Saudi Arabia: Saudi Montage 1989-90


Woodrow W. Denham


Completed 24 April 1991
Revised September 2001



We crossed into Egypt just west of the Nile delta.   Six miles below, the irrigated valley stretched away through the Sahara into East Africa, a lush green home to perhaps thirty million invisible peasants.   Approaching the ancient temples and modern dam at Aswan as the sun sank behind the sand, the plane tipped momentarily to the east then leveled and began a gradual descent into the darkening sky across the Red Sea to Jiddah, the ancient seaport near the center of Saudi Arabia's west coast.

King Fahd was in residence as we began our final approach into Jiddah, his presence proclaimed by a luminous plume of spray waving 250 feet above the royal fountain in the sea beside the palace.   Faint city lights formed a carpet under our feet, and green fluorescent tubes glowed softly against white minarets on hundreds of mosques.

Emerging from the plane into desert silence miles from the terminal, we waited for busses on the tarmac at King Abdul Aziz International Airport. Soon the graceful arches of arrival gates greeted us, armed guards ignored us, immigration and customs inspectors handled our papers efficiently.    Someone met us at the exit with a black abaya cape and tarha headscarf for my wife and showed her how to cover her clothes, arms, legs and hair so the mutawah (morals police) wouldn't stop her for indecent exposure.

Our driver headed for the city, past the enormous tent-like Hajj Terminal awaiting pilgrims by the millions, along Madinah Road with its flyovers, interchanges, shopping centers and displays of Arabic calligraphy in flashing neon, past Kodak and Pepsi and Colonel Saunders and Holiday Inn and mosques without number, through cacophonies of auto horns as traffic lights flashed green.

We arrived in Jiddah expecting to find something exotically Eastern. Instead we raced into a city modern beyond our experiences, an astonishing florescence of freeways and high-rise office buildings, everything larger than life, a video game of colossal proportions.   The dramatic visual orientation of Saudi culture astonished us at the statuary gardens on the seaside Cornaish and at huge traffic circles every kilometer or two that held bicycles ten meters high, real airplanes and entire fishing fleets, abstract graphics and subtle sculptures.   North and south of the city, hundreds of miles of brand new suburban streets festooned with streetlights but totally devoid of houses and people formed ghost towns in reverse.

The frantic construction resulted from the 1970's oil boom combined with royal decisions to invest the country's sudden wealth in an infrastructure second to none.   With the infrastructure finished by 1990, the population and their activities were expanding exponentially to fill the open spaces. Suburbs sprawled at a measurable pace, and well over a million people already lived where only twenty thousand lived four decades earlier.  

Yet the old city, home of the twenty thousand, welcomed us as it had always welcomed visitors.   Al Balad district deep in the core of Jiddah, its massive encircling walls long since demolished, its camel caravansaries long since overrun, was for centuries the center of Arabia's international merchant community and a pilgrims' gateway to Makkah and Madinah where the birth of Islam occurred 1411 years ago.   From our hotel we began to explore its distinctive domestic architecture, closely packed multi-story houses of coral limestone with roshan   (wood-screened) windows that admit breezes without sacrificing   privacy, which recently entered a   renaissance as influential Saudis at last began to appreciate their cultural heritage.   Miles of covered souqs (markets) still twisted through the district selling brilliant fabrics, sturdy sandals, frankincense and myrrh, lamb kababs, shisha pipes and Persian carpets as they had done for centuries.   The streets of Al Balad were jammed with cars, but nothing much else had changed.  

We signed our contracts before we left home with only the sketchiest information about the school where we would work - new, wealthy, Arabic, Moslem, expanding its program to incorporate Western courses.   The recruiters were reassuring but deliberately uninformative. Having seen no pictures beforehand, we were awed by what we found:   separate facilities for boys and girls at opposite ends of a huge compound surrounded by high white walls with massive security gates, soft green lawns amidst fields of sand, gold domed buildings, a predominantly Moslem staff assembled from throughout the world, midday prayers said from Persian carpets spread over marble floors, and abundant Western educational technology.   We had no idea what we would learn after we got beyond the initial impressions that struck us so forcefully, but we knew we had to delay that understanding until we established ourselves in Jiddah.  

We moved into a villa at a suburban residential compound containing about a thousand such villas.   The compound as a whole was surrounded by a high white security wall and each villa was enclosed by its own white privacy wall.    In addition to the villas, the walls and the streets, the compound contained swimming pools and recreation centers, supermarkets and service stations, medical facilities, preschools and everything else you would expect to find in an American suburb except Christian churches, which were strictly prohibited.

Our heavily insulated and air conditioned villa consisted of a small living room, a smaller bedroom, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom that doubled as a laundry room.   Calling it a villa was pretentious, but such was the local custom; it seemed more like married students' housing at a small American college.    Our walled garden contained a few square feet of dust, one mongrel tree, random sprigs of grass, and a handful of weeds.

There were profound differences between the Western traditions that prevailed inside the compound, where women could wear shorts, swim in bikinis and drive   to the supermarket, and the ultra-conservative Saudi laws that applied to women in public areas outside the compound, the most conspicuous of which were   the strict dress code, and prohibitions against women's driving cars and appearing in public without male escorts.   The compound represented a difficult compromise between the requirements of East and West, its outer walls serving to quarantine Westerners from Saudis and vice versa, the Saudis saying, "you don't contaminate us, we won't interfere with you".  

Well before sunrise, our neighborhood muezzin (prayer leader) began the first of five daily calls to prayer from powerful speakers atop the mosque across the street from the compound - "Allahu Akbar! God is Great!" - a wailing call that penetrated our air conditioners and sealed windows to begin every day.   The second call we heard through the school's speaker system at midday.    Similar calls reached us every day we were in the Kingdom in late afternoon, at sunset, and at dark.  

Deep within Al Balad’s perfumes and tobacco, salt fish and leather, shisha smoke and garlic, the chanting of muezzins from hidden minarets echoed down narrow lanes to create fleeting images of the ancient East.    Amidst brilliant lights and dazzling displays of VCRs and scanty lingerie in modern shopping malls, the raucous screeching of over-amplified muezzins was unbearably anachronistic.  

Yet prayer calls set the stop-and-start rhythm of each day everywhere in the Kingdom.   Moslems weren't forced to participate in prayers, but they had a right to do so that their employers couldn't infringe by requiring them to work during prayer times.   So when prayer calls began, shops banged shut for half an hour and people unrolled their carpets to pray in mosques, on walk ways, beside the freeways. When prayers ended, a so-called "prayer window" opened (from the American space program's "launch window") and trading instantly resumed until the next prayer call sounded.



"During the holidays, I flew to Geneva in my Dad's LearJet."   "I stayed here and learned how to use my new recording equipment."   "We went to Tokyo first, but it was raining there so we went to Kuala Lumpur instead."    "He visited his uncle at the palace in Riyadh."   It didn't take long to learn that these weren't ordinary kids.

National leadership in Saudi Arabia has three major components.   Political and military leadership rests with the descendants of King Abdul Aziz al Saud mainly in Riyadh; religious leadership rests with the descendants and followers of Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab mainly in Makkah and Madinah; technical and financial leadership rests with hereditary merchant princes mainly in Jiddah. The student body at our school consisted of several hundred members of these three groups.

Many of the students' parents were educated in leading Western schools in Europe and the United States and knew both the intellectual assets and the moral liabilities of Western education.   Wanting their children to partake of the good but avoid the bad, they had established several strictly Moslem schools within the Kingdom offering standard Saudi curricula emphasizing Moslem religious and moral training, and providing extra courses in English, computing, physical education and other fields outside the core Moslem curriculum.   We were members of a small contingent of educators hired to develop the Western curriculum at one of these schools.

