Dancing by the fire
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Dancing by the fire

They tightened the skins of their hand drums in the heat of our wood fire. They sang and drummed, and waved their dancing swords beneath the stars, their words rushing upwards with the warmth from the flames.

This special troupe of traditional dancers sang and danced a traditional welcome song. But in this so young country that has changed so much and so fast since its founding, it appeared the roots of this tradition were shallow indeed, easily pulled up from the dry sand of the desert. When I asked which tribe or region the song came from, I was told that it wasn’t quite like that. It was traditional, but it was also new.

But then it was over, and it was time to eat. Tables groaned under a weight of food no party could do justice to. Whole sheep lay draped over rice, the meat so tender that it was lifted from the carcass with a spoon: no knives needed. The swords long put away.

Looking out over the barbed wire
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Looking out over the barbed wire

From my sitting room window, I can see the evening drawing in. It isn’t dark yet, but the failing light lends the air that fuzzy timbre that can be mistaken for the haze of pollution: the smears of brown and grey that smudge out the distance on a morning drive to work.

Lights have come on, and their warm orange gives the buildings a gentle blush. Later, these same lamps will glare out as beacons of brightness, but for now, they seem rather to act as highlights, guiding the eye to details that might otherwise be missed. In this moment, all seems calm. Even the road, that streak of angry tarmac demanding a death-defying sprint across six lanes of traffic to get to the few shops on the other side, seems calm. The roar of engines has paused. Even the air is still, for this is a moment before the evening Isha prayer, and the call of the muezzin has yet to break the quiet.

Between me and the lights is nothing. Though where I stand was empty desert just five years ago, it would be wrong to think of this ‘nothing’ as a place of pristine desert or of Lawrence-of-Arabia sand dunes. Really, it is just derelict scrubland. From where I stand it is not so easy to see, but walking along the road’s edge makes the ugliness obvious: discarded plastic bottles, ripped bags and the remnants of polystyrene food boxes. Even further out, the desert that surrounds the city – and in places still curls a tongue inside its limits – is littered with plastic. Whites and blues stiffly flap in the breeze: plastics half buried in the sand.

Plots of empty land are found dotted throughout Riyadh. The city has grown rapidly over the last few years but it has also grown haphazardly. Ever since a tax on undeveloped land in Riyadh was introduced around the end of 2015 in an attempt to ease a housing shortage, these plots of land have been turned into tax-avoiding pretend building sites. No actual development work is carried out, but the ground is dug over and mounds of rubble left strewn about. Ugliness proliferates. Unbroken ground like that before me is weirdly rare now. The city has taken on a damaged feel.

Rubble-strewn land; half-constructed buildings; a $20 billion metro project. Riyadh has become a city of massive plans, but of unfinished business as well. After the work-stopping government-budget austerity of the last couple of years, work is starting up again. The once-stalled King Abdullah Financial City again has workers; whole new districts have appeared where when I left in 2016 there was nothing but rock and sand. Across the city, there is a palpable uptick in the speed of progress. Still, there is work yet to be done: even the road from my compound ends in an all-terrain track, surrounded by builders’ rubble.

But as I look out from my sitting room window, across the now darkened land, these thoughts of construction, of mess, and of projects incomplete, fall away. For now, there is nothing. Just the barbed-wire fence, the desolate scrubland, the mosque, and the bright glow of lights reminding me that Riyadh is all around me. And that Riyadh is alive.

Trying out the local restaurant
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Trying out the local restaurant

Having ordered the usual plate of chicken and rice, I noticed a pair at my local restaurant eating a chickpea curry. It looked thick and rich and tasty, scooped up with hot fresh bread. I told the chef that next time I would have that, so good did it look. He said I should come the next night. I said I would. He said he would look for me.

As I entered the restaurant he looked up and smiled, bade me sit down and went to serve up the chickpeas. As I waited, sitting on the carpeted raised floor, I watched the other staff at their evening chores. Yesterday it had been placing plastic bags inside paper bags to make waterproof takeaway bags. Tonight, it was tying knots in flimsy plastic bags and, on my other side, throwing a handful of cut raw vegetables into little bags.

My chickpeas arrived, with bread and a plate of raw vegetables. I smiled and said thanks. I tore off a piece of hot hot bread and scooped up a mouthful.

It wasn’t thick and it wasn’t rich and it wasn’t tasty. It was a watery plate of tasteless, mushy pellets. It was beyond words. I superglued my smile to my face and shoved the mouthfuls down.