Early on I discovered the journals of Wilfred Thesiger which has inspired a decade of journalism work telling the lesser-known stories of the Middle-East. Thesiger’s journals recording his interactions with early Arabia were a driving force in pushing me towards a life of documentary photography. Obviously the days of early 19th and 20th Century exploration are gone but the exploration of
Nestled on the border with Yemen sits one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest and most unique cultural
unknown cultures still exists in some level of the world
regions which has persisted for thousands of years. However in the next 20 years an entire culture
is in danger of disappearing as globalization takes its hold on the most crucial demographic, the 18–35-year-olds.
ASIR : Sand in an Hourglass
long I discovered just how much of the country's history
The last 20 years have already devastated the region with young men leaving their traditional
and it's modern day reality are still unknown to the rest of
villages in search of jobs and education not available in their hometowns.
the world. The truth is that the country is much more than what the rest of the world believes it to be.
This book and accompanying film is a journey through several cities of the southwestern region of Saudi Arabia to discover what remains, and what the future holds for the 100-year-old country.
This book has been a journey of several years to bring the story of Asir to life both in photography and film. I wanted to show people things they never expected about a country they may or may not be familiar with.
Having lived in Saudi Arabia, as a Swiss journalist, for so
Sand in an ASIR:Hourglass
Foreword by HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud It was with great delight that I read the book proposal for Asir: Sand in an Hourglass back in 2013. Saudi Arabia is a vast country, rich with diverse cultures, a fact not often known outside of its borders.
Documenting that culture through interviews, photography and film is an essential record
of a nation in a state of flux: traditions being balanced by the demands of ever-wider reaching globalization. Author and photographer Michael Bou-Nacklie travelled the Asir
region in the south east of The Kingdom, spending time with its characters and, in doing so, has gathered individual stories of activities, recipes, events and memories. Together these comprise a record of a noble people and their existence in one of the countryâ€™s toughest, yet mesmerizing and beautiful landscapes.
A few words from Michael Bou-Nacklie Without the support from HRH Princess Reema Al-Saud, and her dedication to preserve the cultural heritage of Asir, this project would not have been possible.
This has been a personal project for many years and ﬁnally in August 2013 with Princess Reema’s help I was able to spend 10 days on location working to create a record of the
people of Asir through images and video. Hopefully the initiative by Princess Reema is the
ﬁrst step in a long line of documentary projects to record one of the oldest and culturally
diverse regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Another thank you needs to be made to Niche Arabia and Senior Consultant, Marriam Mossalli who helped get the project off the ground by bringing the project to Princess Reema’s attention.
A special thank you to everyone who supported me in my long journey to make this book
a reality. I could not have done it without your support. A very special thank you goes
out to my good friend and trusted assistant Sami Alamoudi for his help throughout the journey through the Asir mountains. Thank you.
I would like to thank everyone who has supported me in my long journey to make this book a reality. I could not have done it without your support.
A very special thank you goes out to my good friend and trusted assistant Sami Alamoudi for his help throughout the journey through the Asir mountains. Thank you.
Thank you for your purchase and support of the project. This book
is designed to work in tandem with the film which is viewable online at www.vimeo.com/mikebou/asirsand
Foreword: Princess Reema
A few words from the author
Ahmad the honey vendor
Saleh Abu Arrad Al-Shehri
Ali Said Al-Sharai
hen most people imagine Saudi Arabia they see rolling sand dunes, nomads living a life of noble solitude scratching out an existence in the brutal desert heat. The peninsula, which is home to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been at the crossroads of history seeing empires march come and go. Romans once marched through the Hejaz (west coast) and before them the Thamud carved tombs out of mountains; Himyarites attacked their Persian enemies; and Lawrence of Arabia drank from wells deep in the Hejaz. An entire world of history lost to time like sand in an hourglass. However, the Arab nation has a more established history, reaching as far back as 1,800 years with everything from agriculture to mountaintop fortresses, repleat with stone architecture. The region in question is Asir, roughly translated as â€œtough landâ€?, and everything from the landscape to the people are a pure exemplification of that. Named after a confederation of clans, it is almost a world apart from the rest of the country. Made up of mountains, valleys, coasts, and deserts, Asir is a world unto itself with a heavy influence from Yemen consisting of a culture of noble warriors and farmers. Seven hours by car from Jeddah, farther North, traveling to Asir was an adventure in itself. Braving desert sand storms and then climbing near vertical inclines we set out to find the last remnants of the ancient culture of Asir. As globalizationâ€™s effects become more and more pervasive, an entire population segment is dissapearing. As young men, 18-35-years-old, leave their ancestral villages in search of job opportunities. They move Northward or Eastward and with vast distances between, many never return. This book is a look at what remains of the the ancient culture which cemented Asir as a nation centuries before Saudi Arabia.
With a population of 485,201 in 2013, according to official census data, Abha was the former regional seat of the Ottoman Empire during World War 1. It was later seized by the Wahabist army of King Saud and later formalized in 1934 by the Treaty of Taif. Sitting on a mountaintop, Abha was once a disperate group of tribes inhabiting a difficult mountain landscape. Now, the city is a bustling home of regional commerce and trade. Those same tribes still exist and live in the same remote villages scattered across the hillside. But we’ll get to that a little later. My first glimpse of Abha was through Thierry Mauger’s book “Undiscovered Asir”, one of the few (if not only) photographic collections of Asir prior to globalization taking it’s hold and presenting the situation now affecting the region.
â€œJobs are bondage. Here, we have freedom.â€?
