Saudi Arabia’s Qemam festival becomes an annual showcase for the world’s mountain tribal cultures
Asir’s historical palaces hosted bands and dance troupes from across the world for the week-long event
Traditions of highland communities were highlighted by the second edition of the festival for performing arts
Updated 28 January 2023
ABHA: For centuries, mountain tribes have maintained their traditional way of life in some of the world’s most isolated places, preserving a distinctive linguistic and cultural heritage that is rarely seen or heard by wider society.
That is why Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Asir region recently hosted the second annual Qemam International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts, inviting 14 international groups and 16 Saudi ensembles to share their unique dance and storytelling traditions.
The week-long event, which closed on Jan. 27, is thought to be the world’s first festival dedicated to performing arts from mountainous regions, featuring acts from Morocco, China, South Korea, Switzerland and India, among other places, to explore their common themes of artistry.
Performances were held at Asir’s Malik Historical Palace, Al-Mushait Palaces, the Castles of Abu Nuqata Al-Mutahmi, Basta Al-Qabil, Abu Shahra Palace in Al-Masqi, Shamsan Castle and Bin Adwan Heritage Village.
Festival-goer Abdullah Al-Shehri rarely finds opportunities to expose his 4-year-old, Fahad, to his family’s Moroccan heritage. He was therefore thrilled to attend a performance of the Berber ahidouss dance by a visiting Moroccan folk troupe.
“This festival calls for people to see something new. There’s definitely much to see,” Al-Shehri told Arab News.
Abha was the first city in the Kingdom to win the Capital of Arab Tourism title in 2017. The Qemam festival is only the latest event in the region’s cultural calendar that is proving a draw for domestic and foreign tourists alike.
“I think the program will make Saudi Arabia an international center for mountain performing arts as it’s going to be an annual event and attract more and more participation from around the world. Hopefully, it will attract more tourism as well,” Sultan Al-Bazei, CEO of the Theater and Performing Arts Commission, told Arab News.
Last year’s festival saw a gathering of troupes from all of the Kingdom’s mountainous areas, from Tabuk in the north to Najran in the south. This year saw an expanded program, creating a cross-cultural dialogue between mountain cultures worldwide.
“This will make it a unique opportunity for researchers to study the similarities, if there are any, or the differences between the performing arts of the mountain areas around the world,” Al-Bazei said.
“We think that most of the body movements have similarities of some sort. It’s very important for people to see other cultures, how they celebrate with dances and songs of their own.”
At the festival’s opening ceremony, the various international troupes performed together as part of a cross-cultural parade.
“During this parade, some of the groups were dancing together, sometimes to the tunes and rhythms of the others, which actually makes the point that culture and art bring people together,” Al-Bazei said.
Anthropologists and performers view folk dancing as a form of storytelling using a universal language.
“It’s like art. For us, it lives in our blood. It’s not only history. This is life, and if you come to our performance, you will see that every dancer’s eyes are happy. It’s our happiness to dance,” Bachana Chanturia, artistic director of the Georgian National Ensemble, told Arab News.
The group was first established in Sukhumi under the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in 1931 with the name Apkhazeti. It later relocated to Tbilisi, Georgia, after the 1992 war.
Composed of 70 members, the group uses music and dance to showcase Georgian history. In contrast with most traditional dance companies within the region, the ensemble innovates traditional folklore by incorporating new trends, concepts, and modes of storytelling.
At the Qemam festival, the group performed a 20-minute show at the Shamsan Historical Palace consisting of three dances — shvante, chamba and vazha — earning perhaps the biggest round of applause of the entire festival.
Using quick, dynamic motions, the mixed-gender dance troupe’s performance tells the story of the Svanetians, a people of the highland region of Svaneti in northwest Georgia, near the border with Russia — a Caucasus area characterized by snow-capped peaks and deep gorges.
The group’s performance then transitions into a traditional Abkhazian dance, telling a thrilling story of a competitive horse race over the mountains, complete with equestrian clothing.
The dance is an emblem of love, courage, respect for women and competition through the imitation of mountain wildlife. The routine ends with the Vazha mountain sequence originating from Georigia’s Khazbegi region.
In Georgia, artistic performances are woven into the fabric of the community. From the age of 5 or 6, children are taught to dance, sing and play musical instruments and are later encouraged to join one of the many professional dance groups.
From the mountain city of Baysun, Uzbekistan, the song and dance ensemble Navbakhor brought the traditional Soul of Baysun dance to the peaks of Abha.
“It’s a special dance where they imitate some instruments, (wear special) hats, and each movement has an idea. It’s not just a dance, it’s a philosophy of the region of Uzbekistan,” Alibek Kabdurakhmanov, who heads the ensemble, told Arab News.
Under the Uzbekistan State Philharmonic, the group works to popularize the musical and choreographic arts of the country. Its members wear bright traditional clothing made from colorful shades and embroidered with gold thread.
According to Kabdurakhmanov, the group’s aim is to encapsulate the energy and universal message of peace embraced by the people of Baysun.
Kabdurakhmanov commended the Saudi Ministry of Culture for establishing the mountain performing arts festival and for prioritizing the preservation of cultural heritage.
“I think you will do very important things,” said Kabdurakhmanov. “When Uzbek nationals visit for the first time, they will see your history, your traditions, your culture, and take some part of you and bring it back to our country.
“I think it’s the most important part of development, and people in Saudi Arabia will see other cultures. It’s good for integration.”
A Montenegrin group presented a dance titled, “The dance from old Montenegro,” representing the region’s mentality, communicated through bird-like movements between mountain peaks.
Led by artistic director Mirsad Ademovic, members of the Montenegrin Cultural and Artistic Association Ramadan Sarkic wore national costumes from all over the region, including several museum pieces.
Montenegro itself is a multicultural nation, home to many Albanians and Bosnians. The incorporation of various identities has been crucial to maintaining peace in the Balkan region, Ademovic told Arab News.
He says the festival offered an opportunity for Montenegro and Saudi Arabia to connect through the art of storytelling.
This year’s event featured Saudi folk dances including the ardah, a form of performative martial arts widely performed in the Asir region and inspired by historical battles, now reimagined as a tool for storytelling.
“Folklore is greatly appreciated by many viewers and visitors, conveying to them the remarkable nature of the region and its past,” Abdullah Al-Shaher, the ardah group’s coordinator, told Arab News.
“Such festivals preserve the Kingdom’s heritage in general and pass it on to future generations and invite everyone to be a member of the participating troupes to pass on what they inherited from their ancestors.”
In Philby’s footsteps: Epic journey brings a Saudi-British family together
Reem told Arab News: “Meeting the UK side of the family is all thanks to Mark Evans. Of course, we always knew about each other, but it just never happened that we met”
Updated 28 January 2023
RIYADH: Saudi explorer Reem Philby likes to spend her vacations outdoors, climbing peaks such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or trekking through Peru, South Africa or Norway.
Now the adventurous 42-year-old is trekking across the Arabian Peninsula, following in her grandfather’s footsteps on an expedition seeking to keep his legacy alive.
Reem is the granddaughter of the renowned British explorer and Arabist Harry St. John Philby, who did much to document the history of what is now known as Saudi Arabia through his travels across the region before his death in 1960.
In 1917, Philby was sent to Arabia on an assignment to forge links with Ibn Saud, the leader who later reigned as Saudi Arabia’s first king from 1932 until his death in 1953.
At the time, the British explorer was married to Dora Johnston, and had four children, Kim, Diana, Helena and Patricia.
He later took on the name Abdullah and married Saudi national Rozy Al-Abdul Aziz, with whom he had four boys, Fahad, Sultan, Faris and Khaled.
His British and Saudi descendants had never met until the official launch of a recent 1,300 km expedition — initiated by British explorer Mark Evans under the title Heart of Arabia — which loosely followed Philby’s 1917 journey.
In September, the families finally united at the launch send-off organized by the Royal Geographical Society in London.
(My grandfather) chose this place to be his home. He loved it and spent his life here, and it’s amazing that he is still remembered.
Reem Philby, Saudi explorer
They just clicked, according to his granddaughter.
Reem told Arab News: “Meeting the UK side of the family is all thanks to Mark Evans. Of course, we always knew about each other, but it just never happened that we met.”
Reem works at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which is supporting one of the research projects covered in the expedition.
Mike Engelbach, the son of Philby’s youngest daughter Helena, became involved with the Heart of Arabia project in 2018, when he was approached by Evans through St. Anthony’s College Oxford.
Evans had just completed a trek across the Empty Quarter in honor of Bertram Thomas, the first documented Westerner to make the journey.
Philby and Thomas had connected themselves, but not in such a joyous manner.
• In 1917, Philby was sent to Arabia on an assignment to forge links with Ibn Saud, the leader who later reigned as Saudi Arabia’s first king from 1932 until his death in 1953.
• Reem is the granddaughter of the renowned British explorer and Arabist Harry St. John Philby, who did much to document the history of what is now known as Saudi Arabia through his travels across the region before his death in 1960.
On hearing of Thomas’ triumph, Philby sent him a postcard congratulating him on the epic feat. Privately, however, Philby was disappointed and envious of an achievement he himself wished to make, his journals reveal.
Now the recent launch of the Philby Arabia Fund is encouraging future generations to conduct field research within Saudi Arabia.
When Philby’s descendants speak of his character, they remember a dignified figure with a long beard and serious demeanor. However, he was a grandfather in every sense.
“With us as children, he was very indulgent and would take us on treats,” Englebach told Arab News. “But he would also get involved with our family squabbles. He didn’t just sit aside from it. He took a keen interest in what we as young children were all doing.”
This month, Englebach and his cousin Mandy made their own journey from the UK to Riyadh to see off the expedition team on the second leg of its journey.
“I’ve never seen so many Philbys in the same room,” Reem said. “It was a great feeling. I grew up in Saudi where all the families are big, a lot of cousins, and it’s so nice to have that feeling. It was definitely one of the biggest gains of the expedition on a personal level.”
Englebach said: “Just the meeting straight away, we were very charmed, I think on both sides, by meeting each other and knowing that we had this man who we’re all descended from. We’ve been with all the family while we’ve been here (in Saudi Arabia) for the first time, and also met my uncle, aunt and the other cousins.”
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UK goes back decades, and the Heart of Arabia expedition has solidified the potential for collaborative cultural growth and exploration.
“(My grandfather) chose this place to be his home. He loved it and spent his life here, and it’s amazing that he is still remembered. To be in the desert in the middle of nowhere and we see a place where he stopped and remember him after 100 years is a very special feeling,” Reem said.
Shoura Council speaker to head Saudi delegation to 17th OIC Parliamentary Union meeting in Algeria
Updated 28 January 2023
RIYADH: Speaker of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council Sheikh Abdullah Al-Asheikh will head the Kingdom’s delegation participating in the 17th session of the Parliamentary Union of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Member States in Algeria on Sunday, the council announced on Friday.
The conference, which will be attended by parliamentary heads from the OIC member states, will discuss several topics on its agenda, including confronting Israeli plans and protecting Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to combating all forms and manifestations of terrorism under the umbrella of the UN.
It will also tackle solidarity for Muslim minorities around the globe, and activate and support economic institutions in development in the Islamic world.
The conference will also discuss issues related to the environment, sustainable development, cooperation in preserving water resources, support for women’s role in development, strengthening the role of Islamic parliaments in promoting basic health, and the importance of effectively addressing Islamophobia.
The Kingdom’s delegation also includes the Secretary-General of the Shoura Council, Mohammed bin Dakhil Al-Mutairi, and several members and senior officials in the council.
Saudi Arabia top of women’s health list for Arab countries, ranks ahead of UK
Saudi women are now leading in lots of fields thanks to our government which has been continuously encouraging and supporting us to go ahead at national and international levels
Updated 27 January 2023
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has ranked as the top Arab country for women’s health, being placed ahead of the UK on a global list.
According to the recently released Hologic Global Women’s Health Index’s 2021 report, the Kingdom and the UAE were positioned 28th and 35th, respectively, the highest rankings for nations in the Arab world.
Dr. Mona Salahuddin Al-Munajjed, a prominent sociologist at the forefront of those influencing women’s affairs in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News: “I am not surprised by these new findings. On the contrary, I am happy by the great results.
“I am proud that my country has made incredible positive developments in education, health, and other fields for both men and women.
Saudi women are now leading in lots of fields thanks to our government which has been continuously encouraging and supporting us to go ahead at national and international levels. This means we are going in the right direction in fulfilling our Saudi Vision 2030.
Dr. Mona Salahuddin Al-Munajjed, Sociologist
“Saudi women are now leading in lots of fields thanks to our government which has been continuously encouraging and supporting us to go ahead at national and international levels. This means we are going in the right direction in fulfilling our Saudi Vision 2030,” she said.
Lebanon and Turkey held some of the lowest scores, named in the bottom 10 of the 122 countries listed at 118th and 119th, respectively.
The UK was ranked two positions behind Saudi Arabia at 30th.
The medical technology company’s global report struck a chord in the UK, where the cash-strapped National Health Service is battling staff shortages and patient-treatment backlogs. Ambulance workers recently held their biggest strike and junior doctors have voted for industrial action.
The US came in 23rd in the index behind Germany, New Zealand, and Singapore but ahead of France. Taiwan and Latvia scored the highest and Afghanistan the lowest in the global index.
The health survey showed a decline in women’s ability to meet their basic needs as well as record levels of stress, worry, and anger.
The UK dropped three points in the latest index, ranking on a par with Poland, Slovenia, and Kosovo, besides Kazakhstan. It was among the fastest-declining countries for emotional health, according to the report.
The US remained an exception because higher health spending did not translate into better outcomes, said the report.
The findings were based on interviews with almost 127,000 women and men, with questions encompassing preventive care, emotional health, opinions of health and safety, and basic needs.
Hologic Inc. and partner Gallup interviewed women to rate multiple measures, from mental health to preventive care.
The purpose of the global index is to identify critical gaps in what the world understands about the health and well-being of women and girls, to eventually find solutions.
Saudi Arabia signs deals to boost fight against diabetes
Under its deal, Boehringer Ingelheim will increase the manufacture of medicine used to treat type 2 diabetes and diagnose rare diseases in Saudi Arabia
Updated 27 January 2023
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has signed two deals to improve the treatment and prevention of diabetes.
Memorandums of understanding were agreed with German pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim and the Danish healthcare company Novo Nordisk at the Riyadh Global Medical Biotechnology Summit earlier this week.
They aim to boost cooperation with the biotech and pharmaceutical sector, localize manufacturing, raise awareness and establish research centers in the Kingdom.
Under its deal, Boehringer Ingelheim will increase the manufacture of medicine used to treat type 2 diabetes and diagnose rare diseases in the Kingdom.
Novo Nordisk Saudi Arabia's deal with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will help develop awareness of metabolic disorders, obesity and diabetes.
The agreements were negotiated by the Ministry of Investment, and signed in the presence of Minister of Investment Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Faleh. The health summit was organized by the Ministry of National Guard Health Affairs.