Imagine a Song

By Jheri St. James


Highest Fountain in the World at Jeddah

“’Might I invite you to have something with me in this café? Take off your jacket and sit down here on this sofa, unless you would rather sit on the divan with the crimson mattress, of course. Would you like a cup of coffee—with one sugar lump or two? Or perhaps a nice cool carafe of lemonade, or even something alcoholic?

“’But of course! Let me buy you lunch! I think artichokes would be a lovely starter, don’t you? And how about capon with rice and spinach to follow? For dessert, what would you say to a piece of apricot tart, or an orange sorbet? And at the end of the meal we’ll have a cup of mocha.’

“There is no reason, of course, for any of these things to appear in any way strange or exotic to the reader—they have been part of our daily life for such a long time. But did you know that they were all borrowed from Arab culture? This café and the demitasses of coffee they serve, the sugar without which any menu would be almost unimaginable, the lemonade and the carafe, the jacket and the mattress, we owe them all to the Arabs. And it doesn’t stop there: in most European countries, these things are known by their Arabic names. And the same goes for candy, bergamot, oranges, sherbet, and many other good things besides.

“Well, you might say, there’s nothing so surprising about fruits that grow in hot countries (and even certain foodstuffs and drinks) coming from the Orient; and, that being the case, why shouldn’t they keep their original names, after all?

“As for the sofa or the divan, or the ottoman in the alcove, on which it is so nice to flop down—well, any child could tell you that such exotic sounding words could only be foreign. Morocco leather—there’s another easy one. But what about the textiles that you might find alongside your morocco leather bags in the same shop? There’s muslin and other cotton cloths, soft and supple mohair, elegant satin, distinguished taffeta, shimmering moiré, sumptuous damask (originally from the city of Damascus), and all in such a range of shades, from saffron through orange and carmine to lilac. So many gentle reminders that it is to the Arabs that we owe these useful and precious fabrics as well as their striking colors.

“But you also encounter a host of Arab discoveries whenever you set foot in a pharmacy or an herbalist’s. You need only need glance at the labels on the jars and drawers; you might find camphor, benjoin and benzine, soda, borax and saccharine, perhaps also amber, gum Arabic and cumin, not to mention tarragon, ginger and saffron—all of the Arab drugs with Arabic names. The gauze, talc or hair lacquer that you might buy at the pharmacy are also of Arabic origin, as are numerous chemical terms such as alkali or aniline.

“There’s no denying that a great many of the Arabic words which have found their way into our language designate items of everyday use to which the Arabs introduced us, nor that these things have added countless delicate touches to our previously insipid--even rather squalid—lives, literally spicing them up, enriching them with new colors and new scents. In fact, we in the West ought to thank the Arabs for making our lives healthier and more hygienic, as well as more comfortable and elegant.

“So there you are—checkmated! And once again, we’re using Arabic without even thinking about it. Because the expression “checkmate”—which comes of course from chess, a game that is said to have been introduced to Europe by an emissary of the Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who taught Charlemagne’s court how to play it—is a direct derivation of the Arabic al-shah mat, meaning simply ‘the king (shah) died’.

(Freely translated from Sigrid Hunke’s Le soleil d’Allah brille sur l’occident: notre heritage arabe (The Spice of Daily Life, or Arab Names for Arab Gifts) are a playful presentation of just some of the terminology—and objects—that the West has borrowed from the Arabs. (

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula. It borders Jordan on the northwest, Iraq on the north and northeast, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates on the east, Oman on the southeast, and Yemen on the south, with the Persian Gulf to its northeast and the Red Sea to its west. It is called “the land of the two holy mosques”, a reference to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest places. The kingdom occupies 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the country’s boundaries with the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen are undefined, so the exact size of the country remains unknown.

The climate is dry, hot desert with great extremes of temperature, and the terrain is mostly uninhabited, sandy desert. In most parts of the country, vegetation is limited to weeds, xerophytic herbs and shrubs. Animals include the ibex, wildcats, baboons, wolves, and hyenas in the highlands. Small birds are found in the oases. The coastal area of the Red Sea, especially the coral reefs, have a rich marine fauna. Saudi Arabia has a coastline of 1,640 miles. Almost half of the total country is uninhabitable desert, with annual precipitation of up to 4 inches in most regions. The western areas are plateau and the east is lowlands. The southwest region has mountains as high as 9,840 ft. and is an area known for the greenest and freshest climate in all the country. Less than 2 percent of the total area is suitable for cultivation, and in the early 1990’s, population distribution varied greatly among the towns of the eastern and western coastal areas, the densely populated interior oases, and the vast, almost empty deserts, such as the Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter), the Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands. There are no permanent rivers or lakes in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian dress is strongly symbolic, representing the people’s ties to the land, the past, and Islam. The predominantly loose and flowing, but covering garments reflect the practicalities of life in a desert country, as well as Islam’s emphasis on conservative dress. Traditionally, men usually wear an ankle-length shirt woven from wool or cotton (known as a thawb), with a large checkered square of cotton held in place by a cord coil (shimagh) or a plain white square made of finer cotton, also held in place by a cord coil (ghutra) worn on the head. For rare chilly days, Saudi men wear a camel-hair cloak (bisht) over the top. Women’s clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliqués. However, Saudi women must wear a long cloak (abaya) and veil (niqab) when they leave the house to protect their modesty. The law does not apply to foreigners at such a high degree, but both men and women are told to dress modestly.

Islam forbids the eating of pork and the drinking of alcohol, and this law is followed strictly throughout Saudi Arabia. Unleavened bread, or kobz, is eaten with almost all meals. Other staples include cooked lamb, grilled chicken, falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls), shawarma (spit-cooked lamb), and fuul (a paste of fava beans, garlic and lemon). Traditional coffee houses used to be ubiquitous, but are now being displaced by cafes. Arabic tea drinking is also a famous custom, which is used in both casual and formal meetings between friends, family and strangers. The tea is black and has herbal flavors.
Public theaters and cinemas are prohibited, as Wahabbi tradition deems those institutions to be incompatible with Islam. In private compounds, public theaters can be found, but often are more popular for local music, arts, and theater productions rather than motion pictures. Recently plans for some cinemas that will allow Arabic cartoons to be featured for women and children were announced. Videos and DVDs of popular American movies are legal and widely available.

That Saudi Arabia has successfully preserved and strengthened its cultural heritage while achieving the spectacular development and modernization of the past three decades is testimony to the resilience of Saudi culture and the nation’s determination to cherish and protect it. Today amid the bustle of life in the 21st century in modern Saudi society, contemporary Saudi writers look to the past for inspiration. Popular musicians incorporate ancient rhythms and instruments into their modern music, and painters capture traditional scenes.

Arabic music is unique in the world. Called Islamic or Arab, it transcends religious, ethnic, geographical and linguistic boundaries. As complex as the arabesque iconography, it is sinuous, emotional, rhythmic, and may be an acquired taste for some. Much Arab music is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm rather than harmony. Thus much Arabic music is made up of one or maybe two tones only, unlike its Western counterpart. The main difference between the Western chromatic scale and the Arabic scales is the existence of many in-between notes, which are sometimes referred to as quarter tones for the sake of practicality. However, while in some treatments of theory, the quarter tone scale or all 24 tones should exist, according to some experts, in practice there are many fewer tones. In fact, the situation is much more complicated than that. In 1932 (just prior to the drilling of the first oil well at Dhahran), at an International Convention on Arabic music held in Cairo, Egypt (attended by such Western luminaries as Bela Bartok and Henry George Farmer), experiments were done which determined conclusively that the notes in actual use differ substantially from an even-tempered 24-tone scale, and furthermore that the intonation of many of these notes differ slightly from region to region (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq). Arab classical music is known for its famed virtuoso singers, who sing long, elaborately ornamented tunes, and who are known for driving audiences into ecstasy. Its traditions come from pre-Islam days, when female singing slaves entertained the wealthy, and inspired warriors on the battlefield with their rajaz poetry, also performing at weddings and later, for the hajj, much like Scherezade. Instruments used for this music include the ‘oud (strings), qanun (zither-like), rabab (one-string violin), ney (woodwind), violin, riq (tambourine) and dumbek (hourglass shaped hand drum). Recently, the Arab world has incorporated the electric guitar, cello, double bass and oboe, adding influences from jazz and other foreign musical styles. Singing celebrities include Abd el-Halim Hafez, Farid el-Atrache, Asmahan, Sayed Draweesh, Mohammed Abd el-Wahaab, Warda Al-Jazairia, and possibly the biggest star of modern Arab classical music, Umm Kalthum.

But it is calligraphy which lies at the very heart of Arabic-Islamic art. According to Islamic tradition, writing is a gift of God, first taught to Adam. Furthermore, Arabic is the language in which God is held to have transmitted his message to mankind, through the Prophet Muhammad. The perfection of the Qur’an is held to be proof of the divine nature of the holy text of Saudi Arabia, which is believed to be inscribed on a celestial tablet that only angels are allowed to see. In light of this, the act of writing is a way of entering into contact with the divine, while to copy the Qur’an is, in a sense, to touch fleetingly God’s own word. For these reasons, Arab-Islamic culture has historically attached immense importance to writing beautifully. Calligraphers have enjoyed the highest social status among artists.

The notion of art in the Arab-Islamic world differs from that which developed in the West. For the calligrapher does not produce independent and autonomous works of art, but rather brings an aesthetic added value to pre-existing, functional objects such as crockery, books or walls. A calligrapher is therefore an artisan who, as it were, decorates reality, a craftsman whose job it is to put the finishing touches to the outer envelope of things.

Calligraphy provides the key to Arab-Islamic ornamentation. This is an art form which shies away from realistic representation of nature, in favor of the decorative value of lines and interlacing. It tends therefore towards abstraction, via exuberant plant-like designs and imaginative geometrical figures. The arabesque (ornamentation in the Arab manner) is an unbroken rhythm, a non-realistic vegetation, an unending movement with unceasing variations. The first Muslims were desert dwellers, to whom the Qur’an opened up a view of paradise as a “sublime garden where one need only reach out one’s hand to gather is fruits”. As conquerors, they encountered the gardens of Isphahan and Grenada. Little wonder then, that the plant-like arabesque style was resonant for them with a promise of eternal life.

Ali Baba by Maxfield Parrish (1909)

Pictures of calligraphy lead to writing about writing. The stories in the Arabian Nights (Stories from 1001 Nights) come from India, Persia and Arabia; there are even stories from China, such as Aladdin, in some editions. These stories all reflect the enormous, highly civilized Islamic world of the 9th to 13th centuries. It stretched from Spain across North Africa to Cairo, across the Arabian peninsula, up to Damascus and Baghdad, further north to Samarkand, across what is now Afghanistan, down into India, and beyond. Many of the people in this huge area shared a religion, Islam, a religious language, the Arabic of the Koran, and many cultural elements which derived from the Koranic culture of Islam and its 7th century roots in the Arabian peninsula, now mostly Saudi Arabia. A traveler could wander across this huge region speaking Arabic, sharing in a familiar culture, studying and praying in mosques, and trading with fellow Muslims. A wonderful travel book was written by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century recording his travels of about 77,000 miles, from Morocco across North Africa, through Arabia, up through Persia, the Steppes of Central Asia, across what is now Afghanistan, through India, perhaps up to China, and back again in many slow loops. Ibn Battuta, the Arabic Marco Polo, was able to travel all this distance almost entirely within the sphere of Islamic culture.

The roles of women in the Nights are especially interesting. On the one hand, there are many female slaves and concubines who must obey the men who own them. On the other hand, it is the courage and wit of Shahrazad that heals the King's insane distrust of women and saves the remaining virgins of her city from being killed. There are faithful women and faithless women, magical women and silly women. Their many roles and kinds are not those of the modern western world, but they have their own strengths and weaknesses and deserve to be looked at for what they are, not simply as victims of men who control them, although that too is a factor. (Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI)
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Juli and Richard Berquist were the soil collectors in Saudi Arabia. Residents of Bahrain, they collected their soul from: “Well No. 1, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—the beginning of the influence Saudi Arabia had on the oil market in the world and the significant changes it created within their own country.”
Dhahran is a city in Saudi Arabia located in the country's Eastern Province not far from the Persian Gulf. It is a short distance south of the larger port city of Dammam, also the province capital. Dhahran is, technically speaking, a fenced-in company compound, and only Saudi Aramco employees and their dependents may live inside. Dhahran is admired throughout the area as one of the most diverse, established and city-like compounds. However, because the town's name is also used for the international airport (DHA) and US consulate , both located outside the Saudi Aramco compound, "Dhahran" is often used for convenience to refer to the larger metropolitan area that includes Khobar, Dammam, and many private residential compounds, all of which have grown together into a single megalopolis of over 1 million inhabitants, of whom 97,446 (2004 census) live in the municipality of Dhahran.

Dhahran proper is one of three original expatriate oil company compounds or "districts" in the east of the country (now four), which also include Ras Tanura (the refinery and port), and Abqaiq (also Buqayq) - and more recently Udhailiyah. Dhahran was the first of the group, founded in the late 1930's, and is still the largest, with 11,300 residents, including approximately 6,200 North Americans. The town consists of two main divisions: Dhahran "main camp" (the oldest section) and Dhahran Hills. Among Aramcons, "Dhahran Hills" is sometimes used to refer to any or all Saudi Aramco compounds rather than just one section of the Dhahran compound.

Dhahran is a major administrative center for the Saudi oil industry. Large oil reserves were first identified in the Dhahran area in 1931, and in 1935 Standard Oil of California (now Exxon) drilled the first commercially viable oil well. Standard Oil later established a subsidiary in Saudi Arabia called the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), the forerunner to the modern Saudi Aramco (now fully owned by the Saudi government). There is also a large Australian, British and other European contingent in Dhahran/Al Khobar working for British Aerospace.

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Accompanied by centuries of music filled with tradition and meaning, Saudi Arabia’s story requires many more than 1001 nights. The story of the soil from the first oil well in Saudi Arabia is surely an immeasurably important tale to the history of the earth as well as the simple Common Ground 191 project. The sounds of the drilling of oil wells is music in the ears of many people on earth today, as is the ka-ching of the sales of automobiles, gasoline, fuel oil, heating oil and all the myriad other byproducts of this elixir.

It is interesting to think about the songs in the minds of the famous singers of Arabic music, and then compare those songs to those in the mind of, say, a cowboy, a European classical musician, an Indonesian gamelon player, a U.S. ghetto rap fan, or even a school child’s nursery rhyme from any country. All different songs, but all emerging from that same function of “mind music”. We have all had the experience of having a particular song play in our minds. The Common Ground 191 international earth art project is all about that place where the music lives, beyond regional differences, quarter tones, instruments—that place on earth where boundary differences fade and we all become one human orchestra, singing a song of unity, and standing on the ground of oneness.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one –

                                       (John Lennon, 1971)



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