Say “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and, for many, the first thoughts are one of opulence, royalty, palaces, monuments rising out of the desert. It is all that. Absolutely dazzling.
Yes, it was opulent, but I was in search of more than a palace tour. I was after the action and lively hustle I expected to find at a souk … not an elegant souk in a hotel lobby, but the bustling energy of a souk in the heart of the old city of Riyadh. My colleague Patrick Mancino, who is the Executive Vice President and Director of the National Council on US-Arab Relations, joined me.
The noise and reverberation in and around the souk are intense. Above the din, women are chattering loudly to one another, their veils puff out as they speak. Perhaps because their bodies are covered except for the eyes, they appeared to stare at me, almost glare. As in almost all settings, I kept my camera at my waist, folding my abaya over the black camera.
I was amazed by this vibrant scene. Suddenly I detected a faint and exotic scent. It grew more intense. It was like a marvelous tonic. I followed my nose and all at once, we entered a stall whose perfume totally revived me.
The vendor was holding a black-handled torch that shot a flame into a lamp. Inside was frankincense. These incenses are part of life in the Middle East, used to perfume public rooms and homes. Yes, as in frankincense and myrrh. The incenses brought by the Three Wisemen to the stable. Here in this stall are sold medicinal incenses that have been traded in this part of the world for over five thousand years. This was by far the most exquisite shop in the souk. Very magical.
Mancino soon led me out of the labyrinthine souk where I was delighted to visit the magnificent mosque just across the street.
Famished after the day, like a real “Amurrican,” I headed straight for a hotel buffet. I greeted the chef enthusiastically and marveled at the bounty of the dining room.
Looking out my hotel window, I saw a skyline with minarets and mosques in view despite a sandstorm that was thick enough where city lights had been turned on.
It was a decent hour to make a call to the United States, because a team of colleagues from the organization I work for was due to arrive that day. I wanted to have a chat with Jon Hunstman, the heroic philanthropist for whom all of us work.
Today, Huntsman is founder and benefactor of Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. With him, cancer is personal. He has survived 5 cancers. I share his commitment. I have also had cancer. Twice. Huntsman has given and raised $1.4 billion for the Cancer Institute. While grateful for successful outcomes in his own treatment, he says, “It felt impersonal and for a disease in which treatment is often ongoing, the environments were cold and medical.” At Huntsman Cancer Institute, if a patient wants a hot butterscotch sundae at 3 in the morning? Comin’ right up! Trivial as that might seem, it’s that attitude that pervades at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, from hospitalization through therapies and years’ long follow up. Jon Huntsman wants patients to feel like family.
In addition to the hospital, research at Huntsman Cancer Institute combines the power of new sequencing technologies with the largest genetics database in the world. At Huntsman, researchers have identified genetic mutations that cause cancers of the breast, ovaries, colon, melanoma and many other cancers. Here, more inherited human disease genes have been discovered than anywhere else in the world.