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Letters from the Desert (5) I Dream of Fruits Awash in Angry Seas

Dear Barry:

I had been having a restless night. The air-conditioner had broken down, and sleep was fitful and sweaty. It was the heart of the Arabian winter, and the house was at least 30 degrees. My dreams were confused and fevered, and dominated by a large ship being thrown about on heavy seas, its crew hanging on to the rails in a desperate bid for life, some already washed overboard and disappearing under the waves. But that crew - they were not people, but fruits, mostly, or vegetables. Giant bananas and strawberries and pears crowded the rails, grapes clustered over the sides, and here and there a carrot top bobbed from the seas
close by the viney top of a monster tomato sinking from sight.

I am not sure what Freud would have said about my psyche based on that, but it wouldn't have had anything to do with reality. These ocean swamped fruits were not symbols from my twisted subconscious; they were simply dream versions of a giant sculpture that sits in the middle of an intersection not far from my compound in the Kingdom.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's main seaport on the Red Sea, is a city of giant sculptures. Every major intersection has become an excuse for a monstrous work of art. The barge sinking under the waves is concrete, as so its doomed crew. Those already overboard are caught in their last moments of life in concrete swells covered in shards of white and blue tile, and all heavily dusted with the fine sand that covers everything in this port city that also sits on the edge of a desert. It is an intriguing piece of art, but it isn't even close to the most memorable in the city.

Towering urns, three of them at least 20 feet high and jug eared, hang suspended from arm thick chains, free to swing in the wind, if there is ever a wind strong enough to move their steely bulks. On this corner a spiral staircase decorated with large black steel gears and curved gold Arabian swords reaches 50 or 60 feet high, ending in a rocket heading for space; on that corner, more Middle Eastern jugs, coppery green, smaller in size pile one on the other so that their arching spouts pour water in a dozen different directions.

A monstrous two-masted dhow floats in another concrete sea, its distinctive sails styled to resemble the crescent moon of Islam. This is a moment of the past, frozen in art. Fewer such boats can be found now in Jeddah, a port where modern tankers and container ships dominate, although there are still small craft on the Red Sea searching for the fish to feed an ever growing population. There is more history, too. On one corner, tall spikes of steel hold warplanes aloft, an older prop driven plane of World War II vintage angling downward, a slightly more modern jet shooting skyward.

Here a miniature mosque, its minaret bathed in the green light that glows on all real mosques in the Kingdom, stands by one major road. There, close to the old downtown of Jeddah, in a pool of real water, splashed by fountains, bobs a giant wooden treasure chest, suitcase sized gems and basketball sized pearls spilling out its open lid, a child's dream of pirate booty made large.

There are dozens of such sculptures in the city, and there seems no guiding reason behind them. That they are here at all seemed strange to me at first. Islam is a religion that dislikes idolatry - nowhere on its mosques will you see art work that portrays any living thing. As it turns out there is a sculpture of fish, near the sea naturally, and there are occasional cast iron or steel palm trees. Not people, though.

The closest to human I have seen yet is the giant Russian fist. I know that sounds strange, but I kid you not. On Amir Sultan - Prince Sultan Road - a great clenched fist rises from a mound of tiles. The first time I saw this, Russia leaped to mind, the Russia of Lenin and Stalin, the Russia of brutal, soul-crushing rule. This clenched bronze fist seemed perfectly to fit that western perception of the old cold war enemy. It seemed so out of place, here in the Kingdom, one of the west's strongest Middle Eastern allies.

The citizens of Jeddah take their art in stride. The remarkable is made commonplace by a question everyone can identify with - How do I get to your place? I have watched students in my classes draw maps for friends, and the main locators on these maps are the sculptures: turn right the next street after the big hand.

Not long ago there was a traffic accident which took the life of a recent graduate from the school I teach at, and a memo went round for those who wished to pay their respects. They should go to the home of the boy's parents. Directions to the house would be found by the monument in Tareekh Square at the intersection of Amir Sultan and Heraa.

Tareekh Square - History Square - hosts a peculiar mix of rough stone monoliths and smoky plastic or plexiglass. It calls to mind Stonehenge, more than anything. As with most of the sculptures, there is no legend to explain, no bronze plaque with neat writing. What part of history this sculpture in History Square is supposed to be is unknown, at least to this particular ex-pat.

My favourite sculpture is one with a more identifiable purpose. It is a large clock in multi-coloured mosaic tiles, sandy browns and yellows and pale greens and blues. It works, too. I check my watch by it at the end of every work day, and only when I pass it in the bus that bounces me back to the compound each day, only then am I sure that summer is one day nearer.

Summer may be nearing, but classes are still going on. The bell has rung again and I have to run. By the way - the air conditioning has since been fixed, but now and again I still dream about giant fruit. I wonder if I should check in with the nearest Freudian after all.

From the Kingdom,

The Major

   

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