In Jiddah these days the catchword is tajmil, on Arabic word that translates as "beautification," but implies much more: green landscapes, restored palaces, bubbling fountains and - above all - some 300 eye-catching examples of modern sculpture that entertain visitors, but also symbolize the city's uphill struggle for civic beauty amid nature's arid opposition.
One such example is a seven-year-old artistic fantasy in which the rusted boilers and flaking pipes of a 1907 desalination plant have been welded together to form the torsos and appendages of abstract industrial creatures craning skyward on Jiddah' s new coastal highway. Another example - set directly down by the stark concrete smokestacks of Jiddah's modern multi-million-gallon desalination complex - is an abstract assembly of drumlike pods strewn around spiraling cylindrical columns. And a third, looming over the Sitteen Street extension, is an outlandish but delightful 15-meter high bicycle (50 feet) fashioned from pipe and cable.
To some critics, the scatterings of sculpture in Jiddah constitute an unacceptable hodgepodge of pointless art - and certainly a broad range of styles is represented. But most of the sculptors are not entirely unknown in the world of art - Spaniard Julio Lafuente, Italians Arnaldo Pomodore, Pietro Cascella and Di Giovanni, American Robert Cook - and some are giants: Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Jacques Lipchitz. As for style, sculptures like the giant bicycle are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed they deviate sharply from several themes that link the other works: science, technology, nature - especially the sea - and the kingdom's Islamic heritage.
Even the more modern works touch on those themes. The welded boilers and pipes, for example, memorialize one of the world's first large seawater distilleries: a plant built when Jiddah was a quiet seaport under Ottoman suzerainty. Called al-kindasah, from "condenser," the desalination plant was powered by noisy wood-fired boilers and for several decades managed to brew a pittance of potable water that was hauled to customers by donkey cart. It was so noisy that a local poet, dedicating a pipeline bringing water from the wells of Wadi Fatima to Jiddah in the 1940's, included a line everyone in Jiddah applauded: "Save us from the clamor of kindasah."
After the pipeline was built, the distillation plant lay dormant for years, eventually becoming a heap of scrap metal. Then, as new desalination plants were built, Mayor Muhammad Sa'id al- Farsi, the sparkplug of tajmil in Jiddah, conceived the idea of welding the old boilers and pipes into a symbol of Jiddah's constant need for water. As Barakat Bajnaid, deputy mayor for technical affairs, put it, "We live in a desert climate where water is precious, and these monuments on the desalination road are a reminder that we have to struggle against natural obstacles to make our city beautiful."
It has certainly been a struggle. For more than 10 years, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, together with an alliance of public spirited businessmen and such farsighted public officials as Mayor Farsi, have been trying to not only turn this western gateway of Saudi Arabia into an urban showcase, but also cope with unparalleled growth and expansion.
For 100 years, Jiddah's population had remained stable: no more than 30,000 people, most living within an area of a few square kilometers. Between 1940 and 1970, however, the population gradually swelled to about 350,000 and then, I suddenly, began to soar: by 1980 it had leaped to a million, and today is put at 1.5 million - spread over some 400 squares kilometers (154 square miles). As early as 1947, growth had forced the demolition of the city walls and its five gateways. Then in the 1950's and 1960's, came the first signs of urban blight that has been afflicting cities throughout the world in recent decades.
To head off the blight, officials and consultants, came up with a master plan in the 1970's to guide the city's future growth and salvage its past - both before it was too late. "We had to work faster than the growth," said Deputy Mayor Bajnaid, "to keep it under control - without stifling it."
One factor in their success was foresight; to be sure that the pace of the expansion did not outrun the city's efforts to contain it, the planners expanded the master-plan limits; today the plan encompasses 1,215 square kilometers (469 square miles) including 472 square kilometers of desert (182 square miles). Another element was the use of modern planning methods: aerial photos of every section of the city have been fed digitally into the computerized Jiddah Integrated Mapping System so that planning data can instantly be converted into a visual display superimposed on existing plans, using any scale.
Another vital factor, of course, was money. At least $2.4 billion has been pumped into Jiddah's modernization since 1970, including $630 million earmarked for beautification - of which $45 million has gone into landscaping alone.
