Arabia/Saudi Arabia/Asia/Sri Lanka

Returning to the land of Ibn Saud

I woke early to catch the bus from my hotel in Colombo to the airport. It was raining, the water coming down much harder that it had appeared when I first stepped out of the hotel. A tuk-tuk took me to the bus stand. A bus marked ‘airport’ was already there, waiting. All very simple. In fact, I probably boarded the wrong bus: the slow number 187 rather than the express 187E. Instead of zooming along the motorway (Sri Lanka apparently has one), we chugged slowly along more medium sized roads. At one point our driver ran out of enthusiasm for the journey and kicked us all off onto another bus. At six thirty in the morning, though, the traffic was light. The journey took an hour, just as the rome2rio transport planning website had predicted, and far less than the horror stories on travel fora had foretold.

By the time I was back in Saudi Arabia it was close to six in the evening. The sun was low, but large and burning orange. The desert appeared quite beautiful as we came into land. Not a drab beige, but a set of yellows and browns, picked out with threads of gold and little pock marks of green. This isn’t a lush, tropical beauty, of greenness and bursting life. It is a different sort of beauty. An austere, minimalist beauty that speaks of extremes. Extremes of temperature from the burning heat of a summer noon to the bitter cold of a winter night. Even extremes of personality. The desert can be difficult and frustrating, but it is also a source of wonder.

And who would think it could be so welcoming? Leaving immigration at the airport I was offered sweets, dates and Arabic coffee. Eid Mubarak.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

The real food of Riyadh

Tonight I eat hummus with Arabic bread (think flat and thin) for my dinner. You might think that this is the most local of local dishes, that such food is the sine qua non of eating in Riyadh. And, of course, you would be wrong.

The real food of choice in Riyadh is the hamburger.

Riyadh is littered with burger bars. My American colleagues cluck amongst themselves about the chains from back home that have either already opened up a Riyadh franchise or are about to. Naturally there are MacDonald’s and Burger King outlets. There is also the whole gamut of dire chains such as TGI Fridays, Chillis, Red Lobster and the like, that advertise on the television under the slightly alarming ‘Americana’ quality badge. These places offer a hamburger, of course: a burnt patty lost between two over-sized buns and smothered in cheesy gloops.

These are not the burger bars for connoisseurs. The proper burger-eater picks from the ever expanding range of bespoke, artisan and independent hamburger crafters. There is Hamberghini where the patties are misshapen and come with a slightly foetid taste. Elevation burger declares itself as eco-friendly and has a menu complicated enough to leave one believing anything. There is Smash burger, Fat burger, Burger box, Burgerizzr, Jan Burger, BurgerFuel, Baby Burger, My Burger, Burger Cheese Volcano, Burger Castle, Burger Garden…the list goes on and on. Burgy has a simple menu with just a couple of alternatives, but serves a patty that is satisfying in its heft. Highly favoured, of course, is Burgeronomy where the hamburgers are small, but oozily juicy. The little shop’s plastic chairs and tables present an underwhelming (yet sadly typical) environment, but there is no place better to go when, as my Texan friend would say, one wants to ‘crush some burgs’.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

On the occasion of the 88th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army

The Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Saudi Arabia and his military attaché invited me to a reception. Of course, it was just their name on the invitation; they had never even heard of me, but someone else had. So  after work I toddled off to the Diplomatic Quarter.

These parties are not quite what one might imagine. Certainly they are not what I might have imagined before coming out here. There are no dinner jackets or tails at a modern embassy reception; no martinis, shaken or stirred. Think, rather, ill fitting lounge suits and glasses of pineapple juice. Nonetheless, they make for a break in the routine. Hosts line up in front a wall of flags and politely shake the hands of all their guests, important and less so. At this military-diplomatic occasion, it was clear who the audience was. One third was Saudi officialdom, perfectly dressed in spotless thobes (the white robe), immaculate shemaghs (the red and white headdress) and wonderful brown and gold bishts (a gauzy outer layer richly adorned with gold ribbon). One third was military: the various attachés from the various countries, all togged up in their various uniforms: some like the Pakistani sailor all in ceremonial white, others like the Iranian captain in drabber khaki rig. One third was the local Chinese community. And then there was me.

