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Volume 35, Number 2March/April 1984

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Tajmil—and Jiddah

Written by Richard Hobson
Photographed by Ali A. Khalifa

In Jiddah these days the catchword is tajmil, on Arabic word that translates as "beautification," but implies much more: green landscapes, restored palaces, bubbling fountains and - above all - some 300 eye-catching examples of modern sculpture that entertain visitors, but also symbolize the city's uphill struggle for civic beauty amid nature's arid opposition.

One such example is a seven-year-old artistic fantasy in which the rusted boilers and flaking pipes of a 1907 desalination plant have been welded together to form the torsos and appendages of abstract industrial creatures craning skyward on Jiddah' s new coastal highway. Another example - set directly down by the stark concrete smokestacks of Jiddah's modern multi-million-gallon desalination complex - is an abstract assembly of drumlike pods strewn around spiraling cylindrical columns. And a third, looming over the Sitteen Street extension, is an outlandish but delightful 15-meter high bicycle (50 feet) fashioned from pipe and cable.

To some critics, the scatterings of sculpture in Jiddah constitute an unacceptable hodgepodge of pointless art - and certainly a broad range of styles is represented. But most of the sculptors are not entirely unknown in the world of art - Spaniard Julio Lafuente, Italians Arnaldo Pomodore, Pietro Cascella and Di Giovanni, American Robert Cook - and some are giants: Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Jacques Lipchitz. As for style, sculptures like the giant bicycle are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed they deviate sharply from several themes that link the other works: science, technology, nature - especially the sea - and the kingdom's Islamic heritage.

Even the more modern works touch on those themes. The welded boilers and pipes, for example, memorialize one of the world's first large seawater distilleries: a plant built when Jiddah was a quiet seaport under Ottoman suzerainty. Called al-kindasah, from "condenser," the desalination plant was powered by noisy wood-fired boilers and for several decades managed to brew a pittance of potable water that was hauled to customers by donkey cart. It was so noisy that a local poet, dedicating a pipeline bringing water from the wells of Wadi Fatima to Jiddah in the 1940's, included a line everyone in Jiddah applauded: "Save us from the clamor of kindasah."

After the pipeline was built, the distillation plant lay dormant for years, eventually becoming a heap of scrap metal. Then, as new desalination plants were built, Mayor Muhammad Sa'id al- Farsi, the sparkplug of tajmil in Jiddah, conceived the idea of welding the old boilers and pipes into a symbol of Jiddah's constant need for water. As Barakat Bajnaid, deputy mayor for technical affairs, put it, "We live in a desert climate where water is precious, and these monuments on the desalination road are a reminder that we have to struggle against natural obstacles to make our city beautiful."

It has certainly been a struggle. For more than 10 years, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, together with an alliance of public spirited businessmen and such farsighted public officials as Mayor Farsi, have been trying to not only turn this western gateway of Saudi Arabia into an urban showcase, but also cope with unparalleled growth and expansion.

For 100 years, Jiddah's population had remained stable: no more than 30,000 people, most living within an area of a few square kilometers. Between 1940 and 1970, however, the population gradually  swelled to about 350,000 and then, I suddenly, began to soar: by 1980 it had leaped to a million, and today is put at 1.5 million - spread over some 400 squares kilometers (154 square miles). As early as 1947, growth had forced the demolition of the city walls and its five gateways. Then in the 1950's and 1960's, came the first signs of urban blight that has been afflicting cities throughout the world in recent decades.

To head off the blight, officials and consultants, came up with a master plan in the 1970's to guide the city's future growth and salvage its past - both before it was too late. "We had to work faster than the growth," said Deputy Mayor Bajnaid, "to keep it under control - without stifling it."

One factor in their success was foresight; to be sure that the pace of the expansion did not outrun the city's efforts to contain it, the planners expanded the master-plan limits; today the plan encompasses 1,215 square kilometers (469 square miles) including 472 square kilometers of desert (182 square miles). Another element was the use of modern planning methods: aerial photos of every section of the city have been fed digitally into the computerized Jiddah Integrated Mapping System so that planning data can instantly be converted into a visual display superimposed on existing plans, using any scale.

Another vital factor, of course, was money. At least $2.4 billion has been pumped into Jiddah's modernization since 1970, including $630 million earmarked for beautification - of which $45 million has gone into landscaping alone.

