Saudi Arabia's National Guard rolled out a richly hued cultural carpet at a place called Janadriyah early this year - and did it in high style. The country's first National Heritage and Folk Culture Festival, it featured folk dancers, camel races, good food and poetry. It proved so popular that its original five-day program - inaugurated by King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz on March 23 before a parade of folk troupes and falconers astride gaily caparisoned camels - was extended by a week.
In a nation known, in recent years, for fast-paced development, the folk festival gave Saudis and foreign visitors a chance to slow down and take a closer look at the social tableau of an earlier era. As one middle-aged Saudi at the fair put it, the festival provided the opportunity to see life as it was "in the days of our fathers and grandfathers."
Held at the site of annual camel races - they've been run there for more than a decade - the festival included the races as one of its highlights and drew an enthusiastic crowd. Even King Fahd and others from the royal family turned out to cheer the nearly 3,000 camels and jockeys that participated.
But the festival included much more too: carpenters, blacksmiths, metalsmiths, cobblers, weavers and other craftsmen from an almost bygone era. Stationed in front of shops constructed side-by-side on the inner perimeter of a mud-walled "fort" built especially for the festival, these artisans, all working at their traditional crafts, demonstrated how things were made - and fixed - back then.
In addition, there were nightly readings of poetry, lectures and symposia on Arabic literature, plus music and dance performed by troupes from cities across the kingdom, and such exhibits as a beit sha'ar, (literally the "house of hair"), the famous black Bedouin tent. With separate quarters for men and women and a kitchen, the tent was equipped with what used to be a Bedouin family's most precious possessions: cooking utensils, saddles and blankets.
According to the National Guard Deputy for Education and Cultural Affairs, Dr. Abdulrahman al-Subait, the festival was held to enlighten the kingdom's youth about Saudi Arabia's rapidly vanishing "The rapid developments in the kingdom during the past 15 to 20 years mean that youths now in their 20's may not know how their fathers lived," he said.
The exhibitions of folklore and crafts - which emphasized self-reliance - were mounted in cooperation with the Riyadh Governorate, the General Presidency for Youth Welfare and the Ministry of Information, Dr. al-Subaitsaid. "Before we opened our doors to the West and before we imported [goods] from outside, we worked and supported ourselves and created our own things," he said.
Fahd al-Barrak of the National Guard's general education department was equally enthusiastic. The festival was designed, he said, "to tell the... new generation what the old generation did... The festival expresses the pride of older generations [by showing] how they lived ... and helps us to remember the patience with which they met the hardships of their time."
Though the National Guard is an important military arm of Saudi Arabia's government, its more-than-30,000-man force is also a cultural agent. Headed by Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abd al- Aziz and Deputy Commander Prince Badr ibn 'Abd al-Aziz, the festival chairman, the Guard took on organization of the fair as part of its national responsibilities and was able to use its regional offices and links with regional governments to find good examples of tradition and heritage throughout the kingdom.
At the opening ceremonies, for example, some 60 representatives from each of the kingdom's seven geographical regions, plus 300 students from Riyadh, danced and marched, and 11 cities - 'Unayzah, Taif, Najran, Riyadh, Jaizan, Jiddah, Dammam, Ha'il, al-Hasa, Yanbu' and al-Dir'iyah - fielded folk-troupes. Other areas were represented at the suq by craftsmen and traders.
To enable as many as possible to attend the fair, and to give ample time for traditional late-night singing, dancing and poetry reading, programs started late in the afternoon and didn't finish until after midnight. Between the evening and late-night events - which included "poetry dialogues," or verse duels between competing poets' camps - visitors broke for a fabulous dinner. Served in some 20 tents big enough to hold more than 1,000 guests, the menu featured piping hot roast mutton quarters on beds of steaming rice.
Organized by the Guard, the feasts were triumphs of logistical as well as culinary skills. Piled on huge, round communal dining trays, the meals were rushed into tent after tent by waiters from trucks parked outside. The trays were placed in circles of 10 to 12 men who promptly "carved" the mutton with their right hands, alternating with rolled bites of rice deftly popped into their mouths. And that was just for the visitors. The Guard also provided housing and meals for all festival participants plus, on camel-race day, a special between-race afternoon meal for fairgoers.
