March 4, 2012 By V Musafir Ahmad

What the Rainbow Foretold

Souk-Okaz_0A clear rainbow which we witnessed during our trip seemed to bid us bon voyage. Three of us heaved a sigh of relief for having that scenic vision after a long time. Our destination was the famed Ukkath Souk (market) which lies 40 km away from Taif. Ukkath had a great role to play in the history of Arabia during the age of ignorance before the arrival of Islam. It was at this market that the titans of Arab poetry presented their poems. It was a centre for traders, poets, philosophers, artisans, and, all representatives of Arabian society to be engaged in cultural interactions.  The cessation of intertribal war, which happens twice a year, was an occasion for the convention of the market. Seven poets had made a name at that time by making the market resonate with their lines: Imrul Khays, Anthara ibn Shaddad, Suhayr ibn Abi Saleema, Amr ibn Khulsoom, al Harith ibn  Hilisa, Labeed al Amri, Tarafa ibn al Abd. Their poems used to be hung on the roof of Ka’aba. So they were called Sabe al-Muallakath (the seven hung ones). Qualitatively so great were their poems that they were inscribed in silken or golden canvases. This was an example of high esteem in which the Arabs held their poets. Al Kansah, renowned as the queen of dirges, used to recite her poems at Ukkath. Her lines would make the listeners’ eyes brimmed with tears. An oil painting of Khansa sketched by Khalil Gibran seems to bear all dirges she ever wrote. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ukkath was where the spring of Arabian poetry came about. The Saudi government took steps five years back to recreate the 15-century old souk. An organization committee led by mecca governor and president of souk Ukkath higher supervisory committee prince Khalid al-Faisal attempts to convert the souk into a common venue for the search of different aspects of culture by combining ancient cultural traditions with contemporary social mores. A annual cultural fest, which had been held in five days for the last four years, was organised this year in ten days. (September 20-30).  One of the major events in the fest was the staging of ‘stories from the souk Ukkath.’ it was the historical and poetic play with huge cast of 150 actors, one actress, camels and horses. It was for the first time in my 12 year-long Saudi life that i watched a play there. The play was staged from the beginning to the end of the footpath in the souk. The actors had got under the skin of people in 15th century Arabia. Scenes were fast changing in the ‘screen.’ so do the actors. Most of the spectators were the locals . Dialogues were not spoken out on the stage. They had earlier been recorded. So the actors had to be meticulous in synchronizing their lip movement with the dialogues. Lighting was used to change the scenes. Characters came and went on camels and horses. Some of these animals were part of the play. A large space in the market which occupies about 4000 square meter was the stage for the play.

The play was centred on the anti-war theme in Suhayr ibn Abi Salma’s poems. Suhayr sang how peace transforms human life into a garden. The blind camel in the war front is one of Suhayr’s widely-used metaphors. It’s the blind war itself which this camel represents. Those who see this camel die and those who don’t are the lucky ones who are saved. It’s Suhayr’s lines that were rewritten as the dialogues of the play. Interestingly, all the seven poets who were part of the market appear in the play as characters. The play begins with an altercation between two tribes- an altercation which has taken the tribes to the brink of war. The poets suggest anything but war as a solution to the dispute. Through the details of the dispute, the tribal life of the past is unveiled before the audience. I had a chance in the meantime to speak with Usama Khalid, who has a major role in the play. Khalid was born and brought up in Riyadh. He has appeared as the protagonist in Tash Mathash, A poplar TV satirical series telecast during Ramadan, for the last two years. He appears in the lead roles in popular soap operas in MBC channel. Khalid opined that it was a challenge to do historical plays. When the past is staged, the bloody present needs to be adapted to it too. Or else, the audience will find it boring. When the anti-war theme is grafted in the milieu of Ukkath and the genius of Suhayr, this adaptation of the present to the past happens. ‘From the reaction of the audience, i understand i have communicated what I meant,’ Khalid said. He added that pacifism and peace are the themes that are always contemporary. After I have come back from Ukkath, i telephoned Khalid and said about the rainbow we witnessed on our way to the market. He said, while describing about two girls who had watched the play and had, on Khalid’s eager question as to whether they loved the play, ran away with their blushed cheek: i have seen rainbow on their cheeks.’

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