Saudi tour guide’s labor of love showcasing Saudi Arabia’s wonders to world

18/09/20

Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)
  • Khaled Al-Took still learning after 2 decades at center of Saudi Arabia’s tourism development journey

MAKKAH: For Saudi tour guide Khaled Al-Took a career helping to showcase the Kingdom’s natural and cultural treasures to the world has been more than just a job — it has been a labor of love.

After more than two decades in the role, he has not only become a walking encyclopedia on Saudi people, customs, and traditions but has also witnessed a seismic change in the country’s approach to home and foreign tourism.

Opening up the Kingdom to tourists from around the world has been one of the cornerstones of the Vision 2030 reform plan to boost economic growth.

And Al-Took has been a key player in the nation’s journey of transformation.

Speaking to Arab News about his experiences in the sector, he said that the main mission of a tour guide was to execute the agreement signed between a travel operator and their customer.

“A tour guide has many responsibilities because they are effectively the ambassador of their country and region before the visiting tourists. They must represent that region and do their best to convey its true image,” he said.

He added that tour guides played a significant role in shaping the whole visitor experience and must possess an array of skills to meet with tourist expectations.

It was important for them to be familiar with program itineraries and timings and be able to pass on facts, figures, and stories about historic and cultural attractions.

“Another feature that characterizes the tour guide, is their ability to depict the personality of the guest and know when to speak and when to remain silent,” he said.

Al-Took pointed out that one of the aims of a good tour guide should be to help create lasting memories for visitors. It was their responsibility to do detailed background research on destinations and attractions in order to be able to pass on accurate information and informed comment.

“The best way to shed light on the beauty of any tourist attraction is to present it as it is with all its genuine facts, leaving the final decision to the recipient,” added Al-Took.

Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)

His introduction to the job came about by pure coincidence more than 20 years ago.

“I was passionate about internal travel and getting to know the cities and regions of my country. I was impressed by the cultural diversity and different environments we have.

“So, I completely devoted myself to this work, driven by my desire to explore its depths and intensively learn about the ancient civilizations and their relationship to the present, as well as the monuments and effects that stand as a valuable witness to the richness of our civilization and culture.

“Throughout my years in this work I have constantly been learning, and I am still learning and discovering. I am an insatiable learner. During every visit I make a point, whether alone or with tourists, to learn something new by unravelling new facts about something I perhaps had not noticed before or through remarks made by the tourists,” he said.

Al-Took noted that tour groups often spotted fine detail that a guide may have missed.

“God has created us in different tribes and races in order for us to meet each other, thus exchanging our respective knowledge. Through these trips, during which have I got to know many people from different cultures, many questions come to mind that I convey to my guests. They rejoice when we find a cultural or heritage meeting point between us.

“During one visit, I found out through speaking to a guest from New Zealand, that there was a meeting point between indigenous people and Gulf culture in general and our culture in Saudi Arabia in particular, which was greeting by the touching of noses,” he added.

Early in his career, the number of tourist guides in Saudi Arabia could be “counted on the fingers of one hand,” which meant tour operators employed them on a wide variety of trips including cruises, and day tours of Jeddah, Duba, Dubai, and Bahrain.

“I also led trips specialized in tracking the ancient trade routes from the south of the Arabian Peninsula and Dubai to the Kingdom’s border with Jordan in the north, as well as following some routes heading east and south to the Saudi border with Yemen and Oman deep in the Empty Quarter.”

Al-Took has also organized cultural trips in regions throughout the Kingdom, highlighting ancient civilizations, inscriptions, and spectacular rock structures.

“I had the opportunity to collaborate with celebrities as well as other people from all nationalities, and all of them agreed they had a positive impression about Saudi Arabia since it is a large country holding a lot of unknowns.

“Many people assert that the stereotype they know about Saudi Arabia quickly fades away on their first visit, and the deeper they go the more they discover that everything they had read in the press, old books, or reports from contemporary travelers was different from what they saw themselves.

Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)

“They often find that the stories they have been told are incorrect and quite opposite to their own experience on the ground. There is a cultural richness here and honest, welcoming people,” he added.

Many Saudis, he said, were not convinced or aware of the potential of tourism in their country but one of the positives to come out of the COVID-19  pandemic was the opportunity for people to get out and about locally and learn more about the Kingdom’s natural and cultural attractions.

“The Ministry of Tourism has played an instrumental role in highlighting these capabilities through a strong marketing campaign aimed at introducing Saudis and expats to these distinctive treasures,” he added.

“Some people who visited the Asir region during this period were shocked and reported that what they saw competed with the likes of Europe, where they used to spend their annual vacations.”

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia had unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization.This fabric of different colors and tastes, he said, was a very marketable commodity.

“The culture, civilization, nature and, above all, a generous population unique in its humanity, heritage, and patriotism, all together form distinct and attractive elements put into perspective by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am confident that this emergence will be the beginning of a new destination, and strongly competitive, especially with the government’s orientation to make the tourism industry a source of national income in accordance with Vision 2030, which is not long away from being achieved.”

This article was first published in Arab News

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Rare books provide insight into Saudi Arabia’s past

Time: 10 September 2020

The King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh has acquired a new collection of rare books that sheds important new light on the history of the Arabian Peninsula. (SPA)
  • The collection contains archaeological and linguistic information about ancient civilizations

JEDDAH: Books and libraries play a key role in nation building. For nations to prosper, it is necessary to delve deeper into the past to lay foundations of a stronger future.

Saudi Arabia is well on the path to preserving the remnants of its rich past — in the form of heritage sites and collections of rare manuscripts about the region’s past.

In this regard, a new collection of rare books which the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh has acquired shed important new light on the history of the Arabian Peninsula. The collection contains archaeological and linguistic information about civilizations that once thrived in the northwest of the Kingdom.

Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Orabi, a professor of modern history and international relations at King Abdul Aziz University, said: “Many of these rare books are written by travelers of different nationalities: English, French and German. Their explorations led to many discoveries.”

Sean Foley, a professor of the Middle East/Islamic history at Middle Tennessee State University, told Arab News: “The new collection will help scholars around the world to further understand the Kingdom.”

“(It) will be welcomed by scholars like me, who focus on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and world history. It illustrates clearly that there has long been an interest in the history of the Kingdom — seen as a mysterious and distant land by audiences around the world,” he said.

The northwestern areas of the Kingdom have always been a destination for Western travelers, foreign missions, and orientalists, led by their passion and thirst for knowledge. Muslim travelers also wrote extensively about this region’s history and geography but their works, unfortunately, were never translated into Latin, which was then Europe’s lingua franca. This led to a knowledge gap, which motivated Westerners to explore this part of the world.

One of the books is “Travels in Arabia Deserta” by Charles M. Doughty, who visited the north of the peninsula between 1875 and 1877. He wrote about the archaeological treasures of Madain Saleh.

Around the same time, French traveler Charles Huber also undertook a scientific trip to the area accompanied by M. Euting, an expert in Semitic inscriptions, which they detailed in a book titled “Journal of a Journey to Arabia” in 1891.

FASTFACT

Most of the books were written by Western travelers and give an informative account of their journeys to regions that are part of Saudi Arabia today.

In 1907 and 1914, Jaussen and Savignac were sent to the same region to finish what Doughty, Huber, and Euting had started. Their detailed study was written up in the three-volume “Mission Archeologique en Arabie” in French.

The book mentioned that the inscriptions and antiquities found in the area reflected the site’s resemblance to Petra. Some inscriptions even mentioned the name of the sculptor.

“Their writings deal with the transcripts and civilizations of the Tayma, Tabuk and Madain Saleh regions. Their books were registered officially and preserved for generations,” Al-Orabi told Arab News.

The expeditions of Western travelers took place between the end of the 15th century and the first half of the 20th century, for individual, religious, political, scientific, or historical purposes.

“Recent years have seen a proliferation of new scholarly works on the Kingdom and its history. The new collection will undoubtedly help scholars better understand the Kingdom and its important place in the history of the Middle East and the world,” Foley said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Makkah museums tell story of holy city’s past and present

02/08/20

Each of the 10 museums has its own distinct exhibitions with specialties including Islamic currencies, Makkah crafts, regional folk heritage and displays documenting the Kingdom throughout its history. (Shutterstock)

Part of the historic door display at the Museum of Makkah. (Shutterstock)

Islamic currencies

Each of the 10 museums has its own distinct exhibitions with specialties including Islamic currencies, Makkah crafts, regional folk heritage and displays documenting the Kingdom throughout its history. (Shutterstock)

The historic center of Muslim pilgrimage is a treasure house of rare artifacts that showcases the striking culture and heritage of Saudi Arabia
Historic Makkah has welcomed pilgrims for thousands of years and detailed records of its past and present are contained in the holy city’s museums.

Ten museums housing many rare artifacts showcase the culture and heritage of the city through fascinating collections and displays.

Each center has its own unique exhibitions with specialties including Islamic currencies, crafts of Makkah, regional folk heritage and general displays documenting the Kingdom down the ages.

The Two Holy Mosques Architecture Exhibition is one of the most prominent museums in Saudi Arabia and is home to treasures and artifacts dating back more than 1,400 years.

Opened in 2000 during the reign of the late King Fahd, it contains seven main halls highlighting Islamic civilization.

Tourist guide, Eitimad Ghazzawi, said the exhibition contained treasures and relics from the era of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions. “The museum also houses in its corridors the art and history of the Kaaba and the Grand Mosque.”

Dr. Fahd Al-Malki, general supervisor of the museums department at Umm Al-Qura University. (Supplied)

In addition, it features paintings of the Two Holy Mosques and a maquette of the expansion of the Grand Mosque in Makkah throughout the eras. The oldest item in the museum from the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s companion, Abdullah bin Al-Zubair, is a wooden column that was one of the inner pillars of the Kaaba and is almost 1,300 years old.

Ghazzawi added that there was also a copy of the Qur’an written during the reign of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, containing drawings, letters, and elegant calligraphy.

Dr. Fahd Al-Maliki, the general supervisor of the museums department at Umm Al-Qura University, said: “Museums have a great mission no less important than other cultural bodies in terms of urban development and improving the public’s tastes.

“They are also a service that every member of society should enjoy to acquire knowledge and culture provided by any museum, which captures culture in a visual manner. For children and youth, a visit to the museum plays an important role in moving emotions and enlightening minds.”

He noted that the role of museums was not limited to preserving artistic riches but also deepening artistic culture. “Museums are places that help visitors, whether scholars or ordinary people, enjoy, study and benefit from their artistic and cultural components.

“The mission of these museums in Makkah is providing the opportunity to achieve artistic richness by contemplating its contents, which include excellent creations of its artistic value, because of its authenticity in conveying the emotions and thoughts of the people of Makkah, thus reflecting Saudi society and helping establish spiritual and cultural values.

“Museums in Makkah today are a cultural center reflecting the country’s culture and history, contributing to raising educational and cultural awareness, developing a sense of belonging among members of society, and conveying an educational and cultural message to visitors about the history of their ancestors,” he added.

“The importance of the museums in Makkah are due to it being the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad’s message. The prophet’s story took place in Makkah, and from it the light of truth traveled to the whole world.

“Makkah’s museums reflect the transformation in the museums industry today and their central roles, in addition to contributing to the enlightening of society. Moreover, museum activities are developed to fulfill their mission professionally,” Al-Maliki said.

Owners of private museums also showcase Makkah’s civilization and development.

The Museum of Human Heritage, owned by Majdoua Al-Ghamdi, tells the stories of the Kingdom’s leaders. Its exhibits include household appliances used in Makkah before electricity was introduced, a section on Saudi tribes, and displays on the role of the city’s residents in serving pilgrims and the history of the ancient Madrasah Al-Sawlatiyah, one of the oldest schools in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Ghamdi said that the museum included Byzantine and Roman coins of all kinds — gold and various metals — and the Islamic dinar, silver, and gold used during the Umayyad era, in addition to weapons such as cannons, knives, daggers, swords and guns.

“The private museums of the holy capital integrate with each other to provide knowledge and cultural diversity, in addition to being an important source reflecting the cultural and historical balance of Makkah, which God has blessed with great heritage ingredients during different ages,” he added.

He noted that the museums provided a knowledge portal that reflected the values of the present and the beauty of the past while immortalizing the stories, literature and lives of people through the ages. “They also provide inspiration for the cultural and knowledge depth that we have continuously experienced since the dawn of history and until the abundant Saudi era, which did its utmost to serve the Two Holy Mosques,” he added.

Al-Ghamdi pointed out that the exhibits of the private museums reflected visitor preferences. “This makes us more in harmony with their tastes, and we strive to simulate the visitors’ cultural vision and stimulate their creative passion.”

Sami Kurdi, another private museum owner, said that he spent 40 years collecting metal objects and his exhibits told the story of the struggle of Makkah’s ancestors and their great civilization.

Al-Kurdi Museum houses more than 100,000 artifacts, some of which are at least 200 years old. There are displays of old prints of the Holy Qur’an, manuscripts, books, coins and paper money from 140 countries, home utensils, ancient wooden artifacts, stamps, pictures, maps, newspapers and magazines.

