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Friday, March 1, 2013

Return to the Kingdom, Part II

**For this post's title, I seriously considered some pun of "Return of the Jedi" and "Jeddah." I refrained, and you're welcome.**
Souq Sharq at dusk
Some Concerns

I spent last weekend in Saudi Arabia.  I left my final Wednesday class early to go pack a bag, head to Dubai International Airport, and board Saudia flight 551 to Jeddah, KSA.  I travelled with Jeed, a Saudi friend from my university (or "uni" as people here abbreviate) with the plan of staying with him and his family for four nights.  Overshadowing the apparent simplicity of this plan were a number of potential issues.  First, my visa was of questionable authenticity.  Although my Saudi visa was issued for 90 days with multiple entries, but the sponsor of our visit, the Saudi Ministry of Education, did not issue our visas with the intention of us returning after leaving the Kingdom in early December, so there was always the possibility that my visa got cancelled upon my exit.  There is a website for checking the validity of Saudi visas, which actually listed my number as invalid, leading me to visit the Saudi consulate in Dubai for some confirmation that I was in the clear.  Regardless of their reassurance, I was still nervous about being questioned about my return and not being allowed into Jeddah.

Second, the very act of travelling and staying with a man I'm not related to could cause major problems and could even get us both arrested if a big enough stick was made by a mutawa with a vengeance.  While both of these scenarios were unlikely, I was incredibly relieved when my travels went off without a hitch.

And Some Possibilities 
Just driving around Jeddah, taking bad pictures through the car window.  If I roll it down, I'll be stared at. 
Jeed showed me around his childhood haunts, including his school.
Usually small stalls selling cheap items like this are run by women, whereas the brick and mortar stores are always staffed by men.
Traditional clothing for a child in a window in  Souq Sharq.
While on this second visit, I was not treated to stays in 5-star hotels and whisked from meeting, to official visit, to scheduled cultural activity, instead I got a more genuine Saudi experience by staying with a local family.  The home I stayed in was beautiful and my hosts epitomized Arab hospitality.  I have, however, definitely developed a new understanding of the discontentment Saudi students describe feeling while at home.  Even though Jeddah is the vacation spot and most liberal city in the Kingdom, there is still very little entertainment there.  Social events are limited to private homes that are separated from conservative social restrictions and preferably located on company or nationality-based compounds.  Possible outings in the city include shopping in malls, visiting a restaurant, or walking or picnicking along the Corniche, where restrictions on behavior, particularly between men and women, are enforced.
A vendor selling spiced, mashed chick peas in a market in Jeddah.  These guys are everywhere, but I wasn't confident enough to try a bowl of their gloopy, spicy snack.
خردوات  means "hardware," but the word it's covering up means "junk."  I value the initial honesty.
With this in mind and with the desire to see some authentic Jeddawi things, Jeed and I spent our first days driving around and sight-seeing, visiting the Corniche, and hitting what Jeed affectionately referred to as the Jeddah "ghetto," Souq Sharq.
Jeed's "ghetto" looks pretty nice from up top.
 I had plans to make a few purchases in the city: oud, Medina dates, and some Arabic books.  Oud is the scented wood burned in a cup-like incense burner called a mabkhar to produce a spicy aroma called bhur that fills the room.  The prevalence of this smell is one of my favorite things about Saudi Arabia.  Next, the dates from the holy city of Medina are supposedly the most delicious dates in the world, favored by the Prophet, and even present in Paradise.  I also bought myself a few Arabic books as gifts and an Arabic dictionary for myself.  The time I spent in the bookstore and Jeddah's old souk will be topics of future posts.
Women in abayas and hijabs visiting stores that sell evening gowns and club wear in Souq Sharq. 
If I'd had access to Saudi dress shops while I was competing in Junior Miss and Miss America, I think I'd have had it in the bag.
Misdirected Scuba Excitement

My schedule while in Jeddah revolved around my plans to go scuba diving on Friday, which would also allow Jeed some alone time with his family and, of course, allow me to dive reefs and wrecks seen by divers, especially American divers.  I was incredibly excited for this trip and even coerced a friend into coming along as a snorkeler.  The trip was however not meant to be.  Jeed and I successfully left the house at just after 6:00 AM (This man is a saint!) and found my other friend's house despite some bad directions from gas station attendants on the way.*  We found the Desert Sea Divers shop and saw it was closed, so we called the guy I'd been in contact with to get directions to the marina.  Jeed thought he'd seen it earlier, so he asked if it was "the one next to the Burger King," which the man affirmed.

So, we went to the marina next to the Burger King and checked with the security guards that we were in the right place.  I went up and checked with a group of Italian men clearly dressed for water sports where the dive boat was and then went to talk to the guys on the boat.  The guys on the boat didn't seem to speak enough English to know what I was saying, and I don’t know “where can I pick up my dive equipment” in Arabic, so I returned to the Italians and asked where the office was.  We waited for the Italians to get all their paperwork squared away for about 15 minutes when I noticed the time and thought I might have a hard time getting all my dive equipment together before the boat left.  The manager seemed to have thought that the blonde chick and Saudi man were with the Italians, which was the first round of miscommunication.  To shorten the narrative, it took the staff of this marina 15 minutes to realize that the dive company we booked with was not located there.  One of the boat crew even inspected my dive certifications, knowing that we were in the wrong place! We had missed the boat because of bad directions and my own lack of advocacy for myself while sitting and waiting for the manager to be free; both are pretty significant realizations and lessons to learn.  I missed out on a great opportunity to dive in an uncommon place, wasted lots of time, and found myself and my friend stuck at the wrong marina while we waited for Jeed to return.

*In the Arab world, it seems to be either rude or embarrassing to admit you don't know the location of a traveler's destination, so they will give an answer no matter what.  Usually this is something along the lines of "keep going straight and you'll see it," but sometimes these improvised directions get quite complex.   

So what does one do with free time in Saudi Arabia? Not much.

As that day was Friday, with my plans cancelled, I got to enjoy a day as a real Saudi housewife, not really able to leave the house while the men were at mosque.  I began to really understand the resentment that Saudi youths, especially the girls, have growing up in a society where there is so little to occupy their time and so little to really be passionate about.  I had no driver to take me places, and even if I did, where would I go?
There are at least four beggars, usually children, on every street corner.  As heartless as writing No MoNey! looks, if you were to donate just one Riyal to every child you see, you'd have to be on the street panhandling with them within a month.
I saw many cars decorated just like this for newlyweds.  There were no dangling cans like we do in America, but the back window was covered in glitter and there were always bows trailing in the wind.
When looking for fun in Saudi, it is absolutely necessary to have other friends to meet with at their homes or out with.  It would be best to have access to private compounds or resorts to do anything moderately athletic and outdoors.  This is a good place to remind you that there are no cinemas in the Kingdom, save for a few museums that have rooms or IMAX theaters for viewing documentaries.  If you are looking for intellectual stimulation, you have to get a little creative.   There are few public libraries ,and those that exist are very unlike the small, community-based libraries located in every town of the US, and also few museums, and the coffee shops and book stores aren't really conducive to an extended or mixed-gender visit.  I suppose that having access to a university would really help with any angst one gets from being away from intellectual settings.  Only the educated and proactive women with open-minded families have ways to entertain and challenge themselves outside of the home.  
In case you were wondering, Krispy Kreme in Saudi Arabia is still pretty darn good, they just don't have the "Hot Donuts" signs that we do in the states, which is probably a good thing, as "Hot Donuts" has derailed many a road trip when viewed from the highway.

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.