Mona al-Saudi (1945-2022): The Sculptor Who Befriended Stone and Challenged Traditions

Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala
Mona Saudi, photographed by Lawrie Shabibi.

Ensconced in her garden of stone and statues, Jordanian poet, artist, and sculptor Mona al-Saudi has always been connected to the earth around her. She spent her earliest years playing amidst the ruins of the Roman Nymphaeum near her home in Amman, enamored with the geometric forms. Staring at the towering structures, her mind wandered to the more existential questions of life from a young age. “I would leave my little friends to play with the statues, converse with them, contemplate their folds, and I felt that they were silent creatures full of life… These legendary archaeological sites gave me the feeling of man’s ability to create great works that remain for eternity. And that is how my dreams began,” she said, as cited by Ghazi Anayem in Thaqafat. This love of heritage and history followed her wherever she went, inspiring all her creations for years to come. She told Gulf News, “Our house was only three meters away, and when I opened the door of my house, I could step into the Nymphaeum, with its Roman baths, columns, and scattered sculptures all over. These were literally historical stones. And I used to play in these ruins. That is why I belong to this kind of era, which I feel endures.”
Mona Saudi passed away on February 16 at 76 years old from cancer. Her death was announced by her daughter, the fine artist Dia al-Battal, who wrote: “With the heaviest heart, I share that my beautiful mama, sweetest grandmother and extraordinary artist, Mona Saudi, has left us last night in her beloved city Beirut. Words fail me beyond this.” She will be buried in Amman in her family’s cemetery. Saudi was known as a fierce supporter of Palestine, Arabism, and freedom, a companion of poets and many Lebanese intellectuals and artists, and one of the greatest Arab sculptors. Above all, she immersed herself in her passion for her work and captured an air of mystery and a deep connection to nature in her stone sculptures. “I live among the stones; I scatter them around me until I have a small space in my house in Beirut to move around,” she said, as cited by Hala Kawsarani in the Arabic Vogue.
Saudi was born in Amman, Jordan, in 1945 into a conservative religious family. Her mother was from Syria, and her father’s family was originally from Hejaz before settling in Amman. She had six sisters and two brothers. From a young age, she developed a fascination with literature and the arts, a love that was nurtured by her older brother Fathi, who read her the writings of Gibran Khalil Gibran and told her the story of Gilgamesh. Through him, she learned about the occupation of Palestine and the refugees, making her a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause in later years (a position that was also bolstered through the influence of her aunt, a refugee from Gaza). Fathi’s death in 1953 when she was 10 years old changed her worldview, giving her an understanding and urgency that time must be used wisely, according to ArtForum.
The young Saudi quickly devoted herself to fulfilling her dreams, yearning to attend an art college. She attended Zain Al-Ashraf School during her primary years, and in high school, she made her first attempts at writing and drawing. Saudi was a voracious reader and frequent visitor to Amman’s British Council library, absorbing all the poetry and literature that she could. One of her earliest influences was Colin Wilson’s book “The Outsider,” through which she became acquainted with the works of H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many others who “left a profound impact on the formation of human culture,” as she is cited by Mohammed Hujeiri in Al Modon. “For me, this was the discovery of a global way of thinking,” she said in Aramco. She was attracted to Buddhist philosophy while also inspired by the rich histories of the Ammonites, Edomites, and the Nabataeans. As she studied, she began making plaster figures, reading modern art and poetry, and seeking out pictures, paintings, and statues, dreaming of distant cities, museums, and artists, according to Thaqafat. She dreamed of traveling beyond Jordan’s borders.
Unfortunately, her father opposed and forbade her from her dream of pursuing art university. Saudi, only 17 years old at the time, ran away from her home in Amman and found herself in Beirut, a cultural and progressive hotspot at the time, staying at a youth hotel in Corniche Al Mazraa. She wanted to attend school in Paris, where a high school diploma was not required to enroll in the College of Fine Arts, determined to “not waste a year of her life in order to obtain a high school certificate,” in her words, according to Nawal Al-Ali in Al Akhbar. Her older brother Hani, who was staying in Beirut and supported her dream, convinced her to complete her high school education in Lebanon, and she graduated from the National Boarding School provided by the Egyptian school system in Aley. 
