My Time in Saudi Arabia, Part II

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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.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a palace built for a king. Off these corridors are guest rooms for his visitors.
A detail from the marble floor near the entrance.
The entry hall. In the archway there are photos of the royal family.
This tree in an interior garden is 600 years years old! Its origins are in Lebanon. Old as it is, it still produces olives!
A little younger than the olive tree, this one is 400 years old. It was imported from a South American tropical forest.
The plaque identifies the tree in Arabic and English. Note the logo at the top. The royal palace is a Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

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.

Ready to go to the souk in my walking shoes.
Patrick Mancino standing in front of the Aljami Alkabeer Mosque near the Al Deira Souk. Patrick visits the Middle East regularly.

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.

Entering the Al Deira Souk souk.
Alleyways within the souk. The souk is enormous … perhaps the size of ten city blocks.
Note the white air conditioners above the shops.
The floor is hard stone. The high ceilings are metal.
The abayas were originally black. Over time, it became any color as long as it served the same purpose. Nowadays, women in Saudi Arabia are starting to wear different color abayas again. I saw abayas that looked like Japanese kimonos. Some have patchwork materials, some have lace and open-work, wide sleeves and ballooned sleeves, pleated backs, leather gussets, billowing robes and appliqués. There are endless design opportunities. These women prefer black.
Men helping women with their selections. An Abaya could cost up to 2,000 SAR (Saudi Riyal) which is around $550 and as low as $40. Although, a couturier abaya could be in the tens of thousands.
Abaya shop display.
So many different styles of abayas.
You can practice your haggling skill in Souk Al Deerah. Never pay the first price you are given. . There’s always room to bargain.
Beautiful embroidery on women’s dresses. Also known as jallabiya.
Colorful jallabiya.
Clock repair kiosk. You will find these everywhere in Riyadh — In old souks, supermarkets, shopping malls. They cost very little and they are very quick.
Pat Mancino checking out the cufflinks.
I love the cement pouf seating outside the shops.
This souk caters to families. There are also women-only souks.
You find the shops in the souk opening up closer to 9 A.M. and closing by 11 P.M. with normally a 4-hour break in the afternoon.
Traditional Saudi male slippers are called Na’al or Madas.
It is better to pray in groups in order to gain more good deeds. There was no space in the prayer room, which explains why this man is praying outside.
Shops closed during prayer.
Traditional decorative pieces.
Souvenirs of camels, Saudi Arabia’s desert ships. Dallah, usually gold in color, are pots in which Saudi Arabian’s serve Arabic coffee (Gahwa).
A closer look at the Dallah. These are for decorations or souvenirs.
A variation of goods all sold in one shop.
Another nice little souvenir shop.
Saudi Arabian Russian dolls.
Traditional women accessories; anklets, necklaces, head pieces.
Women shoes. I always assumed they were Aladdin-inspired.
Patrick Mancino examining tribal rugs.
Shopkeeper in his usual spot beckons shoppers to enter.
Shopkeepers strolling.
Toys and kid’s shops.
One of the souk’s streets.
Not everything in the Kingdom is high end. This alley leads to residential apartments and homes.
Even still, there were beautiful details throughout. These doors led to a lobby of an apartment building.
Ancient door in the souk.
An inside view of one of the less glamorous malls in Riyadh.

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.

Incense and Oud shop. Bkhoor is the Arabic word for it. It’s very common in Saudi and most Gulf countries to have it in weddings, Eid gatherings, and parties. When you visit someone’s home they greet you with it. Myrrh is a sticky brown substance that comes from trees and has a sweet smell. It is used for making incense, medicine and perfumes.
Here, Pat Mancino performs a kind of ritual that I have witnessed at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, DC., when the Mibkhara filled with incense has been carried through the rooms. Mancino draws the smoke toward him so as to smell it and refresh his clothing with it.

Mancino soon led me out of the labyrinthine souk where I was delighted to visit the magnificent mosque just across the street.

Aljami Alkabeer or Grand Mosque, one of Riyadh’s oldest and most famous.
During the holy month of Ramadan a special prayer takes place called “Salat Al-Taraweeh.”
Only men are expected to pray in mosques. Women can and do, but some prefer that her prayers be performed at home.
Women usually have separate entrances to the mosques than the men, but if that not the case women can simply line up behind the men and pray together.

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.

We greeted the chef enthusiastically and marveled at the bounty of his dining room.
Bountiful Artisan breads.
Najil from the Red Sea.
Dates have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years.
Beautiful fresh fruits for juicing.
Exotic designer chocolates.
We enjoyed our meal and then returned to our hotel.

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.

View from my hotel room.

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.

Jon Huntsman and family. He’s pictured in the middle (at 8 years old). Born poor in Idaho, he is now a billionaire. Along the way, his family was cut down by cancer: mother, stepmother, father and brother.

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.

The Huntsman Family at the Utah Governor’s mansion with their son and then-Governor Jon Huntsman (on the left in the cowboy boots). The younger Huntsman was later appointed as Ambassador to China by President Obama and in 2012 he ran for President on the Republican ticket.

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.

The Team Arrives in Riyadh. From the left, Dr. Randy Burt, Susan Sheehan and Paige Peterson of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation; Patrick Mancino; and Dr. John Duke Anthony of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. More about all of us next Thursday. But, first, there’s a reason I am in the middle here. In Riyadh, I was wearing two hats. One as the Executive Vice President of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and the other as a member of the board of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. When we meet next week, I will tell you why Saudi Arabians and Americans got together in Riyadh to talk about cancer.

Click here for Part I of My Time in Saudi Arabia

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