The tribesmen of Tihama form part of the original communities still living in the area. Ahmad is a Shepard for most of the year, but during the summer he makes the 6-hour trip into the city to sell honey bought from wholesalers. 14
n the 90’s on one of my first trips to the region, I remember young men in their 20’s dressed in
traditional garb. Kajul (coal eye-liner) around their eyes, daggers in their belt and a rifle over their shoulder, with flowers braided into their hair. Slowly that is dissapearing from the city, leaving a generational vacuum which has been steadily growing for 20 years. While traveling through the region, in 2013, we saw the same thing every time - villagers in their 80's and young children. An entire demographic has simply disapeared, begging the question - What will happen in the next two decades? The tribesmen of Tihama form part of the original communities still living in the area. Albeit far away in difficult to reach communities, they travel into Abha and sell items by the roadside; with everything from honey to camping gear. Ahmed is one of those vendors. Traveling from the Tihama mountains in Haqou, Ahmad is a shepard for most of the year. But during the summer he makes the 6-hour trip into the city to sell honey bought from wholesalers. Honey, in Asir, is known for it’s 'magical' properties, touted as natural Viagra. Many Saudis pay upwards of a few hundred dollars for a container no larger than jar of jam at your local grocery store. “This is our livelihood, thank God, and it is better than employment,” he said standing next to his pick-up truck loaded with honey. “Jobs are bondage. Here, we have freedom.”
Abha's high altitude allows for much cooler weather with regular rainfall and near constant cloud cover during the summer. 16
A car rushes upwards on a hillside in Aziziyah on the hillside above Abha.
Abha is nestled around several open air markets each catering to a different type of craft or commodity. Near the main street, cutting through the hillscape is the main Abha souk (market). At first glance it doesn’t seem all that different from any tourist destination marketplace. Handwoven square straw fans gently sway in the mid-afternoon breeze as clerks sit under makeshift aunings, while others dust wares keeping them in good shape for wandering tourist eyes. Our local fixer Mousa was intent on showing us this market because “it’s different from any others” we would have seen even as veterans of the country. As we stroll through the aisles we notice a shift in makeup of vendors. Namely the traditional white garb worn by men is shifting into long black robes covering the female vendors. In the distance I hear two vendors arguing “You owe me 500 riyals pay me back now,” a female store owner shouts at a male distributor. Mousa turns to me, “you want to interview women right? This is the best place to find a working women.” We keep on skimming the aisles, while Sami Alamoudi, a talented graphic designer and my assistant photographer for this trip, eyes what is on display. Enter Um Mohammad. She shouts towards me as I look at some baskets, “don’t bother with those they’re cheaply made with plastic fibers, here these are handmade by local women,” as she holds up a less-precise woven basket but brimming with handmade charm.
Near the main street, cutting through the hillscape is the main Abha souk (market). This market is divided in half so that female vendors can sell their wares in the same market as men.
All we can see of Um Mohammad’s face are her eyes. Peering out from the slit in her niqab (traditional face covering for women) you can tell she means business. Her store; a small space no bigger than a 4x5 space, is draped in jewelry and clothing from the area. This particular market is special because it is divided in half, allowing female store owners to work on one side while men work on the other. Um Mohammad tells us this particular market has been open for 25 years, but claims she has been doing business for much longer. Her age is indisguishable under her niqab but the gently leathered texture of her skin tells me she is close to her 60’s. “People come and ask for the old items, those that are handmade,” she said sitting in a chair in her storefront. “Every day it is growing and evolving but things are improving.” She claims the demand for handmade goods and traditional wares has increased in the last decade as people slowly try and reclaim what their parents or grandparents had in the early days of the Kingdom. Um Mohammad is just one part of a long history the Asir region has of female business owners and pioneers. The region itself has a long history of outspoken female poets and tribal leaders however that mentality is missing in the modern Saudi diaspora.
The road to Rejal Alma museum. Locals travel up and down the hairpin turns at full speed because of poor brakes going down and fear of stalling while going up.
Mohammad Turshi locks the door to the building he used to attend school in, using a traditional lock he rebuilt himself as part of his restoration effort for future generations, he 24 said as tears fill his eyes.
It was a dusty evening in 2010, and I was photographing the life of then rising-Saudi-artstar Ahmad Mater when he suggested we venture into an area where his family originated. Setting out from his stomping grounds around Abha we traveled down a steep mountain road to arrive to a hidden valley packed with farms and livestock. Some two hours later we find a man known for his construction prowess, an elderly man who allegedly built his own mosque. The sun is just setting over the mountaintop as we drive past the Rejal Alma fortress sitting on a hill in the middle of a small town. The halogen bulbs hanging in the windows sway in the wind and flicker as they slowly come to life as the sun vanishes. Tucked into the hillside directly adjacent to this giant fortress turned museum a man lays out the prayer rugs and kneels down preparing himself to start his evening prayers. Itâ€™s hard to imagine that Iâ€™m still in Saudi Arabia, a country where I have worked for 10 years, as the cool breezes washes over me and the sound of birds chirp in the ancient trees overhead. I venture with Mater around the corner of the mosque to find Mohammad Turshi beginning his prayers.
A distant view of the same road (page 20) created over a ten-second exposure.
â€œNo! If you want to help, bring people, but no money,â€?
Mohammad Turshi leads a prayer in front of the majlis and mosque 28he built by himself using only traditional methods, in two months.
is eyes dart up to me and immediately I apologize for disturbing him. He gets up
rocking back on his heels and briskly walks towards me with a big smile on his face “Welcome, welcome who are you? What brings you here?” Turshi is a proud man. The very embodiment of what I used to read about in British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s travels across the Arabian Desert at the beginning of the 20th Century. The “bedou” attitude of Saudi Arabia has largely disappeared from the mainstream culture, replaced instead with a modern love for shopping malls and imported cars. Yet here stands a man, out of time in a world different and unknown to most Saudis as well as the rest of the world. “I built this mosque myself… as well as the majlis behind you,” Turshi said. But that’s not even the most interesting part. Not only did he build both structures by himself at a ripe old age of 86, but he only used traditional building materials in the area. He shows us the building directly behind both structures which, at that point, he had just started renovating into a museum to the culture of the region. Granted this building was a more modern interpretation of his construction with steel beams and concrete floors, it retained the same general feel of a handcrafted structure. Mater and I, obviously impressed by the construction, kept on asking him question after question with Turshi firing back answers while calmly leaning against a wall.
