Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world

Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world
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Hend Al-Mansour came to the US 21 years ago as a physician, then gave up medicine for art. Her work received the juror’s award at the Contemporary Islamic Art exhibition in Riyadh in 2012 and she received the Jerome fellowship in printmaking.
Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world
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Updated 23 March 2018

Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world

Brushes with history: Saudi artist Hend Al-Mansour's quest to reframe the story of women’s roles in the Arab world

WASHINGTON: The West — and the Western media especially — has tended to see Saudi Arabian women mostly as victims, passive players in a deeply patriarchal culture.
That view has been slowly changing. As the driving ban lifts this June, Saudi women are being perceived not as victims but as standing up for their rights.
Hend Al-Mansour, a leading figure in the Saudi women’s movement, is one of the most widely recognized Saudi women artists. She has been on a quest to reclaim, through her art, the story of women in the Arab world.
“In the first few years (of my shows), I found myself more or less educating people, trying to help them understand the basic thing, that women in the Arab world are not passive,” she said. “Later, the audience was more understanding. Especially now, as the Saudis are on the front pages, people understand more.
“People are very curious. Gradually, they’re getting it. It’s baby steps.”
Al-Mansour came to the US 21 years ago as a physician, then gave up medicine for art. Her work received the juror’s award at the Contemporary Islamic Art exhibition in Riyadh in 2012 and she received the Jerome fellowship in printmaking.
One of her prints was recently on the cover of a report for the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, a nod to Al-Mansour’s importance among Saudi Arabian feminists. The report lists 20 instances of activism in three different waves by Saudi women, starting from the historic demonstration against the driving ban on Nov. 6, 1990.
In an extraordinarily open conversation, Al-Mansour talked with Arab News about leaving medicine for art, the status of women in Saudi Arabia, and the changing view of Arab women in the West.

How has the view of women in the Arab world changed, especially from the West?
Especially in the West, there is a broad blanket, and it covers all women. But the Arab world is not homogeneous. In the 1970s, when I visited Beirut, it was normal for women and girls to wear miniskirts. In Saudi Arabia, men and women have been assigned well-defined, separate spaces. I studied in Egypt (attending medical school there). There women could get a wide range of education. They could be engineers, doctors.
In the late 80s and 90s, a wave of conservatism came over the Middle East. When I went back to Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, I could see black gloves, and I was surprised.
When I first came (to the US) they didn’t differentiate: A Pakistani, Iranian and Arab were the same thing. After the Arab Spring, they began to understand there are differences.
More importantly, they understand women are not passive in the Arab world. Women in the Middle East have conviction. If they put hijab on, they believe that this is part of their identity, religion and respect for their bodies. If they don’t put it on, they have conviction about that, too. They are active in whatever they’re doing. They are passionate.

I have often wondered, looking at photographs of the old Middle East, what would cause women to willingly give up some of their freedom?
I don’t understand either. When I was in Saudi Arabia, my friends were mostly unveiled. When I went back, my friends were all veiled. It’s a social phenomenon, but I don’t think religion is the cause. The religion is the result (of the same wave that results in women putting on the veil).
I put on hijab in Egypt for more than a year. It was a more of a rebellious act. I was catching the beginning of the wave.

What made you take it off?
I felt like a hypocrite. My behavior wasn’t that of a pious woman.

How do you explain the influence of religion in Saudi Arabia to Americans?
In Saudi Arabia (some believe that) the morality of the community depends on how the women dress and behave. The duty of the women is to keep society straight. Men’s job is to guard women.
It’s complex. Men are not off the hook. The whole community has roles, but they’re not natural. There is a concept in Saudi Arabia that women have half brains. That’s why I went to medical school, to prove that wrong. Now, there is a deviation from all that baggage, as Saudi Arabia becomes less isolated. Women are being recognized as whole humans.

What are some lost stories of Saudi Arabia?
When I was in Saudi Arabia, I learned the Western art. I admired Leonardo da Vinci. But there were beautiful local practices, like henna, I didn’t recognize. When my mother was a young woman, she thought henna was something backwards. … But each local, beautiful pattern has a name. We have lost it now. …I (found) eight of the patterns, and created an image of them. I made a series of prints from those. I also printed around them a folktale from the same period of time: Green in Souk, Red in Mother.
Another thing that we lost is the native architecture. When I was a child, under 10, there was a totally different landscape, of mud houses and narrow streets. The narrow streets keep the shadow in the street, and women can move in between their houses without having to veil. Even in the neighborhood, they could go from one house to another.

Does your mother like what you’re doing now?
She was really excited when I became a doctor, and mad at me when I left medicine, though she thinks I am a good artist. … She didn’t go to school when she was young, because there weren’t any schools. She studied with me.
What people should recognize is that women in Saudi Arabia are working harder than other women to make progress, to be in that place. I remember a story a woman told me of what her father did when he saw her holding a pencil – just holding a pencil. That was a great sin, and he hit her.

What led you to give up being a doctor to become an artist?
I wanted freedom of expression and freedom to be myself. It was really hard. When I realized how our conception of art in the Arab world was limited to Western art, the whole question of identity came to the fore.
Mostly what I like to do now are installations. I take rolls of paper or rolls of fabric and hang them on a skeleton. I build those spaces, borrowing the shapes of tents and mosques. My latest is called the “Pink House of God.” It’s about a Saudi woman who lives in Minnesota and includes a design made by Bedouin women. This design is intermingled with Tinkerbell. Tinkerbell was important to the woman I interviewed, because Tinkerbell is independent and could manage things.
There is a prayer rug on the floor. I want to show we can identify with Arab women. I put women into these shrines. This is more of a message to the Arab or Islamic audience.


Why this retired engineer is a ‘model’ Saudi citizen

The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
Updated 04 August 2021

Why this retired engineer is a ‘model’ Saudi citizen

The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
  • Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi aims to preserve the history of social and cultural life in Saudi Arabia
  • Makkah in those days was a beacon for writers, poets and scientists

MAKKAH: A Saudi agricultural engineer is spending his retirement years helping to preserve the Kingdom’s architectural and cultural history — in the form of extremely accurate models of important buildings and sites in Jeddah and Makkah.

Now Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi has turned his house in Jeddah’s Al-Rawdah neighborhood into an exhibition space to showcase his models, which represent a fascinating record of daily social and cultural life in the cities in the early-to-mid 20th century.
A good example of this is his model of a “writer’s cafe” in the Misfalah neighborhood of Makkah that was once popular with writers, intellectuals and poets. Through it, he said, he aims to immortalize the role these figures played in the development of literature in Saudi Arabia and the country’s cultural history.
“Knowledgeable people told me that the cafe where Makkah’s writers, poets and intellectuals used to go to was Saleh Abdulhay Cafe, located next to Bajrad Cafe,” 72-year-old Al-Hebshi told Arab News. “Similar cafes were found throughout Makkah’s Misfalah neighborhood in the past.”
He said culture and literature thrived in Makkah in those days, along with the study of science and the quest for knowledge. The city was therefore a beacon for writers, poets and scientists, and the Saleh Abdulhay Cafe was one of the places where they could gather for intellectual and cultural discussions.
“Among the cultural and intellectual figures that used to go to the writer’s cafe … was the Saudi Minister of Culture Mohammed Abdu Yamani,” he said, adding that such venues were the country’s first literary and cultural forums, where people could gather to discuss literary and intellectual issues.
With his models and exhibition, Al-Hebshi said he wants to depict and preserve this history of day-to-day life and culture in Makkah and Jeddah in days gone by. In addition to the cafe, his models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth.
In particular, he said he wants to immortalize the lives of the intellectuals and writers of the era by documenting their daily lives, the ways in which people interacted with them and how neighborhoods such as Misfalah developed as important cultural centers.
So far he has spent three years building his models of cafes, shops, houses and public squares. He has completed four and is working on a fifth. The task requires hard work and patience, he said. For example, it requires great effort to accurately recreate in miniature the rawasheen, the elaborately patterned wooden window frames found in old buildings in Makkah and Jeddah that maximize natural light and air flow. Great accuracy is required throughout the model making process when it comes to the sizes, dimensions and scale.
“One meter in real life is 10 centimeters in the models,” Al-Hebshi said, which represents a scale of one-to-10. “This measure seeks to maintain, as much as possible, the space’s real dimensions.”
The contents of rooms must also be in scale with the building and each other, he explained: “A bottle of Coca-Cola cannot be bigger than a watermelon and so on.” These are all important details in his models, he added, which ensure they are accurate and consistent.
Given the incredible detail and quality of the models, you would be forgiven for thinking Al-Hebshi is a trained carpenter; in fact he is an enthusiastic amateur with a true passion for the craft. Such is his dedication that even hand injuries — and the need for surgery after damaging a finger with a drill — have not kept him from his work for long.

