Following 15 years (on and off) tefling my way around the world, I finally, at the age of forty, decided to venture into the magic kingdom of Saudi Arabia having seen a posting for EFL teacher in a place called Jizan (at the Jizan Economic City Polytechnic, JEC-PT), way down there in the south-west on the Red Sea and not too far from Yemen. I had already worked in a few places that were off the beaten track during my tefl tenure: Qatar (2002), Belarus (2003), Libya (2004), and most recently, at the top of the Caspian Sea, in Kazakhstan (2014), and was keen to see inside another ‘closed country’.
Jizan, reputedly the third largest port on the Red Sea (though you could be forgiven for not thinking so), was, like many other cities in Saudi Arabia, a city in expansion, and a city in progression. Jizan’s far-reaching outskirts were to host one of the six planned ‘economic cities’ dotted across the kingdom, funded by the petro-billionaires, to soak up the growing youth unemployment.
Jizan itself had all the seeming of a frontier town, and a giant dusty building site, pockmarked here and there by lone caterpillars and the concrete exuviae of half-finished buildings and roadways. It may not have been the most beautiful town in the world but it was on the sea, the beautiful Red Sea, and it was a mere couple of hours drive up to the mountains of the Asir region. There was also the matter of the Farasan archipelago 40km off its coast with its reef rich crystal clear waters which drew a regular group of teachers over to its unspoilt shores every other weekend.
And so, based on this initial finding, and following a brief interview in Newcastle, I headed out at the end of March 2011 for what was to be a year of surprises, and hospitality that would make us in the West look positively mean.
The following trip was taken during a long weekend in November 2011 with 3 other teachers up to Abha in the mountains, a three hour drive from Jizan. One of my student’s cousins, Ali, met us when we arrived and introduced us to one of the most startling sights ever: rain and cloud and cold (!) in Saudi Arabia.
‘Erhibou’, (not a hesitant French owl but a ‘big welcome’), Ali says, as we finally arrive in the mountain city of Abha after the three hour, and always hair-raising, 200km drive from Jizan. The hospitality of south-western Saudi Arabia (bred of the necessities of a nomadic and desert life), is such that it is impossible to go very far without someone offering their hand to help. With some thirty students ‘at my disposal’, who, collectively, have some several hundred brothers, cousins and friends between them, (family in this part of the world being more akin to tribe), this means that at any given time (or place), I am never more than a tyre track away from guidance and a warm welcome.
Ali, a cousin of one of my students, works for the local television station, and has offered to show us some of the sights of the region. He tells us, as if we hadn’t noticed, that ‘the mountains not like sea’. Indeed, up here, around Abha, an ancient trade city on the old caravan route from Yemen to Mecca and further to Cairo and Rome, the Asir Mountains are unlike anything the kingdom has to offer. With its regular rainfall, its brooding clouds, and its decidedly chilly air, one’s ideas as to the nature of Arabia are entirely upset.
Major uplift of this Arabian shoulder probably began about 14 million years ago as a tectonic extension of the Red Sea Rift. The height of the mountains – between 6 and 9 thousand feet – and the tail-end of the ‘khareef’ (monsoon winds), make this region richer and greener than any other part of Saudi Arabia. The Asir Mountains similarly benefit from winds and weather systems generated in Africa. Mist, low cloud, and rain are commonplace events. From earliest times the inhabitants of Asir have cultivated a wide variety of crops using terracing and catchment dams. This, the virtual roof of Arabia, has largely contributed to the classical geographic notion of Arabia Felix, and the landscapes which the French-Somali traveler Maurice Tamisier, who came this way in 1834, described as ‘smiling and fertile’.
Ali escorts us around the city as if there was no other way of seeing it. And there really isn’t. Abha’s spatiality and design is such that, here, the car is king, and the SUV supreme leader. In the little museum (one of the few original adobe structures standing) in the al-Mafteheh complex there is a photograph of old Abha which Lal the Keralan shows me enthusiastically. Old Abha looks completely alien with its golden truncated pyramidal buildings. Its whitewashed crenellated ramparts, Inca-like, are crowded together with only veiny sidestreets between them. In the forefront of the city walls are tribal members of the Beni Gahtan in their kilts and head-dresses, their long wooden guns proudly slung over their shoulders, their faces beaming a naturalness that spells harmony all over. Lal says the photograph was taken 23 years ago, in 1988. He has seen the metropolitan metamorphosis first hand. Not a pretty sight, he tells me. Now, of course, Abha, with its privet hedge medians, its luscious gardens and landscaped hills, its modern apartment blocks and drive-thru coffee shops, has all the seeming of an efficient albeit sterile business centre.
Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam is no stranger to the destruction of the past. The last ten years alone have seen the greatest obliteration of religious and historic sites than perhaps any other much to the ire of certain archaeologists and historians. Much of this destruction has centred in and around Islam’s most holy site, Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque), with the continued exapsnion plans and rebuilding programs of King Abdulaziz. With the rapid influx of capitalist investment, and the just as rapid rise of luxury hotels and condominiums, many detractors of the modernization process have compared Mecca to Manhattan, surmising that economic growth is ultimately the bottom line for Saudi authorities. These slash-and-burn building programs are only one of the many inconsistencies which exist in the Kingdom, an inconsistency which is all the more tangible when Ali takes us down the dangerously steep Jebel al-Soudah road to see the age-old village, freshly renovated, of Rijal Al-maa.
Nestled in the cliff-faces, the 400 year old, multi-storey, shale and quartz high-rises of Rijal Al-maa are wonderfully evocative of a bygone age. The small valley, surrounded on 3 sides by towering mountains, is soundless save for the persistent calls of a young buzzard. ‘No noise’ Ali remarks. The small village is deathly quiet, only the sound of the mountains, yet Ali assures me that it is populated, pointing to some of the new-fangled houses perched on rocky outcrops. ‘The old people here, they give their belongings to the museum,’ he says. The little museum, curated by the villagers themselves in one of the ancient high-rises, contains tools, ornaments and jewellery, donated by local women and men. ‘The area’s people have turned it into one of the most magnificent cultural and archeological sites in the Kingdom,’ Ali tells me. Ali himself has filmed here on several occasions for various cultural programmes. The village received the Prince Sultan Bin Salman Architectural Heritage Prize in 2006 for preserving its architectural heritage. ‘The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is beginning to realize the importance not just for visitors but for those already living here, of preserving such places,’ Ali says. We get talking to the octogenarian attendant, Torshi Al-Sagheer, who initially suggested the idea of a museum back in the mid 1980s. We sit over coffee and talk as the skies open and within a matter of minutes the sloping main street becomes a stream. ‘Flash floods like this are not unusual,’ Torshi tells me. ‘They will become more common over the winter months when the monsoon rains hit’. Next year, the village is expecting a new road, the old one having been washed away earlier this year. ‘Sitting in the shadow of the mountains has its advantages’, Torshi says, putting his hand to his ear and listening to the silence, ‘but we also have the downfalls’.
Retracing our tracks back up the road-river and the snaking mountain road, we come to the highest point in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (if not the whole Arabian Peninsula), Jebel al-Soudah, the black mountain, so called, apparently, because of the dark clouds which regularly envelop its 3000m peaks. When we get there, a troop of hamdryas baboons are waiting eagerly and hungrily in the parking lot. It is beautifully fresh weather, the rain has stopped, and it’s strangely reminiscent of a Scottish summer’s day. We gaze down the valleys and ravines that stretch as far as the clouds will allow. A couple of large birds soaring on the wing can be seen some distance away. I have been told that the wonderful Lammergeier (the bone-breaking and bone-devouring bearded vulture) can sometimes be found hanging out here. So far though, there’s no sign of it. The birds in the distance are black kites, and over there, patiently waiting aside the baboons, is a flock of fan-tailed ravens.
One of the ‘travel’ books that initially brought the anonymous Asir region to my attention was Jill Silsby’s Inland Birds of Saudi Arabia which I clawed out of the vaults of Glasgow’s Mitchell Library many moons ago. In it, alongside its wonderful photographs, Silsby tells us of the two distinct migratory routes that fly across the Arabian Peninsula and ‘the most beautiful and spectacular areas within’ one of which ‘is undoubtedly that part of Asir around Abha’.
Here, she evokes the scenic beauty of the region: ‘Most of the mountaintops are wild and craggy, others have their outlines softened by juniper. Here can be found the Lammergeier and Griffon vultures together with eagles and buzzards. Seated on rocks at the edge of Jebel Soodah, where the cliffs fall steeply several thousand feet to the valley below, these birds can be observed from above gliding on the thermals of air and this is truly a wonderful sight[…]This whole area is a birdwatcher’s paradise’.
As of yet, no Lammergeier, but just knowing it’s here is enough. Over there in the distance, however, adding further credence to a new ‘black mountain’ theory, is a rare black eagle.
On our way back to Abha, Ali takes us to select viewing points from where to inhale the region. ‘Al-dabab’ he tells us, ‘means cloud or fog’ as we periodically encounter and drive through it. Later, over dinner, Ali shows us one of his recent works, From Asir to You, presented to the former Governor of Asir Province, Prince Khalid al-Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, now Governor of Mecca Province, upon a return visit to the mountain province. Immediately, I ask him how it was shown, as it is common knowledge at least to those who reside here, that cinemas and theatres (recently labeled an ‘absolute evil’ by Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) have been banned since the early 80s when the government gave free rein to the more rigid wing of the strict Wahhabi stream of Islam. We talk about young, up-and-coming Saudi film directors like Badr al-Homoud whose youtube video Monopoly highlights the increasing social housing problem in the kingdom. A young, enthusiastic Faris Buqnah was recently arrested for a making a similar short film and publicizing it. Yet another Saudi filmmaker, Abdullah al-Eyaf, laments having to drive 500km (and take his passport with him) every time he wants to go the cinema (in neighbouring Bahrain), so much so that he made a documentary, Cinema 500km, about it. Ali himself is probably one of the world’s few filmmakers who has never been to a cinema. He has thus far managed to avoid arrest by making sentimental tributes, and avoiding documentaries that might touch a nerve with the hardline clerics and resident Islamists. You can tell, however, that he’s not happy with this. His role-model is, after all, Michael Moore, whose book Stupid White Men convinced him to start filming. ‘Many problems in the kingdom’ he tells me again and again. ‘We have money, but we have poor people’. After seeing Buqnah’s polemic on poverty (which centres upon a man with two wives and thirteen children trying to make ends meet in suburban Riyadh), I suggest that perhaps it’s not so much the ‘poverty’ as it is the indoctrination of traditional values that encourage men to take up to four wives and have squads of children (several of my students have around 40 siblings, both full and agnate, each, their fathers having assumed a full complement of wives). Ali is a little uncomfortable with this, and tells me that traditional values are important. I agree. I ask him if he knows Bob Dylan. Unlikely, since rock ‘n roll in the kingdom is, in the eyes of the Mutawa (the religious police of the CPVPV) just as decadent as cinema. But he does. I pull up Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ (the one that hasn’t been blocked by the Saudi censors) on his ipad and we listen to it together.
With roughly 80% of the Saudi population under the age of 25 (and the ruling elite averaging 80), technology and the internet are the real leaders here. In terms of opening up new horizons, the internet has driven young Saudis to places they had never previously dreamed of. The availability of recording technologies combined with the power of self-broadcasting and social networking media has pushed the envelope of freedom that little bit further and forced the authorities to bend a little. The World Wide Web itself has shown them exactly that, a world that is both wide and extraordinarily webbed. ‘Previously,’ Ali tells me, waving his ipad as if it were a gold ingot, ‘we were isolated from the outside world, and there was no place for dreams. Now, we are discovering how wide the world actually is. And we are beginning to participate in it. In school, our world stops in Morocco, and to the east, in Indonesia’. Before I showed them, only a handful of my sixty students had any idea where Britain was, or Europe. Many of them thought Canada was in Asia, and Scotland some terra incognita replete with feral beasts, (admittedly, not far off the mark). Education in Saudi schools when it isn’t entirely Islamocentric is, at the very least, dogmatically top-heavy and stifling. The Islamic world, geography or otherwise, is, for many Saudis young and old alike, all there is.