He brings us around the back of the building, putting his hands on a worn wooden door. The same door which used to be main entrance into the school is now the backdoor to the soon-to-be museum. “Next time you do something like this, tell me and I will bring people and money,” Mater says. Turshi eyes switch from his joyful grin to a silent intensity. “NO!” he grunts while grabbing Mater by the forearm, “if you want to help bring people, but no money.” THAT right there is the perfect example of that same bedou pride Thesiger spoke about in his journal. That was three years ago. When I caught up with Turshi in 2013 it was a breezy day as Sami Alamoudi, my photo assistant for this trip, and I drove up and down the steep mountain roads of the Tihama area. I was determined to find Turshi again, hunting for museum names and locations in an attempt to track him down. Finally out of a stroke of luck Google pulls up a Rejal Alma and I let out a loud EUREKA! slamming on the accelerator we speed down the mountain. Roughly an hour later we pull up to the Rejal Alma museum, set up by the Supreme Commission of Tourism and Antiquities several years ago as a testament to the regionas history. The museum is an impressive multi-story structure built as a collection of towers massed together. Originally a palace for the local governor, it is now historical collection of artifacts and architecture, a symbol of the area.
The Rejal Alma museum in the center of town across from the mosque Turshi built (not pictured).
We pull up right to the main door, which is now a construction site. Previously a giant grey concrete soccer stadium complete with stadium lighting, filled the courtyard but has since been removed, thankfully. The same yellow bulbs swing in the cool breeze, the locals stare at us as we pull up in our rented red Volkswagon, clearly we were not blending in. We pay the meager museum fee and wander in to see things reminiscent of a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. Rooms packed with weaving, weaponry, shackles from a prison and geometric patterns fills each room one after another. We move to the top floor, thin weaved high seats lay forgotten on the ground collapsed from rain and sun damage. Alamoudi and I take in the view of the valley hidden under an overpass directly above the town. Hidden behind some construction sites, we can see the top of Turshi’s building, it’s close to 2 p.m. and the sun isn’t as unforgiving as it was just a few hours prior when we left Jeddah. Asir’s higher altitude gives it a much cooler climate frequented by rain and a sky filled with large clouds blocking out the sun for weeks at a time. We come around the corner at Turshi’s home. After several years I wasn’t sure what to expect and was secretly worried the strong man had degenerated since the last time I saw him.
Mohammad Turshi poses for a portrait outside the building he restored which was formerly a school (he attended as a child), the home of the mayor of the area, and now a museum to the history of the region.
The mosque and majlis Turshi built by himself at 86-years-old. (Opposite) A view from inside the Rejal Alma museum with traditional crafts visible. 34
Abha at night
A figure emerges out of the same museum which years earlier was an empty husk, brandishing a chainsaw over his shoulder and cabling in his other hand. With the same steely look in his eyes Turshi walks towards us and Alamoudi introduces us in Arabic. “This journalist came a few years ago to interview you with Ahmed Mater, we’d like to interview you again for a documentary project he’s working on about Asir.” Turshi looks me up and down and obviously has no idea who I am, I don’t blame him it was a long time ago on a very random chance encounter. But he does remember Mater so we plan to come back in a few days to talk to him about his conservation work. Shortly after leaving Jeddah the terrain changes almost immediately from the rocky desert we are familiar with to a silky compilation of tan dunes.
communities for. Like any large city, it had the usual tropes of familiarity large shopping centers, coffee shops aplenty and international chains like Burger King. However unlike it’s cousins farther North, Abha does not have a landscape of Starbucks and McDonalds dotting it’s landscape. The chains do exist but are few and far between. Most of the businesses are still small and locally owned and remain mostly oriented to the labor class of workers. Large boofias, or local eateries, are where locals meet for coffee and tea and to share traditional meals usually enjoyed on the floor while resting on a thin layer of plastic. It’s evening by the time when we arrive in Abha. The bustling city is lined with lights in preparation for the upcoming Eid AlFitr celebration. We meet our guide Majed briefly and arrive at our hotel with an agreement to start early the next morning to head out to start recording interviews.
The air is thick with sand and for a mid afternoon sunny day somehow the sky begins to darken. As we travel down the narrow desert highway we pass a bright yellow sign “Danger Sandstorm hazard ahead”, but less than 5 minutes later the sky is almost dark at 2pm.
Despite being a metropolitan-esque city, it is reminscent of cities like Jeddah almost 20 years ago.
The heart of Asir is undoubtedly the bustling city of Abha. As the economic hub for the area, this is where most of the young people flock to for the blue and white-collar jobs many leave their
The ring road takes you directly around the main city of Abha in an hour amid collections of infrastructure projects in varying states of completion/ abandonement.
Wild donkeys and baboons cover the mountainside and are considered pests eating crops planted by locals.
A few years earlier with the help of Yann Jules Gayet, a French diplomat working with the cultural attache of the Consulate General of France in Jeddah, we ventured into the hillsides of Abha. An unbound wilderness of prickly forests and remote villages. I originally met Gayet when he came to the office of a tourism magazine I was heading up in Jeddah. A tall thin man in his thirties, Gayet was as amiable and jolly as you can get. A deeply adventurous type of guy he was already an accomplished exploration photographer going to some of the most remote areas of the Kingdom to bring back photos. By adventurous I donâ€™t mean he wanted to do new things.
I consider him as adventurous as guys like Copernicus. Armed with a camera and Google Earth directions he regularly crossed the Kingdom to discover what was out there. It’s no parchment map, but for a country that is still fairly uncharted that’s no small feat. After lengthy discussions, being the two foreigners
exploration somehow we come to the idea of going on an excursion together to none other than Asir itself. Granted the story was for the magazine but it was really for us. We laugh as we share stories about the ridiculous and the mundane of what has happened to us as we’ve been ethnographically displaced through the Kingdom. Gayet has a sense of wonder talking about the country. For those of us who love history, Saudi Arabia is a treasure trove of living history because of it’s relative youth and quick development so much of what was prevelant 100 years ago is still the status quo. He pops open his laptop showing me a saved point on Google Earth. At first I see nothing then slowly zooms in, a tiny sliver of a path comes into view. “We should go here,” he says with a grin. Gayet was working on a collection of images at the time for an upcoming photo gallery of images from around the Kingdom. Several days later and a few hours in his Jeep we come to a cliffside. A donkeypath dips off the ‘main’ road and down a mountain side into a web of valleys.
Gayet stands on a road overlooking the path down the mountain.
The sun has been hijacked for a few hours,. Gagged by thick dark clouds but to hell with caution we’re in the middle of nowhere with a few days worth of supplies. As we pull off the road the sky mists us with what I assume is rain. I’ve been in Jeddah for a few years and only know sudden rain storms during the rainy season which come suddenly coating everything with sandy moisture. This however was something else. It was light, almost pleasant and refreshing. Clearly the altitude was playing tricks on my mind. We punish Gayet’s Jeep downhill crossing a trail probably never traversed by a car, or at least not regularly. With a rock face on our left and from what appeared like nothing at all on my right we inched downhill. Slowly the front windshield starts to reveal something I was hoping to see. Like a kid opening a present on Christmas day more and more fine details come into view, first a Yemeni-style fortress on a hilltop then a small encampment with a small farm lining the base.
Rain occurs frequently in the high altitude of Abha throughout the year. Regularly during the winter months the sky will be clouded out by thick dark rain clouds for most of the day.
Baboons watch our slow descent, probably just as curious as to who we were as the locals who live in the area.
A ring of homes surround the tower's base, which according to locals were inhabited until 1950's when government officials relocated them into homes nearby. (Top right) Rows of ancient honeycombs dot the landscape. Asir honey is prized for its "magical" properties mirroring a natural alternative to Viagra, fetching a few hundred riyals for a jar.
An early morning view of the tower from where the honeycombs sit on the cliffside overlooking the valley below. 46
Honeycomb structures left behind when the region was under Yemeni control prior to WWI.
â€œThe same spaces used over 100 years ago are still in use today.â€?
Using a mixture of water, sugar and pollen the bees are naturally attracted to the sweet treat and begin to make a hive. The local 48farmers take a portion of the honey and sell it to locals.
Mohammad greets us with a big smile, welcoming us into the small hamlet of a village. Nestled directly between two large mountains, a tiny guard tower overlooks a valley below with the same imposing stature it did 100 years ago when it was built. Asir had been a contested region for years predating WW1. Fortresses and ancient encampments are not uncommon and in fact an agreement to end a conflict dating back to 1803 was not signed until 1934. This
village until the mid 1950â€™s, according to Mohammad. Now a retired army captain he hires locals (some illegal Yemeni immigrants) to cultivate a plantation of figs and pomergranades for sale in local markets. He uses a portion of the funds to continously repair the ailing structure using only traditional tools and materials. Despite
eight, two-story homes surrounding the tower with several hundred artificial honeycombs dotting the hillside. The sun is slowly starting to set so we accompany Mohammad to meet some of his workers. An elderly Yemeni man and a younger Abha native stand ahead of us waiting for us to meet them halfway. The surrounding are is rocky and unforgiving and not far from us we can hear the sound of wild donkeys baying in the distance, echoing off boulders and cliffs.
A single kerosene lamp lights up the single room house where the laborers sleep and live while working the field. 50
Gayet and Mohammad wearing headlamps on a moonless night to navigate the dark terrain around the guard tower. 52
Wild baboons scramble around the rocks glaring at us and probably wanting to sample the buffet of crops down below.
Mohammad doesn’t mess around. Carrying a WW2-era M48 bolt action rifle over his shoulder he lifts the butt of the rifle to his shoulder and in some odd pavlovian response the baboons take off in a hurry. It’s obvious this isn’t the first time they’ve seen Mohammad do this. We walk to the small hut that is home to the workers and their kitchen.
Night is dropping fast, the starry sky begins to peek through the dark blue sky revealing an entire sky free from light pollution, but also free from a moon so night fell quickly into complete darkness. With only headlamps to cook by, a much younger worker appears from the night, with a bowl in tow and flour.
With the speed of a chef he quickly kneads the flour into a dough which he then heats over a small fire outside the hut. We sit and talk with Mohammad and two other workers, one leaves and hurries back with his “favorite shirt”.
A large Japanese bomber is emblazoned across his chest, with the burning wreckage of a warship below it.
. Cots set up out of the back of Gayets Jeep. Our sleeping arrangement from the night.
Yes, his favorite was a depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He doesn’t have any reason other than that its the only graphic tee he owns; nothing malicious towards the US. We share a light dinner of wheat and fruits with tea. Gayet whispers to me in French, “Don’t have more than one cup of this stuff it’s really strong.”
This wasn’t my first Saudi gathering, I know the traditional Saudi tea is really sweet so I ignore his comment and respectfully down 2 cups of tea. While refreshing, an unmistakable headache hits me almost as soon as I’ve finished the tiny second cup. “They get all their water from a natural spring,” Gayet interjects between lobe throbs, “you’re drinking water that’s saturated with minerals that you aren’t used to.”
Well played nature, well played.
After an evening of discussions about everything from city life to politics we settle into our cots beside Gayet’s Jeep, under the stars. There’s a remarkable stillness in the air, punctuated by ghostly bays of wild donkeys and the shreiks of baboons in the distance. Several hours later somewhere between
4-5am. Something is
sniffing through my hair.
A young laborer prepares the traditional bourh (bread) as part of dinner.
I look up to find the nose of an inquisitive donkey rummaging through my hair probably thinking I was a tastey shrub. I sit up, giving the donkey a fright sending him and his 5 buddies off into the night with a brisk trot.
We wake up early roughly around 6am and go meet our hosts. Pearl Harbor guy tells us he wants to show us the natural spring where the water comes from.
progressively enlarging pools we come to a dead end in this nook in the mountainside.
This natural spring has been tapped with a large pipe running from one of the pools straight into a makeshift irrigation system for the farm which is how Mohammad is able to keep the produce watered all year long.
Mohammad invites us into his â€œhouseâ€?. A modest one room cabin with concrete walls and the only adornment is a tiny shelf holding a few essentials, including playing cards, bleach and cigarettes.
