A festival in the north of Riad has been celebrating Saudi Arabia's culture since 1985. Now, after 25 years, the festival organisers have finally decided against gender segregation. Hanna Labonté reports on a festival between two worlds
"Janadriyah" – a word that stands for something thought lost, declared dead, that stands for something held to have disappeared long ago under the mountains of petrodollars and the commodities they buy.
The festival, held since 1985, celebrates the traditional Saudi Arabian culture, a deeply Arabic culture. Nevertheless, or perhaps for that very reason, it also highlights the inner rift currently dividing the country's society. Saudi Arabia is not an ordinary country. It is a land where realities collide and run parallel to one another. It is a land struggling for its own solutions to its problems, which sometimes trips up over ideals and reality.
The Janadriyah cultural festival, the society event in Saudi Arabia, is no exception. In the huge festival space outside Riad – whereby the term "outside" is becoming more and more relative, as the city is spreading at indescribable speed – some 1.5 million visitors come to view both traditional handicrafts and visions for the future, over two weeks of the year.
Trade fair or funfair?
In one corner, the flashy designs for the country's new universities gleam from the walls, presented by a Saudi in polished, unaccented English. Every region, ministry and foundation seems to have a pavilion here, vying for public attention.
Bags stuffed with glossy brochures and giveaways are foisted upon the visitors at every turn. The health ministry informs the public in a jumble of pamphlets, starting with the right way to deal with toddlers, via the effects of domestic violence to sickle-cell anaemia and diabetes.
A voluntary hajj (pilgrimage) helper wants to tell people about his good deeds, pressing his latest invention into visitors' hands – a dust plaster for sticking below your nose, apparently much better protection from dust than the usual masks.
Following the incredible sandstorm that recently brought not just the capital and its airport but also the festival to a standstill, it's tempting to believe him.
The next stop is a difficult negotiation over the just finished, hand-woven carpet – the old carpet-maker doesn't speak standard Arabic but communicates in his own Bedouin dialect.
There are Saudi families lugging woven carpets and hand-thrown pottery around with them, queues forming in front of simple bread ovens, in a country where McDonalds and Co. are just as commonplace as in the USA and where every meal seems to include meat. There are camel races and traditional sword dances.
It is as if this society, having been through incredibly fast-paced change over the past 60 years, now longs for a little peace and old familiar traditions – only to drive home again in their shiny air-conditioned cars, stopping off en route at one of the shopping malls shooting up out of nowhere all over the country. The contrast is striking.
The confusion is complete when women complain quietly but clearly that this year's festival has been opened up for families. After 25 years, the festival organisers have finally decided against gender segregation, the Saudi English-language press reported. Up to now there were only men's days and (far fewer) women's days at Janadriyah. This year the women's days were cut down from four to only one, to make space for families.
That meant the two-week festival was open for men only for ten days, women for one and families for three days. The number of women artists invited to participate was drastically reduced, with women's culture sidelined to a closed area for wild dancing and gossiping.
In a society otherwise dominated by gender segregation down to the tiniest detail, the idea was to give families the opportunity to attend the festival together – no doubt with a nod to the planned cautious opening of Saudi Arabia for tourists.
Guarded by the religious police
On the family days, the world of men dominates, but also in restricted form – only married men can come to the festival, with female accompaniment. All ruled over by the iron hand of the Muttawa, a kind of moral police force, who warn visitors of "diabolical temptations". Every hair peeking out from under a headscarf, every glimpse of ankle is eyed suspiciously by the Muttawa – and then reported to the respective husband.
According to a female Saudi journalist, the festival was no longer any fun for women, who – due to the reduction of the women's days – felt shut out and unwanted. Saudi Arabia is calling for unorthodox solutions at every turn. If they want to make space for women here, they will simply have to exclude men on certain days.
Despite these issues, opening the festival up is a notable and courageous step. The Muttawa may still carry out checks at many of the festival entrances and ensure "law and order" throughout, but as soon as they look away there are winks exchanged on the streets.
Saudi Arabia needs its own pace, and above all its own paths. The women complaining about the festival's opening actually wish it had not happened at the cost of the women's days.
© Qantara.de 2009
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire