‘Fifty years ago,’ says Omar, ‘No woman covered her face in our region.’ He is the second high-ranking Saudi from Azir who has taken pains to communicate this.
Omar is dressed in traditional ‘Flowers-Men’ clothes, complete with floral head-wreath. Behind him, a sweeping desert valley. Behind us, his village, Rojal, climbs into the shadow of a 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’. The book is an achingly desperate effort to preserve his people’s vanishing story, as is Omar’s dedication to restoring Rojal and finding ways for tourists - still rare in Saudi - to visit the site and learn its past.
Omar leads us to the new amphitheatre, constructed for cultural performances and social gatherings, where we look up at Rojal’s ancient crumbling structures, partially restored, their multiple floors carved into the steep hillside. Faced with neat rows of shuttered windows, they recall modern apartments. Nearby, a small museum houses artefacts, jewellery, clothing, costumes and tools from the village’s recent past.
‘You know, our religion,’ Omar continues, ‘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. Men, women, talking and greeting and meeting. And now… Very sad. These changes. Very sad.’
Bravely, he refers to the spread of Wahhabi Islam, which has accompanied the relatively recent conquering and unification of the various tribes and regions of what is now called Saudi Arabia.
‘Will it change again?’ someone asks.
‘Change? Yes! Of course! Maybe soon.’ Omar seems surprised by the question. ‘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. His tribe’s story has blurred with Al-Saud rule, the black abaya, the forming of Saudi, and the many laws and social customs imposed as a result, creating what outsiders understand as Saudi culture. But this will change again, and perhaps Omar’s efforts will help.
As we leave Rojal, I open the book and read:
…When pen withdraws
Leaving place to vestiges and ruins
Then we are here to master the language of trace