A project by Mitoshka Alkova sharing the life and memory of the people of AlUla

“Mohammad invited us to cool off in the shade of his vast oasis farm, with birdsong to keep us company. The cool oasis setting and the charming stories kept us there for a while, making us want to stay on a little bit longer - a perfect escape from the heat of the town.”

As we entered his farm, he was ready to greet us, taking us to his favourite trees and goats. His sense of pride was apparent as we walked through the farm, taking in the palm trees, lined up in beautiful lines, and citrus trees weighed down with what will be his yield in a few months. As I stopped and uttered the Arabic word for orange – ‘portokal’ - Mohammad smiled and shared that he gives visitors a basket so they can pick their own fruit to make fresh orange juice, the perfect treat on a hot summer day. 
I already know I’m coming back. 

For me, it’s clear AlUla is made up of three elements: the landscape of the mountains, the history of Old Town, and the soothing, life-giving force of the oasis. Each with its own sounds, textures, smells and stories…
I asked Mohammad if he could imagine AlUla without an oasis and he looked around for a second, surrounded by the soft rays of sunshine filtering down through the palm leaves. He said that you could easily move house for a bigger one, or even move to a city, but a farmer would never leave his land. “It is your land, and you stay and nurture it.” I understood the meaning that the land holds for the people who have grown up on it for generations. For the people of AlUla, this is a special place like no other.  

“Majed showed us two instruments, his Oud and handmade Simsimiyya. Both filled the oasis with a sweet, ancient sound before the hot drizzling rain found us.”

Music is universal, easy to understand even if it is in a foreign language. I could tell Majed simply wanted to play for us; there was no need for questions about his craft or how he finds inspiration. No need to explain the history of the instrument. He knew we would understand if he simply played for us. He walked up to his seat and began strumming and singing under his breath. He didn’t know the microphone was on, so even though we couldn't hear him from where we stood, as I put the headphones on it felt as if I was sitting right next to him. He smiled and explained that he was just warming up but to me his music sounded complete. 

Majed has been playing music since he was young, teaching himself the sounds of his community. He has crafted his simsimiyya out of an old gas canister and other bits of metal. I knew that music was key in weddings and celebrations like Eid, but this felt like an occasion as special as any other. Here he was, playing for us in the oasis - just us and his friend sitting on a bench close by as the audience. He seemed at peace, gazing forward and lost in a trance. As we wrapped the interview and packed up our filming gear, Majed and his friend continued to sing, strumming away together. Music in this way, with traditional songs, is made for moments like this - surrounded by friends and welcoming visitors eager to listen. Being a musician in this community gives you the power to unite everyone, regardless of the occasion. 

“Amina smiled as she was explaining the Nabataean inspirations behind her clay creations. I could see that when she began working with the clay, she was lost in its meditative form.”

Madrasat Adeera is one of my favourite places in AlUla. There is a particular creative energy from the moment you enter. In each room there is a circle of women chatting softly and creating - whether with palm leaves, silver, fabric or clay. This time I got to learn more about clay and see for myself how meditative their practice is. 

The table at the end of the vast room was covered in different objects. One woman was making a vase, another a cup, and a third woman was  slowly building up a jug with each turn of the wheel. Amina was one of the women training to work with clay, and as she saw me wandering around curiously she showed me her cup with an intriguing figure at the front. Without a translator there, I could only use gestures to show that I was impressed, but also showed her a picture of me behind a clay wheel back home. I was hoping she would understand that I somehow shared her passion.

Did you know that women gather clay from the AlUla mountains? They have particular spots where they gather the material they need, just like their ancestors used to do. She explained how she even dreams about clay, and what she will make next. All the markings on their pottery are inspired by inscriptions found around AlUla. Later that day, I spotted some as we were driving and jumped out of the car - standing beneath the vast mountain and seeing inscriptions of animals beside a human made me feel a sense of awe. These were done by the hands of people just like Amina. The inscriptions continue to live on the ancient rock face, evidence of lives lived for millenia. The message left by our ancient ancestors is: “I was here and this was my journey.”

