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Moved by nostalgia, elderly man dances to Saudi folk song in viral video

Published: Updated:

It is just after asr prayer in Riyadh, and a group of elderly men leave the mosque to gather in Souq al-Zel, a central market selling rugs and antiques. One vendor, standing behind a table displaying tarnished coffeepots and an analog radio, brings out an old turntable and places a record on the platter. Amid the talk and laughter in the marketplace, the voice of the late Saudi Arabian folk musician Bashir Hamad Shannan issues from the device, singing the familiar verses of his “Ya lait souq al-thahab.”

“I wish a carpet of silk would unfurl in the gold souq where I saw my love,” Shannan sings to the strumming of an oud, as a crowd begins to form in front of the vendor’s table. At its center is an old man moving to the slow rhythm of the song, twirling a cane between his fingers and smiling beneath large old-fashioned sunglasses. Some onlookers pull out their phones to take selfies with or film the impromptu performer.

A video of the scene went viral among Saudi Twitter users last week, prompting a series of comments in which listeners reflected on the feelings of nostalgia evoked by the song. “Auditory memory does not forget – it takes you back to the time when you first heard something,” user A7 mused in one tweet, replying to the original poster, Yousef bin Ali al-Fayez.

When was it that Saudi Arabia first heard Shannan’s “Ya lait souq al-thahab”? The artist was active in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the Kingdom was home to a thriving music industry, which had originated with the Saudi military band. When the band was later recast as the national orchestra, a number of musicians from Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt were drawn to the Kingdom. This was how the household names of Saudi music – such as Talal Maddah, Toha, and Bashir Hamad Shannan – emerged onto the scene.

Other Twitter users were quick to link the video to recent reforms in the Kingdom that have stripped the “religious police” (al-Hayaa) of their power and opened the door to concerts and other entertainment events.

For many, the return of music to Saudi Arabia has been rejuvenating. “This is life coming back slowly, and thank God for that,” said user Ali, while Mohammed wrote, “Life like this is more beautiful.”

“Ever since the Sahwa left us, life was brought back to the people [of Saudi Arabia],” tweeted Mr. Terry. According to Almaha Saud, the Sahwa made people “deaf” to the gift of Shannan’s music.

User Tareq saw the video as a sign that Muslim Brotherhood influence is waning in Saudi Arabia.

The Sahwa, which translates to “awakening,” was a dissident religio-political movement in Saudi Arabia based on a hybrid of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired ideals. The movement – which lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s, when it was suppressed by the government – pursued a relentless war against the arts, including cinema, literature, and music.

It would have been unthinkable in those days to dance or listen to music in public, as the elderly man in the video does with such ease. The Sahwa’s grip on society was so tight that “the street of the dishes,” the nickname for an inner city road in Riyadh where satellite dishes and cassettes used to be sold, became better known as “the street of the devil.” Security was heightened, with more religious police patrolling the street than most places in the city.

Previously, it had been a tradition among Riyadh’s youth to visit the cafes and browse the music stores that lined the street.

In a reply to the video, Abdulla al-Asiri recalled how, before the reforms, extremists would raid video rental stores in Saudi Arabia’s central region. “They had a lot of problems with the youth and the stores that sold and rented out video cassettes, which received their permits from the government,” he wrote. “These religious men did not care, however, and would destroy the stores as if destroying pagan idols from the days of the Quraysh [during the early Islamic era]. It was extreme and unjustified.”

In another video posted by Twitter user Qesas Tarikhiya, the same antiques vendor explains to a group of customers that he was once offered SAR 12,000 ($3,200) for the Shannan record he was playing, but refused to part with it even for 25,000 ($6,660).

Thanks to the reforms, though, the vendor was still able to share the music with the elderly man. “Critics will say he’s old enough to be praying while sitting down but somehow still has the energy to dance,” said Abu Abdulaziz, commenting on the video of him dancing.

“But he’s expressing himself without being publicly indecent,” he pointed out. “Maybe he associates this song with a beautiful memory.”

The video inspired one commenter to buy a turntable for her father, but she was at a loss to remember the device’s name. “Can someone tell me where to find it? It’s urgent,” tweeted Ashwag, whose profile cover photo shows a banner reading “Daughter of the best dad in the world.” “I showed my dad the clip yesterday and he said its name but I forgot it. He said if he finds it he will buy it, so I want to beat him to it.”