en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 51, Number 4July/August 2000

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents


Arab Cultural Capital 2000

"Najd is the heartland of the Arab world, the reservoir of new movements"

—Hisham Nashabe

Written and photographed by Peter Harrigan

When Sa'ad al-Shabanat is not tracking Saudi Arabian Airlines traffic at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, he can usually be found at his home working on Al-Sutnman, his multi-volume history and geography of the Summan region northeast of Riyadh. "I've traveled and camped there since I was a child," says al-Shabanat, whose early days were spent as a shepherd in what is regarded as one of the most historically significant parts of Najd, Saudi Arabia's central province. Al-Summan is the historic spring grazing ground of the country's ruling Sa'ud family, among others, and is well-known for its extensive caves.

"I've heard the stories and folklore of al-Summan, and listened to the poetry. And I know that when an old man dies, it is like a library burning down. So I decided to record what I collected." That he had only completed high school did not deter al-Shabanat, and 15 years later he admits that his history "is a hobby that's taken me over." In the field, he seeks out isolated, little known settlements and encampments, where he listens to Bedouin recollections, tales and poetry. Along the way he notes evidence of grazing areas, old desert highways, and ruins.

Al-Shabanat's subject and methods so impressed Shaykh Hamid al-Jasir, winner of the 1996 King Faisal International Prize for Arabic literature and an expert on the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula, that al-Jasir wrote an introduction al-Shabanat's book, thus giving the unknown, self-taught historian a valuable academic endorsement. Al-Summan is due to be published this year.

Al-Shabanat is part of a little-noticed but growing wave of cultural creativity generated in Riyadh. His book, for example, is one of an estimated 2000 new titles that will be published in the capital this year—a publishing boom that has resulted in Riyadh's now offering the greatest printing capacity in the Middle East.

To support this blossoming, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has endorsed Riyadh as the Arab Cultural Capital for the millennium year. (See page 56.) The logo for what is being called "Riyadh 2000" is telling: Whereas the 1999 national centennial celebration was symbolized by a graphic that combined Riyadh's Masmak fort, a date palm and a sword, the similar Riyadh 2000 logo substitutes a pen as the trunk of the date palm.

"Don't underestimate the importance of Riyadh and Najd in modern Arab history," says Hisham Nashabe, an expert in Islamic studies and Lebanon's representative to UNESCO's executive council. Riyadh, he explains, "was remote, and never fell under Ottoman rule. Najd remained free to exercise independent thought, and to grow to become an intellectual center. The work and movement of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab [in the early 18th century] was a landmark in the history of Islamic thought. From it flowed considerable cultural changes."

Beyond that, Nashabe observes, "We Arabs have toward the desert a secret tenderness. Najd is the heartland of the Arab world, the reservoir of new movements. All sedentary communities have drawn on the desert to revitalize themselves."

The effect of the "cultural capital" title, conferred on a different city annually since 1996, is more than symbolic. Nashabe's own city of Beirut carried it in 1999. "Lebanon needed this to improve its sadly tarnished, war-torn image," he says. "The cultural-capital status helped Beirut in the rebirth and healing process."

Coordination of Riyadh 2000 is the job of the Saudi Arabian Presidency of Youth Welfare, the government's arm for cultural, sports and social activities. Its 236-page guide to Riyadh 2000 events details poetry readings and competitions, lectures, art and historical exhibitions and displays of school-children's drawings—as well as exhibits, lectures and events abroad. (See page 54.)

"We are here primarily to stimulate interest," explains Mohammed al-Tuweijeri, who is on the team coordinating Riyadh 2000 programs. "We encourage participation and provide information" to organizations that sponsor activities of their choosing under the Riyadh 2000 banner.

Some of the most popular events involve poetry, the oldest and greatest of Saudi Arabia's traditional arts. In pre-Islamic times, poetry was primarily the art of Bedouins, who committed their verses to memory and transmitted them orally across generations. With Islam came more widespread literacy, and written forms began to complement and bolster the oral ones. Today, the love of poetry and literature remains one of the strongest Saudi cul-rural threads. As a result, Riyadh 2000 offers dozens of evenings of readings in classical and colloquial style, as well as competitions among new modern and folk compositions.

Just how popular poetry can be is shown by one of today's biggest Doetry celebrities, a prodigy born not quite six years ago. Hamad Munawir Hamad al-Anazi is being acclaimed as Saudi Arabia's youngest poet. His father, who is also a poet in the Bedouin oral tradition—he neither reads nor writes—says he began to notice his son's prodigious memory and poetic creativity at age two. Al-Anazi now recites traditional poems elegantly, and composes folk poems that follow classical forms but use vernacular language. The monthly arts magazine Al-Funun recently featured him, and he also recited recently before Prince Sultan ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, Saudi Arabia's minister of defense. It is this honor, even more than appearances in magazines or on television, that promises to make the child poet the stuff of desert legend for years to come.

Following on the popularity of poetry, prose literature is not far behind, and the rapid growth of libraries in Riyadh is also a source of pride—again one that is rarely noticed by outsiders.

"The extraordinary development of libraries that has taken place in Riyadh over the last 20 years is without parallel in recent history," says Stephan Roman, who has studied Islamic libraries around the world. "Riyadh has among the finest libraries in the Arab world in terms of materials, infrastructure and systems."

Yahya ibn Junaid, secretary general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, has known this for some time. His study of the Islamic contribution to civilization through books and libraries earned him the King Faisal International Prize for Islamic studies in 1998. In its historical collections alone, the center houses nearly 25,000 Arabic manuscripts, the largest collection in the Arabian Gulf and one of the largest in the Arab world. "We acquired the collection over long years," ibn Junaid explains. Many manuscripts were purchased on the international art market; others, he says, were bequeathed to the center. In addition, Riyadh's two major university libraries and its public libraries together house another estimated 26,000 historical manuscripts.

Riyadh 2000, says ibn Junaid, gives the King Faisal Center a context to "highlight our own and other important cultural treasures to the city and the world." In addition to an exhibition of books and manuscripts of the Qur'an, the center will open the Islamic Heritage Museum this September, Riyadh's first public museum dedicated exclusively to the broad sweep of Islamic arts dating back to the eighth century. The center is also holding a lecture series in which international scholars will discuss Arab cultural influence in India, Central Asia and Europe, an exhibition of electronic books, and a competition of Saudi documentary films—the first film festival of this genre to screen in Saudi Arabia.

As these events were being planned, construction crews were transforming the center's surroundings. In 1997, the King Faisal Foundation (KFF), which supports the center and numerous other religious, cultural and philanthropic endeavors, began construction of a skyscraper that would expand the KFF's own working space and would, as well, house apartments, other offices, an international-scale shopping mall, a five-star hotel and a conference center. Uniquely for such a complex, all revenues from the commercial activities would be used to underwrite KFF charitable and cultural activities.

The resulting Al Faisaliah Center, which opened May 15, dramatically changes the city's skyline with its tapering, 276-meter (900') office tower—among the most assertive, forward-looking designs in the Arab world. To celebrate the opening of what the KFF hopes will become Riyadh's equivalent of New York's Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower of Paris, several hundred thousand people thronged the streets after twilight prayers to watch seven tons of reworks launched from the tower combine with a laser light show, the first of its kind in the kingdom.

"We are conservative, but we are open to experimentation," says Saleh al-Hathloul, educator, futurist, architectural critic and town planner for Riyadh. "Riyadh prides itself on the quality of its modern architecture." For Riyadh 2000, the Harvard and MIT-educated professor, author of the 1996 study The Arab-Muslim City, is offering public lectures on the city's modern landmarks, from the futuristic inverted pyramid of the Interior Ministry building to the white-tented King Fahd International Stadium and the neo-traditional Diplomatic Quarter. (See Aramco World, September/October 1988.) His book focused much on Riyadh, he explains, because to him the city epitomizes the tension of modernity: "Saudi society is considered the most traditional in the Arab-Muslim world, though at the same time it has a very high capacity for change." And what change it has seen! -Once a diminutive, walled oasis town in the early 20th century, Riyadh's vast expanses now beg comparison with Los Angeles or Houston. This change, al-Hathloul says, "implies Riyadh's constant rethinking of its values and its tradition, and a continuous reinterpretation of the past in terms of the present."

This rethinking shows not only in official buildings, designed to be landmarks, but also in new vernacular commercial and residential building. Throughout the city, small businesses are building in a uniquely Riyadh style that, in many cases, draws from the well of Najdi tradition. The resulting forms and colors express a creative, youthful energy that points toward a return to local roots. Particularly popular are the small triangles that formerly ventilated mud-brick walls, but which are now often glazed windows; similarly, rooftops may be edged with stepped crenelations—another motif from Najdi mud-brick design. Tan and golden brown are increasingly popular colors.

