The cable car travelled down the side of the mountain at an alarming speed. As I looked down at the sheer grade of the slope, the car began to rock; wind howled through the open window and the car bumped up and down on its wire. It was several minutes before we entered a dip in the mountains and the swaying began to stop. I was finally able to relax and admire the scenery as we descended from Jebel Soudah, Saudi Arabia’s highest mountain.
A hawk soared on the thermals close by, before diving to catch its prey, hidden somewhere among the rocks far below. Juniper and acacia trees grew in between compact cacti that dotted the ground below. Even though the foliage was sparse, the environment was in stark contrast to the desert that covered the majority of the Kingdom, where little, if anything grows.
To the left and right of the car lay the rocky valleys and peaks of the Al Souda mountain range, partially concealed in the morning haze. Stretching along the southern border of the country, the Al Souda Mountains are an impressive end to vast desert. They form part of the unique Asir region of Arabia; one of the most scenic and spectacular regions on the Arabian peninsula. The area around Jebel Soudah, at 3,133 meters, is the most visited part of the park. The cable car has become a popular way to visit this moving demonstration of Azir’s culture and heritage – Rijal Alma is one of the oldest rural towns in Saudi Arabia. It once served the trading routes from the Red Sea, opened as a museum in 1986, and it has over 2,000 artifacts and 30,000 visitors a year – a short drive from the foot of the cable car.
As we arrived, an elderly man came forward to greet us; even with a rifle in one hand, his arms were wide in welcome, as if welcoming old friends. He wore a traditional white thobe with a colourful striped scarf draped over both shoulders. A hint of a paunch protruded over his belt, which held an ornate curved knife. I could smell the flowering basil in his top pocket as he shook my hand, Salam Alekum, welcome.
He directed the group – a few travellers and our guides – towards a small awning to the side of the main house. I sat down on a colourful chair; a basic wooden fame with a multicoloured weave making up the seat. This decorative but practical style reflected the architecture of the buildings around us.
Set in a V-shaped steep valley, the houses stretched up the sides of both hills, reaching different heights, some one or two stories, some up to seven. Their distinct exterior, dark rough stone and clay rose vertically twenty or thirty feet. The walls were broken up with white rock that framed the bright doors and small colourful windows; it surely makes a striking impact on any visitor. There appeared to be many buildings in the construction that was ahead of us, the levels and sizes differed according to the lay of the land, others constructed according to no apparent architectural law, added on as the residents saw fit. The apparent random placing of extensions gave the impression of a sprawling complex, growing both up and across the hill.
"Welcome" the man said in English, "Mohammed" he said thumping his chest with a fist. He then began the traditional welcome dance: stamping his feet, walking back and fore from his guests, singing in a high voice; waving his gun by his side and over his head. He moved away from the group and bowed slightly as he approached, gun in hand. His singing continued as he span round, jumping first towards, then away from the group. The dance finished as he danced back towards us, heavily stamping his feet with a finale of a loud yelp. It was silent again and we began to clap politely.
"There is no need to clap. You don’t clap for someone welcoming you," Khalid, one of the escorts told us. "He sings about his gun, about how powerful it is and how his weapon welcomes you," he elaborated. Music and dance are very important in Azir cultur. Each tribe has its own variations, which change depending on the situation and who is present.
"I am seventy three," Mohammed said, now speaking through an interpreter. "When I was younger, I carried two guns, and could do this with both."
He stepped away from the awning and held the rifle, one handed, at the very end of the barrel. In one swift movement, he swung it in a wide arc until it was straight above his head.
"Who would like to try?"
I stepped forward and Mohammed past me the gun. I now realised how heavy it was – at least five kilos, probably more. The weight balanced throughout its length. Holding it by the end of the barrel, I let it rest on the floor. As I began to lift, my wrist bent, my fingers doubled back to my arm and my muscles strained, I gritted my teeth and lifted perhaps three inches off the ground. I could see Mohammed smiling broadly. Pausing, I tried again. After much puffing and grunting, I made a gain of only a few inches on my previous attempt. It was a long way until I reached my head. My failure received a few polite claps and a large grin from Mohammed. Several others tried. All failed.
As we began the tour, Mohammed casually picked up the rifle, swung it over his head in the same manner as before and rested it on his shoulder. This time I noticed that the knack for doing this had come from that slight twist in the body. Still, even with this inside knowledge, I think I was beaten.
As we walked towards the entrance of the nearest building, Mohammed paused and looked around the village. While he often gave tours, he seemed touched as he glanced across the old houses. He sighed. "Once, this village was self sufficient," he pointed to the hills, "farming" into the valley, "a market" and to the buildings opposite, "a mosque". "What more do you need?" Khalid added in agreement. The original houses were constructed on this hill over 1000 years ago. Some remnants remained under the brickwork of these more modern additions, some of which dated back over 400 years.
Several hollow logs were stacked next to where we were standing. "This is where the bees were kept." The logs were empty, just a few small bees flew around. "We are being threatened by an African wasp, we are told. Just five of these wasps can destroy a whole nest, dozens came to this nest." As if on cue, a large wasp, possibly five times the size of the other bees that flew around, flew past and landed on the tin roof of the makeshift been house.
This traditional way of life has been struggling for decades to survive. Influence from rival villages, people moving to the cities and the influx of modern ideas have all had their impact. Rijal Alma maintained its culture for many years while others gave way to more modern customs. Now, even nature is threatening the few traditions that are left.
From the first level of the house, raised just slightly above the welcome area, several other houses were visible, positioned on the peaks of the surrounding hills. Mohammed looked over the valley and pointed from his eyes to the houses, and slowly brought his hand back: we each look out for each other. Three fortresses dotted around the valley ensured the protection of the village. Rival tribes, rogue camel traders or greedy travellers threatened local villages in the past. The village’s survival depended on keeping out unwelcome guests while welcoming those who provided trade.
Above the door hung a large iron ball, hanging by a chain from a higher window. "Unwelcome visitors," Mohammed said as he mimed the ball dropping onto his skull from above. With the hills acting as the rear wall of the houses, there was only one side of the house that was open to approaching conflict. Mohammed’s rifle once acted as a more direct approach to his protection; now it is just for show.
I bent down to enter the small doorway – four feet high and framed with a thick tree trunk; holding up the tonnes of stone in the stories above. I walked through the narrow passageway into a small room. Dark clay covered the walls and black holes were set in the floor on one end of the room. Hunching down, Mohammed motioned the actions of cooking. He took a handful of grain and a rock, and he began grinding on the stone work-surface with vigour.
Meats would be salted and then hung in this room; the smoke and heat from the cooking would gradually preserve them, the colour of the walls indicated decades of use. "Also outside," he pointed, indicating a series of blackened holes, receded in the walls close to the entrance, which served an outdoor stove and cooking area.
Traditional Azir cooking was varied and delicious, utilising the small amount of ingredients that either grew in the region, or came from passing traders. Al Barm is the traditional method of cooking in pots, which are set in the cinders of the fire. Al Marqouq, meat soup and Al Nakhbaz, bread and meat, served with vegetables, porridge or wheat and flour are still served around Arabia. Later that day we ate Al Arkiah – boiled lamb and sauce served with flat bread – a quick meal reserved for unexpected guests.
The second room housed relics from the turn of the century; when Mohammed’s father would have been welcoming other tribes into his home, rather than groups of foreign tourists. The walls displayed knives and an impressive array of old rifles, similar to the one that Mohammed carried.
"Four persons," said Mohammed as he pointed to a single gun on the opposite wall, given pride of place. The group looked blank for a short while
"What? Four people were killed with that?" someone in the group asked. After a translation, Mohammed smiled and moved on.
The wooden doorframes got smaller as we moved through the house. I had to bend down more with each room we entered, although there was more than enough space to stand once I had entered. I had expected the rustic plain nature of the walls to continue throughout the house, but away from the kitchen, the opposite was true. The third room was another treasure trove of artifacts, but with intricate and colourful designs covering the walls. A freeze lined the walls, a mixture of patterns and colours. Stripes ran down to the floor while vertically a mix of squares, triangles, crosses, Al Mosht- comb and Al Shabka- net patterns, outlined in back covered the room. As I looked towards the door, I saw this reflected the intricate carvings in the wood.
The detailed decoration around the house represents the nature of the Azir region, as well as the farming that serves the community. In the past a woman from the house would have been selected to decorate the rooms. The appointed woman would draw the patterns while her assistants – usually other family member, friends or neighbours – would have coloured between the lines. A local artist decorated the room in which we were standing. It took her a month to decorate the four walls. She painted several more within Rijal Alma, receiving a national service award for keeping Azir traditions alive.
The museum is divided into 19 sections dealing with different areas of Azir culture and heritage: documents, religion, weapons, construction, agriculture, handicrafts, pottery, traditional dress and wildlife were a few of the rooms we were shown. Some artifacts were carefully placed in glass cabinets; others were simply hung on the walls or laid haphazardly around the room. In many rooms old pictures of Azir personalities hung next to clothes, weapons and other possessions. The pictures showed men on horseback, or in groups waving their weapons. "Very bad wars happen here," Mohammed told us as he pointed to pictures of men wielding knives and guns. He then mimed the way they fought – bloody and gruesome.
Mohammed was proud of his heritage and culture, smiling as he told us of the stories of his people. He guided us round the museum as if we were old friends. After hitching up his robes and sprinting up the stairs, even the fittest among us lagged behind. He would wait at the top, helping us into the small rooms and pushing our heads down as we passed through the low doorways. He has fought, both physically and mentally, to preserve his way of life. It showed in everything he did.
One room housed a large pot; four feet tall that used to store honey or oils. "I’ve never seen anything like it, anywhere else," Mohammed explained.
"Is it worth anything?"
"Our heritage has no price," came the simple reply.
The room on the top floor was one of the smallest and consisted of a bed, with ropes wrapped over a wooden frame and a small chair beside it. "This is where the man of the house lived. His wife would sit here," Mohammed explained, pointing to the chair, "to give him food, to talk to him or…" the smile returned to Mohammed’s face.
The butt of a gun poked out of the wall in each corner of the room. They pointed to other buildings in the complex that we had seen as we entered, as well as those across the valley. "The man would look after his neighbours house. They would do the same. They were often starving so villages would fight each other for food." The length of chain we had seen at the entrance also led to this room. "A violent place," Mohammed said. "A sad place," added Khalid as we left the room.
This was the last room that we would see in the house. Mohammed ran down the stairs ahead of us. As we made our way through the flights of uneven stairs that switched back through the building, I noticed other rooms. Most were not filled with artifacts, but covered in dust and straw, the ceilings beginning to fall in – a sign of the lack of visitor interest and considerable lack of money. Back on the first floor, I looked up at the ceiling. "It’s iron," Khalid told me, "the wooden beams have rotted. It had to be saved."
"How long will it stay up?" I asked
"Are they all like this?"
"No, some of the others are already falling down."
I looked out the window at the other buildings that reached up the hillside. I wondered how long they would stay. "The outside will stay, the inside won’t be as fortunate."
I left the house and turned to Mohammed, holding out my hand. Instead of bidding me farewell, he handed me his gun: one last chance!
"Seventy three?" I asked him.
He smiled, maybe in acknowledgment, maybe not understanding. I stood back, grasping the barrel of the gun at the end, my arm out straight. This time, I let my hand bend back to my wrist, continuing to lift until it reached waist height. I then twisted my body, preparing to swing the gun upwards with the momentum, but this achieved nothing except the rifle spinning round at head height. Those watching ducked out of the way. I had to stop before anyone got hurt.
"Masalama, goodbye," I said and handed back the rifle.
"Masalama," said Mohammed as he lifted the gun, this time with his left hand, and waved me on my journey with the rifle slung casually over his shoulder.