JEDDAH, 12 January 2004 — Taxi drivers won’t go near it. It acts as a magnet for the “shabab,” who are drawn inexorably to its scarred and graffiti-covered walls but almost invariably stop short of crossing the threshold.
Well-known among the expatriate community as a place of horror, Jeddah’s most haunted house has become a legend in its own lifetime. To date, the story goes, 16 people have entered the depths of this decaying pile, never to be seen again.
The derelict house stands a hundred meters or so from the seafront on the north Corniche. The braver members of the street-cruising society have daubed its facade with graffiti and the place is, quite literally, falling apart. As it deteriorates into its component parts, so the mystery and myth surrounding it increases in inverse proportion.
Certainly, just a look at it, even in daylight, produces an involuntary shudder. Crows flap untidily around the crumbling upper works like black rags tossed in the wind. Going through the rusting gates is to walk into a thick silence as the dull roar of the Corniche traffic fades into silence The eyeless window sockets of the house, once full of warmth and bustle, stare lifelessly at the derelict garden. She is an old lady now, ignored in her decline, but still standing proud though damaged by the vicissitudes of maltreatment by man and nature.
She still retains some of her former magnificence; the Italianate tile and plaster facade, where it still exists, towers over the remains of wrought iron railings that edge the marbled front patio. Ornate ironwork rawshans decorated with diamonds of blue and white translucent glass, once fixed over the main windows, lie buckled and rusting like iron lacework on a bed of wind-blown rubbish, slowly sinking into a sea of creepers.
Inside, the house shows evidence of fire in every room. Ceilings are black with soot, walls reticulated with curling shards of burned paint and old wiring, melted and cooled, hangs in plastic stalactites from light fittings. Whether the fire was the cause of evacuation or the result of later vandalism is hard to tell.
To challenge the myth, we spent the night in the house, equipped with cameras, torches and the paraphernalia of recording to see, once and for all, what the truth of the rumors of haunting were.
At night, the house changes character completely. Sooty walls and ceilings add to the depth of the gloom in the body of the house; at times the darkness is total. Distorted yellow rectangles of light penetrate the front windows and form an intricate latticework on the rear walls.
Deeper inside the house, down the narrow servants’ stairs and into the waterlogged basement, the darkness is total. Stealthy skitterings and the secret sound of small stones sliding across marble floors break the silence as small creatures busy themselves with their nocturnal foraging. Occasionally a deeper and heavier crack fractures the silence — the house moving on its sandy foundations. Moving over the sand and the detritus of years of neglect, the temperature was much lower than at ground level and seemed to vary from place to place in the building as we explored.
Little reminders that this grand old lady was once loved as a family home litter the floor. Here a child’s French textbook, scribbled in and dated in the mid-1980s; there an old National Geographic magazine, charred and wet, circa 1984. A rusting and toppled child’s slide with a plastic flower still tied to it blocks a stairwell.
Heightened sensitivity to the smallest sound allowed us to hear occasional sibilant whispers that may have been a breeze moving through the tattered mesh screens and the shattered walls. An intermittent low hum, that could have been heavy traffic in the background, gently reverberated around the lower rooms. At three in the morning, it all seemed unlikely.
Using a second floor room that gave a good view of the only entrance to the walled plot in which the house stands, we waited. As the night deepened, the outside sounds grew fewer, lending emphasis to the almost resigned feel of the house settling into decay. Our eyes finally became accustomed to the dark afterhours patrolling the rooms; shapeless shadows resolved themselves into discernible pieces of discarded household bric a brac. She had accepted us and was no longer threatening but comfortable with our presence.
Until the “shabab” came. About three in the morning.
Small cars filled with exuberant young men looking for something to do, some place to “hang out,” roared in off the Corniche. The shattering of the peaceful state we had settled into engendered a feeling of something near resentment; we had been indecently assaulted with noise and activity.
Their reaction to the house was one of false bravado. It took a full hour before even one of them got near the open gate — and then it was only to run back to his friends, jeering from the cocoon of noise and cigarette smoke in the car. Eventually, after much egging on by their colleagues, two of sterner mettle came through the gate as far as the patio, stood for a few seconds — but then returned to the safety of their known world. None breached the sanctity of the front door, surrounded with the petroglyphs and graffiti of previous visitors. The old lady alone on the Corniche had repelled potential ravishers once again with a combination of dour aspect and inbred superstition.
Did she threaten them? They were clearly not brave enough to enter; her reputation, widely known as a house of ghosts and threats, has not been a perfect defense. She carries the rainbow slashes of spray paint to attest to the insults inflicted on her. Her reputation has only slowed her dying.
We saw no ghosts or ghouls but then, absence of proof is not proof of absence. We did, however, see self-inflicted fear at work, the power of persuasion and bravado powered by boredom. We also came to respect the old lady for her seeming tolerance of our presence and appreciate what she seemed to have in spite of her age and her state of disrepair: Dignity.