The result has been a metamorphosis - like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Old-timers, for example, can recall when Jiddah was virtually without water; drinking water had to be carried in by camel, from the foothills of the rugged Hijaz Mountains. Now though, thanks to extensive construction of desalination plants and plants to treat effluent, Jiddah can meet and exceed demands that have soared from seven million gallons a day in 1967 to 54 million gallons a day in 1981.
The same old-timers can also recall when, in the 1920's, there was but a single tree in Jiddah - a great shade tree that still stands beside the coral-limestone mansion called Bait Nassif - compared to the more than six million trees that have been planted under the city's massive landscaping programs, most in the last 10 years.
City officials reckon that if each of those trees provides just one square meter of shade, Jiddah has at least six million square meters of living green, the equivalent of six square kilometers (2.3 square miles). In addition, the city has put in succulents, cacti, desert bushes and other plants that can survive in saline soil and consume little water, plus such flowers as oleander, poinsettia, hibiscus, jasmine, bougainvillea and frangipani. As a result, Jiddah, today, in striking contrast to the parched terrain outside the city - and to the treeless town of yore - is a man-made oasis with 300 public gardens, 50 landscaped playgrounds, 60 water fountains, hundreds of kilometers of landscaped streets and some 3,000 municipal flower boxes.
It is the works of sculpture, however, that seem to capture the eyes of today' s visitors to Jiddah. Funded mainly by individuals and corporations, these works have transformed Jiddah into an extensive outdoor museum in which there is room for both the whimsical and the profound. As Bajnaid describes it: "I look at our sculpture program as partly entertainment ... Our monuments provide the city dweller relief, a reason to pause and reflect - and sometimes smile."
The great bicycle provides a lot of smiles, of course, but it is still only one of many memorable works. Jiddah's historical ties to the sea, for example, have been memorialized by mounting old fishing vessels on travertine pedestals stylized to resemble waves or sails. There is also a huge, curved form suggesting a giant piece of kelp wafting in the breeze, a crescent moon atop a column of white marble evoking the lunar rhythm of the Muslim calendar, a pair of marble hands poised in prayer on a small island in a green lagoon, and seven stalks of sculpted wheat celebrating a passage from the Koran, which likens God's munificence to stalks of grain. One particularly imaginative piece is by a Lebanese sculptor, Aref al-Rayess; it groups vertical aluminum swords, the Islamic symbol of strength through faith, pointing skyward and spelling Allah in Arabic when seen from almost any direction.
This open air museum is especially interesting because there is no tradition of sculpture in Saudi Arabia or most other Arab countries - and because many of the pieces are highly abstract. This abstraction skirts the tacit prohibition in Islam against realistic renderings of the human form, but there may be another reason too why such highly stylized art has often been accepted by the public with enthusiasm. According to Dr. 'Abd al-Halim Radwiy, a Jiddah painter, scultptor and writer, Islam's emphasis on such concepts as unity and simplicity merges easily with the abstract. "Islam recognizes the importance of material well being," says Radwiy, "while stressing the transcendence of intellectual and spiritual values."
Of course, many modern artists simply prefer abstraction to realism. As put by al-Rayess, painter, sculptor and pantomimist, who spent many years in Paris but has resided in Jiddah for three years, "I don't like human statues. You look at them in Europe and you get tired. I used to pass a statue of Balzac every day in Paris; it made me feel sad, because it never moved. I love the human being because he moves."
Radwiy, who spent a decade studying the fine arts in Rome and Madrid, also feels that Saudis have a predisposition for metaphors in art, just as they do towards figurative usage in language. Jiddah's sculptures, he argues, are not just entertainment, but a humanizing influence reaching for the higher values expressed by such abstract concepts as love, peace and light.
Radwiy, who heads Jiddah's Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and the Arts, also believes strongly in the importance of preserving and reinterpreting the kingdom's folkloric traditions. One of his best known works in Jiddah is an oversized bean pot in stone, with chiseled designs around its surface. He explains the work, which memorializes the vessel used by vendors of cooked ful or faba beans - a traditional Hijazi breakfast dish - in an essay entitled simply "The Bean Jar."
This folk image began to fade in the minds of our people as a result of fast modern developments. The bean jar owner, 'Utmah al-Amir, and his neighbor, al-Qarmushi, who have become faint memories, lived at a time when the tempo of life was different and human relations were strong and uncomplicated. The very place where our bean jar owner was located has altered completely. Instead of a quite simple quarter, it has become the main business center of Jiddah - a hub of constant change and development. The subject of my work of art is intended to reawaken this popular image in people's minds. I have presented the jar as a poetic, ever revolving body, and decorated it with simple geometric designs similar to those used on old wooden doors in Jiddah.
Actually, Jiddah's planners have already taken steps to reawaken the images of the past. Using imported Tunisian craftsmen as well as local wood workers, the city is restoring, with painstaking care, a historic one-square-kilometer area of the old city (0.38 square mile) that for more than 1,000 years served as the port of entry for pilgrims journeying to Makkah (Mecca).
The task is exceedingly complex. Located in the heart of Jiddah's central commercial district, this area is still populated by some 45,000 people, who, unlike many others, have not relocated to newer sections of the city. With the help of British consultants the city has earmarked 537 historic structures for preservation including 492 traditional, multi-storied, often balconied Hijazi homes, 21 merchant palaces, six caravanserais, seven mosques, three public buildings and, already completed, Bait Nassif, where King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, founder of the kingdom, stayed during his early visits to Jiddah.
To these highly visible projects, Jiddah's planners have also added some subtle touches that have had a noticeable effect on the city's appearance. One, an effort to awaken civic pride, is a widespread cleanup campaign, focused on, and publicized by, ubiquitous turquoise-and-white bins snowing figures in traditional Arab robes discarding trash, and bearing messages in Arabic and English: "Help make Jiddah cleaner."
Simultaneously, the city has signed a five-year contract valued at $380 millions with Arabian Cleaning Enterprise, Ltd. under which some 4,000 workers collect and dispose of an estimated 3,000 tons of trash daily, sweep the streets and clean public buildings - the workers dressed in turquoise coveralls matching the bins.
Jiddah's call to beautification has resounded across the kingdom. Riyadh, deep in the interior, is fast becoming a showcase in its own right. In the northern inland city of Hail, on the fringe of the Great Nafud Desert, plans have been approved to renovate the old quarters and create extensive public parks.
Tajmil, in fact, is sweeping the country. In 1923, the thriving east coast commercial center of al-Khobar barely existed; today it boasts wide tree-lined boulevards, fashionable hotels and posh stores. And where palm-frond huts once stood - in both al-Khobar and Dammam - new construction is appearing regularly. Just south of al-Khobar, for example, an illuminated six-lane highway circles Half Moon Bay, once a small private enclave for Aramco swimmers and yachtsmen.
It is Jiddah, however, the legendary last resting place of Eve, that is the mother of beautification in Saudi Arabia. Jiddah already provides a casebook in urban renewal, and in the struggle to wed dynamic growth with the preservation of tradition, a fact that the western press is beginning to realize. In the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, for example, Joseph Fitchett, a veteran Middle East correspondent, recently wrote that Jiddah, once a "byword for Arab boom towns that were unlivable at any price during the oil rush . . . has changed into a city that rates praise, and even bemused affection, from most Western and Saudi residents..."
To a great extent this has been achieved by a trained staff of men under the leadership of Jiddah's Mayor Farsi, who, appointed in 1972, brought to the mayor's office a talent for comprehensive planning, an appreciation of architecture and the fine arts and tremendous energy. And since then, Mayor Farsi has earned a reputation for unflagging attention to the details of tajmil; rarely seen at his office in the baladiyyah or city hall, he is usually out inspecting projects that are underway, scouting eyesores that need correction or speaking at seminars on city planning. "My car has a telephone," he says. "That is my office."
Mayor Farsi, who is deeply committed to beautification, still maintains that pace despite recent heart surgery. "Time is very important," he says. "What we could have done yesterday, we may not be able to do today - or at double the price."
Interviewed in the majlis, or reception area, of his self-designed home, Mayor Farsi, between visits with engineers, architects and contractors, summarized his approach in a colorful simile: "A city is like a dish of food. It may be a simple dish, but it has its own flavor - its own special feeling... We want our city to have its own flavor, too. We want to preserve our own unique character, while discovering new aspects of our personality. . . for me it is a ceaseless challenge ..."
Dick Hobson, a graduate of Yale and a former reporter with the Miami News, writes on Saudi Arabia for Aramco World magazine from Dhahran.