Music returns to Saudi schools after 60-year absence

Poet Maha al-Essa said the change is bringing back a culture stolen under the pretext of halal and haram.
Sunday 24/11/2019
Saudi female musician Lojain Sami plays a keyboard at a local cafe in Khobar.        (Reuters)
A cultural revival. Saudi female musician Lojain Sami plays a keyboard at a local cafe in Khobar. (Reuters)

RIYADH - The Saudi ministers of Culture and Education have agreed to include culture and arts in public and private education curricula, with the Ministry of Culture responsible for authorising cultural and artistic curricula and activities throughout the educational system.

Poet Rabab Ismail said the decision is an opportunity to compensate for deficits created by the cultural recession that hindered progress for decades.

“The inclusion of music is only one word in the vocabulary of a new epistemological discourse experienced by society in all aspects of life,” he said. “It is, however, the most resonant and prominent of words because it is the most incompatible with the old discourse.

“This marks the beginning of the search for the best mechanisms to achieve the goals of the (ministry’s) decision in terms of being accepted by society. It would perhaps be a good idea to implement the new decisions gradually by, for example, incorporating music into some activities at first or allowing students to choose an artistic activity at the beginning of each academic year.”

Novelist Mohammad Rabie al-Ghamdi reiterated his experience with the education system.

“I was a coordinator for theatre education in Al-Baha region but all of that dwindled then disappeared. Music was no longer taught and theatre education was turned into an extracurricular cultural activity among many other activities,” Ghamdi said.

“What is happening now is a systematic rebuilding of cultural education following years of individual endeavours or approaches that had the cultural act to chance and whatever talent was available, although we know that music and theatre are not only cultural tools but also two components of our cultural identity.”

He said: “What is happening now is really redirecting the compass of change towards the roots. The right basis for every right action is early education. The right deed is first created in the fields of early upbringing. So, this decision will achieve two parallel goals: build a sound cultural foundation and create an encouraging learning environment. We will be producing an educated generation and creating love within schools.”

Writer Amnaal-Dharwi said the initiative is an important step and necessary to keep up with Saudi Vision 2030, the country’s economic blueprint for the future. Cooperation between the two ministries reflects hope to overcome social and cultural issues of a past era.

“I think that the preparation of this decision will change for the best many things in the educational curriculum and school activities. We will soon see a good crop of new talents and it will teach learners from both sexes to appreciate art and refine their taste, even in their other studies. The learning is going to change, for sure, and the barrier of contradiction will be lifted,” Dharwi said;

Poet Maha al-Essa said the change is bringing back a culture stolen under the pretext of halal and haram.

“Let’s catch up with the countries that are aware of the importance of this culture and of its sublime and meaningful messages as we adopt and adapt them for our needs. In Europe, they’re successfully treating patients with music,” she said.

Novelist Hussein al-Dhaou asserted that the decision was good but said that, as usual, many development projects in culture and education in Saudi Arabia are characterised by ambiguity in terms of objectives.

“Yesterday, philosophy and logic were added to the curriculum; today it’s music,” he said.

“Does the Ministry of Education genuinely see the importance of the arts as a cognitive and aesthetic value to be added to the makeup of the Saudi individual and which contributes to the improvement of the quality of life or is the motive behind this step only economic, meaning that it wants to open more career opportunities in various artistic fields, just like other knowledge areas?”

He added: “Implementing a theoretical plan requires a clear knowledge and insight into the reasons. Each reason leads to a completely different plan of action, whether at the levels of pedagogical content or teachers or academic environment as a whole.”

Dhaou said there is no need to proceed gradually to implement the plan. He said the phenomenon of the so-called religious prohibition of music is not new and that music has been demonised for decades but that has not affected most of society as attested by high attendance at concerts. Today, the religious establishment has a weaker and more limited presence and virtually no social weight when it comes to music.

Novelist Nada Al-Hayek said the announced cooperation would be a huge leap that will take Saudi Arabia to new levels in all fields.

However, she said the initiative, while encouraging, is going to clash with the rejection of the “revivalist ideology,” which is very present in the cultural and religious scene in the region and colours the perception of some individuals about including culture and the arts in the curriculum.

“The implementation of this cooperation between the two ministries unfortunately must still go through the blessings of the religious establishment that still prohibits music in schools,” said Hayek. “Barring that, students who love art would be living a conflict between their desire to study these arts, including music and the many fatwas and religious decisions that condemn this desire.

“It’ll be a long time before we start seeing the fruits of this decision. Even if we were to break the mantle of [conservative] thinking, we must provide schools with qualified educational staff and equip them with the appropriate buildings to ensure the desired outcome of the decision.”