Artists hail initiative to promote 'magical' Saudi district of Al Balad

Jeddah authorities launched project in historic neighbourhood to showcase art, music and theatre to boost Vision 2030 plans

Al Balad, in Jeddah, was founded in the seventh century and is a melting pot of cultures. Mariam Nihal / The National
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Artists and visitors have praised an initiative to promote the historical and cultural significance of Al Balad, Jeddah's oldest neighbourhood and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Jeddah Historic District Programme last month launched the Balad Al-Fann project, which is to feature art exhibitions, music projects, theatrical performances, local culinary experiences and interactive events under the theme "Past Forward".

The project will run until March 9 and Abdulaziz Al Issa, director general of the programme, said it would help to contribute to the aims of the Saudi Vision 2030 drive, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Visitor Bayan Zahid, 28, told The National she had been to Al Balad, founded in the seventh century, with her siblings several times because "a visit here is always so wholesome".

Zawiya 97

Zawiya 97 is a permanent creative centre in the heart of the historic neighbourhood. It is home to cultural activities all year round and plays an integral part in the initiative.

Saudi artist Ahmad Angawi, who is taking part in the project, said he wanted to help to revitalise the rich heritage of the region. “If we return to the root of the word Jeddah, no matter how one pronounces it – which translates to 'grandmother' – we all belong to it. It is considered to be the mother of cultures and civilisations," he said.

Another initiative by Zawiya 97 is called Nass Al Balad, or People of Balad, and aims to showcase those who live in the district. “It is a celebration of the people who have shaped part of Al Balad’s heritage and charm, a craft, traditions and speciality are passed down to future generations while raising awareness of the importance of the craft,” Zawiya 97 said on social media.

Artists from around the world have participated in the project. Ricardo Andres Hinojosa Gonzalez, from Mexico, is creating art workshops for Zawiya 97 as part of Balad Al-Fann.

“I'm here in Balad festival teaching people how to fold Islamic patterns, using the art of origami – the ancient art of Japanese art of paper folding – while combining it with Islamic and Arab world of geometrical patterns. It's a match made in heaven,” he told The National.

The old town is something to behold. It's magical
Ricardo Andres Hinojosa Gonzalez, Mexican artist

He said Al Balad was "something to behold. It's magical”.

“The more time I spend here, the more I learn every day around me. I have been looking at books to learn about the history of the place. As I learn more, it's revealed to be so much deeper in history, culture and art. Every day is such a revelation and something I am very grateful to be a part of,” he added.

Growing arts and cultural landscape

Balad Al-Fann will also offer people an opportunity to enjoy new styles of music. Visitor Salma Hashim, 36, said she was "most excited for the first ever jazz festival" in the neighbourhood.

"I used to travel to other countries to listen to jazz shows. No one could have seen all these changes coming if you asked them just 10 years ago," she said.

The “world has changed” in Jeddah since the announcement of Vision 2030, which aims to enhance the kingdom economically, socially and culturally, Ms Hashim said.

“Even then I have to say if there was one place in the whole country that was abuzz with life, and the celebration of our culture through art and poetry, it was Balad," she added.

Balad Al-Fann is also set to hold theatrical and improv classes in February. Performances will be written, directed and worked on by an all-female crew.

“I love films and now with the Red Sea Film Festival becoming the global hub for entertainment bringing in the biggest names to Balad in Jeddah really is a proud moment for us,” said Nihyan Badawi, 34.

In December, Hollywood stars including Johnny Depp, Halle Berry, Andrew Garfield, Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicolas Cage attended the Red Sea Film Festival in the Saudi city.

“To see the stars roam the streets of Balad, be it Messi, Will Smith or other international celebrities – we want to show them our real culture and heritage and I always feel Balad signifies that like no other place,” Mr Badawi said.

“The city has been at the crossroads of cultures for hundreds of years and with new projects to develop and restore Balad, I hope it continues to get even better."

Updated: January 26, 2024, 6:00 PM