Cover Stories

Revealing abayas, cliff-top tea parties, crumbling palaces, police escorts, precarious cable cars, men in flowers, an artists’ commune, and old bones: Uncovering hidden histories in the Azir region of Saudi Arabia.

At the entrance to the Tuesday Market, the smell of plants is strong. With the mountain air moist and crisp, and the herbs and leaves freshly picked, the fragrances carry far. We breathe them in. ‘Righan, camomile, dosh,’ our guide, who I’ll call Hamza, explains. We are in the Saudi Arabian mountain city of Abha, in the region of Azir, which borders Yemen. I greet a woman nestled under the shade of her low, make-shift tent amongst the cloth boxes and plastic buckets of greens. Her eyes break into a smile. She is weaving a colourful wreath with her hands, using live, bright orange flowers and white and green leaves. ‘The decorations of the Flowers Men,’ our guide explains. ‘They place them around their foreheads.’ He doesn’t say why.

Hamza is a rotund man with dark skin and dark hair and a mischievous face that turns deeply earnest when he talks about the history of Saudi Arabia. I am not used to having a guide when I travel, and I don’t entirely trust him, but I have warmed to him. It is the only legit way to travel in this country and there are things Hamza can tell us that we won’t find out any other way. For example, the location of an old Catholic church in Jeddah — deconsecrated and rebuilt as something else, but ‘still you can see the…what-is-it where you put in your fingers and make this water on your head? Font. You see the font.’

Another woman holds her wreath out. ‘Try, try!’ she urges. Hamza asks for a male volunteer. He’s hard pressed to get one. Several women shout their enthusiasm and reach for the crown, but the woman goes back to her weaving and Hamza moves us along. At the next stall a woman is selling fresh eggs, an undiscovered delicacy for many Saudi city dwellers who have probably never eaten a freshly laid egg or even one from a bird that walks. In Jeddah, they come from factory farms, stamped and insipid, with shells like autumn leaves and yolks the colour of McDonald’s cheese. Our group begins to disperse, heading off in a clock-wise direction, to the mild irritation of our guide. ‘It’s go the other way!’ Hamza says. ‘Normally. But it’s same anyway. It’s a circle.’ He throws up his hands.

Hamza’s business is tours, anything from 4-Wheel Driving in the desert to shopping trips at the Jeddah malls, but he also has a small office in Jeddah’s Old Souk where, he says, he has a lot of books and some ‘very old history things.’ He says he is ‘doing battles’ to keep the old parts of Jeddah and the ruins of Saudi Arabia alive. A squall rises in his eyes when he talks of the things destroyed, gone forever. On the way to the market in the bus from the hotel he fanned his arm across the window, out over the city of Abha — a pallet of recent orange, red, yellow, pink houses. ‘Rolled with bulldozer, all everything,’ he said quietly. ‘And now this. Concrete. More concrete.’ ‘Was it broken?’ someone asked him. ‘So it had to be destroyed anyway?’ ‘No. They just want new. Everything new. And everyone, 1970, want toilet, water, TV, electricity. Ok, fair enough. But why not build new city somewhere else?’

Hamza’s bid to preserve history in Saudi intrigues me. I come from a country of islands in the deep South Pacific where the oldest physical structure still recognisable as such was built in 1882. Growing up, I thought New Zealand had ‘no history’ and that everything old was in England. While Aeotearoa’s human history is indeed relatively young compared to England’s or Saudi Arabia’s (first human inhabitation was likely around 1300), it goes back far further than 1882. In my lifetime a transformation of identities is taking place as the language, stories, traditions and world-views of the tangata whenua, the islands’ first peoples, are slowly recovering in the consciousness and practice of contemporary society. Although there are few artefacts and structures to physically connect New Zealanders with the Māori past, the invisible elements, the language and song and ways of knowing the world, are more permanent and can be incredibly powerful to a sense of identity and belonging. This must be especially true for Māori, but it is also significant for the descendants of colonial settlers and invaders and more recent immigrants from all over the world who now call these islands home.

After a year in Saudi, I know the struggles here are urgent; health, education, poverty, the treatment of women and minorities. I also know the idea of Saudi Arabia as a country is relatively recent in the memories of many people who are now called Saudis. The land is tribal and, from what I can tell, regional and tribal identity remain strong, if clandestine. It was important for the Al Saud tribe who eventually conquered the various tribes of Arabia in 1930 to unify them, or risk ongoing conflict. To forge a national identity, local traditions and practices were repressed and replaced with Saudi ones. What has been lost or is being lost in terms of artefacts, structures, language, traditions, dress, and narrative is enormous. I think of the word ‘whakapapa’, which in Te Reo Māori means literally ‘to make into layers’ and refers to genealogy in an all-encompassing way, extending back to rivers, mountains and the land itself. Most Westerners, and many Saudis, understand only the official, post-1930 version of Saudi culture and history, with its black abaya and barren deserts, not realising there are multiple, invisible histories layered throughout.

I set off around the dusty loop. The market is bizarrely quiet. All the stalls are open, the strange mix of old and local, new and Chinese wares stacked and cluttered and sprawling under the shade clothes; baskets, boxes, abayas, plastics, linen, cleaning products, scarves, trinkets, jewellery, Korans and Koran boxes, CDs and DVDs, vacuum cleaners, bread, nuts, incense, flours, grains, spices. But the market is empty of shoppers, as if it has been opened just for our small tour group, or cleared out so that we don’t interact with the locals, or, perhaps, are not in danger. When I ask Hamza why it is so quiet he says something about the rain and Thursdays and that everyone was here earlier in the morning. It’s only 9.30. It hasn’t rained in weeks. I stop to take pictures of the spice stalls — great blue plastic tubs of cinnamon, star anise, myrrh, sage, cardamom, paprika, in colours many shades of blood, their fragrances like Christmas. About three quarters of the way around I feel I ought to buy something. The place is so empty and our busload seems so predatory. A few of us have spent the last fifteen minutes playing with a wild kitten at a long stall selling baskets and trinkets, while the sellers watched on. I feel I need to compensate, to somehow make our being here worth everyone’s while. I browse the tables and settle on a set of three small, woven baskets, made in Pakistan. They’re about the right size for olives or dates. ‘How much?’ I ask, pointing. ‘Ten riyal,’ the woman answers from behind her burkha: $2.50. It feels ridiculous to argue. But we’ve been told it’s disrespectful not to, so I make a limp attempt. Eventually I pay eight riyal, gibbering away in English to her about why, then take my baskets away in a plastic supermarket bag.

Palace seems an optimistic word for the small Rapunzel-type tower made of pitted mud, massively overshadowed by a modern administrative building, that we visit the following morning. Walking to it from the bus, we pass a ruin which appears to be undergoing construction or preservation. A power point hangs loose on an exposed interior wall where a group of workers wrapped in headscarves stand about. Once again, they are the only other people within sight. It seems increasingly likely that the authorities are clearing everyone out before we arrive at the sites. In 2007, thirty-five French tourists were shot at by a madman in Mada-in-Saleh, and three people were killed. Since then, every group of foreign travellers in Saudi is accompanied by a security detail of military police and government officials, including a high-speed police escort on the roads, and is seriously encouraged to travel only with a guide.

When we reach Shada Palace, which has been converted to a museum, it is closed. ‘They put all things in there and then no-one came so they close it,’ Hamza explains.

According to Hamza, the 1990s saw a burst of tourism development in the Azir region, because a prince wanted it. The idea was to get Saudi families to travel within the country instead of going abroad. The preservation of this palace, the opening of museums, Azir National Park, and the cable cars to Al Habala (the ‘Hanging Village’) and Rojal, all of which we visit on our trip, were part of that development. There was even a tourism school, connected to the hotel we are staying in. Now, the sites have a sense of abandonment about them, empty of visitors, the signs covered in dust. The tourism school has closed.

I am helping Hamza arrange our group for a photo outside the closed palace when a man in an orange thobe approaches. After a rapid exchange in Arabic, our guide’s face lights up. ‘Aiwa! Shokrun!’ he says, and grips the man’s hand. He grins widely. ‘He will open for us!’ he says quietly to me. ‘It’s very good he will open for us!’

We enter the palace through a large wooden door, in the centre of which is a carved symbol of what looks like the Star of David. Everyone notices it but nobody says anything. Then Hamza explains that it is also a symbol of Islam, called the Seal of Solomon. Inside, the palace is incomprehensibly modest by contemporary Saudi standards. The walls are white-washed, hand formed from mud and clay so they swell and dip and curve, with cupboards and shelves moulded into them. Ratty carpets cover the bare wood floors and rough wood beams hang exposed on low ceilings. Pictures and artefacts cover the walls, seemingly randomly, each with a long paragraph of text beneath. A grey speckled photo shows several men holding curved swords outside the palace, circa 1930, squinting into the sun.

I am halfway through a mystifying English translation of its Arabic explanation when I overhear Hamza in the next room. ‘You know all those things written down in here though,’ he is saying ‘they are not true. Is not all truth.’ Like a school teacher, he asks his audience why this might be. Someone suggests ‘religious reasons.’ ‘Pre-Islam history and all that. No,’ Hamza says. ‘It is politics. This region, until war? - Yemini.’ He drops the last word like a lid. ‘Yemen tribes lives here. Then. Big war. Sometime after World War Two, and the border move. The Saudi government still pays every year a lot of money for that, to keep our border where it is!’ He tells us that Yemen used to extend to Taif, over a thousand kilometers north of the current border, very close to Mecca. Everyone is quiet, absorbing this information, wondering if it is true. There is an edge in the air. It feels slightly dangerous that Hamza is telling us this radical history in a narrow old palace with few windows, only one escape door, and many swords, knives and pistols hanging ready on the walls.

One of the most resistant tribes to Saudi authority are the people of Al Habala, or ‘The Hanging Village’ which we visit that afternoon. The village is perched precariously on a piece of rock in the Azir mountains that juts out a few hundred feet below an enormous cliff top, and a thousand feet above the valley floor. As part of the tourism development, in 1992 the villagers of Al Habala were forcibly removed to make way for the cable car which we are about to descend to the ruins of their village by. ‘Before, peoples only climbing up and down,’ Hamza tells us. I cannot tell if he is joking.

The view from the top is one of the most spectacular I have seen. The enormous valley is cut deep into orange rock, great cliff-faces cascading down in vertical plains to the valley floor which is somewhere far below, lost in a purple haze. But there is no time to appreciate it as Hamza hurries us into the cable car carriages. I can’t be the only one who feels apprehensive. There doesn’t seem to be anyone operating the cable car. Huge steel ropes stretch out into the valley and then drop suddenly down into nothing. The tinny carriages bob about in the air. What keeps them there? What happens if the ropes stop moving? Who warrants the soundness of this contraption? There are no health and safety regulations in Saudi to speak of.

After several meters of drift above concrete, we are suddenly out in the air, and the silence. All fear is forgotten. The carriage clanks over a join. A wind hits the side. We swing. The view is incredible. Across the other side of the valley, the sun is still on the rock, creating a vast glaze of orange. Here in the shadows the colours are more complex, more magnificent — orange, rust, red, blue, purple, black, even green rub together in shades nobody could paint. The cliffs reach and fall. Trees and shrubs grow high and thick, carpeting clumps of rock and the crevices of the cliff walls. On the distant cliff-face, above the village, Hamza points out ropes. ‘Until 1970 Tribe of Al Habala still live here,’ he says. ‘Men going up to get the food and things, women and children they don’t leave, they stay there on the rock. Babies born. Married. People die, buried. I show you graves, bones. But cable car come, and government say they must leave. They fight, but they must go. But now, coming back sometimes. You see on the wall sometimes.’ His story is starting to sound believable. But why would anyone choose to live there? ‘Protection,’ Hamza says. ‘No-one attack. There is much fighting in this Azir region.’ But surely somebody, some young woman, tried to escape, unable to tolerate a whole life lived out on a five-hundred meter square piece of rock hanging in mid air?

We spend an hour on the ledge, scrambling over rocks and the rubble of the old village, which has mostly returned to rock, so it is hard to tell where dwellings began and ended. The late afternoon light is draining away and a dull purple infuses everything. It is incredibly still and quiet. I have no trouble getting around in my abaya but several women hitch theirs up to climb and one removes hers completely. Unlike at previous sites, there are actually a number of Saudi tourists here, and it seems foolish to invite attention by essentially being undressed in public, but Hamza does not comment. After our exploring, the tea man arrives on the terrace with the carpets. As he lays them down, the colours strike a dramatic pattern against the backdrop of cliffs across the other side of the valley, lit up now in the setting sun. It seems such luxury to have these carpets outside in the dirt. Cameras click. On a balcony above us, three Saudi men are drinking tea, their wives standing nearby with the children. The few uncovered women in our group are conspicuous with their abayas off or hitched up and when the men pick up their tea mats and move out of sight, the women croon: ‘Ooo, can’t see that! God! Get me a cold shower! Knees! I saw knees! Put ‘em away!’ One woman begins to writhe and jerk, mimicking lust. The rest of us laugh nervously, like school children who don’t want to be on the wrong side of a bully. Suddenly, there is a shout from above. Up on the balcony, the three men have returned. They call to the tea man, asking something. The tea man nods. There are more raised voices behind me, some hysteria going on. I turn to see the writhing woman on her back on the carpet with her legs spread-eagled directly at the three men, her abaya pulled up just above her breasts. She laughs and sighs loudly. ‘Ahh… time for a snooze.’

