Friday June 2nd, 2023
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I Fell in Love with the Desert: Experiencing AlUla, Art & Alicia Keys

I filled out a Google form and found myself in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.

Farida El Shafie


It all flooded in as the direct result of a Google form.

The mechanical process that seamlessly traverses through generations and looms over research papers, flung me from my humble Cairo abode to the supple sands of AlUla, Saudi Arabia.

The thought of legging it through mountain trails and forgoing my perfect manicure in pursuit of cultural engrossment sent shivers down my spine. But the visa trickled in faster than my contemplation and the tickets landed in my inbox quicker than my thoughts could convene. I had to go.

One McDonald’s order in, I was feeling the weight of my impulsive decisions. Am I even THAT well versed in the historical and literary gravity of the trip I chose to encumber? Google was only leading me astray, pavlov-tying me to a series of hypotheticals and renders and feeding me false narratives that didn’t align with the itinerary collecting virtual dust in my WhatsApp chat.

Tik Tok knows better.

Habitas, AlUla

16 hashtags in, an entire feed of picturesque reels trickled into fruition. Bloggers diving into crystalline pools and tanning beneath the setting sun blurred my vision. As I wiped the remnants of Big Tasty mayo from my bottom lip, I cracked open my GBP 45 Primark suitcase and began hauling my wardrobe (bathing suit included) into every open crevice. Snickers bars, lipgloss and sparkly platform boots could be spotted squished in mismatched puddles. Coats tangled in Pringles tubes, denim and long padded socks enclosed the mess I just single-handedly created as a rusty orange pad-lock fastened everything in place.

I was ready to tackle this three-day trip.

Much like most airport dads, I arrived at the terminal far too early. With too much time to spare, I quadruple checked that my passport was in its designated purse compartment before aimlessly trekking through Duty Free. Subsequent to lathering myself in designer aromas, an intercom signalled my departure details to which I swiftly responded to by grabbing my a’baya and penguin-waddling to the gate.

Aly, the peanut butter to my jelly sammich, was still checking in.

             Three hours later…

That was it, we were in Madinah, with virtually no room for apprehension. Aly was ravenous, vlogging the hunger pangs away as I nervously tried not to fumble the bag, trip over my attire, and face-plant mid-airport. 25 minutes later, a lovely gentleman (who’s name I tragically could not note fast enough but now realise is Moadh) ushered us to his Nissan Patrol.

As we settled in the back seat, a sea of epiphanies crashed in. It dawned on us that we were about to embark on a treacherous four hour journey through Saudi Arabian deserts with a complete stranger. Had we not been sluggishly conversing until that point, a watered-down panic attack would’ve seeped its way in.

What followed was a series of intimate - albeit thought provoking - conversations where Aly, my peanut butter, and I, confided in one another over gas station candies and orange juice. 

Moadh hit the brakes.

The conversation halted in the face of Shaden Resort, AlUla.

The Morning After

Jim Devenan's 'Angle of Repose' from Desert X AlUla 2022 

A dewy freshness fills the silent air as the first day of AlUla’s Arts Festival trickles into fruition. As the sun beats down, morphing sand dunes into smokey embers, a fathomless sense of serenity undercuts the desert’s docile demeanour. Like a sculptor moulding his muse, we stand still, mouths agape, waiting on the wistful winds to howl a series of words dynamic enough to capture the scene at hand.

*Incoming FaceTime call from mother goose*

I fervently flung my hotel curtains open in a desperate attempt to flex my new temporary home. After tucking my fringe aside, I swiped the call open and patiently waited for the ‘ooo-s’ and ‘aaaah-s’ to erupt from her freckled face.

She fails to notice.

Mustering up all the courage my veins could contain, I eased the windows open, pointing the camera so that it was in direct contact with the outside world.

She fell silent.

A deafening “BABAAAAAAAA!” broke the silence.

Mortified, my father’s eager footsteps blasted through the speakers as his wide-eyes filled the entirety of my phone screen. All three of us stood there, phone lines frozen in amazement, breathing in the scenery we knew we could simply never grow accustomed to. There was dialogue forming amidst the stillness; one that we perhaps couldn’t vocalise but somehow deeply felt with every passing second. Nothing needed to be said because none of our mundane words could’ve been able to capture the verisimilitude of AlUla.

The FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla exhibition at Maraya

The FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla exhibition at Maraya

The car ride encompassed the same influx of overwhelming emotions. Aly and I are huddled in the backseat, windows rolled down, eagerly recording (travel mum style) everything lining our periphery. Slicing through the haze of my desert dreams was an incessant stream of viral Tik Tok sounds. To my left, a content creating Aly was stockpiling references for later use, floundering beneath the weight of the landscape surrounding him. I, on the other hand, was too busy thesaurus-ing words for desert, landscape and epic, noting them all down under a tab labelled ‘use these when your sentences start alphabet soup-ing’.

We were on our way to attend a press conference and walk through a private tour of late artist Andy Warhol’s FAME exhibition at Maraya - AlUla’s mirror-clad entertainment venue.

A lot of questions hammered their way through my head.

What could Warhol possibly have in common with an ancient city? He actively reconciled his turbulent upbringing through dinghy locations and urban settlements, finding comfort in narratives that enabled him to escape his surroundings. I couldn’t comprehend how a star-studded collection of pop art could pertain to an oasis built on land art and scenic dialogues. I simply couldn’t sew the information I was being fed, fast enough for me to weave together a sensible narrative.

And so I walked and listened, slowly piecing the puzzle together.

What I've come to learn was that Warhol visually documented the machinations of the film industry and people whose realities were far from mundane. The photographic archives mimic the emotional turbulence of stardom. From early mornings overflowing with gratitude to late nights laced with despondency, the images crystallise a spectrum of human emotions. 

“Warhol’s work was always underscored by the themes of beauty and tragedy. The stars he spotlighted were beautiful and famous but completely tragic,” Patrick Moore, Director of the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, tells Scene Now Saudi. “Hence why, his work reflects a deep sense of emotional distance and a clear disconnect between the people and their on-screen personas.”

An open display of personal narratives, the exhibition captures art’s ability to express the contradictions that constellate a self. Whilst Warhol’s work is urban-centric and AlUla is overtly natural, what strikingly tethers the two seemingly opposite perspectives is the desire to showcase beauty in all its varied forms.

Oh, and then Aly and I took like 87 blade runner inspired mirror selfies.

The Residency Program

Mabiti Palm Groves

I met poets.

Not the ones riddling Tumblr with ‘honey’ and ‘milk’ consuming motifs, rather, ones with stories rooted in ancestry, culture, love and resilience. To this day I continue to mull over their words and their artistry, taken aback by their candour and vulnerability.

“I cannot help but imagine a universe in which

you love me.

Where time only exists to tell us into existence.

Where we carry handfuls of constellations,

and still,

we calligraphy the stars like unsent love letters

each ending in the same way,

ameen.” Dr. Afra Atiq, Between Wadi and Samaa.

I could breathe a little better.

I didn’t realise I had been holding my breath in for the duration of the performance and so to distract others from my coughing fit, I inhaled a wafer that was handed out mere seconds earlier. Dr. Atiq’s voice continued to echo wherever I turned, her words muddying my thoughts and instigating a sea of introspection too grand to dive into. She briefly spoke about how the AlUla Arts Residency changed her life, how she navigates falling in love with a desert (do you water it? Comb through its sands when it's feeling low?) and how humbling it was to be surrounded by the region's most prolific artisans.

I believed her.

She ushered us further into the Mabiti Palm Groves until we landed upon what can only be described as a technicolour Barbie dream house.

I went feral.

This is precisely what Hilary Duff meant when she said ‘This is What Dreams Are Made Of’ and no one can argue otherwise. Instantly drawn to the literature propped up against the pavilion, my pseudo-intellectual self could not contain the need to bend a freshly glued spine and dive into a world not mine to keep.

A kaleidoscope of narratives, artist Augustine Parades’ pavilion pays homage to nature’s maternal essence. ‘The Bitter Taste of Sweetness’ powerfully challenges oblivion. It begs visitors to disengage from the cityscapes clouding their thoughts and embrace the families fervently fuelling their livelihood.

A visual embodiment of Parades’ personal poetry collection, the pavilion demands those caught amidst its whimsical displays to introspectively examine their self-indulgent viewpoints. “It is the story of the farmers, who so eagerly give, give and give, with no expectations in return,” Parades tells Scene Now Saudi. “It is for the soil holding you, for the farmer watering you and for the farmer bearing you.”

The intricate line work, delicate strokes and vivid colouring capture Parades’ love for his ancestry and for the message he so poignantly portrays. The iridescent enclosure amplifies those sentiments. It goes to show that hidden storylines can tear through the cobwebs in which they are buried and shine amidst the most saturated of environments.

Wadi El Fann

Wadi El Fann

This is the part where Aly and I went on a 7:00 AM hike.

I was dry heaving big time, and there was simply no time for me to gain any stamina. I just had to drag my shawarma skewers up that mountain like my life depended on it. Older European journalists were stampeding through like it was an evening promenade or a stroll through the Champs Elysees. If I hadn’t been struggling to prevent my lungs from imploding, a debate on why that level of stealth constitutes a microaggression would have potentially ensued.

That said, we made it to the top of Wadi El Fann, where an acclaimed group of global and regional artists - including the likes of James Turrell, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Manal Al Dowayan and Ahmed Mater - would inevitably exhibit their work.

In the meantime, much like Midjourney, homegirl was left to her imagination.

Subsequent to picturing flying saucers and pyramid projections till my heart’s content, I was swiftly met with the understanding that these artists were tasked with overturning the ‘barren’ connotations haunting deserts as well as exploring the notion of fertility through an artistic lens. So, the saucers were placed on the back burner for now (no pun intended).

“Art can save the environment and gives us a brilliant opportunity to engage with our surroundings,” Iwona Blazwick, Chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla tells Scene Now Saudi. “Whilst Denes and Heizer’s installations are meant to instigate dialogues with AlUla’s vast landscape, Turrell will create a sort of oculus that will remove us from the landscape and plunge us into darkness. Juxtaposing Turrell’s transcendental piece is Al Dowayan’s tribute to the people. She’s currently drawing on the people of AlUla and funnelling their stories through doppelgängers of their architectural innovations.”

As Mrs. Blazwick radicalised the masses, a Aly could be spotted sprawled across a canyon capturing light leaks hitting rock formations.

“I need my money shot,” he explains.

            Four hours later….

We had dinner on Mars. No wait. We had burrata on Mars. Actually no, we had burrata with artists and influencers, on Mars.

Things got weird here.

There was a seating plan at a private dinner in the middle of the Wadi with no signal. Although I remained in close proximity to Aly, a lovely little lady - who I had not anticipated would be as communicative as she was - kept trying to pitch me features, to which I would enthusiastically respond with, “that sounds amazing, Middle Eastern publications love writing about resorts in Singapore!”

People do weird things when they’re off their phones.

I inhaled my appetiser in mere minutes, gulping down a blood orange concoction that eventually overstayed its welcome across my gums. She’s telling me about the Lebanese currency devaluation, her white husband’s unintentional racist remarks and how she tackles power outages. I was two bowls into my four course menu, shoving cauliflower in my mouth in hopes that it would somehow stifle her speech. It didn’t work.

Aly was nowhere to be found, he’d taken my phone for extra camera quality and was coaxing pretty girls into delicately biting their legumes.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys in AlUla

I had to part ways with Aly for the duration of the Alicia Keys weekend. She was performing, at Maraya, for the second time, and then holding an invite only women’s discussion shortly after.

I was losing my mind, feverishly Googling how to hold a phone and wikihow-ing ways to magically morph my arm into a tripod. Aly assured me I was going to be okay, that it was a matter of pointing my phone camera at Alicia and pressing record. Yet, my fraying nerves got the best of me, I was dying my hair, laminating my eyebrows and praying to god that she doesn’t notice my outgrown gel nails.

“I just want you to know that you are not glued to those chairs,” Alicia Keys tells the audience. “You may come off of the chairs, and you may even come down the stairs when you’re ready. I don't want to rush you when you feel it, vibe with me like this.”

That’s when I made a run for it, bolted, ‘she’s a runner, she’s a trackstar’ style to the front row. That was my moment, my gateway to getting closeups and perhaps having a tiny bit of her glitter ensemble shed on me. The concert was akin to a game of middle school dodgeball for me, as I was mostly there to film it, my night consisted of silently humming the lyrics to all my favourite 00s bangers and attempting to avoid any noise pollution inflicted by surrounding singers and Keys’ bodyguards.

I made it home unscathed with glamour shots of the queen of New York as memorabilia.

            The Women to Women Discussion…

Alicia (yes we’re on a first name basis) walked in, one hand waving, in all its monarchical glory, greeting the women in attendance. An open water source of inspiration, the discussions veered on emotional treks through women’s lives.

The stories shared weren’t ours to keep or pass down.

They were simply meant to be felt, understood, respected and cherished alongside the historical site these women confided in.


The Author Farida El Shafie at Maraya

It took me 11 hours to get back home.

I spent 50 percent of the money I own getting into the lounge at Dammam airport and the remaining half on a gift for my - still flabbergasted - mother.

Don’t fret, it was Givenchy.

The layover consisted of reflections on the ancient city I'd just experienced. To be completely honest, half of that ‘introspective’ time was spent watching Netflix’s ‘Dubai Bling’, whilst the other half actually resulted in fruitful conclusions.

For one, I was humbled.

I was taken aback by the sense of camaraderie echoing throughout AlUla’s walkways. It kept wafting in quicker than the oud incense lining its streets, simultaneously instigating an outpour of emotions.

I now constantly crave its warmth and long for the respite it offered.

AlUla was built on the stories of its people. Its mudbrick houses carry inscribed narratives of the mothers who’ve grown to raise artisans and men who’ve willfully protected its landscapes. Its reddened mountains stand testament to the power of legacy, how it can evolve into unwavering appreciation for the city that birthed you, and inevitably fuel a long line of descendants who share those same emotions.


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