Overseeing the growth of the metropolis is the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA). One of its major projects under Riyadh 2000, run by its historic preservation division, is the restoration of al-Dir'iyah, the abandoned 19th-century mud-brick capital of the first and second Saudi states that lies on the outskirts of Riyadh, and which is one of the city's premier historic sites.

The ADA, explains its president, Abdullatif al-Shaikh, has long been concerned not only with commercial, industrial and residential construction, but also with making sure that "extensive and world-class cultural spaces" were included in Riyadh's development. These spaces, he says, are now "drawing in content, providing Riyadh with the opportunity to display its culture, traditions and heritage." This is essential to national life, he says, because such spaces are "the context that helps create our culture."

Abdulrahman al-Sari, director of urban and cultural development for the ADA, points out that the organization is involved in more than planning: For Riyadh 2000, it is also preparing exhibitions on traditional mud building and the origins of language. Among the lectures offered by the ADA-managed Science Oasis is one that discusses the different names of stars and planets that appear in popular, scientific and official usage, and in pre-Islamic and ancient Arabian cultures. In those cultures—and still in the present day—the desert night sky was enormously significant field, not only for navigation and time-telling, but as a nourisher of human imagination and a wellspring of reverence.

"Culture is an integral part of religion, too," says al-Sari. "Religion is the system determining our lives, relationships, code of behavior and manner of worship. The more we work on it, the clearer our distinctive identity becomes."

And much of Riyadh's religious culture, he explains, is expressed in the evenings in mosques around the city, where people gather for discussions and lessons after al-isha', the fifth and last prayer of the day, called at the end of twilight. In some of the larger mosques, where some of the best religious speakers hold forth on topics that range broadly from ethics to history, poetry, the arts and diverse cultural subjects, the lectures may be tape-recorded and the tapes later sold for educational purposes. Such tapes have proven uniquely popular among the city's growing numbers of automobile commuters.

Another popular cultural gathering is the majlis, a desert tradition probably as old as human habitation itself in the Arabian Peninsula. Today the salon-\ike gatherings still take place, in the comfort of modern homes, and though they, like most mosque lectures, are not included in the official Riyadh 2000 program, they are nonetheless a well-recognized part of the cultural life and energy of Riyadh. By religious and social custom, men and women hold separate majalis, and newer homes often include a tent in a courtyard to accommodate men while, inside, generous parlors seat women. The heart of any majlis is lively conversation, which may cover philosophy, poetry, literature, history and family and tribal genealogy as well as current events. Refreshments, by tradition, nearly always include cardamom-flavored coffee, sweet black tea, and the dates whose cultivation, over nearly 5000 years, helped give Riyadh ("Gardens") its name.

Among other cultural expressions, Riyadh 2000 is providing official recognition of the recent revival of traditional cuisine. Not long ago, a fine Riyadh restaurant would serve Levantine and Western dishes, but now many offer Saudi ones as well, and some are exclusively Saudi-oriented.

The date—the most symbolic of Saudi foods—is undergoing its own revival. In addition to large commercial date farms, thriving "boutique" groves serve specialized retailers of gourmet dates and date products.

Salman al-Sudairy is a director of Bateel, whose Riyadh-based Jancy-date shop has recently opened franchises in every Arabian Gulf capital, and who plans to try one or two in the West. He is among a growing corps of mostly young Riyadh entrepreneurs who are tapping a growing demand for retail products that carry a connection to cultural tradition.

"The date is a true cultural export," he maintains. "It uniquely represents important aspects of our culture—generosity, concern for health, gratitude. We are all connected to the date palm. It has withstood the test of time. We grew with it, and as you learn more about the date palm you have more respect for how it endures and what it provides."

Tents, too, are popular: "Our adapted Bedouin-style framed black-hair tent is in high demand as a home majlis," says Abdullah al-Tamimi, who runs a family business manufacturing Arabian tents, often now using high-tech materials in traditional designs and colors.

"Travel and education in the West have exposed us to modern branding and service concepts," he says. "But we stay tuned to and rooted in traditional society, and see many opportunities in businesses that focus on Najdi design and building concepts, heritage products and traditional foods. Saudi consumers are turning to these."

The high-ceilinged office of Fahd al-;mmari, secretary general of the King Abd al-'Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, lies behind a traditional Najdi door that opens off a simple Najdi courtyard with supporting columns.

Here, there is a Riyadh 2000 exhibition of little-known books and publications whose production and distribution throughout the Arab world were sponsored by King 'Abd al-'Aziz in the '20's and 1930's. Al-Semmari explains at Saudi Arabia's first king, celebrated ror his nation-building (See Aramco World, January/February 1999), also materially supported his kingdom's literary arts during the Great Depression, even though times were no less hard in Saudi Arabia than elsewhere.

This year will also see an exhibition of Najdi manuscripts dating to the "'17th century and a show focusing on Umm al-Qura, the first Saudi newspaper. A conference examining the place of Saudi culture in the larger Arab context will "give us an opportunity to review and discuss the contribution of Saudi intellectuals," says al-Semmari, "as well as the observations and commentaries of Arab travelers and writers on what is now Saudi Arabia." For families, a festival and heritage market will come in September to the expansive plaza and gardens that lie about the foundation's headquarters.

"As this year's Arab Cultural Capital, Riyadh has a lot to reflect upon," al-Semmari adds. "It is a chance to consider our past and to think what can be done for the future." For example, he says, Saudis need to "celebrate our creative talents, especially among children and women."

To address this need, the foundation will soon publish the first book on prominent Central Arabian women, and a number of Riyadh 2000 events highlight the heritage of Saudi women, including their intellectual and scientific contributions in such fields as medicine, management and the media. Both the foundation and the Saudi National Museum have opened departments staffed by professional Saudi women who will make the services of those institutions more available than ever to other women.

At Riyadh's King Sa'ud University, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Ansary, who established the department of archeology in the mid-1960's, also emphasizes Riyadh's crossroads role in the present as well as in the past. Today's urban population has come to the city from numerous culturally distinct regions of the country, he says, "so when we look at Riyadh as the Arab Cultural Capital for 2000 we should consider the city as a mosaic of Saudi Arabia—something representing all aspects and regions, a place where there are dialects, traditions, songs, poetry from all over, and various forms of social gatherings and activities."

Remembering his own past, the soft-spoken professor recalls that "while this capital was growing and being expanded, we archeologists were out in the desert, exploring and digging. [See Aramco World, March/April 1980.] I remember people here who used tell us we were mad! They would ask, 'Why are you out there digging for broken stones while everyone else is digging for money? We are going toward the future and you are pulling us back to the past!' But today, those same people are asking me about our latest finds. We have been through a boom," al-Ansary says. "Saudis have traveled extensively in recent years, and now people want to find out more about their own heritage."

Among those in Riyadh who juggle tradition and modernity, perhaps none has done so as visibly as Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, who in 1985 was the first Arab and the first Muslim in space, and who has since used his leadership of the national architectural association to promote a rediscovery of traditional Saudi architectural forms and materials. (See Aramco World, July/August 1999.)

In May, Prince Sultan's lecture in London on "Riyadh: Its Future and Cultural Heritage" was one of the international events of Riyadh 2000. (See page 54.) "We cannot lose our historical perspective," he said then. "Tradition is an important resource and asset, and it can guide us through changing times."

The changes still to come may overshadow those that have already taken place. The day before hrs lecture, Prince Sultan had been'told of his appointment as secretary general of the nation's new Supreme Commission of Tourism. In addition to the three million annual visitors whom Saudi Arabia welcomes during the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, and the 'Umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, the country is also opening its doors this year to international tourists.

Educational group tours are expected to arrive first, particularly those sponsored by university alumni associations and museums. "Saudi Arabia is a destination that appeals to travelers who have been almost everywhere else and are dying for some place new and unknown," wrote Ted Conover in March in Travel + Leisure.

In this way, Riyadh 2000 marks not only the new florescence of Saudi culture, but also a new interest in sharing that culture, more widely than ever, with the world.

Peter Harrigan is a language instructor with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, where he also works as a contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supplement of The Saudi Gazette.

Riyadh 2000 and the Arab Decade for Cultural Development

The idea of annual "cultural capitals" grew out of a 1982 United Nations conference whose delegates agreed that a broad definition of "development" must include a cultural dimension. It is culture, they concurred, more overtly than economics, that aspires to nurture the good of humankind. In 1986, the United Nations General Assembly declared 1988 to 1997 as the World Decade for Cultural Development and designated UNESCO as the lead body. Among the more than 1000 projects undertaken by the UN'S 152 member countries was the Regional Cultural Capitals Program, which started in Europe to give a boost to cultural efforts in cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Barcelona.

In the Arab world, since 1964, the 22 member countries of the Arab League have supported the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO), founded to mirror and give regional direction to UNESCO'S worldwide cultural activities, ALECSO launched an Arab Cultural Capitals program, selecting Cairo for 1996 and Tunis for 1997. As the World Decade for Cultural Development drew to a close, ALECSO announced that 1998 would begin the Arab Decade for Cultural Development. Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, was selected as Arab Cultural Capital for 1998; Beirut followed in 1999. Riyadh was selected for the millennium year.

Hisham Nashabe, a Beirut resident who sits on UNESCO'S executive council, explains that the Concept "celebrates the life, heritage and spaces of an Arab city. Cultural diversity, just like ecological diversity, is a positive value, and UNESCO has become its champion."

Upcoming Arab Cultural Capitals include Kuwait City (2001); Amman, Jordan (2002); Rabat, Morocco (2003); Sana'a, Yemen (2004) and Khartoum, Sudan (2005).

Riyadh 2000 at the British Museum
Written by Arthur Clark

Saudi Arabia opened a window onto its heritage for audiences in Great Britain early this year by giving a bayt al-sha'ar—a Bedouin tent, literally a "house of hair"—to the British Museum as part of the celebration of Riyadh as the Arab Cultural Capital for 2000. It was displayed as part of the museum's ongoing "Arab Cultures: Young Worlds" exhibition, and it hosted some 1500 visitors bettween March and May.

The brown-and-white striped camel-and goat-hair shelter offers unique insights into the kingdom. "It's not what people expect to find here," admits Carolyn Perry, Arab-world education officer at the museum. But for that very reason the tent and its contents had an impact beyond expectations.

Muslim youngsters in Britain, says Perry, now that Saudi Arabia is the heartland of am, the place of the pilgrimage, and they pire to go there themselves. It's wonderful have 15-year-old Muslims from a Londonner-city school get an idea of the bigger culture" by touching, smelling and tasting hat comes from the kingdom. For non-Muslims, the tent offered insight into the revalues of Arab culture.

"The tent was much bigger and more glamorous than the one I used to go camping in, and looked as though it was for someone important, with lots of wonderful objects inside it," says a wide-eyed 14-year-old British lad.

"It was lovely to sit and have tea in the tent," says one of the tent's older guests.

Perry believes the tent made a special impact because many of the museum's collections are behind glass, and its "hands-on" accessibility made it uniquely experiential. The tent is scheduled to travel to at least four more venues in Britain before becoming part of the museum's permanent "handling collection."

The tent, a gift from Prince Turki ibn Sultan ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, Saudi Arabia's deputy minister of foreign information, was specially woven at a factory in Riyadh for display in the British Museum's former State Papers Room. It is part of the ongoing effort, supported by Information Minister Fouad Al-Farsi and Ghazi al-Gosaibi, Saudi ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland, to promote understanding between Saudis and Britons in particular, and Arabs and Westerners in general. It measures four by seven meters (13' x 23') and stands some three meters (10') tall—actually closer to square and with more headroom than the traditional tents of Saudi Arabia's nomads. In fact, it represents a "new generation" of Bedouin tents now popular in towns and cities in the kingdom, according to Dr. Fawaz Al-Dakheel, attache at the Saudi Embassy's information center.

The tent and its contents, including traditional clothing and objects such as lamps, a camel saddle and woven dining mats, served as a backdrop for storytelling and real-life examples of Saudi hospitality: Visitors sipped cardamom-flavored coffee and traditionally prepared tea, and tasted culinary delights such as kalijah, a wheat and date-honey pastry from Qasim, a northern region, as well as iqt milk condensed to a paste and then sun-dried in patties.

Ambassador al-Gosaibi says that giving the tent to the museum "was the act of a good friend and neighbor. I believe Riyadh 2000 offers Saudis an excellent opportunity to communicate the strengths and achievements of the national culture.

"Islam is our culture," he explains. "Without a doubt, our service to Islam, which is the foundation of Arab culture, has been our main contribution to the world at large. We have also shown that it is possible to develop a country at the most impressive pace without forgetting our traditions and cultural heritage. Many elements of our culture are sacred, timeless and offer hope to humanity. I am confident that the culture represented by Riyadh will continue to thrive."

Arthur Clark is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, where he edits the weekly Arabian Sun. He visited the British Museum in March

This article appeared on pages 50-60 of the July/August 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2000 images.