I spent almost a month working in Riyadh, the capital city of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). What follows are notes and photos I took during my stay.
I was teaching editing softwares Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro. Classes run from 9:00 to 17:00 with two prayer breaks, lunch break, and smoking breaks. The students would remind me about the prayer breaks. They would go to the prayer room upstairs, and pray with dozens of other men, facing a wall in need of a paint job, in the direction of Mekka. They would come back 20 minutes later and we would continue the class.
One time I was with an Egyptian student after the class had ended, installing software for the next class, and he told me he had forgotten to pray at the 17:15 prayer time. So he excused himself, took off his glasses, and in front of me kneeled on the floor and prayed. Afterward he rejoined me.
I had a pious student who frequently talked to me about his devotion to God (Allah). He prayed 5 times a day, as devout Muslims do. He said he gets up at around 4:30 for the first prayer (Fajr). He said he feels empowered and clean, ready to face the day. His last prayer (Isha) is near 19.00. After one such conversation, I assigned an exercise where the student had to create markers. These are like digital post-it notes that you assign to video and sound clips to remind you of things you have to do. I gave examples like: change this shot, EQ the audio, or color correct the shot. He was having a difficult time with the procedure to create the markers and called me for help. He wrote on his marker: “Kill this man”. I repeated out loud his marker so the class could hear it. He wrote it again after I told him the proper procedure.
I had read and heard about the religious police known as the mutawa but I only saw them walking on the street on their way to pray, and not in action. They are known for arresting men who walk with unmarried women in public, or for defacing ads that portray women’s faces. Someone told me that in the past they used to be more aggressive. They would, for instance, enter an office building unannounced to ensure that men were praying during prayer time. Apparently, as I was told, King Abdullah has clamped the mutawa down.
When I stayed in a Hotel in Dubai, an arrow on the ceiling pointed in the direction of Mekka, so Muslims knew in which direction to pray. In the hotel where I stay in Riyadh no such arrow was present. There was no need. The mosque is across the street. I hear all 5 calls to prayer on Friday and Saturday (my days off). Sometimes the early one at 4:40 briefly awakens me.
There are so many mosques in Riyadh that it seems as if there is one per square kilometer. At prayer time you hear the various muezzins from all directions, chanting and singing in the name of Allah. Sometimes you can hear 5 or 6 of them at slightly different times.
I like hearing the call to pray. It reminds me of Cante Jondo. Of course, the Arabs ruled Spain for 800 years. Federico Garcia Lorca and Manuel de Falla were lovers of Cante Jondo.
I witnessed a called to prayer in a large mosque near the Kuwaiti market. In about 20 minutes I saw more than 700 men of all races, sizes and social classes walk and run into the mosque to pray as the muezzin was chanting to Allah. It was a hair-raising impressive moment to witness. I understand why they say it makes a big difference to pray in a group.
Exact prayer times vary by location because it has to do with the sun and the geography. There are websites that can tell you the exact prayer time depending on your location. You can pray after the stipulated time but, according to Wikipedia: “All schools [of Islam] agree that any given prayer cannot be performed before its stipulated time.
The supermarkets in Riyadh tend to be very large. They are warehouse type of stores that sell everything from refrigerators to palm dates. The first time I went to the Hyper Panda (the most popular one), I bought some mangoes and guavas (from Egypt). I had to have them weighted before paying for them. I noticed that all the customers were either sitting on the floor of the supermarket or just wandering around. I walked around to find an employee but saw none. Then I realized that it was prayer time (around 17:15) and all stores must close. As soon as the prayer ended the supermarket came back to life. It felt as if the world had stopped for 20 minutes. It felt as if someone had pressed pause for 20 minutes and then press the remote again to continue playing the movie. I got my fruit weighted and went to pay.
Taking pictures can be dangerous. In fact, carrying a camera is already a provocation for many folks in the KSA. When I went to the souk (market), a woman peeling the shells of peanuts, yelled at me. I looked at her and could barely see her eyes behind the black thin Bushiyya (veil that covers the eyes). She pointed at my camera, then punched one fist on her open hand. I got the message and walked away.
Aside from that moment, I felt safe at all times. Ryadh is very safe. I never felt threatened or in danger regardless of where I went.
