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Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.

On Nostalgia and Material Culture in the Hijaz: An Interview with Sarah Al Abdali



RB: There is a great sense of nostalgia in your work, particularly of Hijazi material culture and lost pasts. You also use humor/satire to critique current social, political, and cultural practices, including gender inequalities and capitalist development. Can you elaborate on your understanding of these processes and contextualize the ways in which they have shaped you as an artist?

SMA: As already mentioned, the Hijazi element has a strong presence in all my work and increasingly shapes my artistic and political thinking, especially as the already slight Hijazi material culture is actively destroyed and marginalized. When I was invited to participate in Edge Of Arabia’s #cometogether and create a piece for one of the streets in Bricklane, I happened to be going over my father’s archive of old photographs. I dwelled on the images of neighbors, brothers, sisters, and even tourists, posing in front of the long-lost houses of Hijazis who had hosted them, given the absence of hotel accommodations. Some photographs were taken in Harat al-Sham in old Jeddah where my father’s family lived, and where I actually installed the art piece, Fain Majlisi. Others were taken in the homes of relatives. I tried to imagine what the characters in the photographs would say if they woke up and found themselves in Bricklane! The intention behind choosing and experimenting with old photographs in particular aims to resurrect lost worlds, built environments, and senses of belonging that are continuously being replaced and silenced by the hegemonic culture, and esthetics, of the modern state. These images thus capture everyday life before the wave of materialism, consumerism, and high-rise buildings took over the Saudi landscape in the 1960s, permanently altering the socio-cultural landscape of the Hijaz.


[Hijaz Meets Bricklane.]

My ideas are mostly inspired from al-Balad, the once-walled in historic town in Jeddah whose residents and land owners abandoned in the mid-to-late nineteenth century for modern housing and accommodations outside the city walls. The unique style of Hijazi architecture there continues to be neglected despite alleged efforts at preserving its historical architecture and importance. Most of al-Balad’s buildings continue to suffer from environmental and human degradation, with some even burning down in recent years. The town today hosts markets for textiles, spices, and other basic goods and is dotted with migrants living and working in these unenviable conditions. 

While al-Balad does not have the necessary infrastructure of a modern-day tourist destination, local and foreign visitors go there for its cultural, architectural, and historic value. For people like me, nostalgic for a past they have never lived but grew up hearing about, al-Balad is the ideal location, where the past, present, and hopefully the future, can meet. After all, despite the nation-state building project, many Hijazis continue to identify as such and feel a strong sense of affinity and belonging with the Hijazi past.

Fain Majlisi, in which I show my great grandfather sitting in a majlis [council] in al-Balad,attempts to capture this sense of loss. The majlis is a social and political meeting place that was once an important element in the Hijazi tradition of bringing people together to discuss, debate, and even play games such as Carrom (a board game of Asian origin) and card games such as Baloot. I try to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes and wonder what he would say upon seeing the current state of al-Balad, where he had lived. The speech bubble translates into: “Where’s my majlis?” questioning the reason behind the loss of that important social space which was once an essential element in Hijazi life and society.

[Where’s My Majlis?]



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This entry was posted on November 11, 2013 by in 雜Variety.
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