Our colleagues were a cosmopolitan lot.   All upper-level administrators were Saudis, most lower-level administrators were non-Arabic Moslems from Pakistan and India, most of the teachers were Arabic Moslems from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the service staff were TCN's (Third Country Nationals) from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Yemen and Bangladesh.    English was the lingua franca.

At the Boys School, Saudi administrators and students wore thobes long white robes and ghotras white or red-and-white headdresses that are symbols of Saudi male power throughout the Kingdom.   Non-Saudi men were prohibited from wearing this attire, being required instead to wear nondescript white Western style clothing.

The dress code at the Girls School was different. All females above the age of ten years, regardless of religion, language or national origin, had to wear the black Saudi abaya and tarha when arriving at school and departing. Social rank was symbolized by the extent to which one exceeded the minimum. Western women and some other non-Saudi women never wore veils. Saudi women always wore veils that completely covered their faces.   Members of non-elite Saudi families could be identified by finger ornaments and henna designs they wore on their hands; members of elite families wore black gloves and black leather shoes in addition to abaya, tarha and veil to guarantee that no parts of their bodies would be visible in public.   But inside the school, the black wraps came off. The students wore uniforms like gym suits, but the Saudi women wore brilliant colors and exceedingly flamboyant dress styles that came as a complete shock to Western women who arrived thinking that all female clothing in the Kingdom was highly conservative.

By the time students completed the twelve year Saudi curriculum, they had spent about sixty-five percent of their classroom time in Arabic language, literature, rhetoric and calligraphy courses, and in Islamic studies courses where they memorized the Koran, studied the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and learned proper ways to perform rituals.   The remainder of the traditional curriculum required that they learn Islamic biography, history and geography, and take courses such as biology and physics with strong emphases on traditional Moslem views in those disciplines.   Insofar as I could understand what my colleagues said about these matters without reading or speaking Arabic, the curriculum seemed to require students to master a great deal of material but to discourage them from examining it critically or thinking about it creatively.   Western courses were intended to add breadth to the traditional educational model.

The daily schedule reflected a strong Western influence.    An ordinary day began when the kids arrived in their limousines half an hour before classes began, did warm-up exercises, participated in a brief program and sang the national song.    They had classes for a couple of hours, a short break for midmorning snacks, and more classes until lunch - always including cardamom rice - and midday prayers.   Classes resumed after prayers and continued until late afternoon when their drivers picked them up again.  

Morning programs and midday prayers were conducted mainly by the students and provided important insights into the educational objectives of the school.   The students were in training first and foremost to be self-confident leaders.   Some of them - the brilliant ones, and there were a lot of those - would develop careers in religion, government, medicine, science or industry, but all of them, brilliant or not, would become leaders in their country.    If they had trouble with math, they could hire someone else to do math for them; if they had trouble with leadership, they were doomed.  

Because of the absolute segregation of the sexes beginning at six years of age, males never entered the girls' school and females never entered the boys’ school during the school day.   Furthermore, special school activities were always single-sex events such as Fathers' Night at the Boys School and Mothers’ Night at the Girls School.   But these policies didn't apply just to the school.   Fathers could take their sons to amusement parks on some nights and mothers could take their daughters on other nights, but Mom, Dad and all the kids couldn't go to amusement parks together.   Learning to understand such cultural differences continued throughout our stay in the Kingdom.



At an upstairs office in an older building near the US Embassy, Dr. Talal prepared Arabic translations of my foreign driver's license so I could apply for a Saudi license easily, and of our marriage license so my wife could ride in the car with me without fear of being arrested for traveling with someone who was not her certified husband, father, brother, son or hired chauffeur.   After a paper chase lasting two weeks, I got my license.   Buying a cool, reflective white used Mazda that looked like almost every other car in Jiddah - and for that reason had an annoying habit of getting lost in parking lots   - took another week and almost as much paperwork, but the resulting freedom to move about independently was worth the hassle.

