My Saudi predicament

2015-02-15 08:00

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PILGRIMAGE: Saudi Arabia’s most prolific visual artist, Ahmed Mater, produced this piece in 2011 that shot him to stardom. Called Magnetism, it uses a magnet surrounded by thousands of filings as a poetic way to present the hajj ritual – the biggest human migration in the world to Mecca in Riyadh
PHOTO: athr gallery/ ahmed mater

It was quite a morning to wake up to in Saudi Arabia. In the early hours, I received a WhatsApp from the PR firm running our trip. King Abdullah was dead, it said, and our entire travel itinerary was changing.

I had a moment of panic (envisaging a looming political crisis and chaos on the streets), but a follow-up message explained that the city of Jeddah was officially in mourning – for 40 days and 40 nights. Any activity that wasn’t considered to be in line with mourning would be considered treason and punishable by the Haia – the religious police of the country’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

For an hour, I sat mesmerised by the television in my hotel room, watching the pilgrims circle the rock of Mecca.

I was in the kingdom as a guest of Her Royal Highness Princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. She is the sister of King Abdullah’s newly crowned successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. She had invited a group of journalists to preview an arts initiative called 21,39 Jeddah Arts. HRH is the patron of the group, which takes its name from Jeddah’s geographic coordinates.

The initiative is a royally endorsed opportunity to put the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia, after the capital Riyadh, on the global contemporary art map.

One country, multiple reputations

It wasn’t an invitation I jumped to accept. 21,39 exists in a city within a kingdom whose laws and attitudes – especially towards women and marginalised groups – defy human rights. Then I discovered there’s no such thing as a tourism visa in Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s most highly guarded countries, and nicknamed the Bride of the Red Sea. This could be my only chance to see the country.

Aboard a Saudi Airlines flight from OR Tambo International, I read the Time magazine whose cover featured a row of lit matches alongside the headline After Paris: Lessons From The Attacks. The irony seemed to escape my smiling steward, who had handed me the magazine literally on a silver platter. Our final destination was the birthplace of Islam and the spiritual protectorate of the religion’s fundamentalist ideology, Wahhabism.

One of Abdullah’s gifts as monarch was to appease the strict, extremist Wahhabs while introducing moves towards progress and modernism in his ancient kingdom.

In the belly of the (lovely) beast

BACK TO THE FUTURE: A utopian city on the Red Sea emerges in the middle of nowhere to offer Saudis a glimpse of ‘life as it could be’

Set nearly two hours into the desert, the gates of the King Abdullah Economic City rear up from the sand dunes somewhere around the middle of nowhere. This is a R53?billion city whose tale is nearly as long as the road to get there.

The city is marketed as a place that offers Saudis “Life as it could be”.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology resides in this development and is the first co-ed tertiary institution in the kingdom where women can walk around without abayas and mingle freely with men. There are no Haia here.

It’s our first stop and confuses me immensely. How could something like this, just a few hours outside Jeddah, be initiated by the same king responsible for such terrifying authoritarianism?

In the car on the way back to our hotel, I get chatting to a Dubai-based gallerist about A Hologram for the King by American novelist Dave Eggers. The book examines the contradictions of a rapidly globalising Saudi Arabia through the lens of the King Abdullah Economic City.

Eggers writes: “It was as if someone had built a road through unrepentant desert, and then erected a gate somewhere in the middle, to imply the end of one thing and the beginning of another.”

The shadows are lengthening when we return to Jeddah and I take a walk. In less than 12 hours, King Abdullah will be dead. In the grounds of Jeddah’s open-air sculpture museum, set on the beachfront, families are cooking picnics on home-made barbeques.

The air is thick with the smell of spice and green Arabic coffee, the aromas drifting among the staggering collection of Western abstract masters’ work on display.

Children and families kick balls and fly neon kites as the sun sets on the ocean. Women in abayas are knee-deep in the water while others play swing ball, their drapes flying in the afternoon breeze. I can’t see beyond their veils, but it looks to me like the oil-rich king’s subjects seem content.

But for a tourist, is it ever otherwise? The beheadings were happening far away, hidden deep in the old city, alongwith the country’s estimated 30?000 political detainees. The religious police were few in Jeddah, patrolling instead in their dominion, Riyadh.

The art of the matter

ARTFUL: Guests at the opening of the 21, 39 Jeddah Arts iniative, a contemporary exhibition celebrating the arts of Saudi Arabia

At the evening’s exhibition opening, the global intelligentsia descend to celebrate the progressive strides being made by Jeddah’s creative class. Works by celebrity contemporary artists such as Ahmed Mater, Nasser Al Salem and Abdulnasser Gharem sit alongside some of the historical masters who paved the way for them: Bakr Sheikhoun and Dia Aziz Dia.

Part-time artist Rashed Al ShaiShai, who is a school teacher, presents a debut show at Athr Gallery that examines the promise of education as a means to slowly and subtly bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century.

His subversive and frequently violent works illustrate the promise of what a liberal education can do to change conservative attitudes in the global era. One piece, modelled on the paper fortune-teller game we all played as kids, features naive sketches of doctors, judges, lawyers and taxi drivers on one side. The other is manipulated to reveal photographic representations of child soldiers. The work is deeply personal. Al ShaiShai was once confronted with the choice of joining a jihadist movement himself, but opted to teach and keep making art.

I can’t assume my experience of Saudi Arabia was anything an average resident would experience. But what I saw put a human face to a local struggle with conservative values and sectarian conflicts that exist within and outside the kingdom.

The artists in Jeddah – in the face of massive restrictions on their artistic freedom and continued censorship by a police force vehemently opposed to the development of a moderate public – still manage to produce work that does everything it can to investigate the potential of their voices.

Eggers eloquently explains the Saudi predicament: “This was the cat-and-mouse game being played in the kingdom,” he observes. “Its people were forced into the role of teenagers hiding their vices and proclivities from a shadowy army of parents.”

One day those teenagers will grow up. For now, their parents tirelessly circle the rock

of Mecca.

*Van Niekerk was a guest of the Saudi Art Council for the second edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts

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