Last week the great Saudi actor Abdul Aziz al Hammad sadly passed away. Saudi papers highlighted the news of his passing and the return of his body from a US hospital to Saudi after receiving treatment there and the [Saudi] state sponsored him. The late actor was among the first generation of Saudi entertainers who forced their way into an environment that did not appreciate art. Al Hammad persisted and struggled and he studied the arts in the US before returning and taking part in a number of pioneering dramatic works. There was always a smile on his face and according to many people he was always more than willing to share his experiences with the younger generation.
A few weeks earlier, there were rumours that the great Yemeni artist and singer of traditional and diverse Yemeni music Mohammed Murshid Naji – who is also known as Al Murshidi to his audience – was admitted to the president’s private hospital. I was deeply moved by this news as I am very fond of the works of this cultured entertainer. He is an early pioneer in his field even outside of Yemen. Al Murshidi is, in a sense, considered part of Saudi art in view of the fact that Yemeni art is the largest spring from which Saudi songs flow. It suffices in this context to remember the great Yemeni entertainer Abu Bakr Salem Balfaqih.
A few days ago I read an interview that took me back to my childhood. Last Friday, the Saudi daily Okaz published a two-page interview with the Saudi entertainer Hassan Dardir. Perhaps if I mention his stage name most Saudi citizens would remember him; he used the name “Mishqass.” The image of “Mishqass” was really heartbreaking as the years had taken their toll on him and so had illness. The words of “Mishqass,” brought back memories for me as I began to recall his famous monologues with Hamdan Shalabi.
Everyone in Saudi Arabia remembers the flourishing theatre during the seventies and the early eighties. We all remember the “Futa” theatre in Riyadh and the sports clubs that used to hold performances at the end of each season where they would present comedy sketches, impersonations and theatrical pieces. That was a long time before the explosion of satellite television channels and the decline of the newborn theatre. Prior to that, the theatre had been dealt an even more severe blow; a cultural and social blow that sullied art and slammed it as prohibited, debauchery and deviance. The attack was aided by the fragility of the budding theatrical and artistic structure; a fragility that prevented this structure from confronting this attack.
Aesthetic and artistic erosion continued for around three decades, that is, during the eighties, the nineties and part of the new millennium. This erosion has now started to subside, thereby giving the buds of art and beauty an opportunity to blossom once again. However, over the past three decades, Saudi society has undergone many changes and the media technology and satellite television revolution has introduced new realities.
Let us go back to “Mishqass.” He referred to an aspect of the suffering he had experienced as an artist. In his interview with Okaz daily “Mishqass” spoke about a commercial litigation between him and an opponent over a certain property. He refers to the tactic that the litigant employed in court against him to weaken his position. “Mishqass” said: “The man filed 12 legal cases against me. In his pleadings, he would write businessman versus artist, knowing the sensitivity with which the judges would react to the word ‘artist.’ I have suffered a great deal because of their sensitivity towards this word.”
I am not interested here in those who caused Hassan Dardir to suffer; it doesn’t make much of a difference to me whether or not he won the case or if he was truly wronged as that is a completely different story. What matters here is the suffering inflicted on artists due to the way society views them. We all know that artists are an essential part of society. They are the entertainers who please the masses. Thanks to the common love and acceptance they enjoy, artists are the medium through which certain social and political messages are conveyed. Throughout history, artists have been commissioned by the elite society to perform at galas and social events just as the trend was in the courts of nobles and notables in Europe and in eastern countries like Egypt and others. Despite the continuous and increasing demand for the entertainment of artists, they continue to be excluded and looked down upon in many cases.
Around six years ago, for this newspaper, I asked the famous Saudi novelist, namely Abdo Khal, and a famous Saudi dramatist, Mohammed al Othaim, about their interpretation of this twofold perception of artists in Saudi Arabia and perhaps in other Arab countries too. This view combines denial and acceptance, respect and contempt as well as pride and embarrassment. Both the novelist and the dramatist referred me to the history of the origin of art in the Muslim and Arab world. Some argued that singers and entertainers fared well in the palaces of caliphs and ministers in Baghdad, Egypt and Andalusia and were isolated from the rest of the society. Needless to say, there was no close contact between the authority and ordinary people, and so singers and entertainers were looked upon as part of the institution of power and oppression.
One other thing that I found in the book entitled ‘Kitab Al Aghani’ [Book of Songs] by Al Asfahani is that singing and music in the Abbasid period were somehow connected to revelry and impudence. Add to this the position of Muslim jurists or the majority of them, to be precise, on arts, which is clearly rejection. Another important factor is the novelty of contemporary music and singing with instruments and influences from other civilisations on Arab taste.
Recently, within the modern Saudi context, systematic and intense attacks from the fundamental current played a role in eliminating any remaining tendency towards accepting the arts. This current compensated Saudis for the conspicuous lack of aesthetics by introducing “Islamic art” in the form of Islamic-oriented songs, artwork etc.
As I said earlier, the status of artists in Saudi Arabia is something of a paradox. Artists are highly desirable figures in our society. Some of us boast that we have rubbed shoulders with this or that artist. However, we also harbour a contradictory and hidden sense of rejection for them. As a result artists have failed to obtain social value in the collective consciousness of the Saudi people.
How do these feelings of desire and rejection come together at the same time? This is not the case in Western societies. Arts and artists in the West are highly appreciated. They enjoy a status that is equal to that of great scientists and famous politicians. So has our local collective consciousness – because of the ongoing attacks on arts by conservative enemies – created a stereotype of artists as immoderate people who do not conform to social norms? Does this stereotype reflect reality? Have Arab artists always been isolated from their social and political surroundings and have they been unable to influence them? Have they always been unable to adopt patriotic and pan-Arab stances and unable to contribute to social reform?
The history of art in Egypt for example tells us a lot about late Egyptian singer Abdou al Hamuli who died in 1901. Al Hamuli was a man who openly opposed colonialism and commanded respect from his audience on the artistic and personal levels. In his biography it says that whenever he saw a prostitute he would give her money and gently advise her to abstain from what she is doing.
The late Egyptian intellectual Fouad Zakariyya published a beautiful article in his book about Arab discourse. In this article he underlined the difference art can make to the way people view arts and artists. He was speaking in particular about music and how it is viewed individually in the East and the West. He was referring to classical music of course.
Today the picture might differ slightly due to the change in circumstances. Perhaps Saudi society now possesses considerable artistic potential and is ready for differing forms of aestheticism.
A salute is due to Abdul Aziz al Hammad, Bakr al Shadi, Talal al Madah and others who managed to pave the way for themselves.
I hope that the Ministry of Culture and Information will embark upon spreading the concept of comprehensive art in society until it leads to an increase in human creativity and the appreciation of beauty, both of which make life brighter and better and so that when we say “Saudi art” we would mean the art that springs from the very foundation [of Saudi society] i.e. from places like school theatres, local clubs and summer camps, and not from media and production companies as that is another story altogether.