Can anyone claim to live inside a song?
I can make such a claim, because Jeddah is a song whose existence rests on the melodies of the Hejaz, the western coastal region of Saudi Arabia. Everything about Jeddah exudes emotion, as if she were a word of love breathed by a lover. History records that our mother Eve was her first resident. When, over the years, her offspring spread throughout the world, they may have remembered the woman who had caused them to leave Eden and settle in this place north of Mecca. They named it jeddah, meaning grandmother.
I came to Jeddah as a small child from a village on the coast in the far south of the Kingdom. I would cling to my mother’s little finger as she made her way through groups of people clustered around a majestic dome. They came in various sizes, colors, and clothes, and were all intent on reaching the same place. Among them, I caught glimpses of the vendors hawking their sweets and street food. I longed for a piece of fried dough or a bag of candy floss, but my mother’s pace pulled me along. She pulled me whenever my steps slowed.
Once she settled on a spot, everything about her calmed down. She stopped at a large tomb that was five and a half meters in length. Its white marble dome rested on four pillars. My mother would recite the Fatiha, while my imagination struggled with the dimensions of the grave, so I would try to engage her with an innocent question. “Whose grave is it?” She squeezed my hand as a sign to be quiet. Once she had emerged from the reverence of her devotions, she drew close to me, noticing the wonder in my eyes, and said, “It’s the grave of our mother Eve.”
“Who’s this Eve that’s taken up the whole tomb?”
“Eve is the mother of all humanity.”
Since that distant childhood, I have lived in the city and she has lived in me. Every day Jeddah gives birth to a story that is passed on by the inhabitants. They say that Jeddah is the mother both of ease and hardship. Everything about her has two sides, expressing either fortune or misfortune. Jeddah wears a frown when drinking water runs short and turns salty. This saltiness is explained in popular imagination by a legend that says that the prophet (peace be upon him) did not pass through Jeddah when he fled Mecca, and that, if he had, springs and rivers would have burst out.
As a child I lived in one of her neighborhoods that had escaped the city whose wall surrounded it as the wrist encircles the hand. The memory of this wall goes far back in time, bearing the name of Khosrau, son of Fairuz, son of Yazdegerd, son of Anushirvan, the Sassanid emperor. Khosrau knew that the city was a magnet for greedy hearts, and he wanted to protect it from those who passed by. From that time on Jeddah has been the aspiration of all the world’s conquerors who have eyed her in search of a foothold on her soil. We might not have lived through those efforts to occupy her, the cannon bombardments fired by the Portuguese, the French, or the English. We just know that many blue eyes out at sea have taken aim.
Jeddah’s attraction defied the invaders, but she became a desirable place to live. The throngs of people who come from all over to perform the rites of the Hajj pass through on their way and again when leaving. Many of them find the place pleasing and linger awhile, forgetting their countries. Dozens of races, languages, and cultures have combined to form the unique cultural mishmash that every inhabitant of Jeddah, a jeddawi, is so proud of. Every one of these ethnicities has left its mark on Jeddah, whose culture is a mingling of such deep, diverse cultures as Indian, Chinese, Persian, Kurdish, Indonesian, African, Greek, Albanian, and Turkish, plus the presence of those from every Arab land. She houses construction workers, carpenters, doctors, and merchants. In this diversity an amazing richness has grown, forming a common well for the people of Jeddah to drink from. Discrimination on the basis of race, faith, or creed is something totally unknown to them.
Jeddah, as the city of our mother Eve, feels that she encompasses and embraces all her children who pass through. They remain beside her, honoring their mother. Perhaps one dark evening you will hear her singing a plaintive ballad in search of her lost children who have yet to arrive.
Abdo Khal is a Saudi novelist. His book Throwing Sparks will be published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in November. This essay was translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen.