How do you imagine Saudi Arabia? Desert? Camels? Oil? Oppressed women? That was what I pictured. Traveling to Saudi felt more foreign than anywhere I have ever been. What would I need? Would I lose my identity and independence when the black abaya covered my body? Would its flowing fabric render me invisible or transform me into a wizard out of Harry Potter? With so many questions and so much to learn, I talked to many people in an effort to ensure that I would be respectful and stay safe. In truth, it was difficult to uncover much information. Some people warned me not to go out of fear of the unknown, while others were thrilled by the opportunity for cultural exchange that attending the National Built Heritage Forum in Abha offered.
Upon arrival the debunking of my assumptions began with the location of the forum itself. There is no desert in Abha – or camels for that matter. Located in the Asir region of the country, Abha is mountainous and cool. While I had pictured a singular image of Saudi, I discovered diversity, intelligent women, and lots of color. I struggled to reconcile hearing a veiled woman confidently and articulately share her scholarship and expertise with a separate seated audience. These contradictions to my established Saudi narrative kept pushing through the surface, bringing new puzzles and questions with them.
There was the inherent contradiction of attending a forum dedicated to the investment of built heritage and tourism in a country that does not distribute tourist visas. There were distinctions between heritage sites and museums that I was unaccustomed to and differing ideas regarding the authenticity of place and when it moves from real to echo of Disneyland that left me unsettled. Saudis also seem to place more value on the new and modern, a fundamental difference to my own way of thinking which gives preference to preserving the old prior to rebuilding it anew.