Two young men, probably in their early twenties, walking together, holding hands with just their pinkies (small finger) locked together, as they walk in the Dira square, where the infamous beheadings take place. It is not uncommon to see men holding hands and kissing each other on the cheeks as a greeting. It is very rare to see a man and a woman kissing in public. I did not witness this but saw some couples holding hands. (They had to be married)
Almost every day I see a woman on my walk to work begging for money at a traffic light. She is completely covered by her black abaya. She wears a bushiyya to cover her entire face. She also wears black gloves. She stretches her gloved hands to the impatient drivers for a handout. She is not very successful.
I traveled to the desert outside of Riyadh with a Syrian family; husband, wife and mother-in-law. They must wear abayas because it is the law. But when we were far away from civilization, walking in the desert hills, they took off their abayas and walked around in their western clothes which they wear underneath it. When they dropped me off at the hotel at the end of the day, his wife who was sitting in the back of the car had to move to the front seat where I was sitting. She was not wearing her abaya and so she had to move to the front seat of the SUV within the car. If she had stepped out of the car without an abaya, just to move to the front seat she would have been in trouble.
Wikipedia states: The intimate parts of the human body must, according to Islam, be covered from the sight of others with clothing. Exposing the intimate parts of the body is unlawful in Islam as the Quran tells to cover the genitals, and for adult females, also the breasts. Exposing them is regarded as sin. Precisely which body parts must be covered varies between different schools of Islamic thought. The Quran admonishes Muslim women to dress modestly and cover their breasts and genitals. The Quran explicitly states that “O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women” (Quran 33: 32) and as such has separate rules specifically for the wives of the Prophet.
For almost a week I did not see a woman’s face, sometimes only their eyes.Then when I went to the supermarket I saw filipino and indian women’s faces. They were wearing the black abayas but showing their face (no niqaab, the veil that covers the face except the eyes).
I was treated very well in Ryadh.
I did not meet anyone who fit the stereotype of the aggressive, hostile and belligerent Muslim that we so often hear about in the Western press.
Many Saudi men and women are overweight. Even under the black abaya (women) or the white thobe (men) they look fat.
The distinctive red and white checkered head scarf worn by Saudi men, knowns as kuffiyya or ghutra is made in the UK.
In the hotel lobby, Saudi men spend hours looking at their mobile phones, conversing, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee or tea.
Restaurants are segregated by gender. McDonalds and Starbucks have an entrance for singles (men) and one for families (accompanied women). In the supermarket, there are two types of check-out lanes: for single men only and for families, where women accompanied by men can pay.
It is very rare to see an unaccompanied woman walking on the street.
Drivers in Riyadh are very impatient. They use the horn as if it were a new toy. I thought Puerto Ricans were bad about this, but compared to drivers in this part of Arabia they are angels. A typical road in Riyadh sounds like a cacophony of horns.
Drivers in Riyadh are very reckless and dangerous. I have seen drivers making a U-turn from the third right-most lane. This produces an avalanche of horns that can wake up a dead person.
One liter of water is more expensive than one liter of gasoline. Water from the faucets is desalinized. They recommend against drinking it. Water in plastic bottles is the norm.
It is very common to see a car standing for long periods of time with both the engine and the A.C. running with a person inside, the face illuminated by a mobile phone.
I have met many Syrians in the KSA. In Arabia they are generally educated and professionals. They are friendly, pragmatic, gregarious and with a sense of humor. They see the Syrian war differently than we see it in the West. For them, Assad is not the monster that is portrayed in the Western media. They have explained the situation to me and it is a very complicated one. One which I have yet to read in the New York Times.
I have also made acquaintances with many Egyptians, some Palestinians, Sudanese, Lebanese, and Americans, but only one Saudi. He is young and educated in the USA.
Saudis come from the original Saud tribe of Arabia. They conquered these lands at the beginning of the 20th century. Anyone outside of this tribe cannot obtain Saudi nationality and hence a Saudi passport. This creates a division that fuels the animosity of foreigners towards Saudis.
I met a young Syrian man who was born in the KSA. He will never get a Saudi passport. That is the destiny of all foreigners in the KSA. I met an older Syrian who has lived in the KSA for 35 years. Unlike Saudi nationals, when he stops working or retires he won’t get any pension or retirement plan. If he has enough savings to live he can stay. If not, he will have to relocate elsewhere, but not Syria. At least not for the moment.