Though only the second or third official reception I have been to in the Diplomatic Quarter, it is apparent that they all follow a set pattern. First you arrive and shake hands with the hosts. I didn’t really get a chance to shake hands with the attaché. The man just in front of me had commented loudly that this was his first meeting with a ‘Chinese soldier’; the Colonel was left looking at a departing back muttering only ‘Officer…officer…I’m an officer’, and didn’t seem to notice my outstretched hand. Then you turn, climb a few stairs and head over to the corner to collect your glass of fruit juice. Next comes the talking small. Everybody always knows everybody, except of course, no one knows you. So a good twenty minutes are spent in a series of introductions during which cards and contact details are swapped, never to be referred to again. Then comes the speech. The Colonel stepped into a little dais and delivered a speech in what appeared to be perfect Arabic. There were appreciative whispers from the Saudi contingent, but no one in my section of the room had the faintest idea what was being said. It was at this moment, though, that I noticed how ill-fitting the poor Colonel’s uniform was. He looked lost in it: a child in a giant’s jacket. Last, there is the food: as one herd we stampeded to the back room, swarmed over the buffet, queued up in front of the satay stall, the shawarma man and the deep fried prawns, and gobbled to our heart’s content.

IMAG0039 (800x450)And that is how receptions go. With stomachs full the place empties quickly. A few conversations straggle on but nothing lasts for ever. The Ambassador, his wife and the Colonel were once again lined up to wish us all good night. At the door was a table of little leaflets for us to take away. Most were in Mandarin or Arabic, but one caught my eye. Essential bedtime reading, straight from the information department of the People’s Liberation Army, it explained how well loved the army was in certain provinces. It made the revisionist history videos about that PLA that had been on loop all evening appear positively conventional.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

A night on the tiles

Fun was overdue, so it was time to party, Riyadh style. It was time for a trip to the sun of any social circle, that around which everything in Riyadh revolves: a shopping centre. Twinned with a curry, what could be better?

As ever, our timing was not quite right. Choosing to break the fast late, we skipped Iftar (roughly 6:45pm) and sat down in the restaurant at closer to 8:40pm, just in time, it seemed, for the Isha prayer. Down came the blinds, covering the windows to the restaurant. The door was locked, though we were allowed to stay inside. The three poppadoms popped in front of us were not taken away, but our order, made in haste before the call to prayer, was put on hold. We could but sit and chat for thirty minutes.

But then the blinds were raised, the food was served, and the evening came back to life. Children began zorbing in a little inflated paddling pool set up in the corridor in front of our first floor, shopping centre curry house.

And after dinner, what could be more Riyadh than a spot of shopping? Having eaten both fridge and cupboards bare, I was reasonably pleased to find a supermarket in the basement of the shopping centre.

Within moments of entering the place I began to feel that empty cupboards and possible starvation were not so awful a fate. The place was a mad house. The baskets all seemed to be coated in the detritus of squished vegetables. Mothers rammed me with their trolleys to get to the crisps and powdered fruit juice. Children ran into me, shrieking as they slipped from the fingers of their distracted parents and play-fought with their siblings. My feet themselves had to dance to some convoluted choreography as I tried to pirouette my way through the crush.

I could but grit my teeth and fight against the desire to run from the place. I knew I had to buy something. But still, the scene in front of me did its best to rob me of any wish to eat ever again if it depended on buying anything from that supermarket.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

Alone and unloved

IMAG0650 (800x451)IMAG0652 (800x451)In the gloom they stand, half dismantled and discarded. Once they served us well, but now displaced by a newer model, they are deserted in the desert. New owners come for them now, to box them up and ship them off. For pastures new perhaps, for newer better masters. Maybe they are tired, but not defeated: they will serve again, anew, refreshed.

