Dec 16, 2010

From Ryadh, a novella by Levi Sim

I've been in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 11:35pm last Sunday night.

My first impression included lots of men wearing a long garment called a thoub--you've seen it on guys on TV. It's what the sheiks and arab looking guys always wear. And they really do wear it all the time over here. Sure, they have blue jeans and polo shirts, too, but the usual daily wear is a thoub, and the most usual color is white. And since it's Saudi Arabia, the men are also usually wearing a white scarf with a red houndstooth pattern embroidered on it. The scarf, called a shemagh, is worn draped over the head on top of a tage'ea, which provides some friction to keep the shemagh in place. It's usually white, but I have seen a few worn without the shemag that are decorated with colored embroidery. It should be pointed out, as it was to me, that none of this outfit has any religious meaning. A blue-jeans-wearing Muslim can get into heaven as easily as one sporting the whitest thoub; it's really not comparable to yarmulke, either. It seems to be more like cowboy boots and long sleeve shirts: it's what used to be practical, and now it just feels right.

Click through for the rest of this epic story...

In fact, relating a little more to cowboys, the shemagh may be further held in place on top by an e'egal, which is the black ring you see on top of the head. The original use of this ring was to hobble camels so they couldn't leave in the night. The camel was caused to kneel down, and the ring was placed over the knee, so the camel couldn't get up. I'm told that the top of the head is just a convenient place to store it!

Anyway, there I am in the airport, amongst all these thoubed men, sticking out like a sore thumb--I mean, I'm wearing Vibram Five Fingers on my feet, and I think I'm still the only one in the country wearing a backpack (full of camera gear, anyway)--when I was met by my host, N. Thankfully, he was wearing jeans and a sweater, which immediately put me at ease. I don't know if he calculated it this way, but I sure did appreciate it. If you want to feel underdressed, come to the Kingdom.

We jumped into his new Ford Explorer and headed for my hotel. Apparently the airport is pretty far out of town (like DIA...and then some) and the road is new and very nice. Which is good, because one needs lots of room to wander between lanes. More on traffic below. The road has many billboards alongside it that are very new and well lit. In fact, they are so new that there are no advertisers! They all have ads for putting up your ad. This is the only place in the city with billboards, as far as I can tell. There was a little advertising on the sides of buildings, but it was always for the building owners' business, not a third party.

This also led me to observe the lack of visible photography in this country! Naturally, this is extremely important for someone like me, making a living selling pictures. I probably need to put the Kingdom a little lower on my list of countries to open franchises in.

Got to my hotel without any trouble-- the Hotel Al Mutaq. Nice little place situated right next to the air force base. Trouble is, this kinda limits the photography possibilities. They were good enough to hang signs on the fence that said "No Photography" nice and big so that even a nerd like me with his eye stuck in a 300mm lens couldn't miss them. Probably saved me a talk with the police. But, it also meant that when I climbed onto the roof of my hotel I could only point my camera one direction without becoming a security risk.

Fortunately, that direction was East, into the rising sun. Don't worry, I went back to bed after making a few pictures each morning; beauty sleep is important. The sun rose each day, I'm sure of it, but it was so hazy that the sun was very difficult to see. It became a white orb a few fingers above the horizon, and lent a very cool light to the early morning hour, which gave me some good silhouettes of a few minarets nearby. We'll see how the pictures shape up and I'll share them with you soon.

The haze came from a sand storm that swept through on Monday about noon. It was like a wall of brown that enveloped the entire landscape. N. and I watched it make it's way down the street towards us as we drove to a restaurant for lunch. It was windy, but not really gusty like a blizzard, just kind of constant, and not so strong that you couldn't walk in it. N. said that this was only the second time in his life he had seen a wall of sand move in like this, its kind of rare. Lucky me.

I was surprised, though, at how little sand I felt as we walked from the car to the eatery. This is very good, too, because the restaurant was built around a courtyard, and there were stalls around the courtyard. There was a roof over the stalls, of course, but they were open to the courtyard. This creates a naturally cooling effect as the air circulates up out of the courtyard. It was cool the whole time I was here (70 degrees fahrenheit) but I'm told it gets over 50 degrees Celsius (whatever that is). Still, the air was not uncomfortable, and if not for the light layer of dust on my camera by the end of the meal, I never would have known there was a storm going on.

