Abha Bilad Asir: Southwestern Region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Noura bint Muhammad al-Saud, Al-Jawharah Muhammad al-'Anqari, Madeha Muhammad al-'Ajroush,
Abha Bilad Asir: Southwestern Region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1989, 264 pp.
[Available from authors, POB 89550, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia]

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 37(1995):36-37

"Greetings as numerous as the
drops of rain are conveyed to the great
mountain towering aloft and standing proudly
at the curve of the valley.
When abundant rainfall salutes it,
the salutation is returned by bright and colorful
flowers which burst everywhere into bloom.
And when this area senses the mere breath
of rain, the plants in its fields and meadows
exude the sweetest fragrance and scent.
Peace be upon its highlands and lowlands.
Peace be upon its inhabitants
be they Bedouins or town-dwellers"
-- Midawi ibn Muhammad
(frontispiece to Abha Bilad Asir)

It is not only the politicians who have difficulty defining the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, although the local tribes probably shake their collective heads in disdain at anyone foolish enough to think such a dreamed-up line could possibly matter. Should you want proof that northern Yemen and southern Asir are culturally continuous, a casual glance at this volume should settle the matter in a hurry.

Abha Bilad Asir is an extraordinary picture book compiled by three Saudi women. The princess Noura bint Muhammad (who is listed in the volume as President of the Southern Women’s Charitable Society in Abha) and al-Jawharah Muhammadal-'Anqari (who received a B.S. in anthropology at AUB in 1976)compiled the text, while Madeha Muhammad al-'Ajroush (now living in New York) took the photographs. As noted in the introduction (p.17), "What a single lady cannot achieve because of certain circumstances, a group of ladies can collectively achieve." The achievement of this book is a photographic survey of Asiri culture with a descriptive text alongside. The list of chapters sums up the specific contents of the volume: geographical features, historical features, the city of Abha and the inhabitants of the region, characteristics of the traditional house, traditional dress and ornaments, traditional methods of perfuming and medical treatment, popular foods and drinks, social aspects of the traditional environment, aspects of popular literature, aspects of educational and literary life past and present, aspects of the economic environment, infrastructure and development.

The Asir ('Asir) region of southwestern Saudi Arabia is part of the famous Sarat mountain chain extending north from southern Yemen. The area today is about 300 km long and some 25-35 km wide with a population estimated in the mid-80s at over a million people in some 4000 settlements. This book introduces the reader to a variety of traditional customs in the region, from the use of herbs in medicine to architecture. One of the unique aspects of the Asir region is the age at which boys are circumcized. Unlike much of Yemen, where this takes places soon after birth, boys here are generally circumcized between 15 and 20 years of age. The following description is provided (pp. 186-188):

"Circumcisions were performed on several young men in a single day, due to the costs involved. The young men of the village were gathered as well as those who had reached the age of circumcision from a neighboring village. The people of the village, family members and relatives as well as members of the tribe and tribal division, even those from other areas, would gather to attend this major celebration. Even women and girls would attend to witness the courage of the young men. A specialized person would perform the operation without using any an aesthetic material of any kind. The young man was not allowed to move or show his pain or else he would be reminded of the disgrace all his life. After the circumcision, flour mixed with water was boiled and poured whilst hot onto the operation site until the bleeding stopped. Thereafter the young man would dance and sing songs in which he boasted of his family, tribal division and tribe and demonstrated his courage and the manhood and boldness he would enjoy in the future... When the bleeding stopped, fat was poured and salt, herbal powder or the crushed leaves of al-Qadamah or al-'Ar'ar trees were sprinkled on the operation area. Should any infection have occurred, dried camel dung or disinfected leaves would be placed over a pit filled with smouldering embers. The circumcized man would sit over the pit and some tree leaves, previously smoked in boiled fat and salt until they were soft, were tied around the site of circumcision. As a protection from the evil eye or envy, the people of the village used to spray fat from the place of circumcision to the house."

To my mind, however, this is first and foremost a book of photographs. Ms. al-'Ajroush is referred to in the text as an amateur photographer. In February, 1994, a showing of her photos entitled "Window to Our World" was given at Jadite Galleries (413 West 50th St., NY); she is no ordinary "amateur" as this volume will attest. The color quality is generally quite good in this volume, although several of the landscape photos are a little washed out (e.g., on p. 32) and a few are inappropriately out of focus (e.g., bottom p. 34). Overall, however, the photos are nicely framed and provide an interesting camera-view of the region and its traditional culture.

I will take the liberty to comment on a few of the photos that caught my particular attention. There is a very lively photo of an old woman hammering incense (p. 153). Her face is covered by a sloping straw hat, which matches sympathetically the straw baskets holding the various herbs and other items. But the center of attraction in the photo is the hammer, which is frozen fuzzily just within striking distance. Here there is a striking sense of motion that almost jumps out of the page. I am also taken by a shot of a group of baboons "within the city of Abha" (p. 37). As they are all staring off to the left of the frame, I cannot but wonder what caught their attention or at least kept them sitting quietly enough for the photographer to do her work. An agame lizard, called wahrani in al-Ahjur of central Yemen, is poised on p. 36. Of the numerous architectural scenes, I took a fancy to "Shi'ar Castle"(p. 59), where prickly pear is growing over the roof. There are a number of exquisite portraits (pp. 67-79), including a man (p. 67)with such good teeth that I would know he is not Yemeni from this alone.

At times the photographs can legitimately be called "avant-garde," as the circular for the 1994 showing announced. There is a very impressive shot (p. 99) of a painted staircase with an out-of-focus man with a long headdress climbing into the picture. The colors on the double spread (pp. 102-103) of a painted house wall come alive. A television in a cupboard (p. 260) seems appropriately to be a frame within a frame, a richly detailed one at that.

Some of the photos are clearly made to appease the more Wahhabi-minded of the readers. For example, the angle of a woman in traditional dress (p. 128) could be in Vogue ,except that her left arm is conveniently angled to cover her profiled face. A few pages later, the straw hat is turned down, Poncho Gonzales style, to achieve the same lack of visual contact. Indeed, while there are portraits of men and children, no adult female's face is shown in its entirety. Here is another reason I know this book is not about "Yemen." Another candidate for Vogue is the picture of a woman’s hands with henna and a large pyramidal bracelet as she crushes herbs on a stone quern.

This is a beautiful volume to have around for the quality of the photographs as well as for the interesting discussion of the local culture. While the private distribution will keep this volume out of most people's hands and most libraries, I strongly recommend you try to get a copy. In fact it would be perfect for your local public library as well.

Book Excerpt

[Abha Bilad Asir, pp.214-217]

The Abha area is rich in popular sayings which form an important part of the Arab heritage as a whole. We present below a number of popular sayings which are still in use, taken from the book Popular Sayings in the Southern Area and from our field research:

If God loves the host, he will have his guests come together. This is said on occasions where more than one guest arrives. It probably hints at the economic savings to be made by having all the guests at one time rather than one guest at a time.

Keep to your ape lest a worse ape should come to you. This indicates the necessity for being content with what one has. It is also said when a man wishes to marry another wife...

Exhausting the legs is better than angering the mind. This indicates the necessity for pursuing one’s ends vigorously instead of being thoughtlessly lax and indifferent...

How much is a locust and how much is its sauce? This expresses the scarcity of things and the insufficiency in terms of what can be obtained from them.

Turbanned head but nude buttocks. This describes a person who has his head covered but keeps his backside naked, suggesting unbalanced deeds. The word buttocks is used frequently in many sayings and is not deemed improper...

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