Deep in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula lies Riyadh, the capital of the third and present Saudi state. Having spent the first five days of our journey in the Red Sea coastal town of Jeddah, on this Friday morning we are about to embark to a quite different cultural millieu.
Jeddah had been quite smooth start for us, even surprising us with its rather cosmopolitan outlook that fits its role as a gateway for Muslims of diverse backgrounds heading for the Holy Sites of Islam. Furthermore, we had sensed a spirit of Hejazi distinctiveness with our local acquaintances who were often not afraid to voice their opposition to the prevalence of an “Najdi state of mind“ that the ruling Wahhabi creed tries to enforce in the region. Indeed, be it at the Hejazz Festival or at our Jeddah Night Out, more people than not had reminded us of the steep cultural and religious conservatism that would await us in Riyadh. No surprise we left with mixed feelings, prejudiced from what we had heard, yet eager to make our own observations.
A first sign for Riyadh’s strict atmosphere, is the more rigid separation of sexes which applies to us, as well. Henceforth, most of our meetings split into a Men’s and a Women’s delegation, which, if seen positively, allows us to make quite different experiences that we eagerly discuss in the bus in-between the meetings.
But before the official part starts on Saturday, we still have some time left to get a glimpse of Saudi cultural life, since the country’s largest annually folk fest has just started a few days ago. However, seperation of sexes also includes this major cultural event, so that women are only allowed to enter on specified “Family days“. But our female companions find a suitable alternative, heading instead to the Riyadh Book Fair, which also takes place this week.
Having survived the hazardous way through Riyadh’s pulsing traffic we arrive at the site of the Janadriyyah Festival, half an hour outside the city. At this afternoon the intense sun reminds us that, despite the huge urban growth of the capital during the last decades, we are still in the middle of the Arabian desert. The same sense convey the fortified walls that surround the Festival, fashioned in a reference to the traditional Najdi desert living style. In 1985 King Fahd established this unique spectacle that features camel races, theatrical performances, Bedouin handcraft and the famous Najdi sword dance. As one of our frequent official companions, Mazin, points out it was primarily designed to bring together the people and traditions of the different regions in order to strenghten a feeling of Saudi national cohesiveness. Over a million visitors frequent the festival every year, today alone it might be some ten thousand people who wander through the vast festival territory.
The first large yard we enter is sourrounded by numerous small shops, each of whom is designated by ist region of origin. Artisans from Najd, Asir, Hejaz, Hail, the Western an the Nortern Province are vigirously promoting their products, ranging from daggers, swords and beating clubs to jewelry, clothing and sweets. At other corners of the festival, camels and horses are exhibited and draw the attention of especially the youngest visitors. There even seems to be special programme for children, as we see a group of maybe twenty Saudi kids playing a version of “Musical chair“, followed by a sort of poetry slam.
Slowly the sun sets and shortly after the evening prayer, we follow the mass into a kind of arena within a huge rebuilt castle that is situated in the middle of the main square. This mini-stadium is already well crowded, whereas on the “field“ nothing interesting seems to happen. Some five or six boys are casually playing a kind of cone-spinning game, when suddenly two of them start getting at each other’s throat and one is chased by the others. Suddenly a sharp and stern voice permeates the scene and an older man, called by the boys “the Qadi“ enters the scene. We look around us and see the Saudi attendants somehow amused and calm. Only now we realize that this is part of show, however still puzzled by its meaning. The Qadi now severely reprimands the instigator of the mess – a dark coloured boy. Time and again he is shouting “Ya habashi“ – which originally means “Ethiopian“ and envokes this young boy’s shortcomings in contrast to proper bahaviour. At the end, “the Ethiopian“ acknowledges his fault and all the boys finally reconcile. After this strange performance we ask our companion Turki about ist origin and learn that it’s ought to be a stage version of a Hadith, a story or a parable from the Prophet’s time.
Having not really got the pointe of this play and somehow irritated by its racists overtones we feel a bit estranged when we finally leave the festival in the evening. There were other things that contributed to this perception: First of all, as already suggested, only men were present this day. And in addition to that, almost all of them wore exactly the same combination of garb, consisting of the long thaub, the white-red checkered shmagh headscarf and the uqqal on the top. Besides, we as foreign visitors were a rare exeption to the overwhelmingly Saudi attendents. Whereas in other Arab countries just because of that fact one almost automatically draws the attention and easily gets into a conversation with the populace, the Saudis, on the whole, seem quite disinterested and mind their own business. All this reinforces a perception of a somehow amorphous mass when we watch the thousands of Saudi visitors assembled here. Although we’d like to get a more qualified insight, it’s hardly possible to establish any informal contacts and besides, our official companions have a close watch on us. At the end, however, some of us, still make a valuable grab at the occasional bookstores on the festival site compensating us for this, unfortunately, rather superficial impression of Saudi cultural life.