HIGHLIGHT

Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi says he was inspired by Jeddah’s Old Town and its magnificent Hijazi buildings with rawasheen, beautifully crafted doors, ornate engravings and delicate details, along with the beauty of its landscape and old streets.

He said his model making began after he found some tools that had been abandoned in a carpentry shop, and for materials he used wood and discarded kaftans he found in stores he shopped at. Wood cutting requires great skill, he added, and while he makes most parts of his models, he said he imports some items from abroad to ensure the highest levels of accuracy. For example he buys miniature signs advertising popular international brands such as Pepsi, Miranda and 7-Up, which are difficult to recreate through woodworking.
Al-Hebshi was director of the Agricultural Bank in Jeddah when he was forced to retire in 2006 as a result of a back injury, and he found himself wondering what he could do with his time. A few years earlier he had developed an interest in woodworking but the demands of his job left him with little time to pursue it. A friend who was aware of this suggested he do something with the wood from a large felled neem tree that had been dumped in Jeddah.
“That tree turned out to be the start of me professionally building models,” he said. He added that he was inspired by Jeddah’s Old Town and its magnificent Hijazi buildings with rawasheen, beautifully crafted doors, ornate engravings and delicate details, along with the beauty of its landscape and old streets. The Saudi leadership has put a special focus on the area to showcase its history and splendor and Al-Hebshi said that this has helped him research his detailed designs.
He added that he welcomes all those who wish to visit his house, in Al-Rawdah neighborhood 3, to see his models. He plans to build more to add to his incredible picture of past life in the Kingdom, and the people who helped the country become the nation it is.


Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert

Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert
Updated 04 August 2021

Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert

Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert
  • Head of UN Center for Counter-Terrorism ‘impressed by the pioneering research work’ carried out by Kingdom’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology
  • Center’s Gether2 initiative, which aims to raise awareness of the risks of extremism among people with hearing disabilities, singled out for particular praise

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (Etidal) is a “world leader” in pioneering work to prevent and counter violent extremism, according to Jehangir Khan, director of the UN Center for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT).

“Etidal is a world leader in this field and we are proud of it,” he said during a visit by a UNCCT delegation to Etidal’s headquarters in Riyadh on Tuesday. “We are very pleased … to be able to work closely with the center.

“We are impressed by the pioneering research work you are doing in this field. We have to follow your example on matters in which we need to cooperate.”

Khan in particular highlighted Eitdal’s Gether2 initiative, which aims to raise awareness among people with hearing disabilities of the risks of extremism, saying he had never seen any other initiatives designed to reach people with disabilities in this way.

“I congratulate you on this project and we would like to know more about it,” he said. “As you know, we in the United Nations have specific agencies that deal with matters of concern to people with disabilities from a humanitarian side only, unlike your side, where I think we should see the whole picture.”

The UN delegation was welcomed to the center by Etidal’s secretary-general, Mansour Al-Shammari. During the visit the two sides discussed ways to enhance cooperation in their efforts to prevent and combat terrorism and violent extremism.

The delegation also learned about the center’s monitoring and analysis mechanisms, the techniques it use and the models it is creating and developing, as well as the most prominent advanced technologies in the field.


Saudi Arabia to take part in G20 digital economy event

Photo/Shutterstock
Photo/Shutterstock
Updated 04 August 2021

Saudi Arabia to take part in G20 digital economy event

Photo/Shutterstock
  • Saudi Arabia has realized qualitative achievements in this regard, mainly the unanimous approval of countries on a roadmap to measure and define the digital economy

TRIESTE: Saudi Arabia is taking part in a G20 digital economy event on Aug. 5.
The G20 Digital Economy Ministers Meeting will discuss key issues related to digital transformation ahead of a final communique that will be endorsed by heads of states and governments at the Rome Summit.
It is an extension of the role played by Saudi Arabia during its G20 presidency last year. The Kingdom aims to focus on empowering people, protecting the planet and forming new horizons.
Saudi Arabia has realized qualitative achievements in this regard, mainly the unanimous approval of countries on a roadmap to measure and define the digital economy, in addition to adopting artificial intelligence principles.
Communication and Information Minister Abdullah Al-Swaha is scheduled to take part in the event.
The G20 aims to take the lead in ensuring a swift international response to the COVID-19 pandemic – able to provide equitable, worldwide access to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines – while building up resilience to future health-related shocks.
Each G20 presidency includes the organization of ministerial meetings on each of the main focus areas of the forum. These meetings are important opportunities to discuss and further develop issues of international relevance.


Students in Saudi Arabia urged to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Students can access the vaccine appointment service via the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps. (SPA)
Students can access the vaccine appointment service via the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps. (SPA)
Updated 04 August 2021

Students in Saudi Arabia urged to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Students can access the vaccine appointment service via the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps. (SPA)
  • Only fully jabbed pupils allowed to return to the classroom

JEDDAH: Students aged 12-18 are being urged to book their first COVID-19 jab, with the Ministry of Health saying that appointments were available for them.

The appointment allocation follows the Kingdom’s announcement that only fully jabbed pupils could return to the classroom when the new school year begins.
Students must receive the first shot before Aug. 8 in order to have the second before the first semester of the new academic year. The specified period between the two doses is three weeks.
They can access the appointment service through the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps.
The ministry also said that a quarter of the Kingdom’s population was fully vaccinated. The total number of people who have been jabbed in the country is 28,033,852, including 1,488,193 who are elderly.

FASTFACTS

• Saudi Arabia reported 1,075 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.

• The death toll has risen to 8,270 following 11 more virus-related fatalities.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday reported 11 more COVID-19-related deaths, taking the death toll to 8,270. There were 1,075 new cases reported, increasing the total number of infections to 528,952. There are 10,575 active cases, of which 1,433 are critical.
Of the newly recorded cases, 209 were in Makkah, 188 were in the Eastern Province, 184 were in Riyadh, and 70 were in Madinah. There have been a further 1,113 recoveries, bringing this total to 510,107.
Saudi Arabia has so far conducted more 25.33 million PCR tests, with 110,254 carried out in the past 24 hours.
Testing hubs and treatment centers throughout the country have dealt with hundreds of thousands of people since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
Taakad centers provide COVID-19 testing for those who show no or only mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual. Tetamman clinics offer treatment and advice to those with virus symptoms such as fever, loss of taste and smell, and breathing difficulties.
Appointments for both services can be made on Sehhaty.
In Hafr Al-Batin governorate, Tetamman clinics have provided services to 75,310 people so far through three clinics: Hafr Al-Batin Central Hospital, Qaisumah General Hospital, and the Abu Mousa Alashari Health Center.


Efforts to fight global terrorism discussed

Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Falah al-Hajraf gestures during a news conference at the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Falah al-Hajraf gestures during a news conference at the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 04 August 2021

Efforts to fight global terrorism discussed

Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Falah al-Hajraf gestures during a news conference at the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
  • The council focuses on enhancing capacities of member states and private organizations in preventing and mitigating the misuse of technological developments by terrorists and extremists

RIYADH: Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajjraf, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), met with Jehangir Khan, director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Center (UNCCT).
During the meeting, they reviewed the efforts of the GCC in combating terrorism.
Al-Hajjraf affirmed the council’s continuous support for the UN in combating crimes of terrorism and extremism, in addition to strengthening their cooperation while achieving security and peace in the world.
A day earlier, Khan met with Dr. Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Rabeeah, adviser at the Royal Court and supervisor general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief).
The UN Security Council has adopted additional resolutions, often under Chapter VII, to address new avenues of terrorist financing, including by targeting the nexus between terrorists and organized crime groups and tackling fundraising through kidnapping for ransom.
The council focuses on enhancing capacities of member states and private organizations in preventing and mitigating the misuse of technological developments by terrorists and extremists.