Yesterday a sand storm blew up. The heat never wavered but the sun was veiled in yellow-brown as the air filled with sand. Oven-hot winds whipped around one, the air gritty with sand. Sunglasses were a necessity, not because of the sun’s glare, which was much reduced, but to protect the eyes. The Indians employed to keep the desert sand at bay were kept outside all day, sweeping back the sand even as the wind picked it up and whirled it around them. Today the winds had dropped but the air was still full of sand. The light was still a hazy yellow and buildings were swallowed up in the murk.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, I felt it was high time I got off the compound and saw a little bit of Riyadh proper. I arranged to meet a group of expats (an Indonesian, a Syrian and a Jordanian) who between them had clocked up nine years of Riyadh experience. Unlike me, these people did not live on a compound, sequestered from the town. They had flats in a single-male block right in the centre of Riyadh.
The centre is not quite the same as the heart. Like some US cities, Riyadh does appear to have a quaint old centre-quarter, or at least I haven’t found it or even heard mention of it yet. Massive roads, three of four lines each way, slice through the city. The junctions are equally large, with fly-overs, roundabouts and feeder-lanes. The city doesn’t look made for walking. Obviously the weather rather mitigates against walking, but crossing one of these tarmac behemoths is a tricky proposition. Cars don’t slow for one and there are no zebra or pelican-crossings. You just have to trust to your judgement of speed and distance and make a dash for it.
Life appears to revolve around shopping and malls. It is here where people congregate to socialise outside the house. The restrictions on what one can and cannot do and who one can and cannot mix with mean that most people carry on their lives within their own houses. There they have all the electronic gadgets they need to while away the hours. Shopping, window or otherwise, is one activity that is allowed. So Riyadh appears to be in large part a series of malls separated by massive roads.
It was at one of these malls that I met my companions for the evening and though it was only five thirty in the evening, they were soon discussing where to eat. Ramadan’s fasting ends around six forty-five each day here but they were leaving nothing to the last minute. By ten to six we were on our way to a restaurant for iftar, the celebratory dinner marking the end of the day’s fasting.
By six we were seated. Booking is difficult and so restaurants apparently start to fill up a full hour before people can actually start eating. By the time we arrived at six there were only a couple of tables left and we had to squeeze ourselves in. There was no ordering; iftar was set: an array of dishes and more than enough to fill one up. By six fifteen these dishes were being handed out. But there was no eating. Over the next half hour our table was steadily laden with food, water and fruit juice. Even if you hadn’t been fasting since four in the morning, this was an unpleasant torture. To see all this food right in front of one but to be forbidden from touching or tasting required a degree of conscious will-power.
All ears listened for the call to prayer which would then allow people to start eating, but as the restaurant filled and conversations grew, so the noise level rose. Commenting on how hungry we were, we suddenly saw people outside drinking and eating. We had missed the signal in all the hubub. Like a wave, conversation in the restaurant was extinguished and the sound of chomping jaws took its place.