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day: 27

arabic ability: Haram, teacher, haram.”

sanity status: The king can just decree early holiday if he wants? Rumors that it’s coming early must be annual tradition.

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Google suggests the ride from Dammam to Riyadh, 420 km, takes about 5 and half hours. Maybe years ago, when Saudis traveled by camel.

There’s something strangely relaxing about an afternoon drive across the desert at 100 mph. Arid wasteland doesn’t offer the same sense of speed as trees or buildings whizzing by, and since everybody’s doing it, well, it’s calmer on the highway than it might sound (unless you think about stopping distances), certainly calmer than the morning commute in Al Khobar. The road and the desert become like the late afternoon sun that briefly hangs over the road to Riyadh; blurred when you stare, it’s best not to look too closely.

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Hot, flat, crowded. It’s not immediately clear why Riyadh sits where it does. Maybe there’s an oasis buried somewhere under the sprawl. Maybe a Bedouin King of old parked his tent there once and said “I shall move no further.” Maybe it was beautiful once. The Al-Saud family conquered it from their nearby home city, Diriyah, in the late 18th century, and with their conquest of Arabia, Riyadh became the capital.

Like all Saudi cities, entry to Riyadh is abrupt. Along the highway, refineries, crude storage facilities and industrial complexes dominate the approach. The road curves a little, and suddenly you’re in the densely settled periphery, there’s no transition zone. In a desert wasteland, there’s no reason to space settlements.

We left our taxi (350 riyals for the 3 hour trip…115 a person, just over $30…amazing…and only cuz we fucked up our train reservation, which at SR130/person would have been more expensive) at the Granada Center Mall, on the road to the Riyadh airport in the northeast part of the city. The mall is located near the compound where someone we met through couchsurfing would host us. 

We’d heard Riyadh is the center of Saudi conservatism and a world apart from Khobar. So it was amusing that the first thing we did while waiting for our couchsurfer host was to wander up to the enormous mall’s 2nd floor indoor children’s theme park and ride the tiny rollercoaster, the log flume and the bumper cars (some of the best handling, in my extensive international bumper car experience…they even drifted a bit, naturally). Obviously this was a place exclusively for families, but no one seemed to pay the demented foreigners any mind–either Riyadh is not the rigid, orthodox capital we believed it to be, or nobody much cares about the behavior of a couple ex-pat youths; perhaps both. Later, when we met our host but couldn’t find a restaurant that wasn’t exclusively reserved for families, it being a weekend (perhaps all you need to know about bachelor-life in the capital), we received our introduction to the promised Riyadh conservatism.

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After a couple hours at the biggest shisha establishment I’ve ever seen, in the shisha district outside the city chockablock with similar places, we were taken to the compound.

Considering life on a Saudi compound lends itself to trite observations. Are the walls to keep the bad guys out, or the paranoid people in? Does life here make you safer or more of a target? Does the compound offer residents a life, or ensure that they never have one?

The security to get into the compound is intense; various attacks in Saudi Arabia over the last decade have targeted Aramco facilities, embassies, and ex-pat residence quarters. First there’s the entrance gate–5 guys on security check under the hood, and inspect the undercarriage of entering vehicles using large mirrors on the end of a pole. After two retracting-gates, the driveway weaves around concrete obstacles and various defensive bunkers, then winds around the perimeter wall until the main gate, another retractable barrier, and the security headquarters, where IDs are checked and passports of visitors stored.

Inside, the compound is like an American town, with stores, a school, a gym, a community theater, etc., only very compact and with security cameras everywhere. Coming to Saudi Arabia, I was under the impression that I would live on some sort of compound; I thought all (western) ex-pats here did. There are clear advantages, but I don’t think I’d like the life. It is such a hassle to get in/out, and I don’t appreciate how compounds ingrain the “us-and-them” dynamic one travels to break down. I can see how they make sense for families, though, or for people who never wanted to be here in the first place.

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The only thing I wanted to see in Riyadh was the giant, fuck-off tower that dominates the cityscape—I have something of a fetish for summiting tall structures. Riyadh stretches in all directions with squat, 3-story concrete buildings and occasional empty lots bisected by grids of obnoxiously traffic-jammed roads; in the middle of it are these 2 random skyscrapers, the slightly shorter Faisaliyah tower, with it’s garish glass globe on top, and several blocks to the north, the thousand-foot, $400 million Kingdom Center Tower. If there was ever a need to open a 200-story beer, it’s a matter of personal taste whether it or the Shanghai WFC would be the more appropriate device.

