Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America

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Updated 18 November 2015

Middle Easterners blaze a trail across America

Two men are deep in conversation. They are discussing how natural resources once they are found and harvested by mankind bring a multitude of changes that fundamentally change lives, cultures and traditions. ‘So what?’ you might be thinking; there’s nothing so unusual about that exchange. But look closer; this meeting of minds and sharing of experience is between two men who in the normal course of events would never have the opportunity to meet. One is a Saudi artist and the other an elder of the Oglala Lakota Nation, a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, USA.
In South Dakota old tribal traditions have been trampled underfoot in the rush for gold and other valuable natural resources, while in Saudi Arabia oil has ushered in huge economic, cultural and lifestyle shifts.
This unusual encounter happened because a ground-breaking road trip, organized by Edge of Arabia in partnership with Art jameel, is bringing artists from the Middle East into the heartlands of America. The artists, who are crossing the vast territory of the US in a converted bus are called CULTURUNNERS; they have just completed the first year of a three year project that is breaking down barriers and opening up dialogue in a way that many seasoned politicians and diplomats would envy.
Arab News spoke to Stephen Stapleton, the program leader, as he prepared for the next stage of the epic journey which commences in January next year.
Stapleton, alongside Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, is a co-founder of Edge of Arabia, an internationally recognized platform for dialogue and exchange between the Middle East and western world. As a non-profit, independent, social enterprise, Edge of Arabia is committed to reaching new audiences and improving understanding through free exhibitions, publications and public programming.
Stapleton is feeling both elated and exhausted as he talks about the past twelve months on the road. The artists travel in a 34 ft. Gulf Stream RV (recreational vehicle). There is always a core team of driver, navigator, communications person (handling social media, twitter etc.) and up to five artists. To date fifty artists from across the Middle East, Europe and America have participated: each artist typically stays on the bus for up to three weeks working on specific projects. Each member of the team is also tasked with undertaking essential chores such as cooking and maintaining the vehicle.
Stapleton and an American artist called John Mireles (known as ‘The Captain’) have undertaken most of the driving; to date they have driven over 12,000 miles. “When we got to the West coast and saw the Pacific Ocean it was a huge realization that we had just traveled across America and seen and done more in America than most Americans do in their lifetimes,” Stapleton said.
The whole enterprise while highly creative has required military style planning and discipline to manage. During the trip the artists operate on two complementary but distinct levels. They take part in high profile art events at leading museums and institutions with their participation planned months and sometimes years ahead; they also have the freedom and flexibility to react to situations and people that they encounter en route. So, for example, while their attendance at The Armory Show, an international art fair held annually in New York, was carefully planned, the meetings with Lakota artists on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota came about purely by chance. The way the artists travel allows this kind of interaction and in fact the artists ended up staying in South Dakota for a week.
Stapleton said that such encounters are especially memorable because many of the people living on the Reservation would have little opportunity to engage with international artists — and particularly with artists from distant cultures.
As he observed: “You can never underestimate the importance of face to face contact, especially in our digital age. It’s essential to connect on an emotional level.”
Stapleton commented that one of the things that has struck the artists is how many of the small towns look like they are going through hard times. Big retail outlets seem to have swallowed up the little shops which once brought jobs and a sense of community to the high street but now stand boarded up — lending an air of desolation. That’s a story that many people around the world can relate to; witness, for example, the impact of the big, glossy shopping malls on Middle Eastern souks. But the big wealth gap that the artists have witnessed on their journey has been a bit of an eye opener to those who imagined that the US would show a more uniformly prosperous face across its vast expanses.
“A lot of the artists began to see things as being not American or Saudi, not Western or Eastern problems. but about the power that consumer capitalism is having on communities around the world; and this idea of common concerns is something that the artists want to talk about and deal with,” he said.
In some of the smaller country towns the artists encountered people who were not afraid to state their mistrust and even dislike of Arabs and Islamic culture, and who made no secret of their prejudice. But Stapleton noticed that once people sat down and talked to each other there was a definite shift in mood. Maybe, just the act of engaging and sharing views took some of the hard edges off ideas shaped in isolation and largely unchallenged.
Next year with the US presidential election bandwagon in full swing, the artists will have the chance to engage with the key issues dominating the debates. Issues surrounding immigration, border controls and vested business interests. A Palestinian artist will be stationed on the border with Mexico — bringing his personal perspective on what it means to be shut in or shut out.
Stapleton said that he is surprised at how the trip has caught the imagination of the communities through which they traveled: “We are building a network across hundreds of towns across America. They know about the project — and want to follow the story,” he remarked.
Saudi artist Faisal Samra commented: “CULTURUNNERS takes the production and creation of art away from the conventional, static environments such as galleries and museums and transports it to the sites of the masses. My journey with CULTURUNNERS was one of the most important experiences of my long professional life.”
The artists have attracted interest beyond the art world. “We did a talk at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC that drew people from the State Department, the Defense Department as well as political lobby groups. People in Washington are hungry for less mediated information about the Middle East and in particular Saudi Arabia,” said Stapleton.
Looking at the rich and varied elements of the three year program, Stapleton is aware of the importance of documenting the experience.
He is working hard to ensure that a strong visual legacy emerges that can be widely shared across cultures. This will be in the form of art, traveling exhibitions, documentary films and online archives. In 2016, the team will create immersive experiences using the latest 3D technology such as the soon to be launched Oculus Rift virtual reality system to help viewers see what the artists have seen, heard and experienced in remote places.
There are many more adventures to come in the next two years; many more miles to be traveled, experiences shared and bridges built. Here at the conclusion of year one it is safe to say that this imaginative road trip is already capturing hearts and minds.