The tea boy lays a tray on the carpet and retreats quietly, nodding at Hamza. The copper teapots reflect the evening light. Cameras click, click, click. Hamza removes the lids and cuts in fresh mint, which he leaves to steep until pouring each of us a small glass, heaped with sugar. The sun has almost set now, and there is a calm over the group as we sip our tea and listen to the cavernous quiet in the valley. Above us, wives and children have now joined the men on the balcony, and are chatting amongst themselves. ‘All of them up there,’ Hamza says to me in a low voice, ‘Ministry of Interior people.’ When I ask him why they are here he says that even for Saudi people it is not safe in Al Habala. ‘It’s not anything with religion,’ he says. ‘It’s just there is something jealous about the life. They get angry. So it better…’ he looks over to where the women with the hitched up abayas are now rolling about on the carpet pretending to be horny. ‘Best to be quiet?’ I suggest. Hamza nods and I wonder just how close to being in danger we are.

Returning in the cable car, the light is nearly gone when Hamza stands bolt upright and points toward the cliffs. The car swings precariously to and fro. ‘There! There! See him!’ He laughs. ‘Oh my God!’ Half-way up the vertical cliff-face, a man in a thobe, his hands like claws, is dragging his body upward. ‘You see? Is true!’ Hamza says, beaming. ‘No harness. No safety. Up he go! For him, like walking.’

That night, we are welcomed with cannon salute to the palace and museum of Bin Hansom for a tour and an evening meal. As ever, the men of the security detail remain discreetly in sight, guns and phones at the ready. After sipping numerous cups of mint tea infused with sugar cubes, we are invited inside to peruse Bin Hansom’s extensive personal collection of artefacts, paintings and objects from the region’s recent past. A series of five large paintings in particular takes my attention. They are all of women. One looks directly out at the viewer, wearing a loose black dress, her bare neck adorned with necklaces made from natural materials, black hair poking out from under a straw hat. The one next to it is the most striking. A woman dressed in colourful loose clothing is about to climb a tree, possibly at night. Her arm, reaching for a branch, obscures her face. Then there is a portrait of a young woman, a loose apricot-coloured scarf on her hair, and one of an older woman inside a tent, her traditional dress pulled up to her knees, no head cover, weaving a basket. The final painting is an enormous pair of hennaed hands on a black background. In the corner of each picture, in place of an artist’s signature, are the words ‘Hansom for Traditional’.

These images of women and the clothing they wear are very different from the burkha’d ones usually associated with Saudi by Westerners and suggest that dress is another part of regional history which has been homogenised. The traditional clothes are not just artefacts. At the Tuesday Market I saw racks of similar abayas in bright-coloured fabrics, peppered with beads or sequins or embroidered panels, even though the women selling them were wearing black burkhas — beautiful, worn loosely, with jeans and heels showing, but completely plain. When I asked Hamza where the ones on the racks would be worn he told me: ‘At home, and weddings, used to be more in the public.’ It occurs to me that a second kind of homogenising goes on too, with the way Westerners often regard the abaya. Before I came here I assumed the abaya was some sort of government-issued, cookie-cutter garment, horribly uncomfortable and repressive, because that was how it was portrayed in the West. Yet here, I’ve never seen two abayas the same. In Jeddah they are all different in cut, fabric, embellishment, and design. I’ve seen leopard prints, adidas stripes, lace, tulle, psychedelic under layers — even a skull-and-crossbones cuff with matching headscarf. Each one tells its own story. They’re also undeniably comfortable and practical in the heat and dust. I was angry about the abaya before I came to Saudi too, regarding it as a symbol of oppression. I would have been at ease with the way some women in our group have publicly mocked it, calling it a rubbish sack and describing how they will torch it once they return home. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps this also disregards the history and context of the abaya and seeks to erase it in the name of progress, much like the bulldozing of buildings in Abha and the displacement of the villagers of Al Habala.

On our final stop, at the village of Rojal, the first thing Omar, the village chief, tells us is that fifty years ago ‘no woman was covered her face’ in the region. He is intent on our understanding this. He goes on urgently. ‘You know, our religion, it’s important some people the women cover the head, the hair. So she put the scarf. But not the face! Fifty years or less ago we are together with everyone.’ He makes big movements with his arms. ‘Men, women, talking and greeting and meeting! And now… Very sad! These changes. Very sad.’ He stands in front of us dressed in traditional ‘Flowers-Men’ clothes, complete with a floral head-wreath like those we saw at the Tuesday Market. Behind him is a sweeping desert valley and behind us the village climbs into the shadow of an incredulously green hillside.

Rojal dates back to 550 Hegira (1160AD) as a trade hub and scientific and academic centre to which ‘students from many countries came’ according to Omar’s book, ‘Rojal: Memory of Arab Village’, which we are encouraged to buy. Unlike many ancient villages, Rojal has not been lost to ruin or removal. From what I can tell, Omar has saved it. Rojal seems a remarkable feat of architecture for its age. Large structures with multiple floors climb and are carved into the steep rocks of the hillside, their walls sloping inward as they rise, for stability. Everything is constructed from stone and mud, with neat rows of shuttered windows, and terraces on the flat roofs. In his book, which is an oddly translated, achingly desperate effort to preserve his people’s vanishing story, Omar comments that ‘It is clearly observed that it did not exist at the time parts intended to women because this culture is recent.’ Many of the buildings have been restored, or are in the process of being restored. In front of the buildings a new amphitheatre that can host around 1000 people has been constructed for cultural performances and social gatherings. To the left of this is the Museum of Alma, another personal collection of artefacts, jewellery, clothing, costumes and tools from the recent past.

I buy a copy of Omar’s book, which if nothing else provides a different account of Saudi culture to the mainstream. In a passage on male circumcision, a teenage rite performed before the whole village, Omar describes a recovery period lasting six to twelve months where the child suffers ‘from insults of the villagers and villagers women who deliberately provoked him by erotic scenes, chiefly by beautiful girls, planning their acts in order to laugh about erection of penis of the circumcised child, yet injured by wounds, causing fissure and delaying his recovery.’

Given all this, I am surprised when we visit Omar’s home later that day to see his wife’s artwork, and find the artist clad head to toe in black with even her eyes shielded behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. When we enter the house the men are herded off into a separate room while Omar shouts ‘No women’s allowed! If you come to Saudi house, you do Saudi way!’ The contrast between this and what we heard at Rojal is bewildering. Inside, the dark hallway, kitchen and dining room walls are all covered in traditional paintings called al Khat, Nakch or Eziane. We saw examples of these earlier at an artists village called Al Meftaha where several successful Saudi artists, including Ahmed Mater and Abdulhasser Gharem, had studios in the 1990s. The walls of the village were covered in murals and these paintings which are representations in geometric shapes of scenes and objects, using bright, primary colours on a blinding white background. Until recently Azir women painted the insides of their homes with these paintings, every wall telling a story, every head of the house an artist. Thousands would have been lost when Abha was bulldozed.

When Omar says that Fatima has agreed to sell her work to us, the paintings come quickly off the walls, Omar championing their sale like an auctioneer while Fatima looks on. There are also boxes, chairs, tables, coffee pots, cups and incense burners. It is an enormous body of work, disappearing fast. I wonder how many months it took her to complete. Omar’s behaviour becomes even more contradictory. While selling the paintings, he continues to yell ‘IN SAUDI DO SAUDI WAY’ at intervals, but then he also ushers the women into the men’s lounge, telling us to relax and have fun. Later, I learn that there were local police outside threatening a raid, and that Omar was doing what he could to stop it by appearing to adhere to the Saudi requirement to keep women and men apart at social gathers. Once the government officials had negotiated the police to remain outside, he let us mingle — while continuing to sound like he was keeping us apart. I wondered if Fatima was also dressed in burkha to give the impression of conservatism. But then again, perhaps she had chosen to cover up.

When someone asked him at Rojal whether he thought things would change in Saudi again Omar seemed surprised by the question. ‘Yes! Of course! Maybe soon,’ he said. ‘Because seventy years ago everything tribes, and many changes and now we become — what is it? — civil society and then, maybe, change is easier.’ We are left to make what we can of this and for my part I believe Omar takes the long view; change happens, then happens again, and perhaps his efforts will help. In any part of the world, a commitment to the restoration and preservation of a fading culture, at huge financial and personal cost, is admirable. In Saudi, battling a behemoth of bureaucracy and hefty political opposition including, I imagine, the threat of persecution and even death, it is heroic. The covering up of the region’s history is not unique to Saudi Arabia, of course. History is often blacked out and overwritten, bulldozed, banned and retold. Languages are lost, mountains, towns, and roads renamed, in the name of unity and progression. This has certainly happened in New Zealand. It is not until later, when a kind of unified identity is established, that revisions begin and whakapapa can be recovered. But for many things it is too late. This year, the Saudi Arabian government announced its intention to open the country to tourism. Religious tourism has been in operation for a long time, with millions of pilgrims making their Haj or Umra from all over the world, but this has been strictly controlled and non-Muslims have never been permitted inside the country unless they are working there as I was. It remains to be seen what will happen to the villages and sites of Azir in this new era, and whether Saudi Arabia is strong enough now to let Azir’s histories, and others, recover what they can.