were granted free time to explore. Bliss. I was filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of trudging through the sand in my hiking boots, and climbing the mountains. It was tough at times, to pull myself up the rock surface, but the grazes were totally worth it. The views from the top of the surrounding landscape will remain with me forever, and the sense of achievement was great. It has been a fulfilling experience, and I really connect with this place compared to Jeddah and other cities.
In the afternoon we journeyed to a farm for a traditional meal in a tent. I loved sitting on rugs and sharing food with everyone. It is lovely to see that the culture here celebrates families and togetherness, something which Western culture has appeared to have lost somewhat.
I then thoroughly enjoyed our task for the day - creating a piece of land art using old and new items to portray a meaningful message. Awais and I focused on the topic of tradition versus modernity. After collecting pots of paint, leaves, pottery, and other bits from the landscape, we created a picture which depicted sky scrapers and Westernization, with a towering ‘monster’. The ‘monster’ was breathing cigarettes, fizzy pop, and rubbish, onto the other side of the picture depicting tradition - a mosque and date trees. It would be a shame if all heritage was lost to consumerism and modern developments.
To finish the day, we journeyed into the desert and had a wonderful meal in a tent, bedouin style. To keep warm, I wrapped up in a snuggly camel-wool garment.
The inspiration continues...
Being a non-Muslim meant that I could not enter Makkah alongside the others in the team who performed Umrah. Although disappointing, I have to respect the religion, and accept that this a gift offered only to those who follow Islam. It is important to recognise that Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life. Muslims live and breathe Islam; it guides them through life, and determines their everyday behaviour. Every step they take, they are representing their beliefs and values. These are my thoughts, as a non-Muslim, therefore I am aware that I could be wrong. But what I have seen in Saudi has demonstrated this before my eyes. I have seen a religious dedication that is to be admired. Although pilgrimage to Makkah is forbidden to me, it must be realised that pilgrimages are universal. Across countries and religions we all make our own pilgrimages, large or small, in search of morals or spiritual blessings. It is a human journey.
The old streets of Jeddah feel like an Arabian version of the Canterbury Tales. Narrow streets wind and branch into further streets, occasionally merging into one large square, like streams into an estuary, before splitting again. Buildings are slowly decaying, forgotten like a doll from childhood; tossed aside. On these streets are many characters: stall vendors trying to entice you to see their wares, a proud boy posing in his family’s jewelry shop, a lady fully cloaked with only her eyes showing (and yet I could feel she was smiling), and street cleaners, pausing with their brooms in the shade. As you walk, smells of spices, sewage, and perfumes greet the nose. I feel like I have seen the heart of the city.
I realise the importance of preserving and holding on to a city’s history and tradition, as well as making developments to work towards a better future for all. It is good to know that restoration of the old buildings is beginning to take place. There are also many modern structures here, such as shopping outlets, walls of glass, and miles of concrete. I do hope that the restoration project is completed sooner rather than later, before the heritage of this city becomes a pile of rubble. I cannot see the spice sellers and small perfume vendors surviving against a backdrop of brand names and towering air-conditioned buildings.
The fish market, for me, was a fascinating and also slightly horrifying experience. On the one hand, it was great to see all the fish in different colours and to witness the bargaining, and on the other it was a dirty and smelly place - momentarily home to live fish and hammerhead sharks. Our lunch consisted of a huge banquet of seafood, which included prawns, barbecued fish, and squid. The good news is that in Saudi, if there is any food left over from a meal, it is reused. Whoever eats the leftovers from our meal will be lucky, be it the poor or a street animal - this country is blessed with consideration.
Kingdom. The word conjures up a fairy tale. Childhood fantasies of being wrapped up in the Arabian Nights: tales of love, betrayal, greed, and murder. Jewels, sand, magic carpets, and camels (possibly grumpy). The air swirling with perfumes and clouds of shisha smoke.
Now I get to visit this mystic region and learn that there is more to it than meets the eye.