Beirut was the first stepping-stone to achieving her dreams, opening many doors for the young artist. There, she met some of the most prominent poets, artists, and intellectuals of the age. Her friend, the late poet Onsi Hajj, recalled their meeting fondly, as cited by Nawal al-Ali in Al Akhbar: “A girl with curly hair on her head, and a sharp but deep look at the same time, stormed the celebration of Shi’r Magazine in Beirut in the 60s without being invited to it. She approached Al-Hajj, Youssef Al-Khal, and Adonis reverently and introduced herself as if she was accustomed to this atmosphere. Thus began a friendship that brought together adolescence with great poets and continued for a lifetime.”
Shi’r magazine and the influence of its contemporary Arab poets connected Saudi to Arab literary traditions, inspiring her to write her own poetry, according to Aramco. In fact, poetry would become an inspiring force behind her craft for years to come.

In Beirut, Saudi also met her friend, the late Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian, who helped her organize her first exhibition in the Cafe de la Presse in the old An-Nahar newspaper building in 1963. She used the money she earned to fund her long-awaited trip to Paris. After taking her high school exams in Egypt and spending a month in Cairo, she set off for France.

The journey to Paris itself became one of Saudi’s most treasured experiences. She traveled by sea over the course of seven days and arrived in Paris in February 1964. When she arrived, she sent a letter to her father. She said in an interview with Vogue, “Although my father was a religiously observant person, he loved to travel and was open-minded, so he understood me, but he asked me to go back to Amman at the first opportunity so that I would not seem to have broken his word and that he would personally drive me to the airport on the way back to Paris. Since then, I have taken my complete freedom in life and relied completely on myself. Freedom is taken, not given.” 
In Paris, Saudi sought out her friend, the painter and sculptor Halim Jurdak whom she met in Beirut, who helped her find lodgings at a cheap hotel and brought her to the School of Fine Arts. She participated in the competition and was accepted, earning 4th place — a great surprise to her, as it was her first time dealing with sculpture, according to Thaqafat. The school’s curriculum was based on studies of the human body, and it was here that the foundations of Saudi’s craft were developed. She began to experiment with sculpting and drawing living models and ancient statues. According to Thaqafat, Saudi discovered the “relationship between human nakedness and nature, between the human body and the body of the earth; she learned that man is the center of the universe and in the human body are secrets and principles of movement, composition, fullness, emptiness, symmetry, light, shade, and shades of color.”
 “I decided to sculpt the shapes that I was drawing, and everyone who saw them said they were sculptural. I remember that I had visited Michel Basbous in the village of Rachana and was enchanted by this world,” she said in Vogue (more about Michel Basbous and the Basbous family can be read in Al Jadid, “Alfred Basbous (1924-2006): Legacy of Three Brothers Turns Lebanese Village of Rachana into a Global Center of Sculpture” by Nancy Linthicum in Vol. 11, No. 52, Summer 2005). 
Saudi was greatly influenced by the works of the leftist Chilean artist Mata and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), specifically his desire to sculpt “not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.” She created her first sculpture, “Mother/Earth,” in 1965, a curvaceous form carved out of a block of limestone. In the words of Aramco, “It clearly announced themes and preoccupations that would mark Saudi’s career: The embrace-like interaction of spheres within semi-circles, her ability to draw organic, curvaceous warmth out of cold stone, and her expression of an inner, quintessentially female energy.”
Saudi told Asharq al-Awsat, “Sculpture is an embodiment of poetry, saying what is not said, touching what is not touched. It is silent speech, movement in stillness, revelation, and secret, flying without wings, mixing the cosmic with the earthly, bringing time into space, weaving holiness by re-formation and communication with the unseen.” She found in sculpture a “search in the form and infinite generation because the possibilities of formation are infinite,” and thus imbued her sculptures with motifs dealing with beauty, the senses, tolerance, serenity, purity, and the human form. She did not enjoy “screaming” in art, avoiding direct expressionism, sculptures that distorted the human form, or tragedy.
She was well known for her love of abstraction and connection to it through the region she grew up in. “We have been poets for thousands of years; our mind is abstract. This is evidenced by the ancient sculptures — the Nabatean sculptures in Jordan and the Sumerian and Egyptian statues, all of which are abstract works compared to Greek sculptures, which seemed for a specific period an imitation of the Egyptian sculpture transformed into realistic forms. In Europe until the early 20th century, even Rodin carved out what they derived from reality. The first to break this pattern in the West was Brancusi,” she said in an interview with Vogue.
