Monday, 12 December 2011

Christmas Close To The Holy Land

We travel north through the desert past the camel souks for Book Club each Friday. Today we are singing carols and reading a special Christmas story. There will be mince pies and coffee to follow.  It’s only a fortnight till Christmas but in Saudi, Christmas doesn't happen. Today will be different.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Dos and Don'ts, Parisienne-style

This was written just before I left Paris; I've been back in Riyadh for a little while now.

Things I do like about Paris? That’s easy.

I like the way we head out early each morning to explore and it’s so cold that I pull my coat tightly around me. Then ten minutes of brisk walking later, I am suddenly toasty warm all over and loving the fresh autumn air in my face.

I love the old buildings. And the way that around every corner there is another church. They are stark silhouettes against a cold sky. Only the leaping gargoyles break the monotony of straight line and symmetry.

Friday, 11 November 2011

An escape to Paris

It’s Eid in Saudi. 

Eid is all about the time when Abraham showed his obedience to Allah by being prepared to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. Ishmael said “sure Dad”, but was fortunately spared by the appearance of a replacement goat. (Nope, not Isaac.) It follows hard on the heels of the Hajj pilgrimage. During the Hajj, millions of tourists arrive in Saudi from all over the world. They're coming for the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca that’s required of every good Muslim. 

So, whatever way you look at it, there’s an awful lot of religious journeying and celebrating going on. This in turn means that pretty much everything shuts down at this time across the Middle East.  Life in Riyadh is even more difficult than usual, and so we decided to take advantage of the week’s holiday to do some travelling of our own…to Paris.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Corniches and a Cautionary Chocolate Tale

Apart from the corniche – a long waterfront promenade –  Doha is not very  different from Riyadh.  The same tall buildings touch the same dust-hazed sky. Endless rows of huge cranes twist and turn, like partners in a dance.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Speeding, Bacon, and Playing Count the Camels - A Weekend In Bahrain

The prospect of a 3½ hour drive across the desert is not exciting. The landscape is only endless sand. It stretches to where the horizon meets a sky that is the same shade of yellow.

As we drove away from Riyadh for a weekend in Bahrain someone suggested a game of ‘Count the Camels.’ No one took the offer up. After a long day’s work, I, for one, was keener to sleep.

Our driver, Hasan, was a small man who crouched awkwardly over the Armada’s large steering wheel.  His round face, thick glasses and protruding top teeth reminded me of a childhood picture of the three blind mice.  Blind indeed.  At speeds of 170km he often veered alarmingly across the road.  Three speed cameras caught us as we flashed past. Cars, seeing us approach in rear vision mirrors, rapidly moved lanes.

None of us slept.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Carpet sellers, cosmetics, and the circle of life (minus Simba)

We’ve been to Deira quite a few times before.

But confidently assuming we’d find it easily this time may have been our first mistake. Leaving the map behind? Possibly our second. While it’s not always helpful (or accurate) at least it’s in English, which is more than the motorway and street signs.

Getting lost can be interesting, however. We discovered a whole backwater of colourful streets, including one that was full of toys. There were shop fronts decorated with balloons beside dusty alleyways, where the only modern thing was a random assortment of air conditioning outlets. The line of cars in front ground to a Saudi crawl. Interesting and "tempting" merchandise walked right in front of us. 

Just what any small Saudi lad would love for his birthday? Forget the Lego and the Playmobile.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A long way from Amsterdam


Shutters had just gone down in the Riyadh Gallery Mall and our shopping was over for the moment.  Time to find a place to sit, eat and wait out prayer time.

The Imam’s voice, calling the faithful, resonated into every corner. Impossible to shut out, and no point in even trying to have a conversation. I checked my watch: half an hour to go. Inshallah.

To our left a woman stopped to pray. She was facing away from us, but as she bowed and knelt, I caught a glimpse of lips moving silently. She was obviously facing Mecca, but what got me was how she worked this out with such apparent aplomb – one minute vertical with shopping bags, the next horizontal on the floor. 

Only a week ago I’d been in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Eastern Misadventures With A GPS (Part 2)

Next stop: Half Moon Bay, some 30km from Khobar.

Our otherwise-totally-out-of-date Lonely Planet guide said that this was a pleasant spot for expatriates, and the beach one of the most beautiful in the area.

Not quite. 

Monday, 6 June 2011

Eastern Misadventures With A GPS (Part 1)

There are very few old things left in Khobar city.  It used to be just a sleepy little port along the Persian Gulf; the end point for frankincense-carrying camels travelling from Yemen across the Saudi desert.

The discovery of oil in the 1930s changed all that. Almost overnight, Khobar became the centre of Saudi’s booming oil industry and the fastest growing city in Arabia.

From camel to Chrysler and from souk to skyscraper, all in one generation…

Monday, 16 May 2011

Saudi Cultural Festivals and Unexpected Instruments

About 45 kilometres outside Riyadh is a small village called JanadriyahFor two weeks every year, most of Riyadh heads out of the city. They travel through the desert, past the endless camel souks, until eventually they arrive at Janadriyah for the annual Cultural and Heritage Festival.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Lady laws and male lingerie attendants

Coming from New Zealand, I’m used to being independent. Driving to work each day, meeting friends for coffee, going to the movies.  It’s a good life.

But for women in Saudi, the very opposite is true. Life is one long list of ‘must nots’.

Saudi women cannot drive.

In fact, they cannot even get in a car or plane without the personal or written permission of a male relative. No room for any spontaneous flights of fancy. Not anywhere.

Only men work in Saudi.  

Well, more accurately, Saudi women only work on very rare occasions. And then, they must be physically separated from the potentially dire risk of contact with men, even to the point of having completely separate elevators.

But girls can be educated as far as university.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Muddled Bloodtest

Alexander and the Terrible Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day used to be a favourite book in our home. It finishes with, “Some days are like that, even in Timbuktu.”

I’ve just had an Alexander kind of day.

Until the muttawa appeared, lunch in the family section of the Faisailah food court was just fine. Muttawa are religious police. They enforce the Islamic dress code, separation of men and women, and prayer attendance. They patrol Riyadh and can appear pretty much anywhere, any time.

Faisailah Mall

Monday, 4 April 2011

"Slow For Camels" - Driving The Desert, a pictur(esque) essay

Over 95% of Saudi Arabia is desert of some description. Just beyond Riyadh’s high-rise city skyline, there it lies; stretching to the horizon. The other day we drove to Hidden Valley, found 80 km west of Riyadh. It’s a pass between the rocky Tuwaiq escarpment, running along the west side of Riyadh and leading into a valley known as Wadi Nissah.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Piano Concerts and Enthusiastic Droners; or, Must You Sing Along?

Yesterday evening we went to a concert.

It was Wednesday, which marks the beginning of our weekend. I’m still getting used to a Thursday and Friday weekend – and to a completely different calendar. Dates in Saudi are calculated from the year Mohammed emigrated to Medina, known as the Hijrah. Each numbered year is given either an H for Hijrah or an AH for the Latin anno Hegirae (in the year of the Hijrah).

Forget 2011. Yours truly is in 1432 AH, Islamically speaking.

Musical events are a rarity in Riyadh. Just like art, there is an edict, or fatwah, against music. The nearest thing is the call to prayer. Non-religious music is banned because it may stir emotions, which might then encourage non-Islamic behaviours.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Unpronounceable Names, Fountain 'Toilets', and People-less Artwork: A Visit to the Museum

Last Friday we visited the National Museum.

As with most trips in Riyadh, this was a carefully planned operation.

First we had to check when the museum was open for families (as opposed to just single men).  Then we had to work out where we were going. It’s impossible to rely on either maps or GPS. And there are the street names. Not only do street names have heaps of different spellings, they’re also exceedingly long and complicated. People tend to use simpler, informal names, or explain where places are by reference to landmarks.

Try remembering ‘Prince Saed Ibn Abdullah Al-Rahman Road’ when you want to give a taxi directions.  Or perhaps Prince Mohammed ibn Abdullah Aziz Street? No wonder it’s universally known as Tahlia Street.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Groceries, Rollercoasters and a Cheesecake Mission

Yup, that's a McArabia.

Grocery shopping in Riyadh is completely different from shopping at home. I used to walk down the road to my nearby Countdown, find what I wanted and head back.

For a start, no one walks here.

This has probably got something to do with the very long time it takes to get anywhere. It’s also got a lot to do with the driving. Riyadh drivers go whatever speed they like, wherever they like…including footpaths and median strips. You’d have to have a secret death wish to want to walk.

Today we piled into our four-wheel drive and headed off to Panorama Mall.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Five Go to Deira

Arriving at Diera, walking past Chop Chop Square and towards the souk.

I have always liked the idea of a day’s outing.

Today, along with four other women from our compound, I headed to Deira in the older part of Riyadh. Like Enid Blyton's Five who visited Dorset, none of us had much idea about the area we were visiting - which I suppose is what an adventure is all about...

We knew that somewhere in the area was a gold souk. We also knew that there would be pashminas for sale. There would also be a lot of other stuff that none of us would ever want to darken the doors of our homes with.

We went prepared. As well as the mandatory head-to-toe black, we also wore headscarves. The muttawa (religious police) had headquarters nearby and we were, after all, five western women on our own. In Riyadh it pays to be careful.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Celebrations here, sorrow there

A Mobily iPhone

Late one night a few weeks ago, a rather perplexing text came through on my phone.

On the occasion of the Custodian of the two Mosques’ return to the Kingdom, we would like to share our happiness on Mobily Network with FREE SMS Wednesday and FREE MMS Thursday.”

Turns out ‘The Custodian of the Two Mosques’ is the King, who's just returned after being out of the country for the last few months. This has been a signal for widespread happiness and celebration: free texts and a public holiday tomorrow, making a three day weekend.

A few nights later, at around the same time, I received another text. This one was from my daughter in Wellington. It said simply that Christchurch had been hit by another earthquake and that things looked really bad.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Wake Up Call

Passenger view. Ladies don't drive - though the mad roads would put me off it anyway.
I woke up this morning to the cries from a mosque just outside the walls of our compound calling the faithful to prayer. My compound – surrounded by thick walls and barbed wire – is the network of houses and flats where I live.

I guess I will get accustomed to the fact that every day here is regulated by calls to prayer and that the first is exceedingly early - 5 am. There are mosques everywhere. It's a little like our Kiwi corner dairies - though the comparison only stretches so far...

When they all start up, the volume level is quite something. It is probably only infidels like me who pull the covers over their heads and try to sleep on.

Yesterday I was invited out for lunch in the compound restaurant.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

A New Beginning

My husband has worked in Saudi for the last five years. About six months ago, I finally decided to join him. For many years I’ve been convinced I could never live in a society where women were so repressed. But oddly enough, I reached a point where I did feel ready to join him. I even felt mildly excited.

Odysseus faced one-eyed beasts and whirlpools. As a western woman, I too will have to navigate my way through a vastly different culture.

Encouraged by my family, I’ve decided to keep a blog. This is it.

Ironically, arriving in Saudi was more straightforward than leaving New Zealand.

The day had arrived. The house was let. I had successfully navigated the R--- visa application minefield (more medical tests than a jam donut has calories). Now here I was, bags packed and at the airport. Ready to go.

Or so I thought. I handed over my passport. As the woman behind the Singapore Airlines counter looked at my visa, I sensed her alarm. “I’ve never done one of these before,” she said. “It’s not a place many people go to.”

(R--- is unlikely to be on anyone’s list of ‘Top Ten Places to Visit Before You Die’. It’s certainly not on mine…)

She tried to decipher the information she needed for airline records from my visa’s largely Arabic script. In answer to her question about visa category and expiry date, I explained that mine was a residency visa. There was no expiry date. “It’s permanent,” I said, adding, ‘for ever’. I said this with an assurance I didn't really feel. Family farewells were just around the corner and 'for ever' was not something I wanted to think about.

Confused and making no headway despite my helpful interjections, she asked for help. Four others from adjacent counters joined her. There was lengthy discussion. I glanced nervously over my shoulder. No queue, fortunately.

At long last something was entered into the computer database that seemed to satisfy all those there. Thinking thoughts about patience and being long-suffering, I walked away, boarding pass firmly in my grasp.

Oh my goodness.