The stalls were formed by low walls, about 18 inches tall, in squares about ten feet across. The perimeter of the stalls were lined with cushions and pillows, and there were large, firm, rectangular cushions for each person to recline sideways on (everyone laid on their right sides, so I did, too, but I don't know if thats a standard). N. ordered our food, a huge platter of rice pilaf, kinda curry flavored, but kinda not, with some delectable pieces of lamb on top. On the side we had yogurt with diced cucumbers, diced veggies, and bowls of yogurt to drink. The food was set on the carpet on a large round woven matt (then, when the meal is done, they just pick up the matt and the place is ready for the next customer). We dug in. Literally. With our fingers.

N. Told me that it is okay to use a spoon or fork, but traditionally they use their fingers, so I did, too. Spoon a little yogurt into some rice on your plate, mix and mash it with your fingers, and scoop it into your mouth.

In The Life Of Pi, the author describes eating with your hands as one of the greatest culinary delights on earth. He describes the feeling of the food in his finger tips as the first part of tasting it, the texture in the hand as equally import as the texture and flavor in the mouth. He makes eating with your hands out to be the greatest savory experience in the world, and laments that the western world never indulges I this magnificence.

It was okay; my fingers got a little messy. This is only a problem because it makes me reluctant to handle my camera. (Though with as many pictures as I was making, maybe this was N.'s plan to slow me down...). Still, I could get used to it.

I spent the majority of my time in Ryadh in the car going somewhere. Which is fine--great, actually! The traffic moves so glacially that I had plenty of time to compose pictures and snap off as many as I wanted. I even got some camel pictures this way (that was made even easier because they were in our lane...tied inside a truck). Seriously, the traffic is so slow that I had to make plans before going somewhere--you know, bring some food, water, change of underwear, tooth brush--and that's just to go across the neighborhood.

Ryadh is immensely huge, though, so I shouldn't be surprised. I'm told that it's over 100 kilometers square, and I believe it. In Utah that would be, like, 80 cities, or exactly like the drive from Provo to Ogden, but without the interstate, and vague traffic laws.

N. was a pro, though, and navigated the streets calmly and confidently. What really got me thinking, though, was the drivers themselves. They were all men, and in the daytime I never even saw any women in the cars. That means two things:
   1. Only 50% of the population was on the road, so it could be a lot        worse
   2. There were no women drivers, so all the trouble was caused by men! ( sorry, guys, that's definitive evidence that it's not their fault)

I did notice many women, however, at the parks playing with their kids, like anywhere else in the world. The only different is that in public the women cover their whole bodies with a black robe, called an a'abaya, and sometimes they even wear a veil covering all but their  eyes. Underneath the a'abaya they wear whatever is in style--I saw skinny jeans, stilettos, and all-stars. But let me tell you, there's nothing more deterrent to a criminal than a troupe of ninjas watching over their children.

What else...? Its just impressive how welcoming everyone was. Even on the street making a few photographs everyone was very nice and obliging. From the car I would hold up my camera, smile, and give a questioning look. I got a thumbs up every time!

What a great spot. And I've been talking with several Australian and British expatriate women in the airport, most with blonde hair, and they say they've never felt safer than during their stay in Ryadh. They were all wearing a'abayas in the airport, but those will be shed when we arrive in Dubai, and none of them were covering their heads.

I leave at 7:00 am sharp.

I'm watching "Hidalgo" when I get home...


  1. What great experiences you're having! I love learning more about other cultures and you did a nice job including cultural details that make my proxy traveling more complete. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Levi, for the culture and interesting commentary! Don't you just love traveling and seeing new places and things? I even love it when my clients show me their pictures after their trips! Can't wait to see yours!

  3. Cool, love your narratives. Looking forward to seeing some photos! =)

  4. Wow Levi, such a great experience you have a sweet job, such great photo opportunities too,...lucky! So Dave is a total nerd I know, he likes to think he's funny ; )

  5. Exciting trip! Do they take pictures of people there? I know I sound like a hick, but I was just wondering if it's like not allowed or something.

  6. Whit, it's allowed...of men. I did get busted for shooting some women; they asked me to delete the pictures, and I did.

  7. Haha! That's exciting.

  8. hi levi,

    it's nasser from saudi arabia hope you are doing fine?

    best regards