Since “Mother/Earth,” she has consistently returned to the same shapes for her later works, or in her words, embodying the same “spirit,” according to Vogue. “My sculptures take a lot of forms, and when I sculpt, I don’t think of the meaning; I think of composition, how to create the sculpture, and then I give it a meaning or a title that is key.” Her forms are reminiscent of Mesopotamian art, ancient Egyptian sculptures, and the early stages of classical Greek art, while the titles of her works center on themes of the earth and women, the relationships between mass and emptiness, fertility and richness, and the continuity of form, as cited by Thaqafat.
Saudi’s works tended to revolve around certain themes throughout her career, exploring human meanings, dualities, and the essence of existence. “Al-Saudi had watery hands, but we know that it can break a rock when water flows hard. The artist chose the feminine body as a main theme for her sculptural project. Many consider it an example of motherhood. But it may also be more than that: of all manifestations of transience, the human body is the weakest and shortest to exist on earth, and is also the primary source of joy, pain, and truth,” in the words of Nawal al-Ali article in Al Akhbar.
“I do not classify myself as a sculptor or painter and calligrapher, but I see myself in it all. My works are me, bearing my mark and my thoughts. Since I was young, I painted, shaped, sculpted, and during half a century of professional art I have explored its different ways. I loved sculpting, its difficulties and challenges, and how to adapt the difficult rocky material, especially the colored marble, to formulate my philosophy and ideas about life, motherhood, earth, and existence. I was greatly influenced by the earth, pregnant with stones, so I was inspired by it so that sculpture became an act of faith in what I do for myself. Others may look forward to the physical labors of carving and the rigors of its tools, hammer, chisel, and electrical equipment, but for me, it's different. The hammer is the hammer of the soul, and the chisel is the chisel of creativity and manifestation, and by means of them I continue and soar,” she said, as cited by Khaled Sameh in Al Destour Newspaper.
Her time in Paris proved a turning point not just for her own life but the lives of her sisters. After a year in Paris, Saudi returned to Amman and found that the bold pursuit of her dream set a precedent for the other women in her family. “The women in our family, if they finished their school years, were expected to continue their studies at the Teachers' Home to work in education. But a year passed, and I returned from Paris to Amman, and I learned that someone was studying in Moscow, someone was completing her education in Paris, and I found someone who worked in radio and television,” she told Vogue.
 In 1967, the summer after the Arab Defeat, she traveled to Carrara, Italy, to study sculpting techniques, and learn to use the chisel, pneumatic hammer, mechanical cranes, and how polish marble. She also met many sculptors who likewise came to this “city of marble” to study from across the world, according to Thaqafat. 
Saudi’s return to Paris in 1968 to finish her studies coincided with the student demonstrations that broke out across France in May. She actively participated in the protests, handing out posters and standing alongside her fellow students. The protests lasted around two months and deeply impacted her political, cultural, and social awareness in a way that she herself did not expect, as she revealed in a 2019 interview on the podcast “Created a Girl,” cited by Al Akhbar. The events inspired her to seek out places she could directly help, closer to her own home. After graduating, she returned to Amman in the fall of 1968 to work with the children at the Baqa’a Palestinian camp. “It was a great experience. I was not teaching, but just letting them express themselves,” she said to Gulf News. In Thaqafat, she stated, “I had a deep desire to return to the homeland to be part of a movement for change in a society whose fabric I am part of…and that the country to which I belong needs to participate in its transformations.”
Saudi dedicated this chapter of her life to the Palestinian cause, both artistically and politically. She created her sculpture “Fertility” (1968) of overlapping blocks, representing the “permanent birth of the Palestinian Arab people,” according to Thaqafat. She also became a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, her political association with the group brought some complications. In the summer of 1969, while on tour for one of her exhibitions, she was arrested in Copenhagen alongside two companions, one a fellow member of the Popular Front and another a student she had met in Sweden, under accusations of plotting the assassination of the former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The accusations, though unfounded, led to the cancellation of her exhibitions in Denmark, Holland, and Sweden, and she returned to Beirut by the end of June.
Saudi did not shy away from expressing politics in her craft. She completed paintings of a political nature, albeit indirectly, touching on the Palestinian cause and the Lebanese Civil War. She worked professionally with the PLO throughout the 1970s, creating several posters that focused on the centrality of land in her expression of Palestine. She also published her first book, “In Time of War: Children Testify” (1970), based on her experience at the Baqa’a camp. She said in Gulf News, “It was the first book in the world whereby you can explain a difficult situation through children’s drawings. It was a huge success all over the world. I think there were at least 10 films that were made out of this experience.” In 1979, she also painted a billboard entitled “The Land Gives Her Children” to support the camps' children.
