History is happening in Saudi Arabia right now — but I’m not referring to the feminist presence at the Rio Olympics.
I’m talking about an ancient cultural and literary festival called the Sooq Okaz, which basically turns the country into a giant poetry fest for 10 days each year.
These days, it comes with hashtags.
The event was born about 1,500 years ago—and still looks like an Arabian Nights film set. But it has been catapulted into the present with a new reliance on social media as it tries to connect with millennials hooked on Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.
“It isn’t merely a reenactment of the past, but it is a way to transport the best parts of the country’s history and build upon that with our modern technology,” the official website says in Arabic.
In pre-Islamic times, tribal men would journey to the festival in the western region of Saudi Arabia on horses or camels and bring their goods with them — both to sell, and to recite. Intellectuals and merchants may have come for the spice market and a chance to exchange news, but they stayed for the famous poetry contest. (Keep in mind that most of the population was illiterate at the time, so oral recitation was the best way for influencers to measure their talent—and following.)
Today, Arab influencers still collect massive followers, online. And instead of lugging around heavy clay tablets, visitors are writing with their fingertips on smartphones.
The host of the festival’s official Snapchat account is an enthusiastic Saudi Millennial who talks straight into the camera, informing viewers of what to expect that day.
“Today, we will take a stroll around the grounds and watch some oral history come to life. You can park your car in this area, to avoid the crowds. Come with me,” he said on a recent day at the Sooq, which is scenically situated north of the mountainous city of Taif.
In Saudi Arabia, an ancient cultural and literary festival called the Sooq Okaz basically turns the country into a giant poetry fest for 10 days each year. These days, it comes with hashtags.
Saudi Arabia’s median age is 28, and they are increasingly tech-savvy and connected. Saudi Snapchat users are ranked as the second worldwide and are the seventh in terms of global social media users, according to Arab News. Not to be outsnapped, the official Twitter account has been updating the schedule daily to its 55.6k followers, and Instagram users have been constantly sharing photos during the festival, which ends Friday. Although the official website’s Instagram account has a modest following, the official Arabic hashtag has about 22,699 posts on the app—and is growing.
The modern festival traces a direct line back to ancient times, when the “best poet” from each tribe would be selected to represent the family. That “chosen one” would then engage in a poetry slam of sorts, called Zajal. Each poet would deliver words of praise to his people—while eloquently, and slyly, demolishing all other tribes with just words. Spectators would cheer or boo. Then the next person would do the same until they all had their say. The event is credited for refining the Arab language as a whole, because it formalized the rules of grammar and syntax.
The fun and puns were eventually silenced around 736 AD by a powerful group called the Khawarij, who were keen on destroying cultural events and art that conflicted with their view of Islam. ISIS is often described to be the reincarnation of the 7th century group; the modern-day extremists have been actively destroying preserved art, such as demolishing what was left of the ancient city wall at Nineveh in Iraq.
In 2006, the Sooq returned. This year, about 558 contestants participated from 20 countries in categories such as Arabic calligraphy, digital photography, folk dance, painting and innovation. Prizes for fiction and entrepreneurship were introduced for the first time this year.
And the prizes aren’t shabby. The most prestigious awards are for the Sooq Okaz Poet, which went to a Jordanian with a cash prize of $79,860, and the Okaz Young Poet, which went to a Saudi, with a cash prize of $26,668—in addition to bragging rights and other tokens. The festivities and the 10 prize categories are heavily supported by the Emir of Makkah, who initiated the Sooq’s revival, and was organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.
The award ceremony for each of those was documented widely on social media, where the audience snapped or tagged their experiences from the theater.
From recording the spontaneous reactions of visitors or filming short interviews from local vendors specializing in traditional crafts, the smartphone has become the window into that corner of the country. Snapchat stories show men wearing costumes which reflect the attire and attitude of the time, as children and adults witness the reenactments of war and poetry battles at a time before Islam came to light.
The Sooq is now a family-friendly event, where men and women mingle freely within the grounds from 4:00 pm until 10:00 pm, local time. In keeping with the cultural norm at such public events, there are men-only and women-only sections in the intimate group seminars and workshops. Vendors of either gender can sell.
The official website states that 26,100 people visited the 2015 festivities. This year, they’ll need to add the number of fingers scrolling the feed on social media.