I consider my friend, Mr. Farhan al-Shammari, a true representative of the new Saudi Arabia, which is moving with confident steps toward a modern world, without denying its past or hiding it in shame. Farhan lives in Jubail Industrial City, where he deals with Saudis from different regions daily, and with expatriates who hail from nearly every country across the globe. Al Jubail has transformed before his eyes, from a shepherd's abode in the past to a city of factories, engines, and all the manifestations of modern technology. The diversity of people he encounters every day invites him to contemplate his place in the midst of such a city, and the roaring of the engines that he hears every day invite him to consider the new economic way of life.
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At first encounter, Farhan's long, grayish beard draws the eye, as it may appear as a sign of adherence to the traditions, customs, and appearance of the ancestors. The truth is that al-Shammari bears a complex identity. He is a nomad, but urbanized man, and a Salafi with renewed thought. He respects traditions but lives and thinks in a context closer to modernity.
He has not forgotten the memories of the village on the edge of the desert. However, he also does not want to return to such a lifestyle. He is reshaping his identity from this moment on. He thinks about his future life based on the nature of the city in which he wants to continue living, knowing that such a decision will necessarily lead to the temporary or permanent marginalization of the rural and nomadic aspect of his identity and culture.
The village, the desert, and the city are not simply geographical marks or names on the map, but rather an expression of distinct cultures and social systems. Perhaps some readers will remember the amazing and profound reflections presented by the late Dr. Muhammad Shahrur on the difference between the city and the village in Quranic depictions. In essence, the village is a mono-cultural society; the system of relationships is vertical, its values are inherited and are rarely renewed, unlike the city, which is characterized by cultural and social diversity, multiple centers of influence, and fields of attraction and resistance. In the village, the individual assumes the identity of the group from birth until death. As for the city, it is a rapidly transforming society, whose inhabitants reformulate their identities over and over again, according to the change in their position in the social and economic system, a system that we know is constantly changing in form and substance.
Farhan, who was born on the outskirts of the desert, is not the same Farhan who lives in Al Jubail. The city is a place for social contact and self-challenge. Communication leads to the spontaneous dissolution of identity-related crises. The respect and mutual appreciation that we continuously witness in every encounter between people confirms a human fact that cannot be overlooked, which is that when people meet, in 90 percent of cases, they will come to an understanding concerning the reasons for the differences between them, and in 50 percent of cases, they will become close friends, even if their cultural differences remain.
The new Saudi Arabia is a country that celebrates its diversity and the multiplicity of its human spectrum. It is a community that is gradually leaving village life behind, a society that respects its past, but does not wish to latch onto it, a nation that reinvigorates itself, and is bent on living in the present and creating its future without any fear or conceit.
Every year, on the occasion of the National Day, we remember that we always need to re-discover ourselves and our country, that is, try to uncover new links connecting our present to the future that we aspire for. This is the true tale behind the celebrations of the National Day.
This article was originally published in and translated from Asharq al-Awsat.