The same thing goes for unemployment benefits. Only Saudis can get unemployment benefits. An Egyptian acquaintance described this unequal treatment with disgust and pain.
Filipinos, Kenyans, Southern Indians, and Pakistanis do the menial jobs and sometimes, as I have been told, are treated almost like slaves. Slavery was abolished in the KSA in 1960. They are the street cleaners, the hotel workers, the dishwashers, the taxi drivers… Filipinos, like some of the other groups, get a legal work permit for two years to come to the KSA. But they must first obtain a permit from the Philippine government to travel and work in the KSA. After two years they must return. They can re-apply again after one year. The Filipino driver who picked me up at the airport was happy to have a job where he could earn more than 6 times the amount of money he could make in the Philippines.
These migrant workers cannot bring their families during this period. Once in a while, I was told, you will hear of a Filipino who goes berserk and ends up going on a killing rampage only to kill himself after it. An Egyptian man told me that you do not read this in the newspapers. He credits this behavior to spending so much time away from their family and with very little social contact.
I did not meet one foreigner who liked living in Saudi Arabia or who liked Saudis. They are in the KSA because they can work and earn a very good salary, tax-free!
I was supposed to do a presentation to a group of men from the sales team to instruct them about editing and post-production so they could better sell the training courses to their clientele. The presentation was canceled two days before the day it was scheduled for. An Egyptian told me that this is typical of the way things are done in the KSA. If it is not done today, it can be done in a week, if not in a week, then in a month, if not in a month then in a year… and so on. It sounds like the Latin mañana. He added that people in the KSA are good at waiting. We Egyptians, he said, wait for 11 months to get that one month of vacation to go home. Saudis wait fewer months for summer to then travel abroad.
There is no postal service in the KSA. There are private package and letter delivery services. Many buildings do not have addresses for this same reason. If you want things delivered by Amazon or eBay, etc, there are companies that give you a USA address, and then the company delivers it to you in the KSA.
Neon signs that border on neon art are ubiquitous in Riyadh.
On a Saturday afternoon I went to visit the Dira district of Riyadh. This is where the old city was built. I visited the Masmak Palace Museum which was the original residence of King Abdulaziz. According to Wikipedia: “He reconquered his family’s ancestral home city of Riyadh in 1902, touching off three decades of conquests that left him the ruler of nearly all of central Arabia. He consolidated his control over the Najd in 1922, then conquered the Hijaz in 1925. He united his dominions into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. As King, he presided over the discovery of petroleum in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and the beginning of large-scale oil production after World War II. He fathered many children, including 45 sons, and all of the subsequent kings of Saudi Arabia.” The museum is mostly about him.
In the Dira district between the souk and the Masmak Palace Museum, is the infamous “chop chop square” where public beheadings by sword are held. According to Agence France-Presse, as of September 16, 2014, “the number of people beheaded comes to 54, compared with 78 people in all of 2013.” The banner that hangs on the façade of the building in front of the square is a sardonic reminder to those facing the sword. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death by beheading, under Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Islamic sharia law. Bringing alcohol into the country is also punished by beheading. In fact when you apply for a visa and when you enter the country you sign a document whereby you agree with this statute.
So, for almost a month I did not drink any alcoholic beverages. The hypermarket has half an aisle of beer…non-alcoholic beer, that is. Water is the main drink. You have to drink plenty of water to fight the dryness of the desert air. Fresh natural juices are common. Lemonade with mint and a bit of sugar is a favorite of mine. Saudis consume fresh orange juice by the liters.
Food is tasty in the KSA. Vegetarians can easily eat out with offers like tabbulah, hommus, mutabal, baba ghannooj, salads, okra stew, rice, lentil soup, grilled eggplants, olives, grape leaves, potatoes, green beans and pastas. Omnivores can eat all of that plus chicken and beef Shawarma, fried chicken, grilled shrimp, lamb, pigeon, camel, and Hamour fish (from the Gulf waters). The flavors are influenced by Indian cuisine. Mayonez is served with many dishes. At first I was turned off by it. But after tasting it I found it lighter and less creamy than the mayonnaise we consume in the West. It is actually good.