But we do not pause to stand and think. We have become captivated by the new. We are enthralled by the now and have no time for the past. We have turned our backs and forgotten.

Our old offices.

Arabia/Bahrain/Saudi Arabia

Flying into a sand storm

My second visit to Bahrain was quite unlike my first. In Bahrain for business, I flew: there was no four hour, slightly terrifying car journey through night. The hotel was clean and comfortable; the food excellent.

It was all over too soon. Before one knew it, lunch had to be brought to a speedy end. It was time to fly back to Riyadh. But that didn’t translate into an easy return journey. The flight was bumpy and, as we descended, the sky outside the windows turned a thick, milky, orange. We were trying to land in the middle of a sand storm. Suddenly the engines flared up, the ‘plane banked steeply and we gained altitude. It was impossible to land; we were going back to Bahrain.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

Life out here, running the perimeter wall

Each night I run the inside of the perimeter wall. Bright lights cast their electric white over the black of the soft tarmac. To my left is the wall; to my right the compound and the sand of the desert, claimed but untamed. Not everything within our walls is manicured and manufactured. Surrounding the rows of houses and well-tended wadi is desolate dust. I run in the evening after the last call to prayer has faded from the air. Even now, in March, the days are warming up, but come the evening it is still pleasantly cool. Cool and dry; my skin soon feels grimy from the dust, but never clammy with sweat. There is just a faint line of dampness in the crease of my elbows, where the skin folds over itself preventing the sweat from evaporating.

The mornings are not as cool as they were even a couple of weeks ago. Walking from my rooms each morning I pass through the wadi. There is water still in the bottom, though there is no clue as to how it got there. The plants are all in bloom and the chatty birds fill my walk to work with music. The cloudless sky is a bright blue and the sun overhead even brighter.

What is it like here? I have been here over a year and a half now, but still I cannot really answer that question. Riyadh is like any big city. It is full of different peoples, different sounds and different tastes. The local restaurants near my rooms are cheap and tasty. The area is growing quickly and new houses and shops are opening up all the time. The area is filled with workers building it up before our eyes.

Towards the centre of town the restaurants get more expensive, but the food doesn’t always get better. The ambience is hit and miss most of the time, but weirdly worse the more middle class it gets. The centre of Riyadh is also filled with the glass and steel towers which have become the sine qua non of a modern city. A brand new financial district is being built where tower blocks jostle with each other in their quirky designs. A light railway system is under construction; road works disturb the traffic everywhere as the routes and stations are laid down.

But of course, Riyadh isn’t like anywhere else. It is different in all the headline grabbing ways, but also in ways that I would come to miss were they to be shed. The old immigration system was crazily awful; the new one boringly efficient. Of course I do not miss the old way: the interminable queues, the silent shuffling, the guessing games of just how long it would take. Yet now that is all gone, replaced with bright lights, glass desks, and smiling staff, Riyadh has lost something. It has gained something, absolutely, but has lost a little of its character too.

That character, that difference, is seen in so many little ways. The crazy driving and the huge cars. The endless burger bars and the delicious shawarma. The flashing fluorescent lights outside one-story shops. The coffee shops with their sprawl of dust-laden chairs and tables. The nights of young Saudi men climbing from one car to another as they skid across town. The nights of fires in the desert. The barbeques, the heavy lamb and rice, the can of diet cola (held by Saudis to be more than essential). The shops selling hundreds of different types of shemagh (the Arabian head-scarf), all identical and yet all different. The thobes that vary in design; each minute step away from pristine plainness a micro-step away from respectability. The unmarked side roads that ramify around massive walled houses. The supermarkets that unfailingly rob me of any trace of appetite, with their shelves full of cheap local vegetables and surprisingly expensive American imports.

The things that make Riyadh different are probably no more numerous than the things that make Riyadh the same, but however familiar Riyadh comes to feel, it never quite feels normal.

So what is life like out here? I really cannot tell. I yearn to leave, yet when away I begin to long to return. The overwhelming routine isn’t just a prison, it is also a comfort blanket, though one that at times threatens suffocation. Early nights and early rises are the hallmark of my weeks. Come weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) and I might stay up a little later, but the habit of early mornings has bitten deep and the fierce morning sun hardly makes sleeping past seven at the latest any easier.

Riyadh is place where it is important that you like your work. There is always ample work to be done, but of course it helps to pass the time. With no cinema or such like, social lives are definitely social. You cannot just float with life, for there is nothing to float in. You have to dive in deep and grab it with both hands. It is one Riyadh’s oddities that the current of life may not be deep enough to float on, but still gets deeper the better one gets at diving.

Riyadh can feel frustratingly lonely, but it is also home to adventures and experiences that I haven’t had anywhere else. Digging holes in the desert to cook quail; jumping in cars with strangers for four-hour cross country drives; sipping tea with fast-talking locals. These are not the things I would do in London, but because Riyadh demands that you make the effort, you find yourself doing everything that your mother taught you not to. Never mind not talking to strangers, this requires a virtual embracing of them.

Surrounding everything, and informing life in a way I will never be fully able to understand, is the desert. There is the desert that is nothing more than a dirty wasteland. There is the desert of astonishing beauty. The desert sky isn’t as dark and bright as legend would have it, but only because Riyadh itself is so bright. Electric lights burn all through the night and, in a weird twist of irony, as deserts advance in other continents around the globe, here the desert is retreating as Riyadh advances unstoppably.

When I stepped from a British Airways ‘plane eighteen months ago and first trod on Saudi soil, I was driven to a half built compound on the edge of the world’s largest women only university. Now I live on the edge of a thriving, growing neighbourhood, but without ever having moved house. Economic growth is tangible here; urbanisation isn’t just a word. Perhaps over a quarter of the country lives in Riyadh, though firm numbers aren’t easy to pin down, and yet the city continues to suck people in.

And it sucks the land dry as well. Riyadh might mean garden, but the oasis of old isn’t enough to sustain the modern metropolis. Desalinised water is a partial solution, but a quick glimpse at a map shows how costly a solution it is. Riyadh is nowhere near the sea. The bounty of cheap energy (read oil) is everywhere to be seen. Never mind the price of petrol (a family car can be filled up for only around £3), the style of life here depends upon not ever using the word sustainable.

Yet for all these words, I cannot describe what life is like out here. The shops shut five times a day as the call to prayer brings the faithful from their work. There is a mosque in every neighbourhood, almost on every corner. They can be simple or intricate, but all appear welcoming. I haven’t been chased from a single one, and the no entry signs one might see in Morocco are conspicuously absent here.

In this most conservative of countries there is a friendliness and welcome that is warming. In this most reserved and walled-off of societies there is a hospitality that often surprises.

As ever and always, this is a land of contrasts. All the hackneyed comments are true, and yet not a single one is right.

I am never sure what my feelings towards this place are and I am never sure that I can describe what life is like out here.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

A caffeine shock

A colleague of mine returned from a recent visit to India with a bag of Masala Chai: tea and spices to make a brew that sends me straight back to the streets of Bombay.

Last night we gathered for an evening chat and as I entered his kitchen the aroma was unmistakable. Three mugs of the delicious, thick, spicy, milky tea later and it was time for bed. Except that whilst it was easy to get into bed, it was a great deal harder to fall asleep. Bolt awake I lay, staring at the ceiling, turning from one side to the other. The minutes merged into hours, and when I finally woke to my alarm bell I wasn’t feeling refreshed or rested.

The morning after was worse than the night before.

My skin was clammy. My face flushed. I was anxious. I was distracted. My hands shook and I just could not concentrate on one thing at a time. Instead I was focusing on everything. Not one thing after another, but all of them at the same time. My fingers fizzled and my body buzzed. During one conversation I began to hyperventilate.

This was the power of caffeine. A lot of caffeine. A vast amount of caffeine.