Driving in Jiddah was dangerous.   I rarely encountered Saudi drivers who were truly vicious and none who were drunk, but most of them were devout Moslem fatalists who genuinely believed that whatever happened to anybody at any time was a manifestation of God's will. Bearing no responsibility for their own behavior so long as they didn't violate the laws of the Koran, they were supremely free to do whatever they pleased. Speed limits, traffic lights, seatbelts, pedestrians, other cars and drivers, often were ignored on the assumption that God was in charge. Defensive driving took on a whole new meaning in such circumstances.

But drive I did, everywhere, everyday in Jiddah, whizzing through traffic circles with feelings of abject terror and total abandon, blowing my horn along with everybody else at traffic lights, buying jasmine necklaces from boys hawking them on the Falasteen Street overpass, never ceasing to be amazed by late night family picnics under streetlights beside the freeways.

After working all day, we usually headed for a South Indian, Filipino, Afghan, Thai, Syrian, Pakistani, or Indonesian restaurant, or assorted street-side food stalls selling gyro-like shewermas, kababs, roast chickens, sambouseks, dates, nuts, or freshly squeezed fruit juices.   Non-Moslem restaurants catering to non-Moslem diners like ourselves coped with prayer windows by concealing us at all times, in another compromise with the mutawah.   In this case, restaurateurs agreed not to admit new customers or accept money during prayers, while the mutawah agreed not to evict us during meals.   We always ate in the "family section" from which men without women were excluded.

After dinner, we typically visited souqs.   The most spectacular were the gold souqs, endless rows of brilliantly lighted shops with red velvet walls covered with brand new pounded gold necklaces, sheets of thin gold leaf hanging down in multiple streamers to cover the wearer's breasts like vests of mail.    Prices were based on the weight of the gold, the quality of the workmanship, the gullibility of the buyer.   You couldn't reduce the first two by bargaining, but they didn't account for much of the price quoted to Westerners anyway.   The shops were dazzling but the gold didn't interest us as much as it did Saudi girls and women who accumulated it as a measure of their own personal worth, and TCNs who smuggled it into their home countries as tax free investments.

The antique souq opposite the entrance to the old airport was the antithesis of the gold souqs and much more to our taste - old, dark, smelly from campfires and animals and decay, filled with worn silver jewelry, camel saddlebags, Bedouin women's veils of black velvet and silver coins, long-beaked brass coffeepots and mosque lamps, hand carved woodwork from destroyed houses in Al Balad. Spread out on the floors of the shops, being sold at good prices by friendly traders, was the Saudi heritage, of no interest to most Saudis now but certain to be of enormous importance to the next generation after the current fascination with newness subsides.

In a narrow lane with stately shade trees just south of the old city, the Afghan souq offered carpets from throughout Central and Western Asia.   The shops were aging, cavernous and creaky, but the carpets were old and new, mostly in deep reds, stacked in piles on the floors and rolled in racks along the walls.   They came by truckloads from China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Iran and Turkey, many made by children for adult fingers were too large to perform the delicate work.   The Afghan traders were proudest of the carpets made by their own Mujahadin showing helicopter gunships, tanks, Kalishnikov rifles, and the freedom fighters who drove the Russians out of their country.   Evenings were never wasted wandering among the shops, sitting on carpets with the traders having cardamom coffee and mint tea, occasionally buying carpets, always buying giant yeasty rounds of bread hot from tandoori ovens along the street.

Covered souqs in and near Al Balad, as well as small ethnic souqs throughout the city, sold fabrics and clothes that appealed to all of the cultures represented in Jiddah - Indonesian batiks, Indian silk saris, brilliant African floral prints.   Stalls filled with black abayas that Saudi women wore in public were greatly outnumbered by shops selling the extravagantly designed "party" dresses that Saudi women wore under their abayas.   The African influence in the city was especially conspicuous in the Sudanese souq: a dusty, potholed street lined with squatting women selling firewood, wooden cooking utensils and African foods, a replica of street markets in Khartoum and Port Sudan, and one of the few places in Jiddah where women worked in public settings.



International tourism is barred in Saudi Arabia; domestic tourism exists but isn't encouraged.   When we arrived in Jiddah, we turned our passports over to the school and received igamas (residence visas and work permits) that permitted us to travel only within Jiddah and its immediate vicinity. To explore the Kingdom during our midyear vacation, we spent much of January seeking domestic travel permits.   We also bought a National Atlas of Saudi Arabia whose road maps were beautiful to behold but bore no detectable similarity to the nation's highways, a fact we didn't appreciate until we were well into the trip.

In a country filled with natural wonders including oil fields, the Empty Quarter and Red Sea reefs, the vertical cliffs and jagged mountains of the Asir Escarpment are among the most remarkable.   According to current geological theory, the Arabian Peninsula and the continent of Africa collided then separated.   The collision raised the opposite sides of the Red Sea into a single mountain range; their drifting apart resulted in the development of a huge north-south crack reaching from the Dead Sea to Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The bottom of the crack formed the bottom of the Red Sea, the top of it in the east formed the Saudi Arabian Asir Escarpment. The Tihama Plain and an extremely rugged range of foothills developed between them. During our ten-day winter vacation we explored the Asir, the Tihama and the foothills between.  

Eighty miles east of Jiddah and about five thousand feet higher on a plateau just behind the edge of the escarpment sat Taif, the summer capital of Saudi Arabia, an historic city that was felled by progress.   I remember only that it was cold enough there in January for my wife to buy gloves, and that the Al Hada Sheraton Hotel where we stayed achieved fame a few months later when the Kuwaiti government turned the whole thing into its palace-in-exile after Iraq invaded their country.

From Taif, a new highway twisted and turned southeastward, sometimes clinging precariously to the rim of the escarpment and offering magnificent views straight down for thousands of feet and westward across the spiky foothills into the Tihama, sometimes going "inland" a few kilometers to bypass especially difficult terrain.   The geology of the high plateau included Precambrian Shield, deeply folded sandstone and limestone deposits, and extensive recent lava flows and lava domes scrambled together indiscriminately.    During the winter, humidity from the coastal plain often rose along the face of the escarpment, formed dense clouds just below the rim and oozed over the edge to enshroud the highway in a narrow band of zero-visibility fog.

Due to its relatively high humidity and heavy rainfall, the Asir has long been inhabited by large numbers of sedentary farmers who developed hand-tilled, irrigated terraces to raise vegetables and grain.   Unlike conservative elite women of Jiddah, peasant women of the Asir wore in public brilliant red and purple dresses and no veils as they herded sheep and goats on steep mountainsides. The highway carefully avoided the many ancient villages, granaries and watch towers that stood as sentinels along the crest of the escarpment, monuments to a tradition of intertribal warfare that spanned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, and was suppressed only recently by the Saudi government. Each tribe displayed a distinctive architectural style, some preferring rough stonework, others smooth dark stones with dazzling quartz inlays, others simply painted mud, the most remarkable in high rainfall areas using thin sheets of slate protruding straight out from their blue mud walls to deflect rain. The tender grass and pink-blossomed fruit trees that softened the scene for us in January would wither rapidly as summer approached.

Abha, capital of Asir Province, developed as an important regional market and a major stop on ancient camel caravan routes used primarily for transporting frankincense and myrrh from Oman and Yemen to northern Arabia and the eastern Mediterranean.   Mercedes freight trucks replaced the camels, but Abha's Thursday morning market remained one of the best places in Saudi Arabia to buy handmade basketry, pottery and jewelry.   The baskets were especially distinctive in red, white, black and green, tightly coiled, and covered on the bottom with stretched goatskin, a few hairs still in place.

Abha Intercontinental Hotel was located near the city on the escarpment rim facing the Red Sea from an elevation of about 9000 feet, the highest point in Saudi Arabia.   Built a few years earlier as a royal palace, it became a five-star hotel but remained palatial in every sense:   258 royal rooms, a huge high-tech conference center, almost everything built of marble, and topped with a gold dome.   Fortunately it was heavily subsidized, for we were its only guests the night we stayed there.

Asir National Park, headquartered at Abha with a Visitors’ Center designed by the US National Park Service, reached from the escarpment rim down into the Red Sea.   It encompassed over 400,000 square kilometers in five major ecological zones including the waters and reefs of the Red Sea, mangrove swamps and other coastal habitats, the open Tihama desert, the wide band of rugged foothills at the base of the escarpment, and the escarpment itself.

Access to land within the park was severely limited by the tortuous terrain, but we had no difficulty in walking through juniper forests in humid cul-de-sacs along the rim, spotting blue lizards basking in the sun, and observing many troops of Hamadryas baboons that lived on the ground and cliff faces throughout the higher elevations of Arabia from Taif to the Hadramaut region of eastern Yemen.   These "sacred baboons" of ancient Egypt also live in the mountains of Ethiopia where the Arabian populations probably originated centuries ago.  

Adult hamadryas males weigh about thirty pounds and adult females about fifteen, but the difference in size appears to be much greater for the males alone wear enormous silver fur "capes" over their shoulders.   The animals live in large, complex troops often containing over a hundred members.    Within a troop, each adult male has as many as six or seven adult females in his "harem", and he attempts to prevent them from mating with other males in the troop.  

We found troops crossing mountain highways, scaling cliff faces, hiking past our hotels, fighting at refuse bins, sitting of boulders in the sun nursing their infants. Our best encounter with them occurred in a housing development at the edge of the escarpment in Abha.   The troop of about thirty was entirely relaxed in our presence.   When they discovered that we had bananas, three of them tried to get into the car - not aggressive, just eager - and one magnificent male sat on the hood for almost ten minutes posing for portraits.   Another exceptional encounter occurred just before sunset one evening when we came upon a troop of about 120 spread out across a grassy park-like area in a quiet wadi (river bed, usually dry) deep in the mountains.   The adult males remained cautious, but the others ignored us, grooming, foraging and playing in the trees until darkness fell and we drove on.



The clear dry mountain air gave way to steamy, sticky muck as we hurtled down the escarpment from Abha to Jizan.   The highway had a constant fourteen percent grade for the first ten kilometers, then became less steep but viciously crooked as it left the cliff face to follow a dry wadi through the foothills. The section in the wadi was built in the early '80s to withstand fifty-year floods only to be hit the year after by a hundred-year flood that destroyed it.   Hence, the wadi was littered with the remains of bridges and highway segments undermined, tipped over, up ended, washed down stream like matchbox toys, and interfering with new construction intended to withstand virtually any flood.

The fishing port of Jizan sat on the remote southern frontier of the Kingdom, silent, hot, dusty, barren, depressed, built on a low salt dome that was dissolving and collapsing under the streets, surrounded by salt flats and endless expanses of featureless desert, a far outlier that everyone had forgotten.    Our hotel on the waterfront overlooked a new deepwater harbor that appeared to have been abandoned before it was finished.   The central business district showed no signs of oil wealth, the suburban shopping mall catered to customers driving white Toyota pickups and wearing curved daggers, silver-plated pistols and bandoliers full of ammunition.   Supporters of the Eritrean Liberation Front had spray painted their slogans on compound walls, and a Bob Marley cassette wailed "I Shot the Sheriff" in a juice shop - or was it a saloon?   In a country so rich in oil and so poor in trees, we hadn’t expected to see huge bags of locally produced charcoal for sale beside the streets.  

The hotel provided an Egyptian guide to take us to a nearby oasis in the plain and a remote market town in the foothills, both of which were off-limits to us without an escort.   Before we got out of Jizan, an uninsured, unlicensed and incautious driver ripped the back bumper off our car with his 4WD Toyota LandCruiser. Having heard lurid stories about Westerners always being presumed guilty in Saudi traffic accidents, we were prepared for the worst.   As a subdued crowd gathered, a military officer trained in England, Hawaii and Taiwan told us the driver was one of his relatives and assured us that our car would be repaired promptly and at the other driver's expense.   By the time the police arrived, a deal had been struck and the police accepted it.  