He offers us some more of his deceptively painful tea as the morning light fills the tiny room. After an hour of chatting Gayet and I make our way back to the Jeep and set out to Jeddah.
Mohammad, the owner of the land, invites us into his â€œhouseâ€?. A modest one room cabin with concrete walls and the only adornment is a tiny shelf holding a few essentials, including playing cards, bleach and cigarettes.
After leaving Abha in the early hours we arrive in Tanomah, a city divided in half by mountains and large sandstone boulders with mini-forests sprouting out from dry waterfall ledges. We’ve come here to speak to an elderly shepherd who lives on top of one the overlooking mountains of the area. Located 120km away from the city center of Abha, Tanomah is home to about 40,000 people and because of it’s high altitude it’s significantly cooler by about 20 degrees than in Abha. A thick fog rolls in over the top of a mountain, which would look more at home somewhere akin to Monument Valley in Arizona. We arrive at the hotel where Alamoudi and I will be staying for the next few days. This mountaintop hotel has some of the more miraculous views you’ve ever seen, looking down jagged knife-like mountains rising from the valleys like the hands of an Olympian sculpting the landscape. The next morning we stand on the roof enjoying the perpetual wind always blowing at this high altitude as we watch a cloud travel uphill, bend around the mountain – subsequently us – and then return back downhill. Herds of cackling baboons, 50 strong, cross the mountainside cutting through the parking lots through the children’s playground and back down the façce of the mountain. The Lipton tag on Alamoudi’s tea has been flailing in the wind this entire time never touching the glass more than once a minute, acting as a would-be wind vane.
â€œSociety is losing the strength of relations and community bonds,â€?
Saleh Alu Abu Arrad Al-Shehri poses for a portrait in his office at King Khaled University. 62
aleh Abu Arrad Al-Shehri, PhD, Professor of Liberal Arts at King Khaled University, has been studying Asir extensively and in an interview said the only way the culture can recover is through awareness.
“The changes that have happened to the region, have positive and negative aspects. In relation to physical appearance and dress, it is only natural as we’ve been through a phase of social evolution,” AlShehri said at his home in Tanomah. As Saudi society developed during fastracked modernization in the 1950’s people were funneled through certain pathways as the culture adapted. “Society is losing the strength of relations and community bonds in comparison to how they used to be. There has been an influx of new habits, like how appearance has changed. There are no longer regional designations in modern dress; identity. There are no differences between our youth and those anywhere else.” He was referring to how young people choose to mold their identitie on values often viewed as alien or foreign. Granted this happens in every culture as it grows, the difference is in how drastically different those values are, supplanting traditional Arab values for modern Western ones. “We need to suggest solutions. If we want to take society in a positive direction while preserving our ideals, our authenticity, our traditions we need a main catalyst. In Arabic we call it awareness. We need awareness. To recognize what benefits us and what doesn’t. What’s necessary and what isn’t. What’s needed and what isn’t. If this is accomplished by young people then we have nothing to fear. We’ll be able to deal with the future’s shifts and changes with wisdom.”
What he says he believes is the most critical for the coming generation, is the ideas they choose to mold their identities on. Ideals which are temporary "or fleeting, which they mimic without understanding." Most likely he is referring to the desire for young people to buy expensive cars, rather than focus on family values. "It doesnâ€™t nourish them, nor is it an inheritance from the past. It's a fleeting ideal. And cultural anthropologists say that there are three types of cultural beliefs, and one of them is temporary." Temporary ideals, Al-Shehri says, fade with time making a solution in the future quite difficult to predict. "But we have to suggest opinions. If we want to take society towards positivity while preserving the ideals, the authenticity, the traditions we need a main catalyst we call it in Arabic: awareness positive awareness." Putting it bluntly, what he's advocating isn't a complete abdonment of modern ideals, but some middle ground so culture can adapt. Rubbing his knuckles as he sits in the big sofa, he references how radio was first introduced to the Arabian Peninsula. At a time when electricity was still new culture shock to modern ideals was having its first impacts. "At first people wouldn't accept it, then slowly it became a tool to learn the Quran verses without a teacher. Before radio that wouldn't have been possible. That's just one way technology has been introduced but has provided a social benefit. Striking a balance isn't easy, but it has to be done for things to go."
Students at King Khaled University chat in the corridors of the new campus late in the evening.
Abu Fahad has raised livestock his entire life and laments how people are so disconnected from the land that helped raise them. 66
We set out to find one of the last remnants of traditional Asir life as we climb deep into the mountains of Tanomah, crossing abandoned
clustered mud houses laced between power lines to keep the street lights powered in the dim twilight. We meet Abu Fahad, an elderly man in his 80’s, who tends a herd of goats he milks regularly. In his old age he is no longer able to keep his flock all by himself. A young Indian expat works for him herding the 50 goats back home from the hillside. Abu Fahad shuffles his feet as he chases goats for milking, he chuckles my way as I try and follow him with my camera without startling the goats too much. “It makes me really sad seeing the young people (of Asir),” he says as he puts down a kid and sits on the stone step in front of his old home. “They have lost all connection to the land and the animals, which is where Asir came from.” While a lament from an octogenarian, he does have a point. In the last 20 years globalization has started to tighten it’s grip on even the most remote extensions of Asir. Young people have progressively left their tribal communities and it’s painfully obvious in cities like Tanomah where only the elderly can be seen at markets.
â€œ(Young people) have lost their connection to the land...which is where Asir came from.â€?
