My grandmother has never been short of stories about this place, but I had to make a visit to put it all in visual context. Indeed, everything I saw gave me a real sense and perspective of a place of strategic and historical significance. From its various landscapes to its culture and tradition, Ha’il has been a crossroads between a past and future that is yet to be determined. In one word, Ha’il feels timeless.
My induction to Ha’il began with the airplane window view of the beautiful mountain hills. This was right before I landed, during sunset. It was then that I learned about the story of Aja and Salma, two lovers after whom the mountains surrounding the oasis city were named. A love story long before Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet — even Arabian Nights for that matter. It happened during the ‘Perishing Arabs’ era, a historical period I have always been curious to know more about. Salma was the daughter of the Amaleeq (or Amalekites), the ancient Canaanite and Amorite tribes. Having a mountain named after a female figure from prehistoric times was a fact I dwelled on, and had set the tone for my discovery of Ha’il.
Why is an old car hanging from a rock in the middle of a mountain highway? The town was already red, so I could only paint it with questions. They will always have an answer; a tale, a way of tying things together.
Having seen Ha’il’s mud houses, I asked my grandmother why construction in this town had been stagnant or seen slow to no growth. What she shared with me was a discussion centered around a unique culture blend of simplicity and generosity. Despite being traditional and resisting urbanisation, Ha’il was notably ‘clean’, something reflective of the community’s appreciation and preservation of nature. When I asked what she misses the most about Ha’il while away, my grandmother answered: “Just the nature.”
We then came to the issue of generosity, especially with welcoming guests/visitors. Ha’il residents would take extreme measures — even take out loans — in order to accommodate guests with their generosity, says my grandmother. My aunt walks in, interrupting. “That’s not generosity,” she says. “It’s waste! Instead of channelling this generosity to the city’s growth and development, their concerns and ambitions are limited to slaughtering sheep for each other.”
I was glad to hear such honest self-criticism from my aunt. She, along with my father, explained the historical rationale behind this tradition, which is no longer the basis for its continuation. In the old days, when people welcomed guests they felt obliged to invite as many people as possible to share the meal and enjoy the special occasion. This is but one example of many traditions still practiced despite their outdated logic, let alone irony. And, though my aunt spoke about carelessness, concern about the public image and lack of awareness, she also acknowledged an undeniable simplicity about the Ha’il culture.
Throughout my trip, I carried on thinking and speaking about Ha’il’s slow urban growth, and a few people shared their different views. Genuinely curious — and enjoying the ‘riddle’ — my grandmother asked my 15-year-old cousin herself. He looked at me and said: “Why doesn’t she check Wikipedia?”