At takeoff in our Saudia jet, once we were a thousand feet off the ground the heat haze over Jiddah became so thick we could hardly see the city. The plane turned east toward Taif and the haze lifted as we headed inland from the humid coast. Approaching the mountains, I spotted the black ribbon of asphalt twisting up the way we'd driven a few days before. Below us lay a moonscape. There was sand in between the black, barren hills and rocks—as if someone had tried to pour water on the scorched rocks to soothe them but, pushing the wrong button, showered them with sand instead of water.
Gradually the sand areas thinned out and there were just darkish-gray jagged mountains. Then, south of Taif, there was an abrupt change. The mountains, from this altitude, took on a faint green tint, almost resembling mould. From the plane windows we started to see a different world: green valleys, numerous villages, and, everywhere, laboriously terraced hills.
When we got off the plane in Abha we stepped into cool, crisp air. The sun was still shining but black clouds threatened on the horizon. After checking into our hotel, Abdul Aziz and I went to pay our respects to Shaikh Muhammad, Administrator of Abha Amirate, and Shaikh Ibrahim, Deputy Amir. Warm and courteous was our reception. And it didn't stop there. Our generous hosts put a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a driver at our disposal and told us that if we needed anything we were only to ask. Unfortunately, His Royal Highness Khalid bin Faisal, dynamic Amir of 'Asir Province and a son of King Faisal, was in Riyadh on business but as it turned out I had the good luck to have a meeting with Prince Khalid as I transited Riyadh later.
Just before dawn the following morning our driver, a lively Bedouin named Husain Ali, arrived at our hotel. Jabal as-Sudah (Black Mountain), at 9,000 feet the highest peak in the kingdom, was our goal. Before losing sight of Abha during the climb to the ridge on the west, we stopped and looked back at the city. To me Abha was a fitting symbol of what was happening in the whole of Saudi Arabia. The old and the new, sometimes the extremes of both, coexist there. Little farm plots in the middle of the city are dwarfed by neighboring apartment buildings. Old castles and modern villas fight for space. New cars on wide avenues zoom past donkeys turning up narrow alleys between the picturesque, fortress-like traditional homes.
We got into the car and moved on, climbing steadily up green, terraced hills past numerous colorful villages. About half way up the mountain the peace of the idyllic countryside was broken by the roar of dozers, scrapers, dumpers and tractors. A new, wide paved road is blasting its way right up to the top. Saudi Arab operators in ghutras perched on top of the huge American machines, expertly raced up and down the unfinished roadbed scraping and dumping, scraping and dumping.
As we approached the top of as-Sudah, the air got colder and the villages tended to be less colorful. From the brightly painted mud and brick of the lower valleys the homes changed to gray stone construction. The remote village of as-Sudah itself sat on the flank of the mountain like a big gray stone fortress. As we climbed around the town we realized that there seemed to be only four entrances, all narrow and easily blocked. Inside the walls we occasionally had to double over to get through covered passages and tunnel-like alleys.
Our four-wheel-drive vehicle pushed on up the rocky trail to the top of the mountain. Green grass, a cool, clear brook, wildflowers and a juniper forest spiced with the fresh smell of spring rewarded us there. Husain Ali, the driver, excitedly pulled me over to the running brook and made me drink from it, then pulled me on to the grove of trees. To this man of the desert it must have seemed inconceivable that such a place could exist.
At the far edge of the ridge Jabal as-Sudah dropped abruptly several thousand feet into wild canyons leading down through the coastal desert to the Red Sea. A few tiny villages clung precariously to the mountainside here and there. I had not seen anything like this since visiting the wild Copper Canyon area in Mexico's Sierra Madre. For a moment, in fact, I felt I was back in western Mexico.
We returned to Abha and that afternoon took a gentler road east to Khamis Mushayt, a boom town of about 40,000 souls, about the same size as the provincial capital. Husain Ali guided us on foot through the open-air market there. A wild confusion of things was for sale: herbs, fruits, vegetables, meat, Bedouin jewelry, colorful local dresses, scented waters, antique guns, ceremonial daggers with silver handles, sheep, cattle and even camels. Adjoining the outdoor market were shops that carried the latest European, American, and Japanese products—transistor radios, Dior perfumes, American canned goods and cigarettes.
Then we drove on to see some of the prosperous villages in the neighboring green hills. It was for me a strange new part of Arabia which I had hardly realized existed, lovely and rural. A country lane wound its way up and down gentle slopes, past lush fields of wheat, barley, tomatoes, onions and alfalfa. Peach, apple, and plum trees were in the pinkest bloom. Saudi farmers were tilling their fields, plowing, pulling weeds. Women in huge straw hats and long dresses demurely herded sheep and goats in the hills. They turned modestly away as we passed, though very few were veiled.
Every single village had a different character, literally a different color, all beautiful and well cared for. Brown was the base color of the first village. Two or three-story houses, walls slanting slightly in towards the crenelated roofs, every window and the top of the walls painted white. Like a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, I thought. From a distance the small square windows with the paint around them looked like friendly eyes.
In the next village the white frosting was the same but the mud walls of the houses had layered rows of stone slate jutting out to protect them against rain, and broad stripes of brown and white were painted right around the house as far down as the base which was painted a grayish black. Other villages were like a kaleidoscope, every house painted in different colors. Because of some inborn color sense it somehow worked very well—either the villagers were consistent or consistently inconsistent. Old conically shaped watch-towers and the ruins of abandoned forts dotted every prominent hill or mountaintop. Around one tiny village I counted 11 watchtowers.
No sooner did we stop somewhere than someone would come over and invite us in for coffee, tea and, if we wished, a meal. Driving further into this mountain dreamland, the three of us, American, city Saudi and Bedouin, were all completely enchanted.
Thirsty by now, we accepted the next invitation for tea. Our host, an elderly man of great dignity with a big, white beard, led us into his majlis, the formal sitting room for visitors, telling us all the while what an honor it was for him to receive such distinguished guests.
The homes of 'Asir, apparently, are even more colorful inside than out. The rug on the floor was basically red, as were the cushions placed around the walls. The walls and ceiling were painted in stripes of white, blue, green and red. The entire room was sparkling, shiny, and spotlessly clean. To me this was the work of some natural genius. Anywhere else such a confusion of colors and patterns would have been unnerving. This majlis, on the contrary, was not only cheerful, but restful as well.
I saw my host lean over and whisper to his son, who leaped to his feet. I quickly poked Husain Ali, for I knew what this meant. A sheep was about to be slaughtered to feast the honored guests—and we had an appointment back in Abha that evening. Apologizing profusely, we managed to leave this kind old man without hurting his feelings—much as we wanted to stay.
Facing us the following day was a scene as wild and rugged as everything we'd seen the previous afternoon had been gentle. The canyon in front of our car dropped three or four thousand feet. We crept along a narrow dirt road clinging perilously to the cliff side. The road led to Jaizan on the Red Sea, and that is where we were going. After a hair-raising descent a perfect asphalt road greeted the literally shaken travelers when we reached the coastal flats that lead to the harbor town of Jaizan. "The road will soon be extended all the way up to Abha," Hussain Ali told us comfortingly.
Again we entered another world. It could have been East Africa. From the cool air of the 'Asir mountains we had driven down onto scorching plains—part desert, partly irrigated and planted with hardy tomatoes, durra and other cereal grains. There were no more of the fortress-like buildings. In startling contrast, the villages on these plains consisted of straw huts shaped like upside-down onions. Many of the farmers around the town of ad-Darb looked more African than Arab, or perhaps like a mixture of the two. Of course, Africa was only about 200 miles away across the Red Sea. Because of the heat many of the men worked dressed only in loincloths, and the women wore light, colorful dresses rarely accompanied by veils.
Jaizan, the main town of the region, is an incongruous mixture of concrete houses and straw huts, often within the same walled compound. Abdul Aziz explained that the huts are cooler but the new houses are more practical in other respects, so the local citizens cleverly resort to both. Numerous small fishing boats were anchored just off the beach. Wading ashore, the fishermen brought in their catches strung on poles carried across their shoulders.
My time in Saudi Arabia had flown by. The whole country had changed much since I'd seen it four years before and it will certainly continue to change at an ever-faster pace. As a photographer I considered myself extremely fortunate to have seen and recorded so much of it before all the old is swept away. As I have indicated, the strange and beautiful region of 'Asir is symbolic in many ways. In Riyadh again, I talked about this and other things with His Royal Highness Khaled bin Faisal, Amir of 'Asir Province, who granted me an interview.
" 'Asir's development started fairly recently," Prince Khaled told me, "as in the rest of the kingdom. Since Saudi Arabia started producing oil in quantity some years ago our national income has been rising yearly. The first development took place as we planned, in the holy places—in Mecca, Medina, and the port of Jiddah, so that Muslims who came from all over the world on their Pilgrimage should be met with all the facilities they need. The capital, Riyadh, was the second priority, and of course, the Eastern Province, where most of the oil is actually produced. Then began the development of the rest of the kingdom. I went to 'Asir three years ago and I think that in those three years things have changed all over Saudi Arabia. Income has risen so fast that we have to constantly revise our programs. I think you'll find the same thing happening if you go to any other province in the kingdom."
"Prince Khaled, could you tell me a little about some of the main development plans for 'Asir the next few years?"
"Right now we're putting all our efforts into basic improvements such as our water and road programs. We have already completed a lot of roads and we have a program which includes more than 600 miles of new construction in the next five years. We are studying a dam-construction program for the whole region because, as you know, the mountains and valleys of 'Asir receive more rain than any other part of Saudi Arabia. It rains during almost the entire year, but especially in the spring and summer seasons, when you don't find rain anywhere else in the kingdom.
"Education and health are high priorities. And then we are also trying to rebuild our main cities like Abha and Khamis Mushayt, which are no longer the little towns they used to be. Their population is growing very rapidly—both cities now have about 30-40 thousand people. Unfortunately, the population figures for the southwestern region as a whole are not yet very reliable but we estimate about two million inhabitants."
"Prince Khaled, as a photographer I am very fond of the beautiful local architecture in 'Asir. I have a feeling that in building modern houses, hospitals, schools, and so on, you are trying to respect the traditional forms."
"Yes, actually this is one of the problems that we are facing. Many people are destroying the old houses which I, too, find very beautiful and rebuilding, as they say, 'modern houses,' which I personally find very ugly. We can't stop private individuals from building houses their own way but for official government projects we have already started to use designs which maintain the traditional architectural style of the region. Any government building under construction now should have an exterior facade in harmony with our past and we are also trying to think of ways to encourage people to do the same. We hope that when people see some of these handsome government-built buildings, some of which will soon be finished, they will like them and be tempted to copy this approach in their private dwellings."
"Prince Khaled, the idea of tourism is something quite new in Saudi Arabia, but I have heard of this in connection with 'Asir. What are the plans?"
"For now our plans are limited to attracting visitors from within the kingdom, and also our neighbors from the Arabian Gulf states to come and spend the summer here. No further than that for the time being, as such things take time, as you know. The roads will help a great deal. There is another road projected to begin construction next year which will run from 'Asir directly to Riyadh."
"Your Highness, are there plans for the development of agriculture?"
"A large program, some of it already underway. During the last three months we have had committees of experts visiting us in the 'Asir on a regular basis, and they have made many changes. We expect the major part of our plans to be completed in about five years. We'll grow principally cereals and fruits. We've found that fruits' which grow in Lebanon will grow in 'Asir."
Then I asked Prince Khaled if he would like to find oil in 'Asir Province.
The Prince chuckled and answered. "Well, the way the world is right now what would we do with the money? I think we want water more than oil in 'Asir. I hate to think of too many smoking factories in this green agricultural region."
"Prince Khaled, one more question—and it does not refer to just 'Asir in particular. I have seen that Saudi Arabia is changing extremely rapidly ..." Prince Khaled broke in: "Unfortunately!" he exclaimed. Then he continued.
"Unfortunately, in the sense that change must be slow enough to insure that it is for better, not for worse. But obviously every change is not always for the better. We want to keep our character, we don't want to spoil that. We don't want to lessen the importance of faith and religion among the people of the kingdom. Change which comes as fast as it has during the last two or three years can be overwhelming, even frightening. And we are hoping—but it is still just a hope—that we can win this struggle to continue to change, to grow and prosper, but always while keeping our national character and preserving the religion and faith of our citizens as strong as it is now. I don't know whether we will succeed, but above all, that is our goal for the people of Saudi Arabia."
Tor Eigeland, a Norwegian-born American citizen now based in Spain, has photographed and Written about countries from Australia to Mexico—the long way around—for such publications as National Geographic, Fortune, Time and Newsweek. He covered the Middle East from Beirut for five years and has been a frequent contributor to Aramco World.