I allowed myself to be encouraged by my father that the talent I have has no market in India. He was convinced that it is the USA where my talents would bloom. My younger brother was already settled. That is the only open society where you will find good bearing, he had advised. I took off from India with a blind stroke of a straight bat, hoping to continue after one stop in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, putting my USA dream on hold.
Being a master’s scholarship student of Urban Planning in the New Delhi’s prestigious ‘School of Planning and Architecture’ SPA with Housing as specialization I was confident of doing something worthwhile. The SPA Director’s vision was to make everyone in the class of 35 the best after two years of the master’s programme completion. Prior to my departure I had my own office with a colleague of SPA and a teaching job in Jawaharlal Technological University in Hyderabad. But I found myself on a blind date.
Before I proceed, a brief SPA experience would add value to my sojourn.
In SPA I got embroiled with a senior student from my own state, Andhra Pradesh. After my admission in SPA in an all-India competition, I arrived on time and was ushered into a good room in the SPA hostel on the top floor on a first come first serve basis.
However, it was not liked by our state’s favored senior student who had come late. He kept harassing me to vacate the room for him. Since I was young and new, I felt restive and wanted to see the Director for my problem. Before I could meet the Director, the registrar briefed him about my case and gave me only 5 to 10 minutes to explain him and move out of his room.
The Director was very kind and explained to me that since I come from a ‘Hyderabadi type’ of soft background, I need to get adjusted in whatever way I could to continue my studies. He was aware that I was among the top five candidates from all over India. He narrated his experience of London School of RIBA regarding his own roommate who incidentally also was a Hyderabadi but shy and self-composed.
The major lesson he gave me was to be the best. He made me stand for more than an hour to listen to his doctrine of making the SPA students the best. I returned to my room and moved over to the ground floor.
After that episode my approach to life became thoroughly professional which helped me to be assertive up-front and result oriented. I was someone that did not look back. I always succeeded.
My foreign journey predicament
I landed in the coastal city of Jeddah for Hajj with only 2.5-pound sterling which the travel agent gave me before boarding. He had taken all documents signed in return of my travel documents that included my foreign exchange. I took a taxi to a handwritten address of a relative after cajoling the taxi man for one pound and eating a sandwich for another one. I was left with 50 shillings (5X10) coins, which is still with me among my heritage travel bags.
The initial first week I fulfilled all the sacred rituals and got dropped in the night near a Hajjis travel lodging. In the scramble of all that I misplaced the location paper of my relative. There was no place to stay. At the same time I had fallen sick. I took refuge in the travel lodge’s basement parking area. I visited the nearby government clinic where I was given a handful of multi-coloured tablets to take with meals. For food, I would walk by any group eating together to be invited. They were nice religious people. They would often ask me to join them for food. After a couple of days, I became weaker but as luck would have it, I manage to locate the residence of my relatives who lived around the corner.
I was sick for a couple of more days. Still I enquired about the address of the downtown where I had been told that numerous offices are located. Suffering with fever and weakness, I decided to look for the downtown. I took to the street with my meager projects’ portfolios. I had to find a job to survive. I entered a newly built office mall called the “Queen’s Building” and went through the ‘Building Office Inventory’. There were many engineering and construction offices in the list. That gave me hopes of finding some job. My desperation was such that I was ready to take up even the job of a typist if it was available. I entered one office that reflected its cosmopolitan image. There some men and women working together.
At the reception I enquired about an architect’s job opening. The young woman receptionist looked at me from top (shaven head) to bottom (very lean thin person). Surprisingly, she dared to say that I did not look like an architect. I was flustered. I rebutted in English that ‘I am not here for a beauty contest.’ She was not expecting such an answer from a walk-in job seeker.
She said sheepishly that the architect-owner of ‘IDEA Center’ would come in a few minutes and that I can be seated. Soon after a young, tall and handsome Saudi gentleman walked in his traditional attire and asked the receptionist in an American accent to clear the entrance as he was expecting an important client soon. He looked at me and asked, ‘Who is this’?
She told him that I was a job seeker. He advised her to clear the place and make me sit somewhere inside with the staff. I went inside and took an empty seat near the drafting board with a person working on it.
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SV Reservation Center, RDQ Sketch Perspective Concept sketch designed on the flight to Saudi Arabia.
It took a good amount of time. The Saudi gentleman barged in again to ask the person working on the drafting board to hurry up. He made three more visits every time making more noise. I stood up gently to see what exactly that person was doing and read the nicely drawn presentation. While sitting next to the drafting board, I took my pad and started sketching as it was my habit.
The owner came again and this time he snatched the drawing off the drafting board. For the next few seconds he saw the sketch I had worked on and asked directly, “What is this?’
I said, “It is my version of the assignment he had given to that gentleman.” He suddenly said it was fantastic and went on to ask me whether I could give him that sketch. I handed him over the sketch.”
He vanished again inside his office.
A few minutes later the same receptionist who had doubts about my looks came hurriedly towards me. She had a pad and pencil in hand. She asked for my needs to design the sketch as a project. She also asked in what time I can finish the design.
With my responses, I found something which I had not expected at all. I was immediately appointed to the job. I was told to start working from the next day. With the speed of turn of events, I was in a shock.
Was this real or a dream? I asked myself.
The answer was no it was not. It was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia running with lightening speed to become one of the most happening countries in the world.
I also ended up asking myself. Was it the way Saudi Arabia worked? Or was it my sheer luck?
Perhaps I was at that place at the right time.
I took it as a great opportunity and called my beginning there as ‘Instant Architecture’. My professional climb thereafter was based on the brand I subconsciously created as ‘Instant Architecture’, like instant tea which was getting marketed at that time. Ready to share and give architectural designs at any given situation. On hearing the requirements in any form my hand will start sketching the design as required.
SV HQ Bldg Jeddah KSA My Concept hand sketch design – Winning entry SV HQ Model
I owe appreciation of my work to my father who was the real super-visionary. He understood my potential and advised me to pursue my talents outside of India.
With a quirk of fate my architectural designs now grace great metropolises of India, the Middle East, Europe, and USA.
The self-belief helped me to design great architectures by traveling around the world in search of my identity.
In recent days I have given up active architectural design passion on persuasion of my children who proclaimed, “Enough is enough. You are not getting any younger.” They demanded that I spend more time with them. And that is what I am doing now.
The article is a biographical narrative of Zahyr Siddiqi, a Hyderabad- born architect and urban planner who made his fortune in the Kingdom Saudi Arabia. He now lives in Chicago, IL, USA.