Heritage districts around the world are known to be meeting points between past and present, and Jeddah’s historic old city is no different, as residents find common ground with past and future generations over a cup of coffee.
The city’s downtown area, known as Al-Balad to the locals, has numerous homes dating back 200 and even 300 years.
Even after years of expansion and modernizing in Jeddah, residents still enjoy the company of neighbors, friends and strangers as they sit in one of the many coffee houses spread across the city, including Al-Balad.
Bakr Swailem Bazhair 28, who was having coffee with friends at Layali Tarikhiya (Historical Nights) cafe, told Arab News: “We came here as children, now we are coming here on our own, and in the future I plan to come here with my children.”
He said that as youngsters they visited Al-Balad every year during Ramadan to appreciate its beauty.
“Even if we are modernizing, we still miss this, so from time to time we come here to celebrate our past and our origins.”
Historical Nights cafe was originally a house that was renovated when Talal Shalabi, its current owner saw its potential and turned it into a cafe.
Shalabi, an antiques collector, has up to 450 items from his personal collection on display at the cafe.
He told Arab News that his antique collection and coffee is a mix that keeps people interested and willing to return.
“Fifty percent of these items are extremely rare. I have a deep love for this place. Whenever I travel, I miss coming here, and if I am here, I need to come every day,” he said.
Shalabi enjoys seeing young people come into the cafe and marvel at the rich tradition contained within the walls.
“I feel like Al-Balad was hidden from people. Now, with the efforts made by the government, I have 25- to 35-year-old Saudi residents coming here telling me it’s their first time visiting this area.”
Shalabi persevered through the first year after opening the cafe, but promotional programs and tourism visas have helped the place gain popularity.
Unfortunately, the pandemic affected the business. “Before COVID-19 the whole area felt like an open museum where everything was traditional and old. You could see the people selling traditional food and snacks, along with clothes and so much more.”
Arwa Ahmed Saif, a 28-year-old Yemeni who works at the cafe, said that she has spent much of her life in Jeddah, adding: “The soul of Al-Balad cannot be changed. The fact that Al-Balad remains unchanged is amazing to me.”
The historic area, with its cafes, shops and exhibitions, is growing in popularity among a younger generation who can see the richness that waits to be explored.
Other cafes such as Cafe Magad, Ahl Al-Balad, Hekaya, Merkaz Al-Sham and Catch are also drawing crowds.
Amina Abdullah, a 23-year-old visitor, said: “Al-Balad is so full of life. Every season here is celebrated here, the environment is very friendly and I love coming here.”
Amirah Naseem, 18, cycles to Al-Balad every day to drink coffee and explore the alleyways. “I like to explore cafes, I like places that have a story and Al-Balad is just so full of stories.”
The restoration of the historic downtown area has sparked debate among people who hold the city dear.
Bazhair said: “Al-Balad is becoming more and more organized, especially in the past few years, and I think that it is a very good change, because it allows us to see it in a new light.”
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