Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Al Tayibat Museum (Jeddah)

By Shannon

Abu Halen took me to a museum today, which is a big thing because it doesn’t happen very often. He’s not a fan of museums, but as he ages he seems to have become more persuadable about things like this. Museums, and onions. Frankly, the onions are a bigger victory than the museum visits, because I use them constantly, and they make food so much tastier.

This museum we visited is called Al Tayibat. I’d say it’s housed in a mansion, but I think it’s too big for that descriptor. So instead I’ll say it’s housed in a really fancy, old-fashioned Arab complex. Only part of the complex belongs to the museum. The other part is for a Koranic school. Al Tayibat’s exterior woodwork is impressive and deserves a decent half hour of admiration. The interior is divided into about 300 rooms that are crammed with stuff, in a way that makes you wonder whether the curator is one of those people who has lots of wildly creative and sometimes promising ideas but lacks follow-through. So walls are covered in anachronistic collages of modern art mixed with traditional art mixed with bright flower wall stencils mixed with photos from the early 20th century. The old Bedouin attire—even men’s clothing—is displayed on headless female mannequin bodies (sometimes with scant wigs sticking out from under the head coverings).

This museum is not just a glimpse into the past, it’s a glimpse into someone’s really eclectic mind. So it’s fascinating on a few levels. Some of the rooms, like the Koran room, are well designed. So is the room that displays embroidered textiles that once adorned the Kaaba. The hall of ancient vessels is also remarkable, with pieces from across the Middle East that range in age from the 800s AD to the 1950s (and those two pieces, of course, are displayed next to each other, at the shadowy bottom of a display case).

My favorite floor groups artifacts by region—there’s a room for Riyadh, where you feel like you’re walking into a tent where a bunch of headless and lethargic Beduin are having tea. The Jeddah room is laid out like a simple mud home, with one side for the headless men and another for the headless women. (Honestly, I preferred headlessness: tooling around the simulated homes would have been much creepier if mannequins had been staring me down.) The best rooms are those for the southern Hijaz, around Abha. This is the most colorful region in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, it’s perhaps the most attractive to Westerners. The homes are colorful too, their interiors painted in bright and intricate designs. It was in the Abha rooms that Abu Halen snapped a shot of garlic and onion braids in the light. . . . Which brings us back to our oniony beginning to close this blog post with a bit of random poetics.