Assisting Abu Fahad with the daily chores of tending to the herd, Ahmad from Bangladesh, is one of the many expatriate workers making up an entire labor community taking over jobs formerly performed by locals.
ighting back the surge of modernity Fayez
Dahdough lives in a tiny compound nestled on a plain between tall hills, the thatched roof of his museum is a welcome respite from the cold wind. Standing at the outside of his home he welcomes us with open arms and shows us just how he works to educate everyone who visits him about the culture of the area. Photos by famed early 20th Century photographer Wilfred Thesiger who was one of the first to document Asir along with photos of various dignitaries who have come to visit his museum line the walls. Dahdough is a gem. He is one of the few people who work to show that culture is more than antiques. Lighting a small fire, he sits down and grabs a goatskin bag. Reaching in he grabs fresh coffee beans and using traditional utensils starts to grill them over a log fire. “The trick to making good Arabic coffee is to only half grilling the beans, not all the way through,” he says with a grin. The endlessly cheerful Dahdough tells us every step of how to prepare traditional Arabic coffee including the different ways a host reacts to his guests. “If a host enjoys his guests then he bangs the mortar against the inside of the pestle to make a clank sound which he turns into a song,” he says in Arabic. After making tea, his sons arrive and bring in a bowl of honey, corn on the cob, sweetened ghee, and bread he cooks over the fire; we dig into a rich meal. His cheerful demeanor shifts into something more serious. Pouring us cup after cup of cardamom stuffed Arabic coffee, he talks to us
Fayez Dahdough poses for a portrait at the museum he built celebrating food and culture, in Tanomah.
about how he fears for the future of the area.
Dahdough prepares traditional tea by slowly roasting coffee beans and crushing them in a mortar and pestle. â€œWhile crushing the coffee a host can let the guest know if he is enjoying his guest by knocking the edge of the metal making a song out of it. If the host is not happy then no 74sound is needed,â€? he said. Photo by Sami Alamoudi
Dahdough poses for a portrait at the museum he built celebrating food and culture, in Tonomah. Photo by Sami Alamoudi
“A lot of where we come from is what we eat.”
“A lot of where we come from is from what we eat. I’ve been living off well water and I have not been to the doctor in 20 years,” he says with a toothy grin. “I also eat the food I grow myself or from small farmers nearby, a lot of what makes Asir distinctive is slowly withering away.” He says he tries to have school children visit his museum in order to instill a curiosity of where Asir comes from. On the wall hangs a photograph by Wilfred Thesiger of a man dressed in a thobe rolled up to his waist, two large horizontal daggers strapped to his belt – he stands in the blazing desert heat barefoot.Large camel and goat skin jackets adorn the ceilings, “time is obviously going to bring change, but when we forget where we came from we cannot decide what our future will be.” Shortly after finishing preparing the food he quickly darts off to change into something slightly more formal for the portrait we wanted to take of him. He emerges in a white thobe and shemagh tipped by tiny colorful tassles. “Everything I’m wearing I made myself, except for the agal which is woven by some local women, all this I made, including my shoes and my sword.” Dahdough is what I came to Asir to find. Living remnants of history and a culture struggling to maintain a hold on it’s identity. Despite the praise he’s received for his work, evidenced by pictures of various dignitaries who have come to visit him in his museum, Dahdough has a sobering view of whats to come. “There’s no longer a need for manual preparations: building a fire with your hands and smelling like burnt wood,” he said as he sits in a sofa sea carved out of the stone wall. “These kinds of things are extinct, forgive me for saying it but thats what reality tells us.” Despite the changes Dahdough claims that the traditions are not so much gone, but adapted. “(Young people have) adapted it in a different way. Instead of lighting a bonfire of hospitality in their homes, they’ll light it in an oasis or mountain plateau. It has been transformed in method and style, but I still consider it as a spark of hospitality. The lighting of fire and gathering near so that we remain close to our environment and ways, even if we’re not in our homes.”
Daggers and swords for sale in the Mukheil market. The daggers earned by men when entering manhood are a rite of passage and feature a geometric pattern of their tribe and often specific stones on the hilt. The golden daggers seen in the image are plastic toys worn by children at special events, such as weddings and family occasions. 78
Majid, a local guide, drives us to Mukheil early in the morning via steep moutain to valley roads. Photo taken via Instagram.
Majid, our guide, fetches us early on a Monday morning to head down the winding mountain roads from Abha. We pass by a village on the plateau that Abha sits on, and Majid points frantically “you see that hilltop with the mud castle on it? I’m renting that out from the local council of Sheikhs.” What he was pointing at was a dilapidated hilltop village which has obviously seen better days. The community once on the banks of a river which flooded during heavy rainfall of shallow wadi (valley) was perfect for crops planted on the riverbank. Of course we didn’t realize this until Sami and I both went back on our last day in Abha to see what he was yammering about. What we saw was really astonishing, a ruin of a fortress city with the descendants living in the same place not even a few hundred meters away. What Majid was trying to explain was that he was renting the land and structures from a local municipal council of elder tribesmen who are allowing him to turn the area into a tourism site. Tourism in Asir is a bit backwards. While packed with history, the local historical monument trade is still very young (not even 15-years-old) and guides don’t yet have a grasp as to what tourism really is – at least not in the European scale of things.
ost of the people who country’s early infrastructure come to Asir to explore was built by the Ottoman are not Saudis. Empire, revolving around train networks as well as the Unfortunately it’s only first permanent structures. Westerners who already live The contention with allowing and work in the Kingdom who these structures to remain are the ones seeking out these is that they are remnants of various cultures. Getting into a brutal occupation, which Saudi as a tourist is no small locals are keen to forget feat. The home of Islam, the but the memories are still bulk of visitors come for too fresh with less than religious pilgrimage focusing 50 years of sand blowing on Makkah and Madinah but over them. At the same those who go out exploring time those structures are historical landmarks, which already live here. from an outside historians Japanese photographer perspective merit protection Kazuyoshi Nomachi was and preservation. completing a book on world religions and he quipped A few days into our in the section about Islam exploration of Asir, we “that it is easier to get into meet a group of Western North Korea than it is to get tourists exploring the region. into Saudi Arabia.” What he Most worked for the oil meant was that North Korea powerhouse Aramco, several actually has a tourist visa were in business-related process, while arguably Saudi fields and several others were Arabia does too, the process nurses from scattered parts is highly restricted and only of the Kingdom. These are the a handful of tourists manage people that come in droves to to arrive in the country. A experience Asir. The obvious closed theocratic state with problem is that expatriates a particular way of looking have no vested interest in the at how to live life in the culture at large, outside of Kingdom, which is strictly the educational value. Once enforced; the idea of groups expats leave who is going to of non-Muslim¬ Western experience the culture and tourists isn’t something most visit the museums? people would welcome in About a dozen young men such a sphere of thought. are gathered to put on a The people who should be cultural show for the expats; visiting Asir are the Saudis complete with drums and themselves, but the country singing outside their hotel in is so young there is very Tanomah. The young men are little appreciation for what visibly excited to share their history exists as well as very culture with new people and little understanding as to the excitement is palpable what is out there. A lot of the as they gather in a corner
next to an open fire, slowly warming their hand drums over the flame. The heat allows the goat skin drum to expand; in essence tuning the instrument. Dancing in a line slowly lifting one leg followed by the next in unison while a singer leads them in a chant and another three keep a steady rhythm as they play the drums faster and faster. The evening goes on for a few hours, the visibly tired expats are ready to call it quits after their 2-3 hour bus ride from Abha but they humor the young men who insist on one more dance. The next morning I stopped a few of the expats to discuss their experience of tourism with them. Tourism may seem like an opposite direction when regarding cultural significance but in this part of the world, tourism is what gives tribal communities their life-blood. Much like the Masai in Kenya who benefit by having tourists come visit their villages, the tribes of Asir could function much in the same way in order to have added incentive to promote their culture. Rodney, an American in his 60’s, has been in Saudi Arabia for most of his life. “I’ve been in Saudi Arabia pretty much every year since the 1950’s,” he said in a quick interview in the hallway of the hotel where the group was staying. His father originally brought him over when he was young and subsequently got a job with Aramco bringing him back to the Kingdom every year.
