By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 23, 2007
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- College dropout Abdullah al-Alwani wanted to stand out among his friends, but he couldn't afford a splashy car or brand-name clothes. Bored by a lack of things to do in this conservative kingdom, he decided to make his mark by spray-painting X 5, his chosen nickname, hundreds of times across the city.
Mohamed Jamal Abo-Umara, the newly appointed official in charge of Jiddah's beautification, spent months on Alwani's trail. He alerted the police, told local newspapers he was looking for X 5 and offered a $1,300 reward to anyone who could lead him to the city's most prolific graffiti artist.
In May, a journalist offered to introduce the two men to each other on the condition that vandalism charges be waived, and both agreed.
But the June encounter, widely covered by the local media because of X 5's notoriety, ended up addressing not just the graffiti problem but also what had fueled it -- a host of frustrations faced by Alwani's generation.
Since then, Alwani and his graffiti buddies have appeared smiling and apologetic in dozens of magazine, newspaper and television interviews, focusing a rare spotlight on Saudi youth.
Like many of his generation, Alwani, a slight 20-year-old with an Afro tinted volcano red, is buffeted between the Western culture piped into his life via satellite television and the Internet and the strict religious culture prevalent around him.
"I want graffiti walls like they have in the West. We need soccer fields and basketball courts in every neighborhood," said Alwani, who prefers low-riding jeans to the traditional white robe commonly worn here. "And I want to dress the way I want without people making fun of me."
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy and one of the world's most socially repressive societies, also has one of the world's youngest populations, with more than 50 percent of its 22 million citizens younger than 21.
A strict form of Islam implemented by powerful clerics forces stores to close during the five daily prayers and forbids unrelated men and women to mingle in public. The result is that cinemas and theaters are banned, public schools are segregated beginning in first grade, women are not allowed to drive, and single men without female family members cannot enter most shopping malls.
Abo-Umara, the municipality official and a father of four, was criticized by colleagues for turning Alwani into a local celebrity instead of making an example out of him for vandals who have cost the city close to $1 million in graffiti cleanup.
But Abo-Umara, 45, said young men like Alwani should not be held accountable until officials are sure they've done right by local youth.
"What have we done for young people? Have we asked them what they need or want?" said Abo-Umara, wearing a flowing white head scarf and long robe. "Until I talk to them and find out why they are scribbling all over Jiddah and do my part in offering them the services we're supposed to provide, then I can't punish or criticize them."
True to his word, Abo-Umara held a two-day workshop called "What Do Youth Want From Jiddah?" in July, shortly after his meeting with Alwani. More than 200 young men and women attended, on separate days, and their list of demands included cinemas, public libraries, and music and art centers.
The young women asked for private beaches for women and girls, for at least widows and divorced women to be permitted to drive, and for boys who harass them to be fined.
Both groups requested sports facilities, of which there are very few in Saudi Arabia.
Abo-Umara was able to implement one demand immediately: walls dedicated to graffiti.
At the palm-tree-lined Faisal bin Fahd walkway, women in black cloaks, black head scarves and running shoes walk determinedly, as men in shorts and T-shirts jog past. On a grassy embankment in the middle, more than 40 graffiti canvases have been set up.
On a recent day, young men on their knees mixed paint and drew. On one canvas, a dejected face had been drawn between the words "No Girls" and "Why?"
Another canvas depicted a group of young men behind cage bars, looking out at a mall-lined street.
"Young men are oppressed here," said Mohammad Qarni, 20, sitting on a bench painted with swear words. "We don't have anything to do in our spare time, and we're not even allowed into malls. That's why I started spray-painting. As a protest."
Qarni said he stopped only after he narrowly escaped arrest and Alwani persuaded him to accept the city's amnesty offer.
"All I want is equality with girls," said Qarni, who has cropped hair and wears glasses. "They're allowed to go to malls anytime, and when they flirt with us and we just flirt back, the cops always believe them."
Young men stand outside malls for hours sometimes, mainly on weekends, in the hope of getting in.
During a recent evening at a mall on trendy Tahlia Street, Alwani stood with two friends, all dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and pleaded with security guards stationed at the large glass doors to let them in, while groups of young women in black cloaks and colored head scarves, some wearing heavy makeup, breezed past.
"My sister is inside," Alwani lied. "I need to talk to her." Finally he called out to a girl he had met online, told the guard she was his sister and walked in.
The graffiti artists got to know one another from online chat groups, where they often share photos of graffiti they admire from Web sites such as graffiti.org.
"I have a lot of female friends," said Abdullah al-Subaie, 20, a friend of Alwani's who used to spray-paint the nickname K2K, for "kick to kill."
Sporting an Ed Hardy baseball cap with rhinestones over a black T-shirt and jeans, Subaie, who's studying to be a pilot, said that writing graffiti gave him and his friends cachet and made it easier to meet girls.
"It was a way of showing off," said Qarni, whose nickname is A.H., for Always Homeless. "And of proving ourselves."
Though Alwani and his friends write their graffiti in English, they do not speak it, and most have not traveled outside the Arab world.
Alwani said he'd love to travel to the United States to see the graffiti walls of New Jersey that he's seen online. In the meantime, he has used his newfound fame to make some money: He was hired last month to paint fluorescent 3-D graffiti on the black walls of the Star Billiards pool hall.
But it doesn't quite match the thrill of spray-painting on the streets, he said.
"You have to mix paint and draw, then tape. I miss the excitement of a quick spray-paint on the walls. Five minutes and you were done and out of there."