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Monday, October 24, 2011

What the Balad means to me?

I grew up my entire life in a home listening to stories about the balad. I heard stories about my beloved father’s childhood, and how the families of Jeddah lived together. My father regaled his children with the history and the traditions of the old city. He made sure that we knew the family members’ names, relationships, and common traits and characteristics. The history of our family was important to him, the history of their trade and how they came to be one of the first families to import pharmaceuticals into the walled city. He took us on short visits to the old city almost every year for our Eid Al Fitr family outings. It was interesting but quickly got boring.

As an adult and mother of three I loved Jeddah, but to me it meant work, school, Al Baik, the malls, and family obligations.  I never thought of the balad. The balad was a part of the past, a part that was gone, and most certainly not a part of me. I only saw the old city that I often visited with my father as a child on rare occasions when I had to go to the market downtown, and with a swift look I would see Bait Al Batterjee and simply think to myself “that is my Baba’s home”.

Not anymore.

It took a visitor from abroad staying in my parent’s home to make me realize what the balad means to me and what it should mean to my peers and future generations. A few days before my feelings changed I had arranged for a tour of the old city because I had nothing else to entertain my guest with. I figured the time spent there would give us something to do to pass the hours. My father loved the city to the point that he had painted the old structures on the interior walls of his home. My guest had requested an explanation for the beautiful murals, and all I could say was “I will take you there”.

When we arrived at the Bahar gate we were greeted by our tour guide, a son of the balad. A man who had been born there, he grew up there and knew all the historical spots. He explained, pointed out ancient structures, and gave us a brief history lesson of how the balal became what it is today. We started our morning tour with “Gabil street” and ended with the first American Embassy in Jeddah’s history “Bait Al Batterjee”. My heart sank! This house that I had no feelings for suddenly had a meaning. It had a place in the history of Jeddah. It was beautiful, and was located in a very special spot, just like every other house in the city. Each and every structure had a proud family, a story to tell, and a lifetime of history hidden within its walls. How can we turn our backs on our home, or origin, our ancestors? This Balad is where we began, where our fathers were born not long ago. How can we feel so detached? Our city needs us.

Did you know that Al-Balad is divided into four main neighborhoods:
Harat Alsham (The Sham Neighborhood), facing north;
Harat Al-Yaman (The Yemeni Neighborhood), facing south;
Harat Mazloum (The Aggrieved Neighborhood), facing east;
and Harat Al-Bahr (The Sea Neighborhood).

Did you know the Naseef house has 15 rooms on seven floors and was erected about 150 years ago? It was made famous when King Abdulaziz lived there. It was built by Omar Afandi Naseef.

Did you know that the tree in the square outside the front door is now the oldest and was once the only tree in Jeddah? It is said that Ibrahim Batterjee gave that tree as a gift to Omar Nassef. On the ground floor there is a well that collects rainwater. Stairs wide enough to march camels up bringing food supplies, lead up to the kitchen on the top floor; on the roof above is the highest room, the open-sided Al-Teramanah which was used as a dining and smoking area and caught the cool breezes high above the streets. The original owners of the house also used to sleep on the roof in a namousia, a bed covered with a sheer fabric to prevent mosquito bites.

Did you know that the Caliph Othman bin Affan declared it the official port of the Holy Cities? The construction of the wall took place in order to protect Jeddah against the aggressors of that time, such as the Portuguese who, in 1516 AD, laid siege to the city for three months. But, in spite of all, Jeddah continued growing in importance and by 1825 --now under the control of the Ottomans-- began receiving its first diplomatic representatives from Europe (France and Britain). For that reason, it used to be called Bilad al Kanasil (The City of Consulates). It was also known as al-Balad  or just Balad, a name which it still keeps today along with "Old Jeddah”

These questions and facts are only a few. These questions and facts should raise awareness within our generations to seek more information to try to find facts about our home, our origins, and our ancestors; the men and women who lived here for centuries. Our ancestors have much to tell us, to give us pride, and keep up our self confidence and esteem. Now when I visit the balad and I see Bait Al Batterjee my heart screams “that is My baba’s home!”

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