The ‘Arab Awakening’ has in part been down to the dreaming that Ali speaks so fondly of, down to the world wide web that has now been wired into their brains. Where once it was easier to circumnavigate the globe than get around the Saudi censors, now, open source VPNs (‘divine proxies’ which re-route your IP address and give you unfettered access to the web), are easy to come by. Why Saudi Arabia hasn’t kicked off like Tunisia or Libya, Egypt or Syria, Yemen or Bahrain, is primarily down to oil revenues and interest-free bank loans, and, paradoxically, the availability of the technology that will ultimately spell the Kingdom’s fall from grace. Most Saudis, if the truth be told, do not want for much. Subsidized housing, modern shopping malls, and large SUVs with affordable payment plans, have quietened down any dissenting voices. ‘Saudis have a shot in the arm that those other, less docile, Arab nations do not have’, Ali says. ‘Saudis are sedated. They are asleep. Dead asleep. But, eventually, they must awaken.’
I can see Ali is trying to shake the baboon from his back. He is still deeply conformist to the various impositions of the current regime. He has still not found the necessary space to think and dream freely, emphasized rather symbolically by his repeated playing of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For on the car stereo. He leaves me in the car for ten minutes while he nips into a mosque to pray. I switch off U2 and return to my book, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet:
And an old priest said, Speak to us of Religion.
And he said:
Have I spoken this day of aught else?
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection,
and that which is neither deed nor reflection,
but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the
soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend
And he to whom worshipping is a window, to
open but also to shut, has not yet visited the house
of his soul whose windows are from dawn to dawn.
Your daily life is your temple and religion.
Whenever you enter into it take with you
The following morning, we head for Abha market, where men (and women) come from all over to share their wares: honey, pottery, hardware, cloth. The flower men of the Tihamah, men from the foothills, are here too, sporting their headband garlands and curly locks like a row of suntanned Bjorn Borgs. The smell of incense: frankincense and myrrh (gathered from nearby peaks), and various other aromatic materials waft through the market like vaporous Djinn. ‘The Frankincense country, mountainous and forbidding, wrapped in thick clouds and fog…’ wrote an anonymous Greek ship captain in his journal, Periplus of the Erythaean Sea.
As Ali and I waft through the market with the smoke, there is also the unmistakeable odor of the very rare (and rotten) agarwood, known here simply as ‘oud’ (wood). It is a highly complex substance (from large evergreens native to south-east Asia) whose equally highly complex smell comes from the fungi that have eaten, digested and excreted it. ‘It is the emperor of all scents,’ Ali remarks ‘whose vast dimension is almost as vast as its price-tag’.
Aside the incense suq is the date suq. And we’ve got dates from every region imaginable. Yahya, the date-monger, tells me that in Saudi Arabia alone there are more than 300 varieties. Beyond that, he’s got Iranian dates, Sudanese dates , Iraqi dates, Moroccan dates… black dates, green dates, soft dates, sweet dates… sugary dates, khalasah dates, khastawi dates, Yemeni dates… dates without stones, sun-dried dates, press-packed dates, plain dates…
The list goes on. And Yahya wants to tell me a story behind each. ‘It is good to know the truth’, he says, ‘but it is better to speak of palm trees.’ He speaks of the date palm as one might talk of Ibn Battutah or Al-Idrisi, the great Islamic travelers of old. ‘The date palm’, he reminds me, is much much old and much much travelled. But it was born here in Saudi Arabia’. To be sure, the date palm has a particular resonance in the Kingdom. It is after all associated with the Prophet Mohammed. Due to its resilience and adaptability, the palm tree has become the emblem of not just Saudi Arabia but many gulf countries, and has rightly garnered the title of ‘tree of life’. ‘If a person has some dates in his house’, Mohammed once said, ‘then he is not poor’.
Packed with Arabian delights, I bid farewell to Ali, wishing him fortitude for his forthcoming projects. Driving down the mountains towards Jizan, like a modern-day magus bearing gifts and good tidings, it’s not long before the freshness of the mountains dissipates, the windows are rolled up, and the air-conditioner switched back on. Ripples return to the road surfaces, and soon, the sandstorms begin. You can almost feel the heat outside. The dusty strip malls of Ad-Darb and Sabya fly by in clouds of sand. Hermetically sealed into this speeding tin can, I can’t help thinking to myself, ‘If only I were a palm tree…’