Through the 70s, Saudi reunited with her old friends Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis. She had reconnected with Darwish after learning he had left Palestine to study in Moscow in 1970, sending him letters and a copy of her book “In Time of War.” Upon his return to Beirut, she, Darwish, and Adonis, along with several other friends, often gathered at her house to share poetry and listen to Umm Kulthum’s music, according to Arab News. These meetings continued until 1982. Her love of poetry remained a steadfast inspiration behind her craft. “She remained a poet while she was painting, which gave her that hardness in softening the types of stones, and giving them a deep symbolic dimension,” in the words of Sawsan al-Abtah in Asharq al-Awsat. In fact, poetry by Darwish, Adonis, and Onsi al-Hajj inspired much of her art. She completed a series of silkscreens that intersected with their work: “The Lover’s Tree,” “The Earth Poem,” “That’s Her Picture and This Lover,” and “A Salute to Mahmoud Darwish” (the last of which was a collaboration with her daughter Dia al-Battal in tribute to the poet after his passing). She also made special illustrations for literary works by the late Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972) and Mo’in Bseisu (1926-1984).
Mona Saudi remained in her house in downtown Beirut and later in Mechref, Mont Lebanon, even during the civil war, remaining devoted to her work despite the danger. Located near the Holiday Inn, her earlier home was situated in one of the hardest-hit areas, and some of her works were destroyed by bombs that went off in her garden. She told Vogue in an interview, “I remember hearing the sounds of shelling while I was busy with my work, so I resorted to using the machine that makes a strong noise, ignoring the sounds of the shells to eliminate my fear.”
She continued to sculpt throughout the attacks and in 1981 completed her first large-scale sculpture, “Variations on the Letter Nῡn,” a marble piece that embodied Saudi’s “preoccupation with the embrace-like dialogue of line and sphere,” in the words of Aramco. In 1982, Saudi had no choice but to flee to Amman for safety after the Israeli invasion of Beirut, opening a studio there to continue her work. Many of her works were unfortunately destroyed in Lebanon’s civil war, but “Variations” survived and was later transferred, settling in the garden of the French embassy in Amman in 2003. Like “Variations,” several of her works found homes in Paris. “Woman/Bird” (1975) was selected by the director of the Museum of the Arab World Institute in Paris for the museum’s collection in 1986, and “The Geometry of the Soul” (1987) — Saudi’s best-known work, according to some — was also donated by Jordan to the Arab World Institute.
 In 1996, three years after receiving Jordan’s National Honorary Award for the Arts from King Hussein, Saudi returned to Lebanon, where she remained. She spent the next decade teaching at the American University of Beirut and participating in some exhibitions. More than anything, she created art for herself. “I work for the satisfaction of my existence first and do not think of others as to likes and dislikes. That's why I don't do many exhibitions, and I prefer to spend my time working,” she said in Vogue. She sculpted several works since her return to Lebanon, including “City” (2001), which was inspired by the writings of the Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino, “Evolution” (2002), and her yellow marble “Seed” (2007) series, among others. Saudi also published three books throughout her life aside from “In Time of War,” including two poetry books, “A First Vision” (1970) and “The Ocean of Dreams” (1993), and her memoir, “Forty Years of Sculpture” (2007).
Saudi married journalist Hassan Battal and with him had a daughter, Dia Battal, who survives her. However, though married, she lived alone, dedicated to her work and workspace. She said in Vogue, “My sculptures are reductive, emphasizing and reductive; my relationships with people are also reductive, as my work requires me to be alone. I don’t have time for socializing, and I don’t really like to gossip or meddle in other people’s lives. I feel like I’ve accomplished a small part of what I should have accomplished, and when I stand in front of a stone for the first time to start working on it, I feel like I’m sculpting for the first time.”
Mona Saudi spent the days of her youth charging headfirst towards her dreams, not wanting to squander a single moment. After living her life surrounding herself with her passions, she, alongside her craft, has grown considerably since then. “My work emphasizes ideas of growth, fertility, and formation, and overall all that is alive and positive in life. I don’t think about the passage of time. Since I was eighteen, and I am now 73, I do not hide my age, and I do not think about the issue of getting old…I feel like I am living outside of time,” she told Vogue. Just like their creator, the vast amounts of paintings, poetry, and sculptures she leaves behind will continue to share the same timelessness.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid