Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is probably not trending in your travel bucket list. After all, it’s a country better known for raising eyebrows and questions, not wanderlust. Despite a large expat population residing within the country, KSA’s borders remain relatively untapped. I guess it doesn’t help that visiting the country is not exactly straightforward or auspicious for most (exasperating visa procedures, restrictive dress codes, drinking and driving bans etc etc)! But, looking back to my two whirlwind weeks of OD-ing on shisha, shwarma and kabsa, I can tell you that Saudi Arabia is definitely worth bucket listing – only for the food and halaal champagne, if nothing else!
Bengali and Muslim
Born as a Muslim in a Bengali household, Saudi Arabia appeared on my bucket list by default. I was taught to read the Quran from an early age although I barely understood Arabic. Much of my knowledge and perception of KSA evolved in that vein – learning without fully understanding.
Despite being Muslim majority countries, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia have very different social settings – the Bengali Muslim’s life is quite different from that of a Saudi Muslim’s. Looking through the lenses of the multireligious Bengali culture made the Islamic Saudi culture look limited and rather conservative. I grew up with mental images of camel trodden desert lands inhabited by thobe-clad men and burkha-clad women in a gender-segregated environment.
Bengali, Muslim, and (non) Saudi
The Husband was born in the late 1980s to a Bengali father and an Indian mother in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Children born to foreigners do not have the right to citizenship in KSA. This eventually translates into some sort of displacement for some or all members of the foreign family, especially for the males. At 15 years of age, a sudden turn of events had the Husband packing his belongings with a one way ticket to Bangladesh. ‘Home’ would never be the same again.
An estranged child
His mother tongue might be Bengali, his passport Bangladeshi, but ‘home’ for him is Jeddah. The internal conflict of identifying home as a place that refused to acknowledge him, and the intricate love-hate relationship that grew out of it became a permanent part of his identity, a constant heartache that had no cure.
The love was definitely stronger than the hate. Even during the most testing times, his nostalgia reared its longing head. He missed Jeddah constantly and spoke of it as the best city in the world. It was starkly different from the stereotypical image I held in my mind. His Arabia had more in the picture than just camels, dates and segregation. He boasted of world class restaurants offering delicious food, luxury shopping malls, sexy cars driving down plush neighbourhoods and Al Baik.
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE who has visited KSA told me how amazing the food is. By the time I was boarding the plane to Riyadh, my expectations were not just sky high, but higher. I was expecting ambrosia, some teaser of what heaven must have on offer. I was also:
- Tracing the footsteps of the birthplace of my religion.
- About to discover the childhood of my better half.
I was excited!
I will be honest, both the heat and burkha factors were making me a bit nervous. I have grown up in the excruciatingly hot temperatures of Bangladesh but the UK journey has weakened my body’s endurance. An extra layer of clothing was perhaps not going to help!
It wasn’t just the heat that was making me anxious. A colleague who had recently lived in Jeddah told me not to take the behavior of the Saudis personally. They can be rough, he said, but that’s just how they are. I did not want to be biased but he was not the first person to tell me that.
As we waited to board the plane at Heathrow, I looked around at our fellow passengers, particularly the women. They were dressed smartly in jeans and loose clothes, luxury sunglasses and heady perfumes. You see them in Oxford Street all the time, heading into and out of Selfridges. I saw at least one of those yellow packets dangling from long sleeved arms. Some were cloaked in their abayas while others had them tucked away in expensive hand trolleys, to be worn before landing in Riyadh.
People look at Saudi women and cannot help but tsk-tsk at their presumed archaic lives. It’s no secret that Saudi women are seen as an oppressed bunch. They cannot drive on their own or live independently outside the supervision and guardianship of a mehram i.e. a man, but not just ANY man. He has to be a legally recognized male guardian – the options often limited to her father, uncle, husband or brother. It is an idea completely alien to women of the 21st century!
If the attitudes of my fellow female passengers were anything to go by, however, Saudi women looked FAR from oppressed. Overdressed? Oh yes. But beyond the differences in clothing and the extra fancy air brought about by Guccis, Pradas and the heavy makeup, they came across as abnormally normal.
The flight embarked from London Heathrow with an Arabic supplication. It was a beautiful prayer, something I do not get to experience aboard the likes of Flybe or Easyjet. It made me reflect on the emphasis and care Islam places on travelling. The Qur’an encourages men and women to reflect on Allah’s creations on earth and in the heavens. Travelling helps establish that spiritual connection with the marvels of the world and holds a very special place within Islam. Muslims have dedicated prayers to mark the beginning and ending of their journeys. Islam allows them to postpone or shorten obligatory Salah (five daily prayers) and fasting during Ramadan so that journeys can be made easier.
The Husband’s happiness knew no bounds. It had cost him the agony of two rejected visa applications from Bangladesh and seven months of visa hassles from the UK to finally get on a plane to his beloved home. He prodded me to take a picture as he raised a glass of tomato juice in happy celebration aboard Saudia Airlines. I have heard about this juice every time we have flown together – nothing any other airline served measured up to THIS particular juice. Plane food usually put me off but I was impressed by Saudia’s offerings. My simple British meal of cod and veggies had an extra something – or was it the excitement biasing my judgment?
Close to landing time, the women started scrambling for their abayas. A long queue had formed for the washrooms, so many just dressed themselves right in their seats.
We took a domestic flight from Riyadh to our final and main destination – Jeddah. We reached King Abdulaziz International Airport very early in the morning but the all-important man for whom we had embarked upon this journey, my father-in-law, was already waiting at arrivals to greet us. He had been up since before dawn for Fajr (morning) prayers.
As we sped down the empty Jeddah streets on a Friday morning, the beginning of weekend in this part of the world, a sandy-coloured world dominated my vision. If London is foggy, Jeddah was dusty. The dusty-sandy landscape was further complemented by occur hued buildings. I stared wide-eyed at the unfamiliar world shooting past, drinking it all in, the tiredness and excitement blending into one powerful emotion. It was a straight road out of the airport most of the way till we rounded a corner to get into Al-Sharafiya neighbourhood.
Our first meal in Saudi Arabia was not exactly traditional. My father-in-law and I enjoyed generous helpings of paya (a soup/stew hybrid made of meat and bones) bought fresh from a Bengali store. The Husband (more of a Brit/Jeddawi than a Bengali when it comes to his food choices) tucked into his usual poached egg cooked in massive amounts of coconut oil (my father-in-law is a staunch believer) while throwing us disbelieving looks. How can you have paya for breakfast!? He asked. Why not? I demanded, as the deliciously rich liquid landed everywhere in my happy haste. I made no attempt to slow down. THIS, was precious. THIS, was rare. You’d be hard-pressed to find paya this good in Aldgate East!
Our first Dinner HAD to be Al Baik, which, if you ask my Husband, is NOT just fried chicken. As the saying goes, Muslims enter Saudi Arabia praying ‘Allahu Akbar’ and exit supplicating ‘Al Baik’. I have known about Al-Baik for as long as I have known the Husband. He is totally and utterly obsessed. I didn’t understand this fried chicken fandom and suspected nostalgia steering the unconditional love harboured by the Husband and his Jeddawi friends. Despite my misgivings, however, I almost wanted to be proven wrong, to be able to find a love this strong living up to its high expectations.
Thankfully Al Baik turned out to be much more than the average fried chicken-next-door. Fast food generally tend to fall under the cheap and cheerful category but this was a serious bargain. I was eating mouthfuls of fried shrimp slathered in obscenely delicious garlic sauce for as little as 10 riyals (2 pounds).
I tried putting my finger on what made Al Baik so addictive and concluded it was the combination of FRESH fried food (if there ever could be such a thing) marinated in a blend of spices that was very appealing to the Asian palate. International chains like KFC don’t do such uniquely spicy flavours. If by some happy accident you end up in Jeddah, or maybe Makkah and/or Medina, I highly recommend that you make these delcious broasted chicken and shrimps a priority. Riyadh, however, is a differenty story…
Jeddah Vs Riyadh
For some unfathomable reason, you cannot find Al Baik in the capital. Jeddawis use this to their advantage in the Jeddah–Riyadh rivalry because of COURSE there is one! Every country I have visited so far seems to have at least two cities internally fighting for the ultimate crown of popularity. While Riyadh is the official capital of the Kingdom, Jeddah is the unofficial one. When the Husband met my only Saudi friend, a fellow engineer from Glasgow Uni hailing from Riyadh, the banter went on for a good while as I sat inhaling shisha almost as though invisible, listening to the two arguing hotly as to why their city was better. There was no conclusion, nor was there any sign that there would ever be one.
Home of Islam
The Adhan (five daily call for prayers) in Saudi Arabia was special, not just because I was hearing it after one and a half years, but because it held so much more meaning from within Islam’s birthplace. It landed on my ears as the most soulful music. I felt a sense of peace that had been missing from my life for a long time. After each salah, I sat on my prayer mat contemplating my proximity to the Kaba where I have been directing my prayers for decades. I was now on the brink of standing directly in front of it. The feeling was divine!
Over our 12 days in Saudi Arabia we made two day trips to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. 3 return tickets to Makkah cost us 90 riyals which is less than 25 pounds. In the UK a similar journey would cost us roughly 15 pounds per person if purchased as late as the night before our journey. That too just one way.
The trips to Makkah and Medina were spiritually uplifting journeys, an experience of a lifetime for any Muslim. I performed my first Umrah (pilgrimage), learnt beautiful stories about the beginnings of Islam and visited the first mosque in history. Despite the heat and dehydration fighting to win over my spiritual fulfillment, I walked away with a renewed perspective and love towards my religion, my Islam.
Jaunting through Jeddah
We spent the rest of our time in KSA exploring Jeddah through the stories of the Husband’s childhood and discovering all that differed from it. Of course everything was new to me! Being the curious cat that I am, and remembering to take care to live within the limits of my burkha, often reminded by the Husband, I tried to learn and do as much as I was allowed to. What I witnessed shattered the last remnants of my stereotypical ideas of Saudi life, at least as far as Jeddah is concerned.
Jeddah is dubbed as the kingdom’s culture capital. The King has spent generously in beautifying this city, making sure it lived up to international standards of aesthetics and luxury. Date trees line wide streets dotted with endless stalls, malls, and cafes while artistic and thought provoking sculptures adorn roundabouts, displaying the city’s long standing relationship with art. The city’s most well-known landmarks are world record holders – Jeddah boasts the tallest flag and the tallest fountain in the world.
We marveled at the jaw dropping mansions of rich Arabs in Al Rawdah, at the endless malls and restaurants in Tahliya Street (Jeddah’s Las Vegas) and indulged in the simple pleasures of biting into hot and fresh Ta’miya (falafel) in Al Khalidiyah. We drove briefly by the corniche, the social heart of Jeddah. It is a hotspot for locals, a social hub to relax and enjoy by the Red Sea. The beautiful Floating Mosque was almost obscured behind the Friday crowd of people and parked cars but my father-in-law pointed it out to me. Travel with locals and you will never miss a trick!
Jarir Book Store in Sari Street became an instant favourite – other than vast volumes of books, among which was a notable collection on Islam, it held some of the fondest memories from the Husband’s childhood. A walk further down Sari Street revealed a Starbucks that looked fit for a Prince, posh-er than the posh-est restaurants in the UK. A Bubble Tea store was opening up right beside it, ready to challenge the traditional tea culture with more instagram-worthy drinks.
While Jeddah has upped the ante to become a diverse and exciting city of the 21st century, it’s history and traditions have been well preserved in the historical area of Al Balad and the city museums. We visited the Al Tayibat City Museum for International Civilisation, a visual treat in itself. The stunning architecture combining creativity with heritage is more fitting for a palace than a museum.
Al Tayibat hosts a myriad of artefacts dating from pre-Islamic to modern Arabia, including religious manuscripts, currencies, weapons, furniture and traditional clothing, tracing the journey of Islam through history. Particularly interesting for me was the fascinating reminders of the evolution of Islam in Europe. Al Andalus street in Jeddah harks back to Europe’s forgotten Muslim heritage. Muslim Spain produced all manners of scholars – from philosophers to physicians, scientists to artists. The museum visit made me yearn to go back to Spain, but this time to the South, to trace the journey of Islamic history.
Shopping and Dining
A unique sight in KSA that cannot be found anywhere else in the world? No matter how big or small, shops shut their doors to business during the five daily call for prayers. You really need to see this astonishing sight unfold infront of your own eyes to believe it! Often open markets are left unsupervised, without any surveillance or guard. No one will dare touch or steal anything, even goods that are left exposed.
Jeddah is full of shopping opportunities, something you will definitely not miss as you start counting the various malls – Mall of Arabia, Red Sea Mall, Al Salamah Mall, Tahliya Mall – and soon give up! The list is long and you might find yourself confusing one for the other. The mall culture is definitely a Jeddah way of life and we found ourselves visiting a new one almost every other day.
Our purchasing power a tad bit weaker than the Saudis, we headed off to Cycle Market for some bargain hunts. The massive bicyle that gave this market its nickname (officially called Mahmoud Saeed Market) is another vital piece of art in the open air art gallery that is Jeddah City.
As omnipotent as the malls is the fast food scene. There are international brands being jostled for space by local franchises. Among the local chains there’s Kudo (think Subway), Al Baik (more popular than KFC) and Herfy (think Burger King) almost everywhere you go. The list of international chains is longer– I remember mentally archiving Vapiano, Rossopomodro, Wagamama, Cinnabon, Dunkin Donuts, TGI Fridays, Fuddruckers and Tim Hortons to name a few. (Next post: Jeddah food!)
When they exist outside a mall, shops become a small mall themselves, their compounds massive, their signs bright and bold and beckoning. Whether it’s Pizza Hut or Armani, the stores are equally ginormous entities, making entire streets look like an expo. In the evening the streets are bathed in twinkling bright lights, making the night look like a man-made day.
I fell in love with Danube, the Saudi version of Asda. Firstly, EVERYTHING was halaal. Only a Muslim immigrant would know how amazing it feels when you can just walk into a store and pick whatever the hell you fancy eating without ending up in hell (LOL)! No mad hunt for searching items with ‘beef’ gelatine or combing through mind-numbingly long lists of ingredients to filter out haraam bits and bobs from your trying-hard-to-keep-to-halaal life. Secondly, the variety of every conceivable item made the grocery-shopping-lover in me as excited as a kid in a candy store. I daresay it was enough to make me seriously consider living in Jeddah! Danube makes fresh labneh on the spot, sells at least 50 varieties of just party cakes, and stores snacks and fruit juices that are far superior than anything I have ever bought from Asda or Tesco. I suddenly understood what made the Husband so haughty about his Jeddah childhood.
Although there is no public transport as such, we didn’t have difficulty moving around. Uber had arrived earlier that year and the fleet was impressive. We rode at least one brand new car with the seat covers intact. Official taxis are called limousines and bear nameplates with the names of the cities they belong to – Jeddah, Makkah, Medina etc.
Taxi drivers in UK are always up for a chat but the same cannot be said for Jeddah. However, we did come across one Saudi taxi driver who was friendly and talkative. According to him, the Bengali population in KSA was growing to a point where the next King could very well be Bengali!
One of the things that you will certainly NOT miss in the streets of Jeddah is the horrible driving. Saudi men seem to regard it as a sport of some sort. They drive their expensive cars in the most callous manner so my advise is to watch out if you are crossing the streets! KSA does not have a point-based system like the UK – every time you run into car trouble, you can pay your way out. The fear of earning points against your license or worse, having it cancelled, simply does not exist.
A nation of segregation
As is widely known, gender segregation is everywhere in Saudi Arabia. One of the things that baffled me was how I couldn’t just walk into a restaurant to eat or buy food. On one occasion I had to wait outside the male section of an Al Baik store (women are only allowed in the ‘family’ or ‘females only’ sections) while my husband and father-in-law went inside to get dinner. A few other girls were waiting in the same corner with me, looking unabashed. It seemed OK to use this to your advantage when required – in our following Al Baik orders (oh there were quite a few!) my father-in-law would send me to the women’s section to bypass the long male queues.
Despite my initial misgivings, I LOVED wearing the abaya and not only because it meant there were no bad hair days. There were some annoying moments when the scarf was slipping off my head without me realizing it, earning me the daggers from the Husband. In his experience this could mean severe consequences. I learnt of the mutawah or religious police who can come swooping down at you for showing your hair or lingering in a café with the opposite sex. Even beggars wore burkhas in Saudi Arabia.
Waves of change
Jeddah in 2017 is much more relaxed than the Husband remembered (Riyadh is apparently much stricter). We saw a fair number of women walking around with their hair out without being stopped by Dementors (my Potterhead version for mutawahs). Restrictions on mingling between unrelated members of the opposite sex remain strict – I heard stories of young people furtively passing their numbers to each other at traffic signals and malls. How else would they interact? But the scene isn’t quite as hush-hush and strict as it may seem. In popular hangouts such as Shababik and Agave, we found Saudi men and particularly women enjoying the warm night air in big open air terraces overlooking the mighty King Fahd fountain, smoking shisha and, to my utmost surprise, cigarettes, eating soft breads with labneh and drinking mint tea. In Sephora and Boots, we encountered English speaking, smartly dressed women working as salespersons, something the Husband had not seen while growing up.
Waves of reform were also evident in the women’s fashion – the colour palette for abayas have taken off, replacing the boring blacks and greys with bolder hues. The beautiful Arab women look stunning in their beaded and embroidered attires, baggy sleeves and buttonless jackets-disguised-as-abayas. I ended up buying two and was going on three before the Husband intervened.
Saudi life is noticeably low-key in the trending lifestyle/travel vlogging world – little seems to be searchable about its day-to-day culture beyond the glimpses of expat blogs. A testament to that is the lack of information my trusted old friend, Mr. Google-a-doodle, was able to cough up despite my creative computations for ‘Jeddah Travels’ before our flight. Since then I have been furiously combing through the vastly resourceful world wide web, hungry to see and know more. I came across a few women who have taken to social media to open their closed culture to the wider world. Posts from instagram accounts of ‘saudi_in_london’ and ‘jazzebelle’ takes you right inside the lives and living rooms in Jeddah and Riyadh. In a deeply conservative culture, these women are carefully redefining their life boundaries.
I loved my stay in Jeddah but there were a few hiccups and inconveniences along the way. Some of my interactions with Saudis (mostly men) were not exactly pleasant, particularly with the immigration police. While trying to buy a sim card from STC, I was told that there were no official records of my entry into the country. My flustered father-in-law drove us back to the airport less than 24 hours after we had arrived. I was shocked by the less-than-efficient management we faced from the airport authorities. We were taken through three different layers of security before being told that the relevant office was closed. No one seemed able to give answers without discussing with at least 3 or 4 other individuals and almost no one knew English which made the communication even more frustrating. In the end I decided not to buy a sim. One cannot make Whatsapp and Viber calls from the country which made matters worse. The iPhone savvy me felt quite disconnected from my global family and friends, especially on my birthday.
The biggest disappointment of all was returning to England without riding or taking a photo with a camel. The Husband laughed at my crestfallen face when I was told that the camels near King Fahd fountain were dwindling and rare to find. Here I was with my stereotypical images of Saudi Arabia and I couldn’t even find the most commonly touted emblem of the country!
Fi Aman Allah
On random days I find myself suffering from severe Jeddah withdrawals. I yearn to walk along the Red Sea smoking shisha, ride and befriend a camel, tick off my bucket list of exploring the mountainous region of Ta’if, feast on more Al Baik and wash it all down with Almarai strawberry juice from Danube. Jeddah, I have fallen head over heels for you!