Tales of Old Jeddah

Razan Baker | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2007-01-25 03:00

Lamia Baeshen is on a mission to preserve the culture of the Hijaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia that has Jeddah as its unofficial capital.

She says preserving folkloric tales and songs — which to this day can still be heard in the zigzagging “Old Arabia” streets of Jeddah’s historic center, known as Al-Balad — is not just a passing fancy, but also a cultural responsibility.

“I will know that I have succeeded when people begin to cherish our heritage and begin to pass it on,” said Baeshen, who was a professor of English literature at the Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University.

Baeshen is one of the Kingdom’s few avid collectors of folklore and traditional music. She began her first project 14 years ago with a book titled “Al-Tabat wa Al-Nabat” (which translates roughly as the equivalent to “happily ever after”). She had collected so many traditional Hijazi folkloric tales — 111 of them to be exact — that she ended up breaking the book into two parts. The first part alone took about ten years to complete: 61 stories in all, 20 of them were later translated into English.

The second part will be published in the next two months. She says that people are still calling her to meet their elderly family members who know stories or missing parts from the stories she presently has.

“I had fun while doing part one,” she said. “Part two is more fun because I’ve learned the techniques for finding these tales instead of figuring it out as I go along.”

Baeshen says she gets a thrill when she happens upon her work in her search for more material.

“By coincidence I was searching online for tales of Saudi Arabia, and I found my translated work listed on more than one site,” she said. “This was a big delight to me. It was a dream come true.”

Considering the wealth of folkloric material, it almost goes without saying that Arabian literary heritage is rich. Baeshen says that Jeddah’s folklore has existed in a kind of incubator, literally walled in with the city’s long-standing citadel-like layout that not only protected residents from desert marauders seeking to loot the wealthy port city, but also kept denizens inside their tightly knit community. Like the cultural equivalent of the Galapagos Islands, folkloric traditions were isolated and allowed to evolve their own distinct characteristics.

Later, when Jeddah expanded beyond its walled perimeter that had been in place for centuries (only reconstructed remnants of the wall exist today), many of the people forgot their folkloric heritage. What survives exists mainly within minds of scholars like Baeshen and the Jeddawis who remain in Al-Balad. Baeshen says her mission is to help preserve what is being lost.

“Unfortunately, we find a lot of the new generation of Saudis who do not know, or barely remember, anything about our heritage,” she said. “This thought occurred to me when I was studying in the US. I suddenly felt that it would be a great loss if we just let it go.”

Although many families have moved away from Jeddah’s historic center, there still remains in its dusty corners a treasure box of traditional Jeddawi culture. The streets of Balad are filled each year during Ramadan with locals and expatriates experiencing traditional costume, foods and song. In fact, Balad’s atmosphere during Ramadan has made it the focal point of the region, as anyone who has tried to find a parking space downtown during the holy month knows.

“It has become a tradition in itself for parents to take their children or grandchildren to Balad and narrate to them what used to be there and how life used to be,” she said.

Jeddah’s distinct cultural heritage is found in many aspects that still exist in the historic center (which is being nominated by the Kingdom for UNESCO World Heritage status), including a distinct Arabic accent, mode of dress, architecture and traditional food.

“Our unique Jeddawi dialect and the way we narrate stories, poetry and songs has helped to create a rich and distinct vocabulary that is fading away,” said Baeshen, who recalls one story in particular called “Lulwa, the Daughter of Morjan” which she says is the Hijazi equivalent of the story of Pocahontas, the Native American princess of American folkloric tradition.

One thing that makes Hijazi folklore distinct is that many of the tales feature heroines, strong women in roles of power and moral authority who overcome challenges and win by wit and patience.

While Jeddah has its own distinct culture, it has also been a port of call for Makkah-bound pilgrims. As such, many of its tales have a distinct multi-cultural bend.

Jeddah’s role as a commercial center and, for much of history, the only significant port of call on the Red Sea between Yemen and Egypt, is part of why the local folklore has a multicultural aspect that reflects the city’s significant port status.

Baeshen says she enjoys sifting through these tales looking for hidden or lost meanings like a classics scholar.

“I enjoyed reading between the lines and contemplating the wisdom that the messages carry,” she said.

The task can be daunting at times. Baeshen has boxes of recordings, many sent in by families. Sometimes it’s a difficult task, she says, to determine which version of a folk tale is the one to preserve.

For example, she said she found many versions of one particular story that revolved around seven lunatics. Some versions had as many as 17 lunatics. There were several versions of this story, nearly all of them incomplete. A lot of people offered only portions of the story. From all of these variables, Baeshen had to cobble together one version of this tale after identifying common characteristics and looking for the most consistent pattern of plot and character formation.

“That is the beauty of it,” she said. “It’s also why I wrote that this book was ‘compiled, verified and presented by Lamia Baeshen’.”

The collection is not been illustrated with pictures, but Baeshen hopes that an illustrated children’s version will be published in the future. She said she would love to see a version of these stories put together in a “Brothers Grimm” style, accessible to all.

“These stories are for all ages regardless of gender,” she said.

As a lasting tribute to the Hijaz, Baeshen made sure her books are written in their original Hijazi Arabic dialect in order to capture the essense of the tales, which are meant to be recited to others rather than read on paper.

About 5,000 copies of “Tabat o Nabat” are sold each year. The book is available in Arabic at Jarir and Tihama bookstores. More information is available at www.drlbaeshen.com.

Got an old Hijazi story to tell? Send Baeshen an email at [email protected].

From Words to Music

While Baeshen has been busily compiling Hijazi folkloric tales, she’s also picked up enough musical tradition to compile and audio CD, titled “Douha”.

The CD contains eight tracks of traditional songs recited by Hijazi families at get-togethers in bygone days. Many of these songs are long, and for the sake of producing the tracks in a more popular format, Baeshen recorded condensed 4-5 minute versions of these songs. (She plans to publish the full lyrics book form later.)

“There was nothing special just for children or just for adults,” said Baeshen. “Children were never excluded. They were always welcome to participate and encouraged to do so.”

Baeshen talks about one song women here would sing as they ridicule men in the community who didn’t go with the other men for the Haj pilgrimage. (It was traditional for men of a Hijazi community to go the pilgrimage together. During these times, men who do not join their peers on Haj would be ridiculed for their pack of piety with this particular song.)

Baeshen says she is particularly touched by one of the songs about the sad feeling of a mother who sees that her child has grown up to be a man.

“I just love this whole emotional scene of mothers who are sad due to this separation,” she said. “It’s like a second birth.”

Abdulaziz Fetaihi performed the music along with a group of children and their mothers who provided vocal backups.

Sawsan Qasim, 12, was one of the children who sang. Reflecting on her experience she said it was nice and although she was shy at first she was very happy at the end.

“I loved it, the songs were easy to memorize and fun to sing,” said Sawsan Qasim, 12, one of the children that performed on the album. “I love to sing them to my family now and would love to teach them to my children later on.”

Abdo Khal, a Saudi novelist who reviewed the CD, said the music would keep these memories alive for future generations.

“I found myself singing with the children in the CD and was taken back to the beautiful past,” said Mohammed Diyab, a Saudi writer. He added that Baeshen deserves to be thanked, encouraged and supported for her work, which would have otherwise disappeared.

For her part, Baeshen said she feels her work is helping fight an unpleasant trend.

“Some beautiful things are lost with so-called progress,” said Baeshen. “It feels sometimes like we’re going backwards not forwards.”

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