â€œSwooping down like a team of poorly groomed ninjas; the baboons attack mercilessly whatever food they can expose in the packing crates,â€?
Wild baboons are common on the cliffs of Abha, often scavenging in the garbage left in open trashpiles. 84
His situation is not uncommon. Many children of expats end up living in Saudi Arabia for a significant portion of their lives and become unofficial ambassadors of the country once they return home. But given his prolonged exposure to the Kingdom I wanted to know what he had seen of tourism in the country dating back to some of the earliest periods in the Kingdoms modern history. When Aramco brought back a plane load of veterans of childhood who had grown up in Saudi Arabia, for a visit the first thing a lot of them said was that they’d want to bring their own children here to show them where they grew up. Clearly the notion of a national identity isn’t limited simply to the bedou or the Asir. It’s mid afternoon by this point and we make our way down the mountainside; darting from behind one cargo truck after another with baboons lining the cliffs skulking through garbage tossed just off the highway. Those same baboons are watching the trucks inch slowly uphill, waiting for for the steepest incline of the highway where the trucks will slow, the most because these baboons double as land pirates. As the trucks carrying food slow, the primates attack the unsuspecting cargo and pillage what they can before the truck reaches the top of the hill. Swooping down like a team of poorly groomed ninjas, the baboons attack mercilessly whatever food they can expose in the packing crates. But the truck drivers aren’t without their own weapons. On one of our many descents to from Abha we saw several truck drivers tossing tomatos are miscealleanous fruits out their windows.
Bear in mind that the Kingdom doesn’t really have a strong environmentalism track or systematic education about littering, so seeing debris ejected from windows is not all that uncommon, this however was different. Bright red tomatos vaulted from the driverside cabin window rolling into the ditches and the side of the road where the baboons congregated, one after another. These projecticles were in fact payments to the monkey mob extortion racket, because if they got some food up front they were less likely to skyjack the trucks en route; and sailors in the Gulf of India think they have it rough. Our encounters with the simian truck raiders didn’t end there. A few days later as Alamoudi and I drove through a truck inspection point on the main road out of Asir, trucks had been backed up for roughly a mile or two. Having no cargo we naturally drove right by when something caught my eye. A truck driver was hanging out his driver-side cabin window but something was off, most notably he seemed far larger than your average driver. All of a sudden he lets out a loud cackle - it was no driver, it was in fact a large baboon alpha. His grey mane blowing in the dry air, he bears his fangs and lets out a shreik for the rest of his pack who immediately come darting out from underneath the truckbed. The bag of rice in his hands drops to the ground and he takes off and the mob
scatter across the road with armfulls of ears of corn and other pillaged produce. The local truck drivers, all South Asian expatriates come out with their cell phones to record what happened laughing, obviously oblivious to the fact that their lunch/dinner had just been molested. The only thing I can think to myself is “we’re going to need a bigger boat”. The mountains turn into valleys, which then widen into huge riverbeds with farm plots lining the banks. Old farmers stand hunched over cutting down forests of corn stalks with steel scythes in 100-degree heat. We are on our way to the traditional market of Mukheil, which is one of the last remaining places where traditional crafts are still available. We pull up to a fairly nondescript open square with a crowd of roughly 50 people and shops lining the outside. A woman gestures to me to come and take a look at her wares, reaching into a cardboard box lined with what looks like a blanket at her feet, showing me a cloth wrapped loaf of bread. Her face, covered with a niqab, her only distinguishing feature are her eyes. Framed by her leathery brown eyelids she lets out a chuckle and her eyes squint with a laugh as I taste the bread and my eyes widen to how surprisingly sweet the bread is. Feeling the same consistency as a sweet potato and resembling the sugary spud in color as well this bread is one of the richest things I’ve ever tasted.
Inside the actual market is right behind her, old men are drifting between silver triangular tins laid out on the ground and on the far left a few stalls have the smell of fresh jasmine wafting from their wooden shelves. Directly opposite lining the wall are shop fronts selling large tins and gallon-sized jugs full of dark thick honey and vendors milling in and out mingling with other customers and other vendors. The tins on the ground are not for decoration. Filled with fresh honeycombs under their cylindrical lids, bees buzz trying to gather leftover honey to take back to their hives. “We use every part of the honey, even the bees,” a vendor says to me while I record footage of one of the honeycombs with several bees crawling and buzzing around. “Have you ever seen someone use bees for medicine?” he says with a chuckle. He reaches into one of the tins near his feet and grabs a bee and presses it against thumb trying to make it sting him. “It must be camera shy,” he says with a grin. “If you have bad circulation we use bee stings to fix it.” Honey has an important place in Asir culture with some touted as medicinal for a variety of ailments. Asir itself is constantly changing and in the next 20 years the culture could change entirely, either disappearing or becoming altered enough to be unrecognizable. However honey isn't the only thing Asir is known for.
