Janadriya National Culture and Heritage Festival is integral part of King Abdullah's efforts to nurture Saudi national identity among his 23 million subjects.
Saudi's cultural colossus attracts 600,000 to former camel race
RIYADH // It began with a camel race. A quarter of a century later, it is Saudi Arabia's most popular annual cultural event, drawing upwards of 600,000 visitors. The Janadriya National Culture and Heritage Festival, held at a huge, desert-encircled fairground north of Riyadh, is an integral part of King Abdullah's efforts to nurture Saudi national identity among his 23 million subjects.
"It brings us back to the simple things, and brings us together as Saudis," said Abta Muhammed al Zein, who was waiting for an afternoon programme of poetry, dance and storytelling to begin on Tuesday. Najet A Louhichi, an editor for a Riyadh publishing firm, called Janadriya "a great link between the past and the present" that reminds Saudi young people of where they came from. "We want our kids to be modern and developed," she said. "But we want them to know who we are. We want them to keep our identity."
The two-week festival, which is organised by the Saudi National Guard, features exhibitions of handicrafts, food, and native costumes from different regions of the kingdom. Some pavilions, like one featuring Mecca traditions, are built in traditional architectural styles with crenellated walls, towers and mashrabiyya window screens. Performances of traditional songs and dances are among the most popular attractions of the festival. Also well-attended are lectures and public discussions that this year tackled such issues as combating poverty, France and Islam, Political Journalism in the Arab World and King Abdullah's Vision for Dialogue and Peace and Acceptance of Others.
Among the government offices manning informational booths this year are the consumer protection agency, the ministry of health and - in a building that looks like a ship - the national ports authority. As is customary, King Abdullah presided at the formal opening of the festival on March 17. The octogenarian monarch also showed off his two-step skills by joining the traditional all-male Saudi line dance known as the ardah, or sword dance, at a special performance on Tuesday night.
It was King Abdullah who, while still Crown Prince, directed the transformation of the annual camel race in Janadriya into a national festival celebrating Saudi heritage. The festival has played a part in breaking down Saudi Arabia's strict gender segregation. Up until two years ago, the entire affair was open only to men. Then it was decided to allow women only in for three days. Last year, another advance was made when those three days were open to families, meaning that mixed company was allowed.
This year, family days - during which single women may also attend - were expanded to eight, or about half the festival. As a result, Saudi officials anticipate receiving even more visitors than last year's 600,000. Reflecting King Abdullah's desire to see Saudi Arabia more integrated into the global community, three years ago the organisers began asking a foreign country to participate in the festival. Turkey was the first to be invited; Russia the second. This year, the honour fell to France.
Which is why a choir of Pays-Basques singers serenaded King Abdullah when he visited the French pavilion after last week's opening ceremony. "We are very proud to be chosen by the king for being the guest of honour at this important festival because it is a major success," the French ambassador Bertrand Besancenot said at a press conference at the embassy last week. The French culture minister, Frederic Mitterand, speaking at the opening ceremony, praised the King's commitment to "dialogue between peoples, religions and civilisations". Mr Mitterand added that Janadriya helps preserve Arabian culture and character at a time when globalisation "risked making the individual lose a sense of his identity, ancestral heritage and history".
The tricolour flies over the French pavilion, which is flanked by a mini-Eiffel Tower and open-air French cafe where men and women can sip coffee together - a sight never seen in Riyadh coffee houses. Inside, visitors walk down a French street, watch French jewellery designers at work, hear accordion music, eat French pastries and chocolate, and see a small movie theatre - a homage to French cinema.
Also on view is a scale model of a TGV, France's high-speed train. This, said Mr Besancenot, is "to show that France is not just a country of perfume, nice clothes and cheese". The French are also sponsoring performances by dancers from Brittany, and by Sapho, the Moroccan-born French songstress who sings in Arabic, French and English. Camel races are still a big feature of the festival, though limited to four days. During Sunday's race, National Guard's Col Khalid al Amer greeted foreign visitors to the viewing pavilion and gave a history of the festival.
"That was the original Janadriya building," he said, pointing to a mud brown, oblong-shaped building of one story and modest size near the racetrack. It had served as the first camel race-viewing stand. One year, Col al Amer recounted, it was so windy and dusty that a new building was ordered up. The result is today's comfy pavilion, whose roof is shaped like the pleats of a tent. It has plush chairs and large screen televisions to watch the race finish.
"Camels are part of our old, old life," Col al Amer said, noting their all-around usefulness, providing milk, meat and transportation. But unfortunately, today's races are too-quick affairs. At first, all one can see is a fast-moving dust bowl on the horizon. It's only on the last leg, right in front of the pavilion, that the long-necked animals, lope into view. The prize for owners of winning camels was another form of transportation: A Nissan Pathfinder.