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King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

Updated 21 April 2019

King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

  • The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps
  • The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world

RIYADH: King Abdulaziz Public Library provides a key index of Saudi culture, presenting the world with a rich legacy of cultural, historical and literary diversity.

On World Heritage Day, April 18, the library highlighted its efforts in preserving cultural heritage, which makes it one of the most important libraries in the Arab and Islamic world. It possesses a variety of heritage treasures in manuscripts, documents, rare books, coins and photographs. The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps.

The library has established a knowledge-based space to produce large collections of specialized books on the history of the Kingdom and in the Arab and Islamic worlds while continuing to use its knowledge system in line with Vision 2030 and the cultural strategy of the Ministry of Culture.

The library’s special holdings consist of manuscripts, rare books, rare documents, rare maps, rare photographs and coins. These form an integrated picture and are characterized by rare historical scenes that stimulate research.

The library established the Manuscripts Department in 1988 to contribute to the preservation of Arab and Islamic heritage and make it available to researchers and investigators. The department has more than (4,400) original manuscripts in addition to more than (700) photocopies and microfilms, including the charts of the Institute of History of Arabic and Islamic Sciences at the University of Frankfurt. More than 3,500 manuscripts have been indexed and filed in the computer system.

The library in Riyadh, the pioneer in publishing heritage, has digitized all of its manuscripts — more than two million of them — and stored them on CDs.

The library contains a collection of rare books of ancient and rare European editions, consisting of 78 books on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. The collection also includes 113 translated books in ancient European languages of the Holy Qur’an, as well as 55 books on Qur’anic studies and 54 books on Islamic sources. This collection represents the beginnings of European interest in the Holy Qur’an and its studies. The library acquired a collection of Arabic editions printed in Europe in 1592-1593. These editions are part of the library’s interest in the original Arab and Islamic heritage. They include rare books such as The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Rhetoric Mysteries by Abd Al-Qahir Al-Jurjani, a commentary on the “Isagoge” by Abu l-Faraj at-Tayyib, The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Jalal Al-Din Al Suyuti, as well as 8,271 rare Arabic indexed books.

The library hosts a number of private collections, including that of the American orientalist George Rantz. This collection has many books, manuscripts, maps and rare documents, containing books in Arabic and 3,265 books in foreign languages. It also has the collection of Hamza Boubakeur, dean of the Islamic Institute and former imam of Paris Mosque. It is an integrated collection with 17,170 titles of 19,821 volumes of periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, documents, newspaper clippings, rare books and books in Arabic, French, English, German and Russian. It includes books on scientific and religious sciences, and tourist literature that describes countries, their heritage, customs and traditions, and is linked to Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf and the Islamic world.

The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world, with a total of 5,564 single original photographs or collections in albums, taken by the most famous photographers of the East and the Arab world since the beginning of photography in 1740, as well as photographs taken by travelers, sea captains, military personnel, envoys, consuls and politicians who visited the region from the middle of the last century until the beginning of this century. This archive of photographs is one of the most unique in the world.

The library has 365 photographs of the two Holy Mosques with previously unpublished negatives. These photographs were taken by the Egyptian international photographer Ahmad Pasha Helmi, who was commissioned by King Farouk to photograph the two Holy Mosques during the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Makkah and Medina, in addition to a collection of albums depicting the Hijaz railway and other parts of the Kingdom.

Official and non-official documents are important scientific materials in the writing of history. Nations rely on collecting their documents, archiving them and making them available for study. The library in Riyadh has been keen to acquire rare documents and books, especially on the history of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the history of Saudi Arabia, and to allocate a special section for them. These documents include:

George Rantz records: in English, French and Arabic, covering the period from 1930 to 1960.
Documents of the Egyptian and Arab press on the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Egypt.
Documents of the American press about King Saud’s visit to the US.
Documents on oil agreements between the Kingdom and some American companies.
Documents of the British press regarding the war between the British forces and the forces of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman against the forces of the imam of Oman, and the effects of this war on the region and the position of the Saudi state and King Saud of this war.
Abdul Rahman Azzam’s collection of documents (in Arabic and English) covering the period from 1925 to 1960.
Correspondence reflecting the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia to the Mosque of Paris and Makkah pilgrims.
The British collection of documents on King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (English), covering the period from 1800 to 1953. These are photocopies of the original documents and constitute one of the most important sources of the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
Khair Al-Din Al-Zarkali’s collection of documents: (in Arabic) covering the period from 1920 to 1975.
The library also has 700 rare maps, especially of the Arabian Peninsula, dating from 1482. The library has acquired more than 7,600 rare gold, silver and bronze coins, dating back to different Islamic times.

World Heritage Day was proposed by the International Council of Monuments and Sites on April 18, 1982 and approved by UNESCO in 1983 with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of cultural heritage and protecting it.