Vendors at the Mukheil market sells tins of fresh honey. â€œHave you ever seen someone use bees for medicine?â€?a vendor chuckles. Beestings are a homeopathic cure to joint pain in the Asir region.
Animal husbandry aside places like Mukheil are where the traditional crafts and tools remain in practical use. On my left a box of sanded sticks used as cooking implements, on my right a woman sells glass bottles full of different kinds of urine for traditional remedies. The bustling market is full even 'late' in the day at noon, by the time we arrived. However, perhaps as a micrcausm of the rest of the region nobody at the market, save for one or two Yemeni vendors, are under 50-years-old. Abu Ali, a local merchant selling foodstuff in a narrow alleyway off the main market embodies the spirit of what Asir could be losing. The one-eyed Asir native, is sitting in a white plastic chair across the alley from his store chatting with his local store owners. He sees my camera and jumps up to his feet gesturing for me to follow him. I follow him into his store and I see him on all fours searching frantically for something, but what? I look over to Majid who looks equally puzzled. Abu Ali shouts, "I FOUND IT," as he hold two small sticks in the air. Quickly he grabs a single shallow drum and frantically pounds out an irregular beat, going on for 10 minutes. Once he stops I ask him why he was so insistent, "I just wanted to share something with you, now you'll remember this later on and tell other people," he said shaking my hand and grinning while squinting his remaining eye with a smile.
Abu Ali, a local merchant selling food in a narrow alleyway off the main market embodies the spirit of what Asir could be losing.
Sami Alamoudi photographs some of the younger residents of the village as we enter the main square which doubles as a wedding area and market square. 96
Two hours away from Abha the distant city lights have dimmed and only the faint glow of a mosque and narrow streets lined with old street lamps fill the dusk sky. We step out of our car and I can’t believe what I’m seeing, like a page ripped out of a history book. I see a hillside filled with mud and stone homes and with… can this be? People living in them? Turns out I was not having a stroke, it was real. Homes built close to a century ago are being living in today with additions of modern homes built on top or around. We walk through the narrow footpaths snaking underneath the town and we come out to the mainsquare flanked by a completely disintegrated mud home with one standing opposite still in pristine condition. We came here to interview, Ali Said Al-Sharai a retired Saudi Air Force officer co-curates a museum in the center of town. Evening prayers echo through the streets and off the buildings as we wander around the town waiting for Al-Sharai to finish his prayers and no sooner do we arrive, we are mobbed by a group of young boys curious as to why Alamoudi and I have arrived here. Laughing and joking they poke through our gear asking us a thousand questions all once “Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you live in Abha? Are you from America? What’s this? What does it do? Do you like our village?” An elderly man, probably in his nineties, walks by grinning at the excitement and shouts “Welcome to Al-Yanfa” as he walks away on his cane.
o deliver us from this pre-pubescent mob Al-Sharai emerges from the
mosque and walks up to us. A striking man dressed in the traditional white thobe with a white shemagh to match his white beard. Speaking English he ushers us into the museum of the former mayor’s residence, which doubled as a granary underneath. He gives us a brief history of the region including an explanation of an attack by Egyptian air force bombers over 50 years ago, which still has surviving living with injuries from so long ago. A proud man, Al-Sharai sits us down and tells us about the secluded town “we get all our water from 90 wells in the area, you probably saw them outside and we rely on them all year round even during the (drought) times.” His smile wanes a little, “this village is a huge village it’s like a city really, but now only a few still live here, not more than 30.” Al-Yanfa historically was vitally important to the formation of the modern Saudi state, with food and soldiers being sent by tribal elders to aid in the expulsion of the Ottoman Empire. Not to be outdone by it’s history, Al-Sharai straightens his back and with a grin tells me “22 people from this village are judges, high ranking officers and government workers.”
Ali Said Al-Sharai a retired Saudi Air Force officer co-curates a museum in the center of Al-Yanfa.
Individual plates made of stone jut out from the wall of a home in Al-Yanfa. Al-Sharai claims the plates help minimize erosion in the mud home by facilitating water run off. 100
â€œThe young men of the village come back and have marriages here... so that is how we maintain things for now.â€?
Ninety wells provide water for the entire village. Pipes leading to water tanks snake thought the entire town to provide the homes of Al-Yanfa with drinkable water. The village gets all its water from the wells. (Opposite) The runes of a home left to the elements in Al-Yanfa. Located directly in the center of town, 102this home is an anamoly as most of the homes in the village are still lived in and in good condidtion.
Locals walk around the wells which feed water directly to homes. This photograph is a long exposure - meaning the image was taken over a minute and as people crossed in front of the camera they appear blurry.
One of the few remaining young children living in Al-Yanfa poses for a portrait. 106
ow the cultural fabric suffers from the same problem the rest of the region is crippled by. I ask about the elephant in the room, the young boys who we met previously, what will happen to them? Would they leave once they are old enough to work? “The dark side of it is that they left their village and that is how we are afraid that we might loose our historical background of the whole village. It makes me sad, but the reality is that people leave because of jobs and education which are not available here, so they move to the big cities.” In 20 years the entire region could shift dramatically losing generations and centuries of culture as a more homogenized form of the culture is adopted. Already thobes are common, Turshi told me they resisted much of the Wahabist influence, which forms most of the national Saudi ideantity today up until the early 80’s. But there is a bright side. “Every few summers, the young men of the village come back here and have marriages and celebrations here so that is how we maintain things for now.” Not far from where we are we can see government mega complexes being built. These projects are actually university cities slated as 10-year projects which will hopefully keep young people in the area, removing the need to travel to Jeddah, Riyadh, Dhahran for an education. I ask the obvious question of whether those same young boys who mobbed us earlier wanted to go to these colleges once theyre complete, but no sooner can I get the question out Sharai cuts me off, “they will have to be forced to come back, that is the only way our culture can continue.” 107