The result has been a metamorphosis - like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Old-timers, for example, can recall when Jiddah was virtually without water; drinking water had to be carried in by camel, from the foothills of the rugged Hijaz Mountains. Now though, thanks to extensive construction of desalination plants and plants to treat effluent, Jiddah can meet and exceed demands that have soared from seven million gallons a day in 1967 to 54 million gallons a day in 1981.

The same old-timers can also recall when, in the 1920's, there was but a single tree in Jiddah - a great shade tree that still stands beside the coral-limestone mansion called Bait Nassif - compared to the more than six million trees that have been planted under the city's massive landscaping programs, most in the last 10 years.

City officials reckon that if each of those trees provides just one square meter of shade, Jiddah has at least six million square meters of living green, the equivalent of six square kilometers (2.3 square miles). In addition, the city has put in succulents, cacti, desert bushes and other plants that can survive in saline soil and consume little water, plus such flowers as oleander, poinsettia, hibiscus, jasmine, bougainvillea and frangipani. As a result, Jiddah, today, in striking contrast to the parched terrain outside the city - and to the treeless town of yore - is a man-made oasis with 300 public gardens, 50 landscaped playgrounds, 60 water fountains, hundreds of kilometers of landscaped streets and some 3,000 municipal flower boxes.

It is the works of sculpture, however, that seem to capture the eyes of today' s visitors to Jiddah. Funded mainly by individuals and corporations, these works have transformed Jiddah into an extensive outdoor museum in which there is room for both the whimsical and the profound. As Bajnaid describes it: "I look at our sculpture program as partly entertainment ... Our monuments provide the city dweller relief, a reason to pause and reflect - and sometimes smile."

The great bicycle provides a lot of smiles, of course, but it is still only one of many memorable works. Jiddah's historical ties to the sea, for example, have been memorialized by mounting old fishing vessels on travertine pedestals stylized to resemble waves or sails. There is also a huge, curved form suggesting a giant piece of kelp wafting in the breeze, a crescent moon atop a column of white marble evoking the lunar rhythm of the Muslim calendar, a pair of marble hands poised in prayer on a small island in a green lagoon, and seven stalks of sculpted wheat celebrating a passage from the Koran, which likens God's munificence to stalks of grain. One particularly imaginative piece is by a Lebanese sculptor, Aref al-Rayess; it groups vertical aluminum swords, the Islamic symbol of strength through faith, pointing skyward and spelling Allah in Arabic when seen from almost any direction.

This open air museum is especially interesting because there is no tradition of sculpture in Saudi Arabia or most other Arab countries - and because many of the pieces are highly abstract. This abstraction skirts the tacit prohibition in Islam against realistic renderings of the human form, but there may be another reason too why such highly stylized art has often been accepted by the public with enthusiasm. According to Dr. 'Abd al-Halim Radwiy, a Jiddah painter, scultptor and writer, Islam's emphasis on such concepts as unity and simplicity merges easily with the abstract. "Islam recognizes the importance of material well being," says Radwiy, "while stressing the transcendence of intellectual and spiritual values."

Of course, many modern artists simply prefer abstraction to realism. As put by al-Rayess, painter, sculptor and pantomimist, who spent many years in Paris but has resided in Jiddah for three years, "I don't like human statues. You look at them in Europe and you get tired. I used to pass a statue of Balzac every day in Paris; it made me feel sad, because it never moved. I love the human being because he moves."

Radwiy, who spent a decade studying the fine arts in Rome and Madrid, also feels that Saudis have a predisposition for metaphors in art, just as they do towards figurative usage in language. Jiddah's sculptures, he argues, are not just entertainment, but a humanizing influence reaching for the higher values expressed by such abstract concepts as love, peace and light.

Radwiy, who heads Jiddah's Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and the Arts, also believes strongly in the importance of preserving and reinterpreting the kingdom's folkloric traditions. One of his best known works in Jiddah is an oversized bean pot in stone, with chiseled designs around its surface. He explains the work, which memorializes the vessel used by vendors of cooked ful or faba beans - a traditional Hijazi breakfast dish - in an essay entitled simply "The Bean Jar."

This folk image began to fade in the minds of our people as a result of fast modern developments. The bean jar owner, 'Utmah al-Amir, and his neighbor, al-Qarmushi, who have become faint memories, lived at a time when the tempo of life was different and human relations were strong and uncomplicated. The very place where our bean jar owner was located has altered completely. Instead of a quite simple quarter, it has become the main business center of Jiddah - a hub of constant change and development. The subject of my work of art is intended to reawaken this popular image in people's minds. I have presented the jar as a poetic, ever revolving body, and decorated it with simple geometric designs similar to those used on old wooden doors in Jiddah.

Actually, Jiddah's planners have already taken steps to reawaken the images of the past. Using imported Tunisian craftsmen as well as local wood workers, the city is restoring, with painstaking care, a historic one-square-kilometer area of the old city (0.38 square mile) that for more than 1,000 years served as the port of entry for pilgrims journeying to Makkah (Mecca).

The task is exceedingly complex. Located in the heart of Jiddah's central commercial district, this area is still populated by some 45,000 people, who, unlike many others, have not relocated to newer sections of the city. With the help of British consultants the city has earmarked 537 historic structures for preservation including 492 traditional, multi-storied, often balconied Hijazi homes, 21 merchant palaces, six caravanserais, seven mosques, three public buildings and, already completed, Bait Nassif, where King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, founder of the kingdom, stayed during his early visits to Jiddah.

To these highly visible projects, Jiddah's planners have also added some subtle touches that have had a noticeable effect on the city's appearance. One, an effort to awaken civic pride, is a widespread cleanup campaign, focused on, and publicized by, ubiquitous turquoise-and-white bins snowing figures in traditional Arab robes discarding trash, and bearing messages in Arabic and English: "Help make Jiddah cleaner."

Simultaneously, the city has signed a five-year contract valued at $380 millions with Arabian Cleaning Enterprise, Ltd. under which some 4,000 workers collect and dispose of an estimated 3,000 tons of trash daily, sweep the streets and clean public buildings - the workers dressed in turquoise coveralls matching the bins.

Jiddah's call to beautification has resounded across the kingdom. Riyadh, deep in the interior, is fast becoming a showcase in its own right. In the northern inland city of Hail, on the fringe of the Great Nafud Desert, plans have been approved to renovate the old quarters and create extensive public parks.

Tajmil, in fact, is sweeping the country. In 1923, the thriving east coast commercial center of al-Khobar barely existed; today it boasts wide tree-lined boulevards, fashionable hotels and posh stores. And where palm-frond huts once stood - in both al-Khobar and Dammam - new construction is appearing regularly. Just south of al-Khobar, for example, an illuminated six-lane highway circles Half Moon Bay, once a small private enclave for Aramco swimmers and yachtsmen.

It is Jiddah, however, the legendary last resting place of Eve, that is the mother of beautification in Saudi Arabia. Jiddah already provides a casebook in urban renewal, and in the struggle to wed dynamic growth with the preservation of tradition, a fact that the western press is beginning to realize. In the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, for example, Joseph Fitchett, a veteran Middle East correspondent, recently wrote that Jiddah, once a "byword for Arab boom towns that were unlivable at any price during the oil rush . . . has changed into a city that rates praise, and even bemused affection, from most Western and Saudi residents..."

To a great extent this has been achieved by a trained staff of men under the leadership of Jiddah's Mayor Farsi, who, appointed in 1972, brought to the mayor's office a talent for comprehensive planning, an appreciation of architecture and the fine arts and tremendous energy. And since then, Mayor Farsi has earned a reputation for unflagging attention to the details of tajmil; rarely seen at his office in the baladiyyah or city hall, he is usually out inspecting projects that are underway, scouting eyesores that need correction or speaking at seminars on city planning. "My car has a telephone," he says. "That is my office."

Mayor Farsi, who is deeply committed to beautification, still maintains that pace despite recent heart surgery. "Time is very important," he says. "What we could have done yesterday, we may not be able to do today - or at double the price."

Interviewed in the majlis, or reception area, of his self-designed home, Mayor Farsi, between visits with engineers, architects and contractors, summarized his approach in a colorful simile: "A city is like a dish of food. It may be a simple dish, but it has its own flavor - its own special feeling... We want our city to have its own flavor, too. We want to preserve our own unique character, while discovering new aspects of our personality. . . for me it is a ceaseless challenge ..."

Dick Hobson, a graduate of Yale and a former reporter with the Miami News, writes on Saudi Arabia for Aramco World magazine from Dhahran.

Lungs for our Art to Breathe
Photographed by Ali A. Khalifa and Burnett H. Moody
Additional photographs by Muhammad Ali S. Malatani

First appearing in the big cities of the West, the late 20th century phenomenon known as "industrial sculpture" has found a lavish new patron on the shores of the Red Sea: the city of Jiddah. In fact, Jiddah today may well be the world's foremost center for this most modern art form.

There are good reasons why. The city has a mayor with artistic vision on a grand scale. It has the funds to sponsor artists and meet the high costs of fabrication and erection. It enjoys wide civic support for its outdoor sculpture program. And it has an emergent industrial base of its own.

Many of the smaller outdoor works of art in Jiddah have been shaped by the artist's own hand; that is, they chiseled blocks of stone, in the traditional way, or created full-size models in clay or wood or worked directly with metal-fusing shards with an oxyacetylene torch or, in a technique called brazing, joining them with an alloy. But such direct, hands-on methods are impossible with such colossal monuments as Jiddah's "The Galaxy," "The Bicycle" or Aref al-Rayess' "Swords of Allah." These works - industrial sculptures - demand the skills of at least four distinct practitioners: artist, structural engineer, fabricator and constructor.

For many artists, industrial sculpture represents an entirely new creative outlet - one they might never have pursued without Jiddah as patron. Al-Rayess, for instance, learned traditional stone sculpture in Paris, and African woodcarving while visiting Senegal, and several of his smaller abstract works, hand-chiseled from marble, are on Jiddah's corniche. Butwhen his sketch for a work called "Swords of Allah" was presented to the city, officials envisioned a towering monument, some 30 meters tall (98 feet) - a scale too massive for marble because of its expense and great bulk. So al-Rayess wound up in Rome working with an engineering and construction company, in metal, which he describes as "indifferent" instead of marble, whichhesays is "tender to the light and to the eye."

"We produced several maquettes, (three-dimensional models) cast in aluminum until we got the proportions right," al-Rayess said. "Sometimes I fought with the engineers. I was never ready to sacrifice my esthetics for their calculations. They were very understanding. They realized they had to find a solution, and they did."

The solution, after six months of work, came in the form of a galvanized steel frame overlaid with sheets of aluminum. The monument was built in sections three meters high (10 feet) and sent by ship to Jiddah, where it was finally erected by a construction contractor.

Al-Rayess said he is pleased with the result, which he readily admits is a product of not only his own artistic imagination, but also the inventiveness of the engineers. He even enthuses now about the aluminum surface, which he said plays interestingly with Jiddah's brilliant natural light and accents the verticality he wanted to achieve. "And, after all, the metal fits our industrial times," he said.

Jiddah is not simply building new artistic reputations, however. It is also attracting established artists of international repute. The Finnish sculptress and metalworker Eila Hiltunen, for example, first visited Jiddah in 1979 at the invitation of the city, which had purchased two of her works. One of them, the abstract sculpture called "The Flame of Life" stands now on Jiddah's corniche near works by other famous artists: Moore, Lipchitz and Miro. Hiltunen said she was enchanted by the city. "The city's planning, architecture, cleanliness and landscaping were breathtaking."

Two years later, Mayor Muhammad Sa'id al-Farsi paid Hiltunen a return visit in Helsinki, examined a maquette of stylized flowers called "The Sunflower Field," and commissioned its erection in a man-made lagoon off the corniche.

To execute the commission, Hiliunen had to find, first, shiny metal that could resist Jiddah's hot, humid climate and the salt water and air of the lagoon. With the help of Swedish and Finnish experts, she finally settled on a special acid-resistant form of stainless steel containing chrome, nickel and a high percentage of molybdenum. Four tons of the metal were used to fashion the stems, petals and other parts of her grove of gleaming sunflowers. Shipped by boat in pieces, "The Sunflower Field" was assembled in Jiddah by the West German firm Huta-Hegerfeld, a long-time contractor in the city. In December it was moved to a new location after Hiltunen and Mayor Farsi decided to shift the work to a larger lagoon, where it stands today, outfitted with spotlights and water jets for special nighttime effects.

Frequently, erection is as difficult as manufacturing. Huta-Hegerfeld found this especially true for "The Galaxy," which was built in Holland and shipped to Jiddah in two gigantic sections. Together, the two vertical sections were to form an enormous arch or "orbit" over a new rotary on the Sitteen Street extension. Each section consisted of 22 curved steel pipes, joined by a complex system of cables, and encasing an aluminum globe or "planet." The problem was this: both sections had to be erected simultaneously and joined at the center with a third globe; the work weighs 105 tons and winds in the area are strong.

To help solve the problem, the company assigned engineers from the home office in Essen to the project. They made the special structural and static calculations necessary to successfully lift the work into place and anchor it to its concrete foundation. Two 300-ton cranes, the heaviest available in Saudi Arabia then, were hired from the east coast city of al-Khobar and driven cross-country to Jiddah, a journey of more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) and still weren't enough; a third 200-ton crane from Jiddah also had to be used.

After several weeks of preparation, in the fall of 1982, the big lift occurred. It took two hours to raise the two sections from their horizontal positions on the ground to a height of more than 40 meters (131 feet). The sections remained freely suspended foranother10 days while the anchoring operation proceeded. Finally, "The Galaxy" was lowered into place and secured.

Incas Bonna, an Italian civil contractor who has been in Jiddah for nearly 20 years, has erected more than 50 of the city's sculptures, including "al-Kindasah" and other desalination monuments, and the boats mounted on concrete pedestals. The firm's maintenance engineering specialist in Jiddah, Franco Gazzaniga, has been involved in many of these jobs. Some are simpler than others, he said. For example, the circular metal reliefs of sun, waves and birds along the corniche were relatively easy. Incas Bonna forged them in its own local shop from sketches by the Egyptian artist Mustafa Senbel.

Creating the curved, sail-like concrete pedestals for the boats was trickier. Carefully shaped wooden forms had to be built at the site and the reinforced concrete poured in slow, painstaking stages over a period of weeks.

Two of the most difficult projects for Incas Bonna were Julio Lafuente's "Sea Waves" and his white marble monument, "Science and Faith." The former, according to Gazzaniga, was originally conceived in a lightweight plastic that would allow the 16-meter-tall (52-foot) V-shaped form to rotate on its base in the wind. However, the engineering difficulties proved too great, so the workwas finally built of travertine, machined in Italy and shipped to Jiddah in 30 containers. Because the point of the V is at the base, the monument is top-heavy. Anchoring it required running a cable through the sections and securing it to a base under high tension.

"Science and Faith" presented a different problem: somewhat like trying to balance a bunch of marbles on top of each other. In this case, the marbles are balls of white marble, each more than a mater (3.3 feet) across and each weighing 1.8 tons. A total of 72 of them had to be carefully positioned in four columns of 18. The slightly flattened places at which the marble spheres touch each other measure just 20 centimeters (8 inches) across. A vertical pole was installed with small prongs to hold the spheres in place.

"It was incredibly difficult to place the marble balls, one by one, in exactly the right position using a crane, so the stresses would not topple the work," said Gazzaniga. "It took six weeks to assemble."

Few in Jiddah are aware of the special pains taken to design and execute such monuments. Nonetheless, Jiddah's giant sculptures have generated tremendous excitement in international art circles.

Hiltunen attributes this excitement to the city's inspired mayor. "I think, without fearing to sound too romantic, that Shaikh Farsi is a Lorenzo de Medici of modern times," she said.

To a Western artist like Hiltunen, Jiddah today represents one of the - world's foremost markets for sculpture and a chance to build inter-cultural bridges through her universal art. She said she finds nothing surprising about the warm welcome she has received in Jiddah. "Being a woman, Nordic and Christian, I have not experienced any lack of understanding in the Near East," she said. "On the contrary."

To an artist like al-Rayess, a Lebanese who has lived extensively in theWest, Jiddah provides an opportunity to rediscover his Islamic roots. "The hospitality here and the uncomplicated simplicity of Islam have made my stay for the past three years in Jiddah prolific" he said. "If I am producing, there must be something healthy about the atmosphere."

Al-Rayess agrees that the mayor himself has been the key to creating a lively, supportive environment for artists in Jiddah. "He is a man of vision who is very poetic and creative in his own right," al-Rayess said. "He and this city create the lungs for our art to breathe."

This article appeared on pages 4-15 of the March/April 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1984 images.