About 45 kilometres outside Riyadh is a small village called Janadriyah. For 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.
We joined the seething crowd last evening. We were just inside the gates, wondering where to go first, when an elderly thobe-clad Saudi gentleman noticed our confusion.
Offering us his map, he said almost conspiratorially, “I’d like to show you around myself, but she,” nodding wryly in the direction of his abaya-clad wife, “wouldn’t like it.” We smiled, muttered our appreciation and looked down at our maps.
At Janadriya there was a sense of hospitality and friendliness that I'd not so far experienced. Only last week, I crossed paths with a Saudi woman as we both headed for the fruit and veges in Carrefour. As she swept past me, she hissed audibly. But here we were constantly asked to pose for photos with Saudis who genuinely wanted to talk to us. They asked where we were from - “No, I am not from America.” - and suggested what was worth visiting next. There was a lot to consider. There were replica heritage buildings from different provinces and colorful market places where it seemed that almost anything was on sale; even cowboy hats if one so desired.
I had to smile at the man selling model boats. I could see that there might be a market for these somewhere like Jeddah, but in land-locked Riyadh?
We watched as our names were translated into Arabic script and hand carved intricately onto a small oval brass stamp. Just 40 SAR (about NZ$13).
We walked past a 'queue' of Saudi women, but just what they were waiting to buy was impossible to see.
In another market area, local produce was for sale; sandals, dates, colourful spices, perfume, Arabic bread…
Right next door, children gathered in front of less authentic and largely plastic festival trivia.
Around a corner, we saw a comic enactment of a classroom. Small boys with slates recited the Koran. Every so often, someone would make a mistake and be dragged up for a make-believe ‘beating’. We joined in with the laughter.
Processions wound their way through the crowd and I must admit that as I got caught up in one, I wondered about the sharpness of the swords that were recklessly brandished in the air. I'm guessing, pretty sharp.
Traditional craftsmen demonstrated a raft of arts and crafts. And for children, there was an equestrian centre, and camel and donkey rides.
When I'd first heard of Janadriyah, I wondered how such a thing as a cultural festival could exist in Saudi with it's ultra-conservative approach to the arts. However, we did see local crafts, and we did observe dances and drama. All performed by men of course, and the dancing had more to do with tribal rivalry than grace or elegance. I hear that Saudi women dance beautifully – but their's is a different stage.
Our visit was full of surprises, from genuine Saudi friendliness to the energy of dance and drama and I loved the whole experience. But the best and most unexpected surprise came last. Out of nowhere: a procession of Saudi bagpipers.