Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

That fine and mysterious Muslim month of Ramadan is upon us. I very rarely claim to be an expert on anything, and Muslim holidays are no exception.  I have not read any books about this special month but have discussed it with the Arabs that I work with and seen it for myself.  

For this turn of the moon, as the Muslim calendar is based on the moon, the followers of Allah must fast while the sun is showing.  This means no eating, drinking, smoking, or pretty much anything else you can think of. Expats and Non-Muslims have to hide to eat, drink, and smoke.  Most work sites and compounds put up a “Non-Muslim Break Area” sign for rooms where these things are allowed which appears to be well tolerated. Getting caught in the open doing any of these things is severely offensive and not recommended. Not in your car, hospital, or anywhere in the open. Shops and restaurants are closed all day and the streets look like a ghost town while there is daylight.  Very few cars on the road, all shops shuttered, trash blowing through empty streets like some Arab Western. They claim the purpose of this is to show every person the suffering of those that are doing without, so they can better understand the difficulties of the needy and be appreciative of what they have.  

This all sounds very nice and I approve, but there have been some doubts raised in my mind the past few days as we have have gotten into this holiday.  The night brings out a different and crazy animal. Roads become clogged, which is a good thing, as any open tarmac will have youths in Toyota pick-ups, Landcruiser’s, Hyundai’s and Kia’s drifting.  Sometimes missing your car by a hair and sometimes losing control and spinning around to flood your face with their headlights before laughing and carrying on. Restaurants and shops change their hours to be open at night. Locals feast as soon as the sun disappears under the horizon and go to cafes to smoke and converse. Companies change their work hours for observers from a normal four hours to perhaps two hours so they can sleep during the day.  

Now it is true that my worries may be unfounded or incorrect but this sounds a bit like just changing everything 12 hours and becoming nocturnal.  Sleeping during the day and doing all manner of normal human activity at night does not make a fast or sacrifice.  Especially when the the air is like an oven during the day. Night is the only bearable time to be outside. I leave it for the reader to decide. 

Saudia Airlines

Saudia most likely will not be on your radar of flight options if you are not a Muslim.  This is simply because Saudi Arabia is not a big tourist destination for non-Muslims and there are much better and more convenient connecting flights through Istanbul, Dubai,  and other Middle East gateways. But if you are a Muslim or contract worker there is a good chance you will fly on Saudia.

Their fleet consists of small Airbuses for domestic routes and Boeing 747s and Airbus A330s for long haul.  They have also received new 787 Dreamliners.  Domestic flights are quite disgusting.  The planes are beat up with broken arm rests and tray tables,  disgusting carpet, filth everywhere, and no entertainment system. The cabin crews are excellent foreign workers but appear burned out as most of the customers do not listen to them.  So on some flights they just hang out in the galley chatting with each other.  I don’t blame them.

Food is good but only if you like rice and chicken.  I believe I have gotten the same chicken and rice every single time.  Orange drink is in unlimited supplies and is what most people have.  Not orange juice mind you, orange drink. Juices are also available.

I detest mobile phones for many reasons but in public spaces and especially the confined space of an airplane cabin I hate how people share everything they do.  Headphones are a rarity on these flights and phones only have one volume, maximum.  So you will have to listen to everybody’s conversations, Youtube videos, and children playing games.  Noise cancelling headphones are a life saver on these flights.

If you are a male traveling alone be prepared to move from you assigned seat if a Muslim woman has a seat in the same row.  A Non-Muslim is not allowed to be close to a Muslim women.  This might mean losing your nice window seat and instead settling into a middle seat between two big sweaty blokes.

The larger aircraft are slightly better.  They are just a faction cleaner and in better repair plus they include an entertainment system.  Be warned that any films you watch will be shortened quite a bit as the Saudis censor very liberally.  Anything that hints of sex is gone.  Violence is fine, but not sex.  So enjoy John Wick but not any women being anything less than fully clothed.  Kissing and touching are also out.

I have gotten to fly the new Dreamliner a few times and it is fabulous.  Clean and perfect.  I do not expect this to last much longer though.

Saudia does have one benefit over other airlines and that is its baggage allowance.  Two large heavy bags for International flights and sometimes three.  This is because Saudis shop like mad on vacation and bring back luggage stuffed to the point of blowing off a zipper.  So the airline does have one thing going for it.

But here we end with the biggest reason to not fly Saudia.  No alcohol.  Not a drop on any flight anywhere.  So if you enjoy a twelve hour flight without even a glass of wine with your dinner go right ahead.  But if you enjoy a little taste on your flights stay well back.

 

 

Mada’in Saleh – Part 2

As soon as Davis and I arrived home we turned on my laptop and looked at the map. It was easy to tell where we had been driving as there were only a few roads crossing in the middle of the desert. Two cell towers also helped by making perfect landmarks. The road we needed to take was the only road we hadn’t tried off of the badly damaged tank road.

Furry Camel

Early morning the next day we again set off full of high hopes and absolute certainty that we would see our destination. We make it to the familiar tank road and turn onto the correct road.

Total time to make it further than we did the day before, less than twenty minutes.  We drive on, enjoying the scenery and confident in our route. After an hour and a half we stop in a little village for fuel. This village is comprised of a gas station, a tiny market, a police station, and a few houses. I would estimate the population as being made up of a large family. All villages in the Kingdom are identical. So we pull up to the fuel pump and the Indian worker asks “how much?” in Arabic. Here is a man that comes from a beautiful lush country of a billion people, and leaves his family and friends, to work alone in a speck of a village in the middle of a desert. I want to talk to him, to ask him why. What are his motives, his dreams, his desires. But alas, we are unable to communicate. So I hold up all my fingers to signify how much fuel to pump and then wave goodbye to this sad lonely wanderer and leave him to contemplate his decisions and being.

Down the ribbon of pavement we continue, enjoying the ups and downs and tight turns the hills offer us to break up the monotony of the desert. When my eyes start to close from drowsiness I just reminisce about the utter wastes of Utah’s Salt Flats or Nevada’s deserts and I snap awake with the understanding that this isn’t bad. It could always be worse.

But this time I seem to have awoken to a mirage, for there looks to be a giant mountain covering the road.  Surprisingly Davis sees the same. There truly is a hill of dirt covering the road. Stunned we stop for a moment until I realize a dirt trail with construction equipment littering it climbing the left side of this unexpected roadblock. Against Davis’s wishes I drive up this makeshift road to the top. From the top we are greeted with an fabulous view. High up on the mountain are heavy construction trucks moving dirt around. I secretly hope for one to go tumbling down the mountain since the precipices they are working on don’t look like they could support a man let alone a solid block of metal. Down below us on the opposing side of our roadblock is a beautiful road weaving through the mountain pass. I feel sorry for it as it looks so lonely without any cars.

Now we were at an impasse. I feel that we had driven too far to give up so easily but Davis feels that we have no options. I offer up the idea of driving down the side of the mountain but Davis is a safety minded individual and so is against it. I then offer roaming around the desert looking for a way to bypass this problem. Again Davis is against it saying that we only have a small front wheel drive sedan. I can see that Davis just wants to go home since he is making excuses about my easily executable and perfectly safe ideas, so I humor him and we return to Tabuk crestfallen.

Mada’in Saleh – Part 1

To travel from city to city in Saudi Arabia may appear to be a simple task for the uninitiated, since there are very few roads and long distances between the urban areas, but it is a false belief.  There is a wonderful invention called Google Maps that destroys the need to ask locals for directions or consult a map.  I believe everyone knows how it works so I will skip the dry lecture.  I researched the way to drive which seemed very simple.  Five and a half hours, two turns, and passing three intersections once outside the city.  That was it.  Very straightforward and simple.

Davis and I get in the car and head off to the South of Tabuk.  We have never gone this way before but there are few major roads so our chances of error seem minimal.  We drive on chatting and enjoying the scenery as everyone seems to do when seeing new places.  Soon enough we intersect a road that we do recognize.  It is the main road to the West and Red Sea.  Obviously we had missed our turn.  Being completely honest with ourselves we said we knew exactly what was wrong and that we had missed our turnoff at the last roundabout.  So we happily backtrack and take a different road to the South, or mostly South based on our sun reading skills.

Saudi CountryNow would be a good time to point out that Saudi Arabia does not get many tourists and does not believe in road signs.  So what road you are on is a complete guess.  It adds to the mystery of the culture but can be quite interesting when you have no idea where you are headed and there isn’t a town or crossroad for a thousand kilometers, or thereabouts.

We catch a new road off the roundabout and again head in a generally Southern direction  We continue on this road that runs with military bases on either side complete with tanks and artillery making imposing silhouettes on the hills against the horizon.  Soon enough the road gets rough beyond anything a human being should be able to stand.  To our best guess it is a road for the military’s tanks.  I feel as if I have been transported back a hundred and fifty years and am riding a Wells Fargo coach across Nevada.  It turns out our guess is spot on as we come to an Army gate.  Dead End.  So we turn around and enjoy the free bone rattling massage while retracing our route.

We go back a little ways and turn off at an intersection to a road we have not yet used.  This road goes on for about 20 kilometers and dead ends at another military gate.  So we back track again and choose yet another different way.  This route takes us for another 10 kilometers and then dead ends at a, well, you know the answer.  It felt like we were stuck in some sort of trick.  Every road we chose ended up going to a military gate.

Davis and I do not give up easily, but seeing as we were not soldiers and had no business on a military base we decided to retreat, go home, regroup, come up with a plan of attack, and assault Mada’in Saleh at a later date.

Again we back track, heading this time not for the South but back North to the city.  After two hours of driving we had made it a total of ten minutes outside the city, but at least now we are back to the, what is this, a military gate?  Perhaps it is time to invest in a GPS.

How to Fit in Saudi Arabia

American-Saudi

Being a spy would have suited me as a life calling, as I fit in almost perfectly everywhere I visit. I adapt to different cultures with ease. Only my lack of language skills holds me back.

Being adopted by the Saudis is a very simple feat to accomplish. Given to the fact that they are extremely and genuinely friendly. Always ready to share their food with strangers, give a ride in their car to any in need, and just be helpful in any possible way. A simple showing of understanding the culture, genuine interest in their beliefs, and most importantly, joining them in cafes smoking, eating, and talking, is all that is required.

When I first arrived here the first question was always what religion did I follow, and I had to provide to worst possible answer, as I abhor lying, except when it suits or helps me. Agnostic is not an answer Muslims like to hear. It is a worse answer than Christian, Mormon, or any other religion, except perhaps Jewish. So I would get the usual information and books about the religion and long talks about the Prophet Muhammad and the good that Muslims do. I took no offense to this conversion effort and listened with open ears, as I have done with everyone that tries to convert me. When they finish I thank them for the information, tell them my beliefs and why I don’t follow organized religion, and then state that I would not like to discuss it anymore. So far everyone has honored my request.

The discussions following religion always follow the same line. What do you know about our country and customs and what do you think of them? I would tell what little I know about the customs, and then listen to their explanations and try to see it from their point of view instead of a Western or foreigners point of view. They are protecting their women, not repressing them. They used to be Bedouins and would leave all their trash in the desert and so continue to do it. They hire foreign workers because they can. They drive the Arab way, and not the Westerners way. All these things seem perfectly normal to me.

I told my friend and co-worker, Saud, that I like their clothes. He wasted no time in taking me to a shop and purchasing everything. I do not wear it out when I am by myself but I like to dress as an Arab when I go out with my Saudi friends. And boy how I do fit in. Even the people I live and work with mistake me for an Arab when I wear the Thob.  We go to a cafe at night, smoke the wonderful narghile, eat food and ice cream, drink sugary tea and coffee, and talk. I must take a moment here to say something regarding Arabic coffee. It is the greatest insult to the coffee bean that has ever been devised by man. Burnt orange in color, it smells strongly of spices and tastes absolutely awful. There is no hint of coffee taste in it. Granted that the West has also decided to cover the taste of the coffee bean with caramel, chocolate, vanilla, and other such flavors, but they have not done the injustice to it that the Arabs have done.

The secret of fitting in is not truly a secret at all. It is merely being able to drop your preconceptions and accept the local beliefs and customs. Arabs drive where ever they feel like on a road. On the shoulder, across two lanes, sometimes not even being bothered to look at the road because they are fully involved with their phone. They consistently go through red lights and make left turns across traffic from right lanes. A visitor should expect this and drive following a similar style. Honking a horn and yelling at them whenever they straddle a line, as an American did here a few months ago, is not recommended. His car was shot three times for his troubles. He did not fit in.

 

A Saudi Haircut and Shave

All barbers in Saudi are men, as are almost all workers. These workers are not Arabs, but foreigners.  Mostly Indian and Filipinos but some other nationalities to fill the equal employment code no doubt.

These men do not hold certificates from beauty academies or a license of any kind.  They appear to learn by doing, which can be a bit unnerving when he first puts a straight razor to your throat, but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me start from the outside.

A Saudi barbershop looks like any other Saudi building.  A tan strip of run down little shops next to a petrol station with a heavy sliding gate that indicates if the shop is open or not,  which is needed since they do not keep hours but open when they feel like it.  Trash is piled up near the door unless the wind has blown it away.  The door might fall off the hinges when you try to open it but most of the time it decides to stay on and just give an ear splitting screech as you enter.  The barbershop itself is a small, high dingy room with two chairs for those being served and a few filthy sofas for waiting guests.  There might be a strong odor in the room or not, mostly depending on the temperature outside.  A small, old television located in the corner fills the room with Bollywood programs.

As you sit for your turn you cannot help but notice that there are no disinfecting sprays or liquids.  The towels used to shield you from your own hair are stained and were perhaps washed, once.  A haircut is like a haircut anywhere. Straightforward with scissors, water, and a brush.  All of which bring previous victims hair along to mingle with yours.  When the gentleman is finished you realize that it was all so easy and fluid, that you might as well get a shave.  You will need one since a beard is mandatory in the Kingdom.  He leans you back, wraps you in the condemned towel, and then proceeds to disinfect the razor.  This is accomplished by lighting it on fire with what appears to be perfume.  It is the only sterilization performed, and yet it is done with such show that you cannot help appreciate it.   After this he puts a new razor blade into the razor and proceeds to go to work.  Some people fall asleep, some watch in the mirror, while I personally choose to drift through my own thoughts.

After you have paid the barber a modest sum and walk out the door a few things cross your mind.  Is that the best haircut and shave I’ve ever had?  What exactly does a certificate prove?  Has anybody ever gotten sick, ill, or even had a rash from a barber here since they are so dirty and don’t clean the instruments?  These are questions you will have to answer for yourself.  They are yes, obviously nothing, and not to my knowledge.