I spent half an hour in the police station signing Arabic language documents that I couldn't read, while my wife, barred from the station by her femaleness, sat enveloped in black on a wooden folding chair on the sidewalk opposite the station gate, protected by the gate guard and stared at by the men of Jizan.    An hour after the accident occurred, we left the car at a repair shop and scrunched into the back seat of the LandCruiser that did the damage for a ride back to the hotel.   At nine the next morning, our car returned in better shape than before the accident.   Maffi mishkula - no problem!

The oasis near Abu Arish used gasoline powered pumps and open irrigation ditches to water fields of tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, corn and okra, gardens of ornamental flowering plants, and orchards of bananas, papayas, mangoes and limes.   Dying date palms revealed that the pumps were rapidly lowering the water table, there as throughout Saudi Arabia, stealing water the deep rooted plants needed, giving it to shallow rooted plants instead.    The oasis produced food for Jizan and even Jiddah, and some of its water was bottled for drinking, but it represented a short term solution to the long term problem of self-sufficiency that plagues so many arid developing countries with rapidly growing populations.

The foothill village of Al Aridah, adjacent to the Yemeni border, had been connected with Abu Arish, Jizan and the outside world by highway for less than a year.    The trail from the center of the village led down into the organized chaos of a hot, dusty medieval market such as no other we saw in the Kingdom.    It occupied several acres, and lanes canopied with trees and vines formed a grid among stalls selling huge gourd water carriers, camel and donkey saddles, various medicinal herbs some of which may have been contraband drugs smuggled across the border from Yemen, daggers and bandoliers that men wore around their bodies and garlands of herbs and brightly colored marigolds that they wore around their heads, elaborately embroidered velvet women’s dresses, and large numbers of things that we couldn't identify.   The smiling, unveiled young woman who sold sour crepe-like Ethiopian bread to us wore a low-cut dress - it's a long way from Jiddah to Al Aridah.  

But it isn't far across the Red Sea from Jizan to Ethiopia, and Jizan, like Jiddah, served for centuries as a port of entry for African pilgrims to Makkah, many of whom never went back home.   In addition to contributing their genes to the Tihama population, they also contributed tall conical mud huts covered with external wooden frames, grass mats for waterproofing, and outer nets to hold the mats in place.   These great huts, which gave a distinctly African appearance to rural villages throughout the Tihama and to some neighborhoods in Jizan, were reputed to be lavishly painted inside, but the one our guide showed us at Abu Arish was totally devoid of interior decoration.  

Around the swimming pool below our hotel window in Jizan, the male half of a wedding party began about 9pm - the female half was held out of sight at another location on the other side of town.   The poolside area was covered with red carpets.   When most of the two hundred guests had arrived, dinner was served on huge trays laid out in rows on the carpets.   Known colloquially as a "goat grab", the main dish consisted of rice and lamb piled high on the trays from which everyone, sitting in groups on the carpets, ate with the fingers of their right hands.  

As the remains of the feast were cleared, unmistakably African drumming began in the parking lot behind the pool, a remarkable sound in Saudi Arabia where public performances of music are strongly discouraged or flatly prohibited. The guests in flowing thobes and ghotras formed a dense throng around the drummers and an open dance area in the middle of the parking lot, where for three hours they performed vigorous, stomping, militaristic dances, singly and in small and large groups, as the five African drummers in brilliant green wraps pounded out the rhythms, retreating now and then to a small fire at the edge of the lot to tighten their drumheads in the flames.    Among the most skillful dancers were the young man who ripped the bumper off our car and his relative the military officer who came to our rescue.  

