INTERVIEW: Dr. Lamia Baeshen About Her Mission To Preserve The Culture Of Hijaz, The Western Region Of Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia

When, across time and distance we recognize ourselves in other and others in ourselves, do we not recognize something enduring, a privileged insight…  The world constantly changes across time and space, from day to day, from one place to another. Human beings are enterprising agents of change, transforming their environments and, in the process, transforming themselves. And yet the human condition stubbornly remains and when, across time and distance, we recognize ourselves in other and others in ourselves, do we not recognize something enduring?

Excerpts from a talk with Dr. Lamia Baeshen, Professor of English Literature at King AbdulAziz University in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Q: You are - on a mission to preserve the culture of Hijaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia. How has it all started? What has been accomplished so far? What are you aiming for?

LAMIA: I am concerned mostly with preserving the oral culture of Hijaz; folktales, lyrics proverbs, linguistic structures, and word formation and usage in the local dialect. It all started with a spark of love that was planted in my heart with care by my family who is deeply rooted in the "glorious" past of this land.

My aunts never stopped telling me marvelous stories which I recalled during stages of my studies. I learned the science of appreciating folklore through studying literature and linguistics. The nucleus of literature is language, a word, a sentence,
a song, a story. So nothing said or sung or told should ever be taken for granted.

For me, preserving the past means resurrecting it, my aim thus is to bring back valuable segments of culture that were forgotten or neglected and reintroduce them into the general social practice of today. The process is long and challenging because people are already set in their ways and they have developed new habits that are considered modern and fashionable. To preserve culture correctly one has to raise awareness of the importance of that culture and to cultivate the sense and taste for appreciating the aesthetic value of its manifestations.

Q: To preserve the cultural heritage represents for you also cultural responsibility. Can you elaborate? Why at this particular time? And why the region of Hijaz, in particular?

LAMIA: Hijaz is an ancient land and Jeddah is its oldest city; legend has it that Mother Eve has first landed here from heaven. Actually the oldest graveyard in the region carries her name, and old travelers' records claim that her body was buried in the middle of the yard. You can only imagine how rich the culture of this region is!

Jeddah had kept its culture intact for centuries, and although it faced the Red Sea, it was also fenced in with a strong wall and heavily guarded with huge gates. All cultural facets enjoyed a generic constitution that was shaken suddenly during the first half of the 20th century. The wall was demolished, formal education was established, and money poured into the country with the discovery of oil.

The city now expands in every direction, many Saudi citizens moved to Jeddah from different parts of the country, and many Arabs and Moslems settled in. The body of Jeddawis includes today many new elements. The second half of the century witnessed more challenges, and like every society in the world, Jeddah now faces the threat of globalization; its new generations speak more English than local dialect, they celebrate birthdays more than they do local occasions, and they sing " twinkle , twinkle" to their kids more than they do old lullabies.

When people become ignorant of their own cultural practices and begin to despise their own tongue, they lose self respect and become copycats who are always in a passive state of reception. This cultural impotence dissolves their identity and individuality.

Q: What folkloric traditions exist today in Saudi Arabia, in general?

LAMIA: Actually very few. People were so taken by modernization that they let go of major and minor practices of their past. (And notice that I am not saying of their ancestors' past). A person's life time has shown him major changes starting with the house he lived in and the ally he wandered through, to the food he ate and the clothes he wore. It took 50 years or less to shift lifestyles from one side to another; people ought to lose not only their culture, but their minds as well. I look at my parents at times and wonder how they could cope with all of these upheavals.

Q: Your first project collecting traditional Hijazi folkloric tales started good 14 years ago. How do you recall that time today? How do you go about collecting tales? And processing of the materials?

LAMIA: My book "al-Tabat wa al-Nabat" which translates to "Happily Ever After" was published ten years ago, but it took me 10 long years to collect the material. The process was thrilling, though long and tedious at times. I interviewed many older women who still recalled tales and were gracious enough to participate in the project. The telling of tales is an art in itself; as these women started to talk they forgot their intimidation of my tape recorder and they got involved in the enactment of their beautiful tales. It is too bad voices and gestures were not captured on the pages of the book

I was also stunned by the number of the tales collected. As a child I listened to tales at bedtime, but I always remembered ten at the most. As I sat down to sort out my collected material, the number 61 amazed me! It saddened me that story telling is a dying art. My book saved the tales from dying, but it also kept them prisoners and frozen in specific molds. Telling a tale is an oral practice and that made the form of the story lucid, flexible and modifiable.