From the skybridge 300 meters up, where we camped out for perhaps 3 hours (it being the city of basically one other attraction, the National Museum, open exclusively for families until 4:30, according to Lonely Planet), it was much easier to make sense of the arteries we’d crossed and shopping complexes passed. It’s not the sprawl that makes the biggest impression, it’s the uniformity of the layout and most of the buildings, stretching as far as the hazy horizon can reveal to the north and to the south. There aren’t even 20 or 10-story buildings anywhere, other than at one or two isolated complexes, and the entire city is completely flat, a biker’s paradise except in every other way. So, then, why did they build these two enormous buildings, with their rumored empty, unoccupied floors? In an oil-rich monarchy state, pharaoh’s will be done, or in this case, Pharaoh’s nephew, billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. These are the modern-day pyramids, except instead of burial chambers in their base, they have malls—Wahabist Islam allows for no commemoration of the dead.

In the afternoon, though taxis didn’t seem to know where it was, we eventually made our way to the massive Saudi National Museum, one of the Arabian Peninsula’s most highly-regarded. The enormous complex takes on the story of our planet, from the plate tectonics forces that pushed the peninsula into position to rise of King Abdul-Aziz. Unexpectedly (at least, to me), there’s no denial of the age of our planet, though there’s much more about the evolution of a prophet (peace be upon him) than the evolution of our species.

The ancient history section mentioned civilizations I had never even known existed, albeit with little in the way of descriptions. The epic journey through time finished in one of the few “cinemas” in the country, where a shitty ten-minute film brushed over the chronology of the rise of the Al-Saud family, in Arabic and in English. There was a green laser that would occasionally flash images over the movie, a display of traditional clothing to the side, hidden in darkness expect for a bizarre/glorious 10 seconds of the film, and 2 flanking cannons that would emit steam during “battle” sequences—3D cinema indeed. Outside the museum we frolicked once more in the family section with children enjoying the fountains—there’s no question that to be a child in Saudi Arabia is a wonderful thing; you just have to pay it back over the course of the rest of your existence.

For dinner we ate guidebook-recommended Chinese. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the food wasn’t worth the prices at a restaurant called “Mirage.” But the place was part aquarium, and had bathrooms featuring urinals(!), and fish in a tank that stared at you while you pissed, all under a black-light.

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Our stay in Riyadh ended with a venture into the desert outside Riyadh to meet the Hash House Harriers. The HHH is an organization I’d strangely never heard of until coming here, an international group that puts together runs for ex-pats outside of cities around the world (you don’t have to run, though). We arrived at a location just off a dirt road 30 minutes outside of the city, where suddenly a community of Westerners had materialized.

To get an image of what the Riyadh HHH meeting seemed like, take an atypical personality, distill out all the quirks and peculiarities, let the remainder sit for an extended period of time in a walled space that is both difficult to enter/exit but not entirely necessary to leave, and then blend with a melange of similar eccentrics in an extreme setting far removed from everything.

Of course, that was only my reticent, outsider, antisocial, unfair and condescending first impression. The truth is that there are a lot of generous people who volunteer their own time to organize a gathering that many can enjoy, from locating a proper place, to planning a run/walk, to laying out a spread of watermelon and oranges at the halfway point (like youth soccer games), to arranging rides for those who lack their own means of transport. There’s just always something quirky about ex-pat culture, perhaps partly because those who choose to live away from home are a select crowd, but also partly because the local culture is so categorically, deliberately unrepresented–Saudis aren’t even allowed at the Saudi HHH for fear that they will draw the muttawa. Of course, it’s easy to imagine what Saudis would say about a bunch of westerners deliberately running in a circle in the desert.

At this point, a mention of the muttawa seems appropriate. These are the notorious religious police who roam public places in Saudi Arabia, but are especially prominent in Riyadh, ever on alert for haram appearances and actions. They dress differently than other Saudis, with no crown upon their smagh, and shorter thobes that don’t drag on the ground, symbolic gestures of humility that I’m told don’t necessarily mean they all reject materialism. There is no explicit law endowing them with power, but ever since the early 1980’s when the conservative religious movement gained prominence in Saudi Arabia following the attack on the Ka’bah in Makkah, their social preferences have become the unwritten rules. Still, I was expecting to see far more of their influence in Riyadh than I actually witnessed, though I understand that Westerners in many ways get a free pass. A friend attempting to meet with his girl in the city discovered what their penchant for interfering in that of which they don’t approve can be like.

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As we zoomed back across the desert night towards humid Khobar with our same driver, the radio playing ten year-old American pop (the kind of music I would hear while having my haircut at Quickcuts), I wondered where else in the world people were journeying to the same mediocre product—Turkmenistan? Angola? Sao Tome and/or Principe? Exotic becomes more elusive all the time.

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