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