Visitors expecting to see merely an exhibit at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center this summer found themselves plunged instead into an experience. Dunes beckoned them into the desert where, in the distance, the sandstone formations of Madain Salih loomed over a 24-meter (80-foot) Bedouin tent. A quiet courtyard and a fountain welcomed visitors to the world of Islam, and a busy Jiddah street, full of Saudi artisans, transported them to the very heart of a Saudi Arabian city. The scent of jasmine lingered in the air as the pulsating rhythm of the music accompanying the multi-media laser show filled the halls.
"It's awesome!" one woman commented as she wandered around the exhibition's seven sections, which conscientiously detailed the story of a country dedicated to its traditional culture and religion, yet destined to become the most successfully modernized nation in the Middle East.
The exhibition, "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today," is indeed a celebration of Saudi Arabia's accomplishments over the past 50 years, and of the unique Saudi-American friendship that has facilitated the nation's growth. From the signing of the first productive oil concession in 1933 to the present era of joint ventures, hundreds of thousands of Americans have contributed to the development of Saudi Arabia - and a few have played important roles. Today, over 35,000 Americans work in Saudi Arabia and thousands of Saudi students are enrolled in universities across the United States.
The roots of the exhibit, which attracted an over-capacity crowd of more than 20,000 visitors a day during its stay in Washington, were planted years ago and thousands of miles away in the heart of Riyadh (See box, page 16). The path of "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today" can be traced from the Saudi capital through major European cities, back to the Middle East, and finally to warehouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where the American exhibit was built and assembled.
Preparations for the American tour began in 1986. Saudi Arabian and American consultants were called in to redesign the exhibit for an American audience, to find a way to illustrate Saudi Arabia's rock-solid religious foundations and its delicate and determined balance between tradition and technology. Special emphasis was also placed on the development of the Saudi-American relationship.
An initial corps of three consultants traveled to the exhibit's earlier runs in London and Paris in 1986 before visiting Saudi Arabia to determine just how the exhibit should be developed for the United States. Concept papers were drawn up, revised and finally approved in November, 1988.
Peter Hannaford, chief executive officer of The Hannaford Company, the public-relations firm called in to organize the project, recalled that "one of the principal reasons for having the exhibition was to change stereotypes people might have about the kingdom. It's not just sand and oil wells. It's a highly developed country with a very energetic, industrious people."
Energy and industry were also essential characteristics of the group of Saudis and Americans that managed to conceive, design, build, assemble and erect the American exhibit within seven feverish months. In January 1989, The Hannaford Company and Rathe Productions, a firm specializing in exhibition work, assembled a staff of designers and "concept people" to travel to the kingdom and meet with the exhibition's organizing committee.
Two trips later, the working team had crisscrossed Saudi Arabia, researching the history and architecture of areas that would later be recreated for the exhibit. From Riyadh to Dhahran, from Hofuf to Jubail and jiddah, the group searched for artifacts and images. Private and government sources around the country, such as the Department of Antiquities and Museums, the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh, the Aramco Exhibit in Dhahran and the Khalil Museum in Jiddah, were asked to lend objects to the exhibition.
During their travels, members of the team also met with individual, professional and official Saudis to discover just how they wanted their country to be portrayed. Ziyad Zaidan, a Saudi architect known for his detailed research in traditional Saudi Arabian architecture, was called in as a consultant. As project manager Mike Smith noted, "We wanted this to be the kingdom's own story."
By January 1989, the countdown began. One major task, the selection of five exhibition sites around the United States, had been taken care of by June 1988 - no minor accomplishment, since 9,000-square-meter (100,000 square-foot) exhibitions often require five years' advance booking. Now all - all! - that remained was to build an exhibit that could travel from site to site and fit into five buildings of different sizes and ceiling heights. It was like designing a three-dimensional puzzle.
Richard Rathe, executive vice-president of Rathe Productions, explained that "for one country to do this much square footage in a traveling exhibit is very rare. Even though we specialize in large exhibition work, to do the entire exhibit and plan it so that it can easily be removed creates a tremendous amount of complexity." It is a "difficult task," he added, to make large structures, such as the 7.3-meter (24-foot) Asir tower built for the exhibit look credible and still be moveable.
The actual building of the exhibit began in March 1989, four and a half months before the scheduled July 29 premiere in Washington. More than 400 people in 18,500 square meters (200,000 square feet) of warehouse space in Brooklyn and Manhattan began to recreate Saudi Arabia. Carpenters and welders, scenery and exhibit designers, model-makers, silk-screeners, laser technicians, painters, foam carvers and countless other specialists worked diligently behind the scenes.
Most of the models for the exhibit were built by Bruce and Bruce Scenery. But these were not models that could be placed on tables and displayed under Plexiglas: They were models that loomed more than seven meters (24 feet) above the floor, sand dunes that measured 12 meters wide and 24 meters long (40 by 80 feet), palm trees 120, 240 and 360 centimeters (four, 8 and 12 feet) tall.
Listening to Rob Oakley, project manager at Bruce and Bruce Scenery, describe the materials used to create the exhibit is like reading a shopping list for the construction of a miniature city: Eleven metric tons (24,000 pounds) of steel, used to build trusses; one freight-car load of foam rubber; eight 400-kilogram (900-pound) barrels of sand; 680 kilograms (1500 pounds) of real wheat, flame-proofed and then dyed back to green; four to five truckloads of lumber every week; 2500 lighting instruments - enough to light 10 Broadway shows - and kilometers of cable.
During the four and a half months, the various houses and structures that create the exhibit's environment were designed, built and then disassembled into parts that were loaded onto trailers. Seventy palm trees, made of real palm bark sleeved onto steel pipes, took six weeks to build. Sand dunes, constructed of plywood, metal mesh, foam and Caldecore, a sand finish sprayed on the base, were designed to break into 19 moveable sections.
Among the most imposing structures in the exhibition were the "sandstone" formations of Madain Salih, which took three weeks to build. "One of the biggest [exhibition] structures ever built," Oakley called them, adding that "people aren't used to walking into a building and seeing 24-foot-high [73-meter] rocks." Specialists were called in to duplicate the ancient writing found on the 2000-year-old tombs in northwestern Saudi Arabia.
Seventy-five tractor-trailers later, all the pieces of the exhibit were ready to be transported. On July 17, the trailers and a crew of 80 descended on Washington. For the next seven days, the crew, which will travel around the country with the exhibit, worked behind closed doors to assemble the illusion of Saudi Arabia within the cavernous halls of the Convention Center.
For the thousands of Americans who waited patiently on opening day, July 29, to visit "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today," there was indeed a friendly welcome to a country that still mystifies the uninitiated.
"Ahlan wa sahlan!" - Welcome! - the young Saudi guide greeted the first visitor. Parents with children, students, tourists and businessmen all passed by the young men in traditional garb as they entered the exhibit through a cool, dark tunnel.
Vibrant strains of Saudi music filled the tunnel as pictures flashed out of the darkness. Dunes and camels, a veiled woman, modern supermarkets, old suqs, Saudi astronauts, pilgrims worshiping at the Ka'ba, modern cities and superhighways: All were scenes from a country with many faces and many moods, a country that most of the visitors were about to discover for the first time. As they left the tunnel, the piercing bright light of desert landscapes welcomed them to their journey through Saudi Arabia.
The night before the exhibit opened to the public, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan ibn Abd al-'Aziz, hosted an inaugural preview for 450 of Washington's political and business leaders. Prince Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, governor of Riyadh and chairman of the exhibition committee, opened the exhibit with Vice President Dan Quayle, and after Quayle cut the ribbon, scores of American and Saudi Arabian officials and other black-tied guests toured the exhibit. They were the first of more than 427,000 visitors who would see it during its three-week stay in Washington.
Prince Salman commented during the preview that "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today" was brought to the United States in the spirit of friendship and "to reaffirm that we are an advanced nation in terms of civilization... Though much is different about our two cultures, the values shared by our people are remarkably similar. Faith in God, love of family, freedom of work, moderation and stability in the field of international relations and the promotion of free enterprise - all of these have reinforced the special ties and sound friendship between our two countries."
Visitors to the exhibition are introduced first to Saudi Arabia's varied landscapes and then to its pre-Islamic culture. Scattered throughout the sections, videotapes and information panels explain the different regions and the histories and cultures of the areas.
It seemed, however, as if the favorite explanations came from the exhibition's Saudi student guides, all of whom wore green buttons saying "Ask Me!" Robert L. Norberg of Saudi Aramco's Washington office noted that "it was really the Saudi young people who were serving as guides and answering questions who brought the exhibit to the personal level that Americans enjoy and appreciate." Mohammed Zakariya, a Washington-area calligrapher who participated in the exhibit, said he "heard a lot of people whispering, 'Boy aren't they nice kids!'" as they walked through the exhibit.
Seventy Saudis studying in the United States were chosen as guides for the Washington exhibit, and 15 Americans were hired to work with them. They were dressed in traditional Saudi clothing -white thawb, white or red-and-white ghutra, and gold-brocaded black jackets for the men - which drew the attention and curiosity of visitors. Adnan Akbar, a young Saudi haute-couture designer whose fashions were brought to Washington in conjunction with the exhibition, designed the women's dresses.
