As we took off on Saudi Arabian Airlines from New York’s JFK International Airport, I settled in for a 13-hour flight. I ate the delicious Lamb Kapsa (lamb cooked with tomato sauce, spices and kapsa rice), informed the flight attendant that I was closing my eyes for a bit, and the next thing I knew … we were landing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Geologists believe that some 35 million years ago Arabia broke away from the continent of Africa. The split caused a trough, which today is the Red Sea. There is evidence that Arabia has been inhabited since the Stone Age. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is bordered on one side by the Red Sea and on the other, the Arabian Gulf.
I stepped off the plane into the surprisingly soft heat of Jeddah. There I was, a New Yorker who ordinarily moves around my Upper West Side neighborhood in Belgian loafers, leggings, and any old soft button-down shirt, setting my foot down on the fabled land that has held me spellbound since childhood. I felt more than comfortable in my abaya. It reminded me of my early school days with Catholic nuns. For me their flowing robes and covered heads represented modest elegance and dignity.
My gracious hosts had sent someone to help me through customs. I had several hours before my continuing flight to Dammam, so we jumped into an Audi A8 sedan and headed for the Red Sea. Rushing past the cityscape, I noticed the uniformity of the architecture: four-story buildings with flat roofs in a beige palette — the colors of the desert, a thousand shades of beige ranging from cream to deep rose. Barely a half hour from customs, I was looking at the iconic Floating Mosque of Jeddah.
Along the shimmering Red Sea coast stand clusters of modern high-rises next to traditional walled-in private homes. At the seaside Italian restaurant El Gabon, a fresh local Najil was simply grilled and simply wonderful.
Dusk on the serpentine corniche. There was a warm breeze coming in from the sea. Was it coming from the Nubian Desert? I figured it was probably a hundred miles or so miles away from me, across the water in Africa! Before I could finish that thought, I saw a sight that defied the stereotype Westerners and Europeans have of the Arab woman: On the sidewalk, in their abayas, women were strolling in twos and threes, neither cloistered nor threatened — and not a male escort to be seen. Quite a few were wearing jogging shoes, walking briskly and swinging their arms like race walkers. They laughed and chatted freely with seemingly no inhibitions whatsoever.
I felt it would be rude to snap pictures of something else I saw that night, a kind of family ritual as familiar as a Fourth of July picnic. This scene was repeated all over the Kingdom during my visit: at the side of a highway, moms, dads and kids emerging from cars, laying out large carpets, tea things, and picnic hampers. As my first day in Saudi Arabia turned to night, there were campfires in the Jeddah sands, children frolicking, intimate family talk and laughter, and the occasional murmur of an elder’s storytelling. I was delighted by the lightness of their being.
But there was no time to pause. I took a short flight to Dammam in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
I would begin my Saudi Arabian visit as guest of friends I first met 40 years ago in Belvedere, my California hometown. They immediately sat me down to dinner.
After settling into the house, I turned off the lights and lay in my bed enveloped by the sounds of the night. I slipped into a light sleep but awoke to the loud whine of urban drag racing. I slipped off to sleep again. Then, again, l was startled awake! I sat straight up in bed. In the dark, in a distant land, I heard the pre-dawn melodic call to prayer for the first time. Here I was in the land of Lawrence of Arabia, hearing not the Maurice Jarre music from the movie, but the same sound Lawrence heard, the music of daily life in Saudi Arabia. Birds sang as the night sky gave way to the morning light. It was then that I knew I had truly arrived.
The breakfast room looked out on a large pool and an impossibly tall, warm pink bougainvillea tree. But the real warmth was the kindness of my host family. This, I learned, is the Saudi Arabian way. It’s part of their culture to be other-oriented. They create comfort for guests, and inquire about their family and children, and their welfare and health.
After breakfast, I visited the nearby community of Dhahran, built for employees of Saudi Aramco. Though founded by US oil explorers in the 1930s, Aramco has “long been a Saudi state corporation,” according to Reuters, which also notes that Aramco “has more than 15% of all global oil deposits.” The Aramco housing looks as American as can be.
The Dhahran housing development has, not only a golf course, but a yacht club, a beach club, and other amenities typical of an American-style suburb. Indeed many employees are from the U.S., sharing streets with Saudi Arabians and citizens of many nations. There are basketball courts, swimming pools, tennis and squash courts, a bowling alley, soccer and rugby fields, stables, playgrounds, supermarkets, a museum, library, hair salons, snack bars, restaurants, a hospital, and a school.
In practically every direction one looked in this community, it was easy to imagine being anywhere in America. It was wonderful to see a woman, alone, completely covered, getting into her car to drive confidently down the street of the compound.
Amazingly, once out of the compound a woman can pilot a plane but cannot drive herself to the store. Before readers scoff, though, consider this: Some of Saudi Arabia’s women are among the most highly educated in the world. In my final social diary chapter, readers will learn of increasing opportunities for the women of Saudi Arabia.
I began my week as an artist and author-in-residence at Dhahran Ahliyya Schools. Dhahran Ahliyya Schools is a private, non-profit preK-12 school that offers two high school programs — Saudi and International. Its girls and boys become fluent in both English and Arabic and attend top universities in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries and the U.S., UK, Germany, China, and Japan.
In the United States, their students have graced the halls of Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Middlebury to name a few. They do Model United Nations in English and Model Arab League in Arabic. They have won repeatedly on an international basis in robotics and science fairs like the annual International Science and Engineering Fair organized by Intel. What I experienced was a school that produces thoughtful, open-minded global citizens. More about the high school students on my last installment of this series.
We began with the little ones.
Joory Amer is 8 years old. Her interview with me follows:
I read the students a book that I illustrated and co-authored. Blackie lived in a pasture near my California home when I was child. I have read Blackie to hundreds of children, and this was one of the most attentive crowds I have ever read to.
After my week in the Eastern Province, I packed my belongings for the drive to Riyadh noticing that the sky was ominous. The wind began to howl. I was assured “everything will be fine.” Off we drove into the desert. The trucks were moving slowly and steadily through the drifting sand in the right lane, but once on the highway we pulled into the fast lane, as fierce winds shoved our groaning aged SUV from side to side.
The surroundings offered peerless beauty: ever-changing dunes sculpted by the winds, in ever-evolving variations of colors now muted and then darkened. Form and texture were stark, beautiful, and astounding.
The majestic beauty and vast barren emptiness was beguiling. The bare desolate desert stretched on endlessly. Every now and then, sheets of sand slammed against the car. The vehicle could not seal it out — the grit of the sand collected in the folds of my abaya.
Every now and again a massive plow could be seen on the horizon, clearing sand off the road. Black camels dotted the landscape. Herders and camels took refuge under sand-laden highway overpasses. It was difficult to see where the sky ended and land began.
Eventually the sand storm began to lose its strength.
T. E. Lawrence wrote that “Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up in them, and for strangers, terrible: a death in life. No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad: and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”
Now the ultra-modern capital of Riyadh lay before me. There were hurried highways, dazzling shopping malls, opulent hotels, walled-in palaces, office high-rises, and the compelling architecture of the mosques. Tradition and modernity were everywhere. What a visual feast!
Yet in the midst of this gleaming metropolis resides one of the oldest souks in the Kingdom. I will take you there next Thursday.