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Snapshot: Riyadh

[A temporary theme park in al-‘Ulayya, the central business district of Riyadh, is knocked down a few blocks away from Norman Foster’s Faisaliyya Tower. Empty plots awaiting development are often rented by businesses such as theme parks or sports clubs. 2005 Photo by Pascal Menoret.] [A temporary theme park in al-‘Ulayya, the central business district of Riyadh, is knocked down a few blocks away from Norman Foster’s Faisaliyya Tower. Empty plots awaiting development are often rented by businesses such as theme parks or sports clubs. 2005 Photo by Pascal Menoret.]

Text and photographs by Pascal Menoret.

This photographic journey begins in 2002 in Riyadh, in the old city center of al-Dira—a word that means both living place and homeland. It was a bright June afternoon, before the blasting heat hit the city for three relentless months. Taking a break from the institute where I was teaching French for a year, I was wandering the streets with a friend, conspicuous non-digital cameras dangling from our shoulders. After walking up al-Dhahira Street among shoppers we entered the maze of lanes surrounding the northern cemetery. The atmosphere was quieter. Two Yemeni masons were rebuilding an adobe wall. A Palestinian man invited us to photograph the interior of his house. Children were biking among stately mud houses and the odd car raised a plume of dust. The Khalidiya Towers were looming in the distance, their tall cylinder broken into three parts and punched with small square windows. The towers were built during the 1970s oil boom by King Khalid’s relatives. It was said that the princes were so demanding that the architect threw himself off the last floor when the building was completed.

The towers were a rare attempt at building up in a city that raised itself only one or two stories above the ground. When I wandered around Riyadh, the only other high-rises were the Faisaliyya and the Mamlaka, erected later by other branches of the ruling family. Political authority was inscribed in the urban landscape and walking through it felt like subversive activity. Taking photos was even more wicked. Friends who were born in Saudi could not understand why I so often wanted to walk, especially in the older parts of the city. With its hills, its stairs, its dusty palaces, and its small plazas, Umm Slaim—the western extension of al-Dira—was as exciting to me as a quarter in old Rome. A friend who lived there saw only poor communities and hungry cops circling around like vultures ready to plant drugs on you and throw you in a van. This only piqued my curiosity further.

Another friend who grew up in Hillat al-Gusman, a neighborhood created in the 1930s by people coming from the Qasim region, would often take me to the old city. Every outing was an expedition. We would fetch coffee in a thermos, I would grab my camera—I had bought a digital one by then—and we would drive for hours, stopping for lunch at a Yemeni hole in the wall, and later at his father’s house for tea. Tall and handsome, the old man had come on foot from the Qasim decades ago. Working for Al Saud as a mason, he had had to fend off sexual advances from a princess—or so his son, proud of his father’s good looks, said to me.

In 2005-2007, during my second stay in Riyadh, my dissertation fieldwork research took me to middle class suburbs and to the outskirts of the city, and I only came sporadically to al-Dira. One summer, as I conducted interviews in high school summer camps, I had the opportunity to observe the daily life of students in several neighborhoods. Schools were not funded locally, but by the ministry of education, and the steep discrepancies between infrastructures and programs could be explained either by the active lobbying of families and teachers in richer neighborhoods, or by a deliberate state policy of discrimination. The inner city needed more resources and was painfully lagging behind.

Teachers and Islamic activists created summer camps in the 1970s, at the very time when the city was becoming a series of endless suburbs. Middle class households were fleeing the inner city and their kids were increasingly taken care of by schools, even on weekends and holidays. Meanwhile, Saudi Islamic movements—disparate coalitions of more or less reformist activists—turned extra-curricular religious, cultural, and sports activities into beacons of politicization. The country was renowned for its harsh handling of public protest and, for a time, schools were a safe haven for activists. During the 1990 Gulf War, Islamic activists calling for political reform worked with school networks to increase public awareness. In retaliation, the state imprisoned hundreds of activists, and put summer camps under narrow surveillance. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Saudi state launched its own version of the war on terror and sent thousands to prison. Summer camp activists were accused of fostering extremism and public debate about them raged for years.

The reality was more prosaic. Some communities used summer camps to help their youth stay out of trouble during summers. For others, summer activities were a means to socialize students into the religious middle class. As I wandered around schools, my camera recorded the terrified gaze of a student in front of a teacher’s frown; surreptitious chatter among kids doing a cleaning job; the bored gaze of a youth wearing a yellow banner with the words lajnat at-tanzhim (Organizing Committee); and a very young student uttering a religious sermon with a stentorian voice. The photos did not reveal state surveillance but, rather, the mechanical operations of religious networks once they had lost their political purpose. This did not prevent a bureaucrat from ending my work in the schools. He told me that I did not have official authorization to take photos. He was correct: I had forgotten to add photos to the long list of actions I would perform (recording open-ended interviews was my main concern) and I was seeking permission on a case-by-case basis.

In 2007, during the last months of fieldwork, I tried to figure out safe ways of documenting the atmosphere surrounding joyriding, the practice of stealing cars and skidding at full speed on urban highways. The year before, my first outing with joyriders had resulted in a car accident, and I did not want to finish fieldwork in a hospital bed. The police stopped one of my friends while he was filming joyriders and we felt caught between a rock and a hard place. I started photographing the daily life of joyriders, the places they hang out, and some of their performances—but at a respectful distance. Because of police surveillance, even photographing construction sites felt tricky. I stole, rather than took, pictures of the triumphant Doxiadis axis. Designed in 1971 as the new central business district of Riyadh, it was not developed until the 1990s because of land speculation. By then I had mastered the art of taking pictures from behind the wheel and of hiding my camera when passing police patrols. Gone were the days of innocence, when I felt comfortable enough to walk in the open with a camera. I was now trying to turn constraints—some imaginary, others real—into opportunities.

Driving through Riyadh with a camera in hand reminded me of my first trans-Arabian expedition. In February 2002 I had driven a beaten Peugeot from Riyadh to Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The thousand-mile journey had taken me through the mountains of Asir, the Tihama coastal plain, and the Yemeni highlands. In awe of the landscape around me, I had frantically photographed while driving. The pictures told several stories: the massive infrastructure created to span huge distances; subsidized fodder being trucked to verdant Asir from parched Najd; and the roadside economy, operated by men and women who drove, hitchhiked, bought, and sold. Precariously perched above the steering wheel, the small device was cutting wide transects in the country’s geography. Each snapshot was at once invaluable and banal. In the end, it was as if there was no photographer or driver anymore but two devices, one on wheels and the other one clicking away, following highways and recording the landscape. A virtually unmanned camera shooting in the wilderness: the scene had something eerie about it and I was relieved when, upon arriving in Sanaa, I resumed my former routine. Beginning in the old city, I walked up narrow lanes and winding alleys. There were buildings, people, electric wires hanging in the sun. I could start all over again.

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