Maybe this is echoed in our modern message: “I was here. I met these people. I wanted to tell you about them.”

“Abdullah had very kind eyes, and a softness in the way he spoke- which became clear was due to his sensitivity with words. We shared poems in the sun, and contemplated the creative air of AlUla.”

Even though I don’t speak Arabic, I can tell when someone begins telling us a story or a poem. There is something in their voice that changes and makes it sound like a song, their eyes brighten up, their tongue smooths over the words. I really treasure the recording of poetry because I also find that words spoken in that form hold a certain magical stamp.

Abdullah shared with us that his grandfather used to recite poems to him when he was a young boy. They used to all sit in a circle and listen to his grandfather - a more meaningful entertainment than any modern equivalent. Maybe that is where his love for poetry comes from, the desire to formulate a feeling into words. I was moved by Abdullah’s descriptions of the creative nature of AlUla, and him sharing the secret spots around the mountains where  he finds his inspiration.

“Aida is about 70 years old, or so she guesses, and has hands covered in beautiful, deep maroon lines. She not only teaches us about the art of henna in this region, but also does it in the most skilful and loving way.“

I had only heard rumours about rain in the desert, like distant stories from a book. As the rain came in, the colour of the sky changed. The orange rocks disappeared behind a grey cloud and the streets were flooded within seconds. Within minutes of the rain slowing down, the local children were outside, jumping up and down in the puddles of water. People came out onto the streets to enjoy the smell of wet sand. We made our way to meet Aida. 

A petite woman came towards us in the Farmers Market. Her eyes were outlined in black kohl, full of so much kindness and curiosity. She didn’t hesitate when I asked her to put henna on my hands. As I sat next to her, she began marking my hands with the same designs as hers. A line across the knuckles, one half way down my fingers, over my fingertips… every time she smoothed the henna paste on my hands I noticed the deep red lines on her hand. It felt so precious that our hands now had identical markings. 

She explained that traditional Bedouin henna looks like this - more geometric unlike the intricate flower designs that I was used to. She had grown up in a Bedouin tent and also knew how to weave traditional rugs. She explained that henna is worn before a wedding to make the bride feel beautiful, which I understood instantly as she decorated my hands. I had so many questions for her, but first we had to find shelter from the soft rain that was coming down on us. Once we settled in and resumed our conversation, she began to chuckle in response to my question “How old are you?”, to which she replied “Oh, I really don’t know how old I am… but let's say 70”

“Um Omar invited us to watch her make traditional saj bread while she told us about her love for winter in AlUla.”

There is a comfort linked to food. I actually think the comfort doesn’t come only from the meal but the gestures of the person creating it for you. As the team was setting up for the interview, I sat beside Um Omar and watched her prepare saj bread. Her movements were so graceful.. Each ladle of batter was scooped in a dance-like gesture and smoothed over the hot plate. Her eyes would look at me, and she would see how willing I was to taste each one of her creations. After she made what she considered the perfect bread (even though they all looked perfect to me)she scooped ghee and honey into it and folded it up for me. 

The warmth filled me with joy, I understood what she meant when she said that you need to have bread with every meal. She told us that you would usually make the bread using just your hands, but her fingertips couldn’t handle the heat the way her grandmother’s used to. 

As we were about to leave, she said she wanted to talk to us more about how she preferred winter over summer in AlUla. She explained how much greener it was then, there was so much more she wanted to tell us. Maybe, if we were over for dinner she would fill the evening with stories as she took turns to fold the saj bread into a perfect square filled with honey. There are so many more stories each person holds, I wonder what we'll discover tomorrow?  

Biography of Mitoshka Alkova

Mitoshka Alkova is a documentary filmmaker specialising in people lead stories. She loves working with themes of nostalgia, memory and exploration of space. Her latest project “Voice of AlUla” is an experimental documentary meditating on the sounds of the AlUla desert and the intricate stories of its people.