Saudis gear up to celebrate first Ramadan free of COVID-19 restrictions 

Special This year, Saudis are gearing up to celebrate the holy month the way they used to before the pandemic — free of restrictions. (AFP)
This year, Saudis are gearing up to celebrate the holy month the way they used to before the pandemic — free of restrictions. (AFP)
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Updated 02 April 2022

Saudis gear up to celebrate first Ramadan free of COVID-19 restrictions 

This year, Saudis are gearing up to celebrate the holy month the way they used to before the pandemic — free of restrictions. (AFP)
  • Mass vaccination allows people to observe Ramadan the way they used to before the pandemic
  • Saudi authorities drop most COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing measures just before Ramadan

JEDDAH: Two years ago, at the height of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslims around the world were forced to observe the holy month of Ramadan under lockdown.

They were deprived of the chance to spend time with their extended families and enjoy the tradition of breaking the fast together, to say nothing of the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah.

Now, thanks to the protections offered by mass vaccinations, many precautions have been relaxed, including social-distancing rules, travel bans are being lifted, and a semblance of normality is beginning to return to daily life. As a result, many Muslims around the world will, for the first time since 2019, once again be free to observe Ramadan in the ways they are used to.

The Ramadan crescent moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia on Friday evening, which meant that the holy month officially began on Saturday, according to an official announcement from the Kingdom’s Supreme Court. Four other Arab Gulf countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, also announced the start of Ramadan on Saturday, while Oman said it is expected to begin a day later.

No one suspected on the final day of Ramadan in 2019, June 3, that the pilgrims who had gathered at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah to perform the Taraweeh prayers would be the last to do so during Ramadan for quite some time.




Muslims the world over will hope that the social restrictions caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic, which prevented so many from observing core tenets of their faith, will never be seen again within their lifetimes. (AFP)

Nine months later, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus outbreak that initially emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan had become a full-blown global pandemic. Governments worldwide soon began to respond by imposing stringent controls on freedom of movement and social interaction.

The Saudi Ministry of Health announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Kingdom on March 2 that year. The Saudi patient, who had traveled from Iran via Bahrain over the King Fahd Causeway, was immediately quarantined.

The ministry dispatched infection-control teams to trace and test anyone he had been in contact with. Two days later, a second Saudi tested positive for the virus and soon cases of COVID-19 began to increase rapidly across the Kingdom, as in many other countries.

On March 6, a photograph of the circular courtyard in Makkah’s Grand Mosque went viral on social media. Normally packed with worshipers clad in white robes circling the Kaaba, the dish, as the courtyard is also known, was empty, lifeless and still — completely deserted except for a few security guards.

The depressing image seemed to encapsulate the severity of the rapidly escalating health emergency.

“The sight of that empty courtyard was a reality check,” Sanaa Abdulhakeem, 72, a retired Saudi educator, told Arab News.




An eerie emptiness enveloped the sacred Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 2020, where attendance at Friday prayers was hit by measures to protect against the deadly coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)

“Never in my life have I seen the mosque empty. I was born right across from the mosque in Makkah and have lived all my life near it. It’s a place that is always buzzing with life. A hush falls over it only when worshipers are praying in unison with the imam.”

Pandemic restrictions meant that Abdulhakeem and her relatives were forced to break with a cherished family tradition of welcoming and feeding visiting pilgrims. She is excited about resuming this charitable activity this year.

“Every year, my sons and grandsons head to the mosque’s outdoor courtyards to distribute hot meals, dates, water and laban,” she said. “We all pitch in together, and their father and I oversee the process of packaging.

“It is a family affair that we weren’t allowed to experience for two years and that was difficult. How can you cut a 35-year-old habit that grew into a family affair?”

INNUMBERS

* 750,589 COVID-19 infections in Saudi Arabia since the pandemic began

* 9,042 deaths related to the disease reported in the Kingdom

* 62m doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the country

Source: Reuters COVID-19 Tracker

On March 6 this year, Saudi authorities announced the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions and that social distancing is no longer required in public places, including the Grand Mosque and Prophet’s Mosque.

The next day, hundreds of pilgrims gathered to perform early-morning prayers together at the Grand Mosque, standing shoulder to shoulder for the first time in many months.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for; we can go about our rituals and traditions this Ramadan and we hope this will be the last we hear of COVID-19,” said Abdulhakeem.

“In the grand scheme of things the timing couldn’t be better, with Ramadan right on our doorstep. I’m seeing my grandchildren for the first time in over two years. The house will be full again, with everyone under one roof on the first day of Ramadan. This could be the end of COVID as we know it.”

Saudi authorities also recently announced the lifting of a ban on flights to and from 17 countries previously deemed high-risk locations owing to domestic instability and high COVID-19 infection rates. In addition, travelers are no longer required to show proof of vaccination, to quarantine after arrival, or to take a PCR test before departure or arrival at any of the Kingdom’s entry points.




Saudis shopping for food as Muslims from all over the world prepare for the upcoming holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a market in Madinah. (AFP/File Photo)

As part of its efforts to control crowd sizes and ensure a trouble-free pilgrimage, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has said that Muslims who want to perform Umrah or pray in the Rawdah at the Prophet’s Mosque will still need to apply for permits through the Eatmarna or Tawakkalna apps. Face masks will continue to be mandatory.

For observant Muslims, Ramadan is a month of fasting and prayer but also an occasion for spending more time with extended family. Homes are often decorated with strings of twinkling fairy lights, doorways are adorned by lanterns, and bright red and blue oriental-themed banners hang across living room and dining room ceilings. Some families give their homes a complete Ramadan makeover, including traditional red, patterned fabrics, in preparation for guests.

“This year, Ramadan will be extra special as not only will my mother be visiting, but my uncles and cousins will also be arriving from Egypt to perform Umrah and stay at my place for a few days,” Najia Jamal, a 29-year-old Saudi-Egyptian mother of two who lives in Jeddah, told Arab News.

“My mother’s pulling the strings this year; the decorations were delivered early, with instructions. I bought all their favorite foods and prepared a broad menu filled with the most delicious Saudi dishes.

“The most unusual item I received from my mother’s care package is a traditional jar of foul (fava beans) bought specially from one of Cairo’s old neighborhoods where all sorts of Ramadan goods can be found.




With Ramadan now here, the Kingdom and its people can look forward to a holy month observed in the manner they cherish — surrounded by family and friends. (AFP/File Photo)

“It’s a celebration of its own sort. I don’t know of a single household that is not going all out with decorations and giving each other Ramadan gifts, such as lanterns or dates or decorating kits for children.

“The good news has made us forget that COVID-19 is still a threat. It’s become a minor concern now. It’s time to embrace the month without fear and share the love with family.”

Jamal’s aunt, Gawdat Hafez, a retired Saudia Airlines employee in Cairo, said she hopes to surprise her niece with a customized lantern from a famous seller in Cairo’s Sayyida Zainab neighborhood.

“It’ll be good to see my niece again and bring her a taste of home,” she told Arab News. “It’s the month of giving, unity and family bonding and a time to put the past two years behind us.” 


Three women go solo with artwork at Jeddah’s Athr Gallery

Three women go solo with artwork at Jeddah’s Athr Gallery
Updated 03 February 2023

Three women go solo with artwork at Jeddah’s Athr Gallery

Three women go solo with artwork at Jeddah’s Athr Gallery
  • Event comes as part of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale 2023 at the Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah

JEDDAH: The Athr Gallery is showcasing three independently curated solo shows, sponsored by the Cultural Development Fund, until April.

The work of two Saudi nationals, Daniah Al-Saleh, Asma Bahmim, and one Kuwaiti national, Farah Behbehani, is being featured at the gallery.  

Al-Saleh’s show is titled “Keep Smiling,” which addresses the use of non-verbal symbols in modern communication in an increasingly digitized world.  “Our method of communication might have changed from a clay tablet to a smart tablet or smartphone. It seems that we as a society have accepted emojis as part of our daily life,” she told Arab News.

The work of two Saudi nationals, Daniah Al-Saleh, Asma Bahmim, and one Kuwaiti national, Farah Behbehani, is being featured at the gallery, which will be displayed until April. (Photo/Adnan Salem Mahdali)

“We have collectively evolved by using a digital version of hieroglyphics in the form of pictographic codes and emoticons that offers the recipient insights on the possible mood of the sender.

“It addresses the context of emojis and ubiquitousness and the usage of the pop culture and its usage of emojis in everyday text, everyday communication. In here, I’m questioning the use of emojis. Is it a sort of mask, is it sort of proxy for our emotion or mental state? Or does it really help in exploring our emotion and relating to the other — communicating better messages? I leave the answers to the viewer,” she said.

Bahmim’s work, titled “Fantasia: A World Between Reality and Imagination” is also attention-grabbing.

The work of two Saudi nationals, Daniah Al-Saleh, Asma Bahmim, and one Kuwaiti national, Farah Behbehani, is being featured at the gallery, which will be displayed until April. (Photo/Adnan Salem Mahdali)

Her work encapsulates the essence of the Islamic Arts Biennale spirit. She uses animals to generate fictional dialogues and highlights the importance of the tradition of storytelling.

“Fantasia was definitely a passion project for me. The medium and technicalities of it serve an essential role in the message I wanted to bring out, which was a culmination of a lifetime of exposure and research in storytelling,” Bahmim said of her solo show at ATHR.

“I wanted to bring to life the daydreams that crossed my mind going through a story in a book. I wanted the viewer to be lost in the fantasies, not just in the story but the backstory of the elements of these stories,” she told Arab News.

Farah Behbehani has been using Islamic cultural forms and Arabic words as inspiration. (Photo/Adnan Salem Mahdali)

Behbehani’s elegant work, transcending time and space, is aptly titled “And Make Me Light,” inspired by words that she has masterfully re-interpreted.

“The concept of the show is returning back to light through spirituality. One of my biggest works is based on a dua (prayer).”

“Basically for this entire poetic verse, I took the words of this verse and I incorporated it into the geometry design; each word has been transformed in square Kufic calligraphy to fit within the geometry of this work,” she told Arab News as her young son stood by, his eyes alight with pride.

Visitor appreciating Asma Bahmim’s Fantasia. (Photo/Adnan Salem Mahdali)

Behbehani has been using Islamic cultural forms and Arabic words as inspiration for decades.

Using Qur’anic verses, poetry and prose, her intricate calligraphic designs are enveloped into each of the seven administration buildings at Kuwait University.

The buildings served as “stoic structures” for her art as “an ephemeral play of light and shadow through a maze of letters that draw upon references from Islamic literature.”

The work of two Saudi nationals, Daniah Al-Saleh, Asma Bahmim, and one Kuwaiti national, Farah Behbehani, is being featured at the gallery, which will be displayed until April. (Photo/Adnan Salem Mahdali)

Behbehani’s exhibitions and shows are displayed both in the MENA region and worldwide. She is the author of the 2009 book “The Conference of the Birds,” based on the 12th-century Sufi allegorical poem. Her book interpreted the classic text through illustrations in Jali Diwani script.

Behbehani is also participating in the Islamic Arts Biennale this month with her “Path of Light” three-paneled kinetic piece, which was inspired by a poetic verse from writer Ahmed Shawi’s tribute to Prophet Muhammad.

The opening of the three solo shows comes as part of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale 2023 at the Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah.

Athr gallery issued this statement exclusively for Arab News: “Our relationship with the Diriyah Biennale Foundation has been strong since the inception of the foundation and its first edition in 2021.

“Many artists have been showcased at the biennale, with artists such as Ahmed Mater being in both editions. In the current edition (Islamic Arts Biennale 2023), we have seven artists featured, again highlighting the diversity of our roster and their practices.”

“We have aligned with DBF to be included on their schedule and to have the openings of our exhibitions to coincide with the opening program of the biennale as a way to reinforce the importance of a holistic approach to supporting the arts.

“Athr has been established since 2009, and we are now glad that newly established entities like DBF and their activities amplify the efforts of the private sector.”

For more information on hours of operation and to book an appointment, visit Athr’s social media channels and the Diriyah Biennale page.

 


Saudi Arabia’s Ithra Art Prize 2023 open for submissions with $100,000 up for grabs

The prize ‘reaffirms Ithra’s commitment to developing the creative industries in Saudi Arabia.’. (Supplied)
The prize ‘reaffirms Ithra’s commitment to developing the creative industries in Saudi Arabia.’. (Supplied)
Updated 03 February 2023

Saudi Arabia’s Ithra Art Prize 2023 open for submissions with $100,000 up for grabs

The prize ‘reaffirms Ithra’s commitment to developing the creative industries in Saudi Arabia.’. (Supplied)
  • Award created by King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture now in its fifth edition
  • Artists from across Arab world have until April 1 to submit entries

DHAHRAN: Arab artists around the world are being invited to submit their proposals for the fifth edition of the Ithra Art Prize and the chance to win $100,000 to bring their idea to life.

Created by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, also known as Ithra, the competition is open to contemporary artists and art collectives from the 22 member nations of the Arab league.

Those are: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen. Non-native artists who have lived in one of these countries for at least 10 years are also eligible to apply.

The call for entries opened on Tuesday and closes on April 1. The winner will be announced on May 15 and the successful artwork will be unveiled in June as part of Ithra’s fifth anniversary celebrations. It will later become part of the center’s permanent art collection.

FASTFACTS

• Award created by King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture now in its fifth edition.

• Artists from across Arab world have until April 1 to submit entries.

Launched in 2017, the Ithra is one of the most prominent art grants in the world. All of the entries are considered and judged by a global panel of experts, comprising artists, curators, academics and art historians.

The first three editions of the prize were organized alongside Art Dubai, while last year’s winning entry was unveiled in collaboration with the Diriyah Biennale Foundation at the Kingdom’s inaugural biennale.

“The Ithra Art Prize reaffirms Ithra’s commitment to developing the creative industries in the Kingdom, the region and the wider world,” said Farah Abushullaih, head of museum at Ithra.

“As one of the largest art grants internationally, we support artists from and based in the Arab world to develop important and meaningful work.

“The Ithra Art Prize aims to inspire creative thought, broaden cultural horizons and enable talent while empowering the art ecosystem,” she added.

Past winners include UAE-based Ayman Zedani, whose spatial installation “Mem” took the inaugural prize, while London-based Daniah Al-Saleh won in 2019 with “Sawtam,” a digital, audio-visual presentation based on the phonemes of the Arabic language.

The third edition was won by Saudi-based Fahad bin Naif for his “Rakhm” installation, while Berlin-based Tunisian-Ukrainian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke won in 2022 with “E Pluribus Unum — A Modern Fossil,” which takes a reflective look at the effects of the pandemic on the travel industry and how humanity measures progress and economic growth.

More information about Ithra and the competition is available via www.ithra.com.

 


How digital boost for braille literacy is helping people with visual impairments across the Arab world

How digital boost for braille literacy is helping people with visual impairments across the Arab world
Updated 10 sec ago

How digital boost for braille literacy is helping people with visual impairments across the Arab world

How digital boost for braille literacy is helping people with visual impairments across the Arab world
  • Prices of once expensive electronic braille devices are falling, demand for software is growing
  • Educators in Saudi Arabia are adopting assistive tech to include students with visual disabilities

JEDDAH: Digital technologies are transforming the way in which people of all languages and backgrounds communicate, making work, study and socializing across national and cultural boundaries easier and more inclusive.

However, many of the latest innovations in communications technology have tended to be geared toward smartphones, tablets and e-readers — formats that are not always conducive to people with visual impairments.

Now, recent enhancements to a 200-year-old system of writing are helping people with visual disabilities feel included in a greater variety of jobs and fields of study and forms of entertainment.

French inventor Louis Braille, who lost his sight at the age of three, in 1824 developed a system of communication consisting of a code of 63 characters, each made up of one to six raised dots arranged in a six-position matrix or cell, designed to fit under a fingertip.

These characters, known as braille, are embossed in lines on paper and read by passing the fingers lightly over the manuscript. From alphabets to musical notation, braille opened a world of possibilities for the visually impaired.

According to the World Health Organization, around 40 million people worldwide are blind, while another 250 million have some form of visual impairment. A survey conducted in 2017 by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics found that some 811,610 Saudis are visually impaired.

A unified Arabic braille code was adopted in the 1950s as part of the move toward a universal braille system. This has allowed many of them to live, work and study unsupported.

Authorities in the Kingdom have taken measures to create a more inclusive society, using braille on the packaging of medicines and by establishing work programs to integrate the visually impaired into the workforce.

The Kingdom has also established branches of Al-Noor Institute for the Blind, which provide courses for school children, in addition to integrated classes in universities through a national program that guarantees the right to an education.

A student at a school for the blind in Riyadh is pictured operating a machine in a photograph taken on April 25, 1967. (Getty Images)

Speaking to Arab News, Khaled Al-Harbi, spokesperson for the National Association of the Blind, known as Kafeef, said education paved the way for those with special needs to become an integral part of their communities.

Kafeef’s mission, he said, is to empower people with visual impairments through programs launched in coordination with government and private entities.

“I, like many members, received moral support and guidance from Kafeef from a young age, and enrolled in programs,” Al-Harbi told Arab News.

“We were provided tools, learned new skills using our hands, and, with time, we launched several awareness programs and braille training courses for the visually impaired and visually acute with the latest — Iqra — the first certified braille training program.

“We’ve seen lately several initiatives that target the community, such as sending gift cards in braille, and it’s very commendable, but it can also go the other way. There is a need for more inclusion from the visually impaired to utilize technology for their benefit and the benefit of the community.”

As digital developers have tended to prioritize audio software, such as screen-reading programs on computers and smartphones, some argue that braille has become a less important tool for people with visual impairments.

However, researchers believe learning braille from an early age can greatly improve literacy, as it is a much better way to understand punctuation, grammar, and spelling than using audio resources alone.

For many years, electronic braille devices were prohibitively expensive, placing them out of reach of many people with visual impairments, particularly those in developing countries. Now prices are beginning to fall and the demand for new software is growing.

