Monday, 19 December 2016

A Farewell to Saudi Arabia

I came for a year and now, six years later, I’m leaving. So this morning, as I breakfast outside our villa in the quiet green of the compound, I wonder how best to capture the essence of my life here in just a few words. It’s much more than having to wear an abaya and headscarf whenever out of the compound, something I hated with a passion when I first arrived. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Living Simply in Cyprus

Red dragonflies hover above the water. In the distance, beyond the pool, the land undulates. There are plantings of olive trees and I can hear early morning roosters. 

After last week’s hectic schedule, up at 6.30am and back to our hotel each evening about 6.00pm, our plan now is to relax. And this place is perfect. We are in a small guesthouse in the little village of Maroni, just a short drive from Larnaca airport. Some days we venture out, but on others, we’re happy to simply enjoy the cool and calm of this beautiful spot. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

Starting with Petra: Two Days in Jordan

Farouk meets us after breakfast. He’s going to be our guide for the next two days. As we walk towards the Siq, the path through the gorge into Petra, he tells us about himself. “I’m one of sixteen children,” he says. “My father is a Bedouin, he still lives in the desert.” We listen as he carries on. One thing we learn very quickly about Farouk is that he does a good monologue. “I was the only one in my family to leave the desert and move into the city. I went to Jordan University.”  Some time later, after stories of childhood hospital visits, a random meeting with King Hussein, and the eucalyptus trees he’s planted in his garden so everyone can see where his house is, we reach the end of the Siq. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

A Dress from the Souk

This is a story of Riyadh as it was many years ago. It's set in Souk Hiraj, an open air market running either side of Thumairi Street in the centre of old Diera.

Spencer W Tart, Watercolour Print, Ladies' Market, Middle East Art

At Souk Hiraj, Bedouin women sit cross-legged on the ground under large umbrellas. Second hand dresses are piled beside them and fall untidily out of old tin trunks. Scattered among the jumbled clothing are traditional jewellery and face masks decorated with beadwork, fringes, woven bands and coins. The air is filled with the distinctive fragrance of small bunches of basil, rosemary and jasmine, tucked into women’s dresses and held in place under headdresses. Behind the ladies’ market, goats and sheep wait noisily in pens to be sold. Still further along Thumairi Street is the men’s market where almost everything imaginable is for sale: thobes, bishts, old swords, guns, miswak. Cries of “Taille, taille,"  fill the air, each vendor trying to out-shout his neighbour and convince all and sundry that his wares are the best and the cheapest. There are children everywhere. Boys and girls play soccer with an old tin can. The roads are pot-holed and muddy and the dust covers everything.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Egypt's Aswan Sharia as-Souk - Everything you Ever Wanted and More Besides

After our cruise we stopped in Aswan. Aswan’s in an area of upper Egypt bordering Sudan, known as Nubia. We stayed in the Old Cataract Hotel, the very place where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. The hotel had a wonderful colonial feel to it and was a great base for further exploring. First we went to the old souk, which felt similarly steeped in the past. Here’s our afternoon visit.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter, Here and There

Today is Easter Sunday. However we live in Saudi Arabia where Easter is not recognized, and so this weekend has been exactly like every other weekend. But before my husband left for work this morning, we sent each of our three children a traditional Easter greeting, The L is risen, and then received back the expected response, “He is risen indeed. The L’s name be praised.”  You see, Easter's always been a very special part of our family life. Even in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Jeddah and a Walk around Al Balad

From Riyadh to Jeddah is an hour and a half by plane. By car it’s a full day’s journey. Travelling by camel as the ancient Nabateans did would take a couple of weeks. We flew, and as soon as we stepped off the plane we noticed the humidity, so very, very different from Riyadh. 

Jeddah's a port on the Red Sea and is  believed to have been founded as a fishing village in 522 BC by the Quda’a tribe. This nomadic people travelled from Yemen, choosing eventually to settle in the Makkah region of Arabia.  In the first century AD it became a post on the Nabatean trade route. Camel caravans from Yemen would stop at Madain Salah and then Jeddah, laden with spices, frankincense and myrrh. The derivation of Jeddah is Jaddah, which is  Arabic for grandmother. The tomb of the Biblical Eve, the grandmother of everyone, is meant to lie in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Al Balad, Jeddah’s old city. So many stories and so much colour.

Friday, 5 February 2016

When the Whanau Visits… the Familiar, the Exciting and the Unexpected

Where Al Musmak was the familiar and the falconry display was the exciting, our weekend trip to Ar Raghbah and Ushayqr was the unexpected. We’d done this road trip three years ago, and had really happy memories of the day, so decided we’d go again with our son and a group of friends. There were some certainties to the day: a picnic, a small museum to explore, desert vistas and an old watch tower to climb. Well, that was the plan. Our first stop was Ar Raghbah, 120 km northwest of Riaydh. This mud brick village was established in 1669 and although small and unprepossessing, it’s very significant historically. It was one of the targets in 1817 during the invasion of the Najd by Turks under Ibraheem Pasha. I remembered the cylindrical Al Marqab Tower, with its small slit windows, and the spiral staircase that led to an outlook point so small, two people could barely stand side by side. Sadly I'd not made it to the top. Only a few steps away, I’d turned back, claustrophia getting the better of me. But here’s what we remembered. Something that looked like this.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

When the Whanau visits.... Arabic Falcons

Shortly after we’d arrived in Saudi, I made a list of the three things I wanted to do most before we returned to New Zealand. The first was visiting the ancient Nabatean trading post of Madain Saleh. Done. The second was seeing a traditional Arabic falconry display. The third, and probably most simple, was spending an evening in the desert enjoying a traditional Arabic meal around an open fire under a starry night sky. I decided that the second of these would be an ideal activity to organise while my son was visiting. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

What to do When the Whanau visits Riyadh: the Familiar, the Exciting and the Unexpected

First up was the familiar, well for me at least, not so much for my son who’s been the visiting whanau. Our destination was Al Musmak, the old fort beside Diera Souk that overlooks Riyadh’s infamous Chop Chop Square. Historically the fort's important because it represents the creation of Saudi Arabia. In 1902 the young Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud returned from exile in Kuwait and in a fierce and heroic battle reclaimed the fort from the occupying rival Al Rashid family. It's just outside the fort's entry gate that the battle took place. This gate is a very imposing 3.6 by 2.7 metres and as we walked through I pointed out to my son the spear tip embedded in the door, thrown by one of Al Saud's men. The fort's a traditional Najd mud brick construction with four conical towers and very thick walls. The walls are a deliberate design feature, they keep the fort cool in summer and warm in winter. The tall ceilings allow the hot air to rise to where small windows pull the air out. 

Inside we stopped by the Diwan, the King’s sitting room. This is a large rectangular room with traditional seating. It was here that we were greeted by two impeccably dressed Saudi gentlemen in traditional white thobes and red guthra. “Are you part of the visiting Finnish delegation?” they asked. I looked at my son’s black hair and tanned olive complexion and smiled. “No,” I said and then explained that we were not Finnish but rather New Zealanders: I was living here and my son visiting. 

It was quiet and pleasantly cool as we wandered through the labyrinth of rooms and passage ways. Al Musmak’s as much museum as fort, and we constantly stopped to take in both the displays and the architecture. I liked the sparse geometric designs along walls, the pattern of shadows across stone floors, and the old wooden doors, each one  different. 

We stopped for a photo beside the Be Careful Well. “How could you not with a name like that,” my son said to me, smiling. I discovered a photo of Gertrude Bell taken in 1916 with King Abdul Aziz and Sir Percy Cox. We saw photos of Riyadh in the late nineteen forties when it was little more than a large village, all mud streets and ramshackle dwellings. So many changes and so much progress in such a short time. 

Engrossed in conversation, we stopped by the Diwan on our way out for one last glance. One of the men who’d greeted us earlier came over. It seemed the Finnish delegation had still not arrived. “You can go in,” he said pushing the cordon preventing tourist access, to one side.  We smiled and entered cautiously, wishing to make the most of the experience but not wanting to overstep his generosity. However the hospitality continued, with Arabic tea arriving and being served as we reclined comfortably. “Just wait, “ I said to my son, “there’ll be dates coming next.” We accepted the first cup and a second. However when the third arrived we politely declined, knowing, as we walked back to our bus, that we had an hour long trip ahead of us back to our compound, and in this country, comfort stops were not an option.