How a new culture programme is breathing life into Jeddah’s old town

Grassroots arts initiative aims to transform charming Al Balad district into thriving community

The Balad Al-Fann cultural initiative runs until March 9, but organisers aim for its impact to last far longer. AFP
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After years of restoration work, Jeddah's charming old town, Al Balad is once again full of life, as tourists and residents alike explore the ancient area.

Balad Al-Fann, a grassroots arts programme aims to transform the Unesco-listed district into a cultural hub, through hundreds of artistic events and more permanent community-driven changes. It runs until March 9 amid the dilapidated heritage buildings and winding cobbled streets.

Under the theme Past Forward, Balad Al-Fann – organised by the non-profit Athr Foundation and the Ministry of Culture – weaves together contemporary arts with the area, which dates back to the seventh century, when Jeddah was a thriving port town and the gateway for pilgrims making their way to Makkah.

The area was abandoned during the oil rush in the 1940s. Programme organisers hope that by injecting culture back into this once-bustling area the old town will become a lived-in district full of businesses, boutique hotels and culture-based experiences.

Already, families can be seen exploring small craft shops and interactive installations that teach people about the heritage of the area. The plan is to draw people in with art, then organically build a diverse neighbourhood in the spirit of Al Balad’s roots.

“Our aim is to definitely activate the district, but also make space for creators deciding to remain in Al Balad as their home, their studios, their cafes, or place of business,” Muhammed Hafiz, Athr Foundation co-founder and chief executive, tells The National.

"Hopefully every year we'll be able to bring more creatives in and create a real network so that the district becomes the true creative heart and hub of the city."

He adds: “We're going to have around 680 activations between workshops, crafts, exhibitions, talks, plays, music performances and culinary experiences.

"We've renovated four houses – Shurbatly, Zainal, Gotta and AlNawar – and 10 different assets that were renovated, such as public squares and communal areas that can be activated for different events."

AlNawar has been restored and converted into Athr’s artist residency space, whereas the others are being used for exhibitions and performances, which may eventually become permanent additions.

Hafiz stresses the initiative isn't meant to act as a festival that will vanish once it ends, but rather it will help build a more sustainable creative economy. Cafes, street food stalls, restaurants and public seating areas have popped up in the area, providing something to do for visitors even when no events are scheduled.

As the restoration of Al Balad continues, the initiative aims to widen its offerings year-on-year, as more buildings become available for use.

Appealing to a new generation

Highlights of the programme include several art exhibitions. A popular showcase is Sindbad: I Can See Land, curated by Ahaad Alamoudi, which delves into humanity's relationship with land and its connection to mobility through the works of 46 local and international artists.

Staged in a derelict heritage house, the exhibition is merely one example of Balad Al-Fann’s intention to bring in a younger audience – essential to showing the next generation of creatives that Al Balad can be home to their studios and businesses.

“One of the unique angles is that this part of town holds history, and we're bringing the contemporary to it,” Hafiz says. “So when you bring both together, you connect the young population to their roots, giving them that inspiration to look at the past, present and move to the future, while still understanding where they come from, and where it all started."

He adds: “I've seen a lot of engagement with Sinbad, which is an international open call of young and emerging artists, and it's a multi-disciplinary exhibition.

“I find it refreshing and inspiring for young artists, as some of the other exhibits are more for established artists.”

Showcasing Saudi craft heritage

Alongside a programme of live musical and theatrical performances, Balad Al-Fann is also emphasising local artisans by collaborating with the Zawiya97 Crafts Programme, curated by carpenter and educator Ahmad S Angawi.

Angawi has spent years working to pass on the traditional wood carving and joinery skills taught to him by his father – which are illustrated in the intricate green or blue wooden Roshan windows screens and doors of Al Balad houses – to the next generation. He has also helped crafters return to the Artisan Lane, offering residencies to local and international artisans and workshop spaces to help keep these unique skills alive.

“I wanted to provide a platform and a space for the makers and craftsmen because, historically, this space was known for that,” says Angawi.

"Jeddah has always been an inhale and exhale relationship between cultures, being a port city and a pilgrim city, so that's why for me it's very important that we keep this diversity.

“I want to engage and work with people from around the world until we have this exchange of craft knowledge.

“I have a whole book I'm working on [about Jeddah’s old houses] and I created a whole curriculum that now is taught at the Royal Institute of Traditional Arts,” he adds.

“Now this is a living craft again, that people produce constantly with all the restoration work going on in this area. It's now part of a craft ecosystem – so much wider than just doing it for the sake of it – because these crafts will go back into restoring this whole area.”

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Updated: February 18, 2024, 3:08 AM