The first braille displays appeared in the mid-1970s, and the first commercially produced braille display, the VersaBraille, was released in 1982. Five years later, the Braille ‘n Speak was released as the first portable notetaker.

Newer refreshable braille devices make it possible for users to read text from a digital screen when connected to a PC, tablet or phone. Such devices mimic the familiar raised dot patterns using tiny movable pins.

FASTFACTS

811,000 people in Saudi Arabia have some form of vision disability, according to the GSTAT Disability Survey 2017.

A unified Arabic braille code was adopted in the 1950s as part of the move toward a universal braille system.

However, with such a heavy reliance on cables and bluetooth connectivity, these systems are not always the most practical or user friendly. Furthermore, physical braille keyboards that allow users to enter text are not particularly mobile.

It was these drawbacks that led Google to develop its own innovative built-in keyboard called TalkBack, which comes as a part of the Android Operating System and does not require any external hardware.

In 2018, Google also launched an AI-powered app called Lookout to help low-vision users interact with their surroundings. The app can read signs and labels, scan barcodes, and even identify currencies.

In 2014, Apple introduced its own on-screen braille keyboard for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices called iBrailler Notes.

The app enables users to navigate across text and perform tasks without connecting additional hardware. One striking feature of the app is that the keys automatically form around the fingertips when they are placed on the screen.

Many new braille technologies are yet to reach the market and several are still in the conceptual or prototype phase. New scanning features, audio descriptions, language identifiers, machine-learning tools, text mining, and speech processors could all soon appear in forthcoming assistive technologies.

Abdulrahman Al-Atawi, a professor at the college of computing and informatics and supervisor of the Center for Innovation in E-learning at the Saudi Electronic University, the first university in the Kingdom to exclusively adopt e-learning strategies and technologies, told Arab News that such technologies will play a significant part in students’ journeys.

In January, the Global Trends in E-Learning forum was held in Riyadh, where global leaders in the education sector shared their insights, exchanged experiences and discussed strategies to serve the online learning process.

As part of the forum’s objectives, a contest for EdTech entrepreneurs, faculty and students from across the Kingdom showcased innovative projects using emerging technologies to serve the education sector.

Al-Atawi, who also headed the Committee for the Innovation Oasis and GTEL Demofest, said some of the winning projects were focused on people with special needs.

“For many, the braille code allows the blind and visually impaired to read any form of writing, but when it comes to images and pictures, that’s another story,” he said.

“One of the winning projects, a smart reader for the visually impaired, found a solution to that, verbally describing that image.

“In this era of modern science, we wish to get every bit of information in digital form. With the right tools, we can help members of the special needs community.”

 


Saudi employment forum draws huge crowds in Tabuk

Thousands of Saudi graduates participated in the forum. (SPA)
Thousands of Saudi graduates participated in the forum. (SPA)
Updated 03 February 2023

Saudi employment forum draws huge crowds in Tabuk

Thousands of Saudi graduates participated in the forum. (SPA)
  • The forum was in line with Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Program and Vision 2030

TABUK: More than 15,000 graduates took part in a three-day employment forum at Tabuk University, which ended on Thursday.
The event, which attracted support from local and international companies, provided a platform for graduates in a range of disciplines from across the Kingdom to meet and talk with prospective employers.
The first of its kind for the university, the forum was in line with the country’s National Transformation Program and Vision 2030, and also sought to raise key issues about the environment and working practices.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s job numbers witnessed their strongest growth rate since January 2018, as non-oil companies witnessed a sharp expansion in business activity driven by robust market demand and business intake, according to a report.

 


Governor of Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region tours Al-Shaqiq Center in Al-Darb

Prince Mohammed bin Nasser visits in Al-Darb governorate. (Supplied)
Prince Mohammed bin Nasser visits in Al-Darb governorate. (Supplied)
Updated 03 February 2023

Governor of Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region tours Al-Shaqiq Center in Al-Darb

Prince Mohammed bin Nasser visits in Al-Darb governorate. (Supplied)
  • The governor visited investment opportunities in the tourism and entertainment fields

AL-SHAQIQ: Jazan Governor Prince Mohammed bin Nasser visited Al-Shaqiq Center in Al-Darb governorate to see new developments in its tourism and service industries.  

He visited the busy Northern Corniche of Al-Shaqiq beach and went over the municipal services for tourists and walkers.  

The governor visited investment opportunities in the tourism and entertainment fields, and inspected paintings at the corniche while being advised by Al-Shaqiq’s Mayor, Eng. Nasser Ateef.