Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A day out in old Riyadh

A couple of weeks ago, on a rare shared day off, my good friend Emily and I decided that we were going to visit the National Museum in Riyadh (Em and I work on different teams and thus normally have completely opposite schedules).
We set out early as we had heard that the exhibits are extensive enough to warrant several hours time to wander through and absorb the contents. Areas of interest include Arabian Kingdoms, Jahiliyyah (translation “period of ignorance”, referring to time before Islam), The Prophet’s Mission, Islam and the Arabian Peninsula, 1st and 2nd Saudi States, Unification, Hajj, and the 2 Holy Mosques. We were looking forward to a very educational day!

We wandered through the museum grounds – mazes of tall palm groves, intricately designed ceramic mosaic pathways and fountains of bubbling water. This little oasis was sheltered from the street din by tall modern structures making up the different buildings of the museum. We entered through the heavy glass doors into a rather starkly empty but bright high-ceilinged lobby and made our way towards the entry kiosk on the far side of the room. We felt a slight, nagging sense of vulnerability as our footsteps echoed and we did our best to avoid the dark leering eyes of the armed guards lining the perimeter. We approached the counter, and were quickly sung the theme tune of our Saudi endeavor to date: “It’s men’s day today. Women and families can come tomorrow night.” Darn my XX chromosome.

Not to be discouraged on our day off, we decided to go abaya shopping at Dirah (the ladies’ sook). Em’s abaya had 3 broken clasps and was starting to look more like a showgirl evening gown - her jeaned legs were scandalously revealed with each step through what was now a hip high slit up the front! Haram! Now, one may think that the purchase of a long black drape is a pretty straightforward business, but let me tell you – the purchase of an abaya is as personal as the interior decorating of a new downtown condo. Different lengths, widths, straight sleeves, princess sleeves, not to mention enough variations of intricate sparkly bling to appeal to the tastes of any woman. When you consider that this is the only garment through which you will be able to express any sort of individuality when out in public, getting something that reflects your personality and tastes becomes paramount.

After a short recovery period post gasping laughter following the discovery of a sparkly horse head design (reminiscent of the ubiquitous tourist souvenir t-shirts in Canada with the painted wolf heads and “Vancouver”, or “Prince Edward Island” in cursive writing…), Ems found one that was meant for her. Following a 15min wait while the original muumuu abaya was
whisked off to an unknown location and tailored to fit Em’s tall, slim figure, we set off on foot, looking for our next adventure.

We walked 30 mins in a random direction away from Dirah, rounded the next corner, and stopped in awe…there ahead of us, as far as the eye could see was a wide street swarming with hundreds of men wearing every variation of traditional Saudi dress imaginable. Many were walking hand-in-hand in a show of typical Arabic male companionship, and the steady din of day-to-day greetings and business dealings added color, warmth and character to the otherwise dingy, run-down setting. The dusty street was lined with crumbling buildings wielding colorful shops ranging from butchers, to bakeries, to leather shoe shops, to random household goods. This was Batha - we had heard about it – a sort of traditional commercial market centre in the old area of Riyadh. We glanced at each other and smiled, knowing we were going to keep walking. We pulled our scarves up over our heads so as to be as discreet as possible and smiled at the futility of the gesture – 2 sub-6ft tall Western women walking down the sidewalk of a busy traditional Saudi market centre…maybe we can blend in? Ha.

We gleefully haggled with street vendors (and still got ripped off), warily eyed the dried blood splashed up the alleyways outside the butcher shops, and deeply inhaled the rich Middle Eastern aromas of various tiny restaurants wedged in between the commercial stores. We stopped and bought flat bread (for 1 riyal!) from a baker whose display consisted simply of 2 worn, rickety wooden trays. The huge clay ovens behind him were encased in white tile, and 2 large round holes yawned open to reveal the coals next to which our bread was tossed in to bake. A steady stream of regular customers exchanged typical loud Arabic male pleasantries with the baker as the bags of pizza-like bread were bought up as fast as they came out of the oven.

Next, we visited a small leather shop with rows and rows of Saudi-style sandals lining the walls. A small, smiling, white bearded “baba” was sitting cross-legged on a dusty prayer mat, sewing a pair of tall leather boots. After the typical “where are you from” conversation, I had an apparent willing escort back to Canada…my Arabic speaking friends can correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think there is any other way to interpret “enti/ana rooh sawa sawa Canada? Canada kwayes!” – “you and I will go to Canada together. Canada is great!”. Sometimes being able to claim ignorance is the best way out…and that is exactly what I did to escape that one! “Malesh, ana mafe malum Arabi, baba” – “sorry Baba, I don’t speak Arabic”.

After 45mins or so of walking, we gradually neared the end of the market district. We started to notice that there were an increasing number of “shebabs” (young men) passing by in the opposite direction. Most of them had several textbooks wrapped in colorful prayer rugs, and we figured that we were near a school that had just gotten out for the day. The novelty of this intimate look into the day-to-day routine of these young boys was quickly lost as our presence was suddenly realized: The tendrils of unease quickly crept up and prickled the backs of our necks as several cars circled around us, and “I LOVE AMERICA” (Em is Irish, and for those of you who don’t know, I am Canadian) was yelled from boys hanging out car windows. The boys passing us on foot had just begun taking notice and slowing down when we decided that this was a great time to end our little adventure and hopped quickly into one of Riyadh’s many cabs to make our getaway.

All in all, despite the disappointment of missing out on the museum, it was a fantastic day. We finally felt as though we had gotten a glimpse of the “real” Riyadh, and had the chance to venture into an area not seen by many Westerners.



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