The museum also contains various pavilions showcasing clothes, utensils, crafts, communication devices and audiovisual equipment, in addition to a number of old models of classic iron and wood cars of various shapes. There is also an area featuring weapons including rifles, pistols, swords, daggers, janbiyas, spears, gunpowder, knights’ clothes and belts of ammunition.

Kurdi said that he started his heritage museum project by collecting postage stamps from post offices, the Philatelic and Numismatic Society, and extracting them from letters. It then developed into collecting old coins and paper notes.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Then and now: the shifting role of the pilgrims’ guide in Makkah

Time: 22 July, 2020

  • While the services guides provide are as important as ever, the nature of their relationship with pilgrims has, by necessity, changed

MAKKAH: When the pilgrimage season begins, pilgrims’ guides temporarily leave behind their regular jobs and professional titles to serve visitors of all nationalities. It is a solemn and blessed role that many Makkans inherited from their parents and grandparents.

The male and female guides find comfort and pleasure in serving pilgrims, despite the lack of financial reward. They consider their service an honor they are granted each year.

Dr. Talal Qutub, for example, normally works as an internal medicine consultant. He said that he has been blessed to serve pilgrims since early childhood, inheriting the job from his family. They cultivated within him the love of pilgrims and caring for them, from the moment they arrive in Makkah until they depart.

He said that there is a mutual love, appreciation and respect between pilgrims and their guides, and to the guides those feelings are like the oxygen they breathe.

Qutub stated started out in 1973 as an independent guide, before becoming a member of the board of directors of the Institution of Iranian Pilgrims’ Guides and then serving as its president for many years.

“I became the head of the coordinating body of the institutions of the sects’ leaders, during which I was able to complete my studies in medicine and obtain my Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree in Pakistan without interruption to the service of pilgrims,” he said. “Then I joined Saudi Airlines as a doctor in medical services and became general manager of the medical services.

“I was practicing my profession as a doctor and obtained a doctorate in the field of the digestive system and liver while studying Austria, but continued serving pilgrims during my studies there by coming to the Kingdom during the pilgrimage season.”

He said that serving pilgrims is an important part of his life and he could not give it up. It is also a calling that he has passed on to the next generation.

“My son, Dr. Hadi, has inherited the profession from me,” he said. “He is a digestive and liver disease consultant, and a member of the board of directors of the Institution of the Iranian Pilgrims’ Guides.”

Guide Ahmed Halabi, a journalist who specializes in pilgrimage services, said: “Pilgrimage guidance has been linked since its inception in 683 AH/1284 AD to providing special services to the pilgrims of the sacred house of God, including reception, circumambulation and supplications.

“This is what Al-Qasim Bin Youssef Al-Sabti refers to in his book ‘The Beneficiary of Expedition and Expatriation.’ He quotes the traveler Ibn Rashid, who performed pilgrimage in 683 AH/1284 AD: ‘The people of Makkah and their children receive pilgrims and teach them rituals. They train their boys on that, so they teach pilgrims prayers and supplications.’”

Halabi added: “We find many guides who have inherited the profession from their fathers and grandfathers, and are proud of it because it was limited to the judges and scholars in the beginning.”

He said that beautiful words of praise and gratitude increase the sense of pride that guides take in their work. Swiss traveler and historian Jean Louis Burckhardt, for example, said: “The guides are the leaders of the pilgrims during the rituals of pilgrimage and while visiting the holy places in the Prophet’s city.”

In his book ‘The Gentle Pleasures in the Mind of the Pilgrim to the Holiest Place,’ Shakib Arslan wrote: “There are two groups in the honorable Hejaz that visitors of Hijaz need and must have a relationship with: Guides in Makkah and Madinah.”

Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a convert to Islam who in 1933 became the first British Muslim woman to perform Hajj, describes in her book “Pilgrimage to Mecca” the details of her visit.

“Time will not erase from my mind and my memory the scenes that I saw in Mecca and Medina, and the strength of faith, beauty of loyalty, and love of good, for both people and enemies alike, which I felt in the Holy Land,” she wrote.

A number of prominent people have served as guides through the years.

“There are many personalities,” said Halabi. “Perhaps the most prominent of them is Dr. Hamid Al-Harsani, who held the position of Minister of Health during the period from (1961 to 1962). He was not only a guide but a leader of guides.

“There was also the late Sheikh Saleh Kamel. His family worked in guidance and his father worked in the Cabinet Office, but he was keen to attend the pilgrimage season to serve the pilgrims coming from Africa. Their office was located in Al-Shabika.”

Faten Hussein, a reporter and specialist in pilgrimage guidance, said the job of guide is inherited by many Makkans by virtue of their proximity to the Holy Sites, their close relationship with the pilgrims, and knowledge of their languages and culture.

She that many begin their work as guides at a very young age, and that the most important thing that distinguishes them is their moral values. A spirit of sacrifice and unlimited benevolence in serving the needs of pilgrims have instilled in them a unique religious identity built on strong belief. They are religious role models for pilgrims, she added.

However, as times have changed, and the number of pilgrims has increased dramatically, so too has the nature of the relationship between guide and pilgrim. What was once a close, almost familial relationship, is now, by necessity, more businesslike.

“Pilgrimage guidance was initially an individual profession, in the sense that the individual and his family carried the burdens and responsibilities of guidance, from the pilgrims’ arrival in Makkah until they departed,” said Hussein.

“But the increase in the number of pilgrims (created a lot of challenges) in performing the profession as it was based on randomness and personal diligence and the individual’s ability to perform all tasks with the required accuracy. This situation led to the emergence of the guidance institutions in (1982), which are based on organized, collective work to intensify efforts and unify procedures to upgrade the services provided to the pilgrims.

“But this in turn led to a cooling in the relationship between pilgrims and guides because pilgrims were placed in distant residences completely separate from the residences of guides and their families, which formed barriers in communication and human relations and led to the shrinking or fading of the close relationship that used to exist between them in the past.”

In the old days, Hussein said, pilgrims and their families used to spend six months or more in Makkah. Female guides worked in roles such as reception and hospitality, preparing locations, accompanying female pilgrims to the holy places, looking after their valuables, providing health care or religious awareness, and even caring for their children.

“In recent years, female guides have worked in a more advanced way and performed high-quality services for female pilgrims,” she said. “Cultural- and religious-awareness meetings are provided for female pilgrims, the content of which is determined according to the needs of the targeted groups. Female guides are also trained in the art of dealing with female pilgrims, the art of speech, and in first aid and other courses.”

Sami Al-Muabber, the chief of Russeifa neighborhood in Makkah, recalled the relationship that developed between guides and pilgrims in years gone by, from their arrival on ships until their departure after spending six or seven months among Makkans. He compared the moment of parting with saying farewell to close family members.

He also highlighted the important role played by the women of Makkah, even many years ago, who went to extraordinary lengths to provide first-class hospitality, from preparing delicious meals to sewing clothes.

Al-Muabber said that pilgrims in the past would spend more time in Makkah and Madinah than in their home countries. As a result, they learned Arabic and taught others their mother tongues. This had a social impact on the way of life of Makkans, who treated the pilgrims as part of their families and essential partners in the social life of the city.

Pilgrims used to arrive at the beginning of the month of Rajab by “Babur” (ship), he added, and stay until Safar, seven months later, which gave plenty of time for them to integrate with Makkans. Pilgrims lived in the homes of their guides. The owner would vacate most of the house, keeping only a room on the roof for himself and his family, with a space in front of it.

The joy of the pilgrims’ arrival was similar to the arrival of Eid, said Al-Muabber. A great feast, called hospitality, was laid on for them, to which all the people of the neighborhood were invited. He added that Makkans would compete with each other to offer hospitality to pilgrims, who would stay, eat and drink as guests of God.

Makkan women shared the same divine rewards as male guides, he said, because they took care of their visitors, accompanied female pilgrims to textile stores and bought them what they needed, and sewed their clothes. Female pilgrims would also buy eyeliners, incense and framed pictures of Makkah and Madinah. Makkan women used to help female pilgrims choose their clothes and prayer mat. Such was the closeness of the relationship that developed over many months between pilgrim and guide, saying goodbye was painful.

“It was like saying goodbye to a family member,” said Al-Muabber. The visitors, he added, became part of the family, sharing moments of happiness and sadness.

Nowadays, the high number of pilgrims and the ways in which the wider world has changed mean that they do not get to know the Makkans in such a deep and meaningful way. Some pilgrims now arrive on the Day of Arafah and leave soon after. They no longer have the opportunity to share with the people of Makkah the beauty of meeting and getting to know each other, or create memories together that will last a lifetime.

Al-Muabber pointed out that at the beginning of the reign of King Saud the number of pilgrims was about 200,000; now there more than two million each year, and they spend much less time in Saudi Arabia. With such sweeping changes, the days when pilgrims and locals could meet, spend time together and form deep bonds that lasted a lifetime are long gone.

This article was first published in Arab News

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