Abdul Azeez Aalsaadan, a Saudi guide from the University of Southern California, was in charge of the exhibit's information booth in Washington. An exhibit like this, he said, "is the best way of communicating with people." He recalled an older visitor who came up to him and admitted he knew nothing about Saudi Arabia - not even where the country was. Aalsaadan gave him a package of information and two days later the man came back. "Ask me anything!" he said. "I can tell you about Islam, I can tell you about Bedouin life... anything!" Aalsaadan smiled and admitted, "He started to tell me things I didn't even know." And other visitors found that, whether they knew a lot or just a little about Saudi Arabia, they could still expect to learn something new.
The third section of the exhibit, "Islam," offers visitors an introduction to the religion practiced by over a billion people around the world. Islamic artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries are on display, and short videotapes explain the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah. Models of Makkah's and Medinah's holy sites astonish visitors with the sheer size of the mosques. "You could get lost in there!" one man remarked to his friend. Former Senator Charles Percy visited the exhibit twice and commented that the "religion section was laid out beautifully for people to better understand the Islamic faith."
" 'Scuse me, what is this door for?" a little boy asked as he ran up to a Saudi guide and tugged on his robe. The guide explained that the elaborately detailed gold and silver door is the one that closed the entrance of the Ka'ba itself until 1981. Made in Makkah in 1942, it is a unique artifact, and this was the first time it has been exhibited in the West. "I never expected to see anything like that on tour," said one impressed visitor.
Those who attended the Washington venue of "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today" were also treated to a $9.1-million collection of rare Islamic illustrations, manuscripts, maps and astrolabes dating from the 12th to 18th centuries. An early form of analogue computer, astrolabes simulate the apparent rotation of stars around the celestial poles. These sophisticated tools, whose development began in the second century BC, were used primarily for navigation at sea, but could also measure direction and time by day or night, among other uses.
A wonderful illustration of the body of ancient knowledge preserved and elaborated in the Islamic world, the astrolabes shown in Washington represented the second-largest collection in the world, after those on display in the Museum of Science at Oxford University. Two of only three surviving astrolabes made in 1304 or 1305 by Husayn ibn Baso, a famous astronomer of Granada, were among those exhibited in Washington.
Assembled by the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh, the astrolabe collection will not accompany the exhibit as it tours the United States. In October, it returned to Riyadh for the inauguration of the new cultural center in the city's Diplomatic Quarter.
Ancient artifacts, modern technology and contemporary Saudi artisans - the exhibition offers a taste of all. "The juxtaposition of the old and the new is a very important feature of the exhibit," Richard Rathe explained. "People can see the development, the historic roots, the Islamic influence, but can then see how those roots are integrated into a very modern society and a modern culture which, I think, the American audience is not familiar with."
Leaving the world of Islam section behind, exhibition visitors walk through the next two sections, "Society" and "People." Here the models of city and village architecture so painstakingly built in Brooklyn come alive.
Along a busy Jiddah street, Saudi artisans brought from the kingdom for the exhibit practice their trades. Craftsmen sitting crosslegged on the floor weave colorful tent walls on a simple wooden loom. Another artisan bends for hours over a wooden frame, carefully embroidering gold calligraphy onto a panel of black cloth destined to become part of the kiswah, the covering of the Ka'ba (See Aramco World, September-October 1985).
Down the "street," a sandalmaker cuts and stitches leather while a tailor across the way embroiders the edge of a man's formal cloak, or bisht. Saudi guides sit in the rooms of a traditional Najdi house, writing visitors' names in Arabic calligraphy. And a gallery tucked away in one of the buildings displays the work of 35 contemporary Saudi artists.
At the very end of the street, laughter rose above the din of the crowd as children played on the carpeted rooftop of a Najran home designed as a play area. Female guides helped the children explore "discovery chests" full of traditional clothes and scarves, and little boys giggled as they tried on long white thawbs.
From displays of the Arab scholarly legacy and Saudi Arabia's revered traditions, visitors passed to the world of sophisticated technology. The last two sections of the exhibit - "Nation Building Building" and "Saudi Arabia and the World Community" - highlight the country's modernization over the last 50 years and its commitment to the international community.
A multi-media video and slide show enhanced with laser effects offers a quick overview of Saudi Arabia "yesterday and today." The theater then empties into exhibit sections describing the kingdom's elaborate infrastructure developed in communications, transportation, health care, education, urban development and, of course, the oil industry.
Aramco has been a part of Saudi Arabia's development from the first years after the country's unification, so it comes as no surprise that the Aramco exhibit, at 140 square meters (1,500 square feet), is the largest in the modern section. From the early days of oil to the development of today's petrochemical industry and current joint ventures, Saudis and Americans have worked side by side in Aramco.
Margaret Wright, one of the American women working as a guide, said she was astonished at the number of older people visiting the exhibit who had worked in Saudi Arabia during the 1930's and 1940's. Many of them walked up to tell her, "I remember when...!"
Six Aramco employees accompanied the exhibit from Dhahran. They were on hand to explain the two interactive computer games programmed in Arabic and English for the American exhibit. More often, they fielded questions from visitors who were unaware of the level of American involvement in Saudi Arabia, or they found themselves up-dating former Aramco employees who had left Saudi Arabia years ago. For many of the latter group, seeing the kingdom's thoroughly modernized face "was like a kind of culture shock."
Norberg of Saudi Aramco commented that "a lot of people just never pictured Saudi Arabia as being as developed as it is. I think [the exhibit] corrected a lot of stereotypes that still persist in people's minds that the country's just a trackless wasteland. You don't have to spend even 45 minutes in here to have that notion turned on its head."
There was a lot of head turning at the exhibit, and much staring and talking, tasting and touching. As its designers intended, visitors do not just tour this exhibit, they participate in it.
Nowhere was this clearer than at the last stop in the exhibit, and one of the favorites, the suq. Armed with information and often overwhelmed by everything they had seen and heard, weary visitors headed for the exhibit's marketplace, hoping to sample some Saudi dishes from the restaurant or admire the handicrafts displayed in the shops.
In one corner of the suq, a Saudi potter crafted traditional vases on a wooden kick-wheel. Across the way, a 65-year-old basket weaver from the Eastern Province oasis region of al-Hasa sat amid pieces of palm frond building bird cages and cradles from the stems and weaving baskets from the leaves. The sound of voices and the tantalizing smell of kabsah or sambousak filled the air as people strolled around, hoping to catch a performance by the Saudi Arabian Folkloric Dance Troupe.
Four times a day the troupe's male dancers stole the show with their colorful costumes, brightly painted drums and spirited regional dances. Whether performing the 'ardah or sword dance, the fisherman's dance or one of the 20 other dances in their repertoire, they kept the crowds captivated. Children sat mesmerized at the foot of the stage as the performers leapt and circled.
According to Abdullah al-Jarallah, director of the dance troupe, traditional dance is very important in the kingdom: "It reminds people of their roots." The 24 young men, who will travel with the exhibit, were selected as the best dancers from the five main regions of the kingdom. None is a professional dancer, but all have a deep interest in preserving one of Saudi Arabia's richest and oldest traditions.
When Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar first announced the exhibit's tour, he noted that it was meant, among other things, as an expression of appreciation for growing American interest in Saudi Arabia.
Habib Shaheen, director of information at the embassy, knows from his own experience that "the interest of the American people toward Saudi Arabia has increased tremendously." In 1984, he explained, fewer than 800 people came to the embassy requesting information on his country. But in 1989 he had more than 3600 visitors during the first six months of the year. "This shows that such an exhibition as this is coming just in time to respond to this curiosity."
The Saudi architectural consultant to the exhibit, Ziyad Zaidan, also believes that the timing is propitious. "I think the American public is becoming more aware of the world. There seems to be an eagerness to learn. Probably, if we had done [the exhibit] 10 years ago, people would not have been interested. As it is, it is a privilege to me as a Saudi to see the American people take this great interest in our culture that we see here."
Dr. Abdullah H. Masry, director of Saudi Arabia's Department of Antiquities and Museums, was in Washington for the premiere. One night, as he was leaving the exhibit dressed in thawb and bisht, he passed an older American man who turned to him and said, "I really thank you." "For what?" Masry asked. "For having given us a chance," the man answered, "to get to know you people through your own eyes."
Following the Washington premiere, the exhibition headed to the Inforum in Atlanta, where it will be open from November 10 to 25, and to the Dallas Convention Center for its December 9 to 23 display dates. In 1990, it will travel to New York's Exposition Center in April and to the Los Angeles Convention Center in June - the last stop on the tour as presently scheduled. But the exhibition's Washington success may lead to the addition of other venues to the list.
As the exhibit travels around the United States, it will answer many questions, arouse more curiosity and, for most, it will present a fascinating voyage through an unknown land. But for a few lucky Americans who, like Robert Norberg, have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for years or decades, a walk through "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today" will be "just like going home."
Piney Kesting, who earned a muster's degree from Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, is a free-lance writer specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.