One of the biggest crowd-pleasers at the exhibition was also the loudest. Called a sawani, the sturdy contraption, until very recently, drew water from a deep well for irrigation using wooden wheels mounted high above the well on a strong bar of athl wood, and turned by four camels. When the camels pulled ropes over the wheels - lifting and lowering wide-mouthed water skins - the ungreased friction let loose high-pitched squeals which penetrated every corner of the grounds until the last drops of their precious water spilled out. Built as a permanent exhibit, the water wheel squealed daily from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.
And that was just one example of the old, ingenious folk technology. Two men also bent their backs to turn the soil behind a wooden plow pulled by two Brahma bulls, and wheat planted scarcely two months before showed what early technology could produce for man. Nearby, two dozen white-gowned men completed the old-time agricultural cycle; they flailed sheaves of wheat with long wooden rods and were followed over the hardened earth of a threshing circle by a team of 10 white donkeys.
"Food production was one of the most important things in the lives of the older generations," said Dr. al-Subait. Significantly, al-Barrak called the irascible sawani the most popular exhibit of the festival. "It is something you can't find now," he said. "All the people like to see it ... I haven't seen a working sawani in 30 years."
Al-Barrak, head of the festival's information office - and from a farm family in the Najd area near Riyadh himself - said both his grandfather and father extensively employed sawanis to water their fields, adding that the number of wheels on a sawani was once the measure of a man's prosperity. The fair's four-wheel model signified "medium" wealth; the Rolls-Royce version half a century ago had two athl bars, six wheels to each bar. His father, said al-Barrak modestly, had a sawani with six wheels.
Inside the suq, other treasures from the past delighted the old and intrigued the young. The shops themselves, built with traditional palm-frond-roofed porches, were fascinating, but also displayed items rarely found except in old market areas - some of them handcrafted at the festival by modern craftsmen for use in the home or on the farm, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done in similar settings. The items included the minsaf, a palm-leaf sieve used for sifting grain; the mihmas, a long spoon for roasting coffee beans over an open fire; the hawn, a copper vessel for grinding the beans; the maya'ah, a shallow wooden bowl with a handle for holding hot food; and the mihbash, a wooden mortar and pestle.
Fair visitors also clustered around another popular attraction: a local madrasa, or country school, where a testy, white-bearded teacher put some 20 specially chosen pupils through their paces. The "students" might well have been actors in training, for they were as dramatically mischievous as attentive, one or two getting their knuckles rapped for failing to recite along with their fellows.
Though the crowds laughed at the antics in the classroom, they also recalled the lessons being taught; as the recitations started, many in the audience could be heard chanting along with the kids.
In the evening, the classroom gave way to readings of Arabic literature and poetry and, finally, to dancing, the fair's crowning event each night. On one exceptional evening, the festival got off to a fast start with the Jaizan, Dammam and Jiddah troupes enchanting onlookers all around the stage. But the highlight of the evening came with the entry of the men from al-Dir'iyah, a village on the outskirts of Riyadh and the ancestral home of the Sa'ud family. The dancers, carrying a huge green flag, flashed golden swords, sang to royal family members - to the crash of jingling, tasseled tambourines - and invited the princes to join them. What man could resist? The crowd clapped its approval as three princes, including Prince Badr, deputy commander of the Guard, took the floor with the al-Dir'iyah delegation. The three picked out the dance steps, cautiously at first, and then kicked up their heels as the music strengthened.
By the end of the 12-day festival, the gossip was that the fairgrounds would become a permanent exhibition arena and that the 1985 festival would become the first of an annual series. This idea, in fact, gained momentum just after the festival closed in early April, when King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah directed the National Guard to establish a "heritage village" at Janadriyah. The aim in simplest terms, is to keep in close touch in the words of one visitor, "with what Saudi Arabia was and is."
Arthur Clark, a writer based in Dhahran, is a regular contributor to Aramco World.