Frustrations Drive Saudi Youth to the Graffiti Wall

Young Men Protest Cultural Strictures

Abdullah al-Alwani, or X 5, is a college dropout and graffiti artist in Jiddah.
Abdullah al-Alwani, or X 5, is a college dropout and graffiti artist in Jiddah. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah -- The Washington Post)
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."

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