On the side of a bus recently I read a quotation that made me stop and think. It was a line from a song made famous by an Egyptian singer named Shadya: "The nights of life are numbered," a sobering thought. What caught my attention, however, was not the sentiment of the song, but how gay the bus looked with the verse written along the side in lovely Diwany calligraphy. It was the first time I ever noticed this delightful art form which, for want of a better term, I'll call "truck art."
Truck art—which embraces buses, taxis and the ubiquitous Beirut "service" cars—is no more than the decoration of the hoods, hubcaps, door-panels, tailboards, railings, fenders, bumpers, or any other surface that strikes the fancy of the artists or drivers. It takes a variety of forms—from brilliant Kodachrome postcards on the dashboard of Beirut taxis to plastic-covered but elegant carpets in Jiddah taxis. Some drivers simply paint the trucks in bright colors, while others hang up silk scarves, silver coins and wax fruit. A few owners have hammered out iron designs on roof racks and wired lights to them. At night the effect is rather like that of a cruise ship sailing into a harbor.
No one knows just why the decoration of vehicles is so popular among Arabs. In Saudi Arabia and Jordan, I think it might be a response to the monotony of desert driving. But however it began, it is so widespread today that it is a rare passenger in the Middle East who rides in a taxi without finding at least a small Persian carpet underfoot.
Like much folk art, vehicle decoration is the essence of simplicity. The colors are bold, the execution primitive, and the themes ordinary: flowers, trees, birds. Some drivers make ingenious plumes out of feather dusters. Others write or paint excerpts from popular songs, the names of actresses, or titles for their vehicles like "The Magic Carpet," "Conqueror of the Desert," and "Lover Forever." Also popular are safety slogans ("With slowness comes safety, with speed repentance.") and quotations to safeguard the driver: "Returning with Allah's wish," "My success is with God's help," "May safety accompany you," "Come back safely to us." Above all there are the excerpts from the Koran.
Some decorations are concessions to local superstitions (Aramco World September-October, 1968). To ward off collisions, flat tires and other hazards of long distance driving that an unfriendly spirit might wish on them, drivers often paint large eyes above the headlights or on the tailboards. The eyes, like blue beads, horseshoes, baby shoes and other amulets, are supposed to ward off the effects of the evil eye. How-effective they are is anyone's guess, but they certainly add an air of dashing insouciance to the great lorries as they go gaily off into the deserts in a blaze of bold color—mobile exhibits of a simple and original form of art from the Arab East.
Fuad Rayess is general supervisor of the Arabic press and publications division of Aramco's Public Relations Department.