Date with history: Heritage on show in Jeddah’s heart



Fouzia Khan

Published — Wednesday 10 July 2013

Last update 23 July 2013 7:33 am

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Saudi and Hijazi heritage and traditions dating back to more than a century are showcased at the Safeya bin Zagr Museum in the heart of Jeddah on King Abdullah Road.
The influence of history and people on lifestyle, food and other traditions can be seen in beautiful paintings by artist Safia bin Zagr. She has tried to preserve a culture that is almost becoming extinct. This helps coming generations understand more and to stay close to their history and traditions and culture.
At the entrance of the museum you will find many portraits and goods that will take you back in time. When we start our journey in the museum, we immerse ourselves in the world of old Jeddah, which was totally different from today.
In the year 1940, Safeya bin Zagr took her first gulp of air in Jeddah’s old town, and the bond between the place and the artist only grew stronger as time went by.
When she moved to Egypt with her family in 1947, she was not totally separated from her birthplace. The scent of the old alleys lingered with her, its images dwelled in her memory, and a strong sense of nostalgia pulled her back to a special place enriched by the warmth of its people, their valuable customs and traditions.
In the meantime, fate was planning another meeting between Jeddah and the artist, a meeting that would link the old features of the city with its present and future through the strokes of the artist’s brush that would capture its past with love and appreciation.
In 1963, Bin Zagr returned to her hometown where she realized that the wind of change was blowing around the city she had known. The hand of progress started to push Jeddah outside the boundaries of its old walls.
Jeddah was spreading in every direction leaving behind the narrow alleys where skillfully ornamented houses come close to one another allowing warmth and friendly relationships between its residents. The people who resided in those houses started to move out and they exchanged cemented relationships with cemented modern villas. The modernization process entailed that they give up their old habits and their old dress code.
Coming back to Jeddah, Bin Zagr’s longing for the old place was not fulfilled. The more she yearned for the place she had left behind, the more eager she became to relive the beautiful yet short time she had once experienced in that place.
Her only means to recapture the past was her brush, but her focused purpose and strong resolve gave her the invocation needed to embark on her arduous and laborious mission to recreate the past and celebrate its beauty. The artist held her brush with determination and began in earnest to reconstruct the old city as she had known it, complete with its buildings and those who had lived in them. Her museum now shows men, women and children dressed up in their old costumes and seriously involved in their old activities.
In one of the museum’s halls, Bin Zagr showed us her old Hijazi bridal dress and jewelry that she kept for the past 60 years. She collected her exhibits from different places and from different people.
“It took several years to collect authentic historical information, such as paintings that portray a wedding, the preparation of a wedding, celebrations and customs the way things were around 70 to100 years ago in the western region,” said Bin Zagr.
“Other series of paintings depict popular children games of the olden days. These are boys and girls games that are played outdoors and indoors, accompanied by rhyming songs. Many games are similes in style to those played in most countries but they go by different names,” explained Bin Zagr.
Another room was decorated with paintings of fishing and hunting which depended on the use of the falcons. This hobby entails training and good timing. The inhabitants of the Red Sea city enjoy fishing both as a hobby and as a profession.
We moved toward a collection of paintings on occupations, trade, market and daily activities. Many of these activities and occupations have changed or they disappeared with the passage of time.
Another hall was decorated with the paintings of different architectural styles and patterns as there vary from region to region.
“Buildings in the western region are characterized by the Islamic style of spacious rooms, high ceilings, and carved rawashin (lattice screens) on front windows, decorated doors and large balconies. In the central region buildings are characterized by simplicity and the use of unbaked mud as building material as it was known for its insulation capacity. Walls were light with small, highly positioned windows, allowing for sunlight and ventilation. Doors had distinctive geometrical decorations,” said Bin Zagr.
In the southern province of Asir houses had a completely different style and they were constructed with hard stones available in the highlands.
The architectural styles in the northern and eastern provinces are similar to those used in the central region with some minor differences based on the need of the inhabitants.
Another halls displayed paintings and a collection of real jewelry and traditional dresses. Bin Zagr was also impressed with the traditional costumes of men and women, festivals, and religious events of the inhabitants of old Jeddah, which she captured in her paintings and collection.
“I documented all traditional costumes to preserve them in view of the lack of reference depicting their way of wearing them and nomenclature. I fully depended on field research in order to obtain the needed information. As dresses and patterns varied form province to province, it took a number of years to move from research to actual production of each painting and collection of dresses,” she said.
A heavy costume embroidered with gold and silver threads composed of sirwal (loose-fitting pants) with embroidered ankles, a white vest of voile, embroidered a zaboun dress that is traditionally worn on henna night before a wedding, an embroidered silk thobe, a head cover of embroidered gauze and silk, and embellished with jewelry.
The rich paintings of Safeya bin Zagr will remain a living testimony to a heritage that will never dissipate, and a reminder of a past era that she took pains to reconstruct and keep intact for generations to come.

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