Q: After publication of the first collection under the title "Happily Ever After", a second part should be published in the next two months. What are the themes of the tales? What message and wisdom do the tales carry? Of what virtues, experiences do they impart?

LAMIA: The second volume of my book contains around 50 tales. Their themes vary from love to honesty, and from truthfulness to courage, but they all try to pass on a moral value or a piece of wisdom. In that respect and many others, like the use of imagination and humor, and the reliance on animals and fantastical creatures, the tales do not differ much from folktales around the world.

I could say though that the lesson these tales try to emphasize time and again is to never be envious of others for what God blessed them with, and if one tries to imitate others blindly in order to get what they have, then their fortune will turn into his misfortune.

Q: Can you give us a foretaste of a tale that touched you, in particular?

LAMIA: Part of my concern with the tales is to study their structures and methods of presentation. I try to analyze their themes and plotlines, their characterizations and settings, as well as their content and stand concerning major social issues. From a feminist point of view, one story holds the greatest interest for me. I gave it the title: "The Bone ". It tells the story of a man who decides to build an underground abode for his unborn daughter, if he ever got one, to protect her from other men. When his wife gave birth to a girl she was taken directly to the underground rooms where she spent her years not seeing the day of light. Her father's orders were never to give her a sharp instrument, but one day the cook forgets to remove the bone from the piece of meat he has served her. The girl is overjoyed with the bone and as she is toying with it, she discovers that she can dig a hole in the wall with it. Little by little, she sticks her head in the opening and sees the light. Eventually she makes the hole big enough for her to slip through and leave her grave.

There is more to the story, but to me, the symbolism is fascinating. Not only does the underground room symbolize a grave, but it is also a second womb from which she gets born into the outside world. She achieves her freedom by using an instrument that can be seen as a phallic symbol, which refers to the fact that the outside world is masculine in nature and that getting initiated into its realm demands masculinity.

Q: For whom is the collection meant?

LAMIA: The collection is a raw version of the tales captured in the colloquial tongue of the narrators. In the past tales were told to all, with no consideration to age or sex. In the same spirit, the collection has no specific audience, but it provides a long-forgotten material that holds lots of possibilities. The crude tales can lend themselves to any genre with a little modification as needed.

Q: What support and cooperation were you able to obtain and from whom?

LAMIA: The greatest support I got was from the women who told the stories; I mean without their help I would have no material. They told the tales with great enthusiasm and they were happy someone was finally showing interest in what they have kept in their hearts and memories. They were silenced by radios, TVs and computers. Technology and modern life stole away their audience and drove them to the margins of social functionality.

My family and friends were encouraging throughout the process, and my father sponsored the printing of the book. Later on I received an award from Darat al Malik Abdulaziz (The House Of King Abdulaziz) in Riyadh for my contribution to the preservation of local culture.

Q: What responses are you getting and from whom?

LAMIA: People in Saudi Arabia are very appreciative of the work; actually the title is a household name. The popularity of the book is one great sign of its success; of course, the tales are taken from the people and are given back to them. But the most exciting response I get is from children who read the collection as their first reading book. They insist on having their own copies which they carry along when they travel. Some send me their drawings of the tales and the characters as they imagine them to be. Sometimes I get phone calls from children asking about meanings of words or other details. They are reading the book and they are loving it.

Q: Where do you plan to go from here? What other projects do you have in mind?

LAMIA: Projects concerning the revival of oral culture are countless, but I have only one life time. I think it is essential to realize that the work I do should be done through an institution, it is by no means the job of an individual.

Nonetheless, I try not to stop and fulfill the role I chose for myself to the best of my ability. I did translate some of the tales to English because Saudi tales are not known in any part of the world. This year, I have come up with a CD called Doha, which contains several old lyrics reproduced in modern musical format in order to appeal to young generations. I am working with a group of young girls to try to transform some of the tales to a theatrical performance. I am also working very hard to finish a Dictionary of the Hijazi dialect.

Q: The historic center of Jeddah, also known the "Bride of the Red Sea", is nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. When will it be finally listed?

LAMIA: The heart of Jeddah, known as the "Balad", is the old city which has been deserted by its owners who moved out to new elegant villas in the suburbs. The ancient houses are left to poor workers who know nothing about the value of their surroundings. The buildings are fallen apart, we lose at least two houses a year to fires. People cry and cry for some help either from the local government or the UNESCO to interfere and save this historic site to no avail.

It hurts so much to witness helplessly the new plans for demolishing major architectural wonders in order to make room for new high rises in the old part of town. When will the Bride of the Red Sea be saved? And why it is taking so long to help saving it? I sadly answer these puzzling questions: I don't know.