Saudi Arabia: The Land Balancing the Old and New

Hafsa Badsha, II Year M. A. Enlgish

The first thing I see when I enter the airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a gleaming Sbarro’s pizza bar right opposite the immigration counter, with people in burqas and long white robes milling around it. It’s all very Lawrence of Arabia meets your generic mall experience, and certainly isn’t the first image of the country I’d expected. It does set the tone of the next few days in Madinah and Mecca, with Saudi Arabia proving to be a land of constant binaries, a melding of an old, traditional regime coupled with a population trying to find its place in a new century.

My first stop is Madinah, a four hour drive across the desert from Jeddah. The city is full of stone houses perched on top of mountain cliffs, muddy, dusty streets, and the occasional skyscraper and shopping centre. But it’s the haram, the portion of the city built around the Masjid Al-Nabawi that houses the pilgrims, that is the true hub of the city, pulsing with life at all hours of the day. Days in Madinah begin as early as 4 in the morning, with the call to prayer. And while staggering back to my hotel room to sleep in is a comforting thought, there is one very crucial thing in my way; the morning market. Madinah’s souk come alive before the sun rises, and is one of its most unique experiences, selling jewellery, clothes, and scarves. There are so many people in the town square that traders throw their wares up in the air so that you can catch a glimpse amongst the throng, shouting prices and haggling furiously, a process that is repeated until the late hours of the night.

The pilgrims I meet come from everywhere: Indonesians, Egyptians, Americans, various parts of Europe. They’re armed with selfie sticks and smartphones; it’s a spiritual experience full of group pictures outside the mosque, hashtags and check-ins on Facebook. Surprisingly, not everyone sticks to the standard black burqa and white thobe (a long white garment worn by Arab men); there are bright, pastel dresses, salwar kameezes and high waisted skirts, and long loose sports jerseys worn over jeans. And though the diversity of cultures is astounding, communication can be difficult, especially when English is barely spoken by anyone. Though Arabic is the standard and a lot of sign language is resorted to, it’s French that’s extensively used by thousands of people, due to the number of Arab immigrants from Morocco, Algeria and Libya.

Mecca is where I go next, and the crowds there make Madinah look empty. Mecca is a constant roar of people coming at you in waves, forcing you to wait for everything from entering the Kabah to buying food for at least half an hour. Sit down restaurants are virtually non-existent except in hotels, which along with chain restaurants, charge exuberant rates. Mecca’s street food, a maze of different stalls and cuisines, is what people flock to, with everything from the iconic Arab shwarma to some very interestingly spelled choices, like my personal favourites, the “Chicken Zinker,” and “Neggits,” to choose from.

With a sun that is literally blinding, most afternoons are spent in the safety of the Abraj Al-Bait Shopping Centre. There’s the usual Giordano, Guess, and Chanel but it’s the local Arab sellers found on the lower levels that draw the crowds, with richly woven tapestries, boxes of fresh dates and oud, a strong perfume, unique to the Arab world.

The shopping arcade isn’t the only haven away from the crowd and heat. On my second day, I stumble upon a secret garden of sorts; the King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz extension. A newly-constructed part of the mosque, it’s one of the city’s finest architectural masterpieces, with gold chandeliers that hang between looming, marble arches, intricately patterned stained glass and thick, soft carpets, a secret that the few who know jealousy guard.

As a country that comes with a conservative government and an abundance of rules, you won’t find your traditional holiday getaway in Saudi Arabia. But you may just discover a land steeped with history, filled with a kaleidoscope of different people, and a few other cities that never sleep. Just don’t forget to pack your sunscreen.

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