Returning to Jiddah, we took a short walk through Dhee Ayn, a large foothill village of about forty houses sharing common walls atop a quartz outcropping in an easily defended position near the edge of a steep-sided wadi.   A strong spring at the base of the outcropping gave Dhee Ayn a highly productive natural oasis filled with fruits, vegetables, date palms and an extraordinary diversity of hummingbirds that flitted in the bushes beside the trail that led up into the maze of paths within the village.   The sand-colored houses were built of flat stones carefully stacked and interlocked as much as three stories high. The walls held tiny windows far above the ground, low doors with geometrically carved wooden frames, and flat stones projecting outwards to form external stairs to the upper rooms. The entire village was abandoned in the early '80s when the national government built a new highway a few kilometers away and urged the villagers to move into cement-block houses much closer to schools, hospitals and stores.   As unprotected structures gradually fell into disrepair at Dhee Ayn and other abandoned villages of the same architectural style elsewhere in the foothills, we heard hopeful rumors that this one might become a national historical site before it was too late.  



For 1400 years, Jiddah has been the port through which most hajjis pilgrims have reached Makkah, the holiest city in the Moslem world, about thirty miles inland from the Red Sea.   Until recent decades, Makkah received about 25,000 visitors annually, most of them completing the Hajj pilgrimage as required by the Koran.  

With the oil boom came construction of the enormous new airport where we landed in Jiddah, the purchase of a fleet of Boeing 747s by the national airline Saudia, construction of new facilities in Jiddah, Makkah and Madinah to accommodate huge crowds of hajjis, and construction of six-lane freeways to transport them between the cities.   Since non-Moslems are barred from Makkah even though it is located squarely between Jiddah and points eastward, the government also built two bypass highways so non-Moslems could travel across the country without driving through the holy city.   Now almost two million pilgrims visit Makkah each year during the month of the Hajj as guests of Saudi Arabia, and uncounted others regularly bypass Makkah to reach Taif and the eastern two-thirds of the country.

Hajjis who landed at the Jiddah seaport for centuries brought with them not only their religious fervor, culture and trade goods, but also their diseases and their ability to disappear as unwanted residents amidst the ethnic diversity of Jiddah. To increase the numbers of pilgrims, make their visits more pleasant and combat the undesired side effects of the pilgrimage, the Saudi government erected the Hajj Terminal at the new airport and channeled incoming pilgrims through it rather than the seaport.

The Hajj Terminal is visible for miles, a colossal white mirage floating above the flat desert scrub.   It looks like a Bedouin tent but is ten stories high and close to a kilometer long.   It's an entirely open structure of concrete and steel, with aircraft parking gates and jetways that can accommodate up to twelve 747s simultaneously, and bus loading facilities of nearly unlimited capacity - the world's largest air conditioned campground, fully equipped with health and immigration facilities and a computer system for tracking the hajjis throughout their stay in the Kingdom.   Here hajjis begin and end their visits to Saudi Arabia in complete comfort and security.

We followed the freeway eastward from the Hajj Terminal on the route the Hajj busses used, bypassing the city of Jiddah, passing through barren, rocky desert toward Makkah.   Hoping to catch a glimpse of the city, we took the northern bypass as it meandered up Wadi Fatima, a dry river bed that for centuries served as the main route from Jiddah to Makkah, past Turkish forts remaining from the Ottoman conquest, into villages where earthen dams in the channel captured flood waters to irrigate vegetable gardens and date palms, through a band of foothills north of the sacred city, and onto the gentle eastern slope of the high plateau where the city of Taif sat.  

Returning to Jiddah, we followed the new southern bypass highway down the face of the escarpment from Taif on a route that closely resembled an expert ski slope except that it twisted more and was 30 kilometers long.    From the base of the escarpment, we passed through gently rolling sand hills, fuzzy green with new grass following the winter rains and dotted with sprawling white Bedouin tents, white Toyota pickups, Mercedes tankers filled with water from Wadi Fatima, and sheep everywhere.   As part of the Hajj ritual each participant is expected to purchase and sacrifice a sheep.   With two million pilgrims attending each year, you might say that sheep raising near Makkah is the ultimate growth industry.   Makkah remained invisible from both routes.

The new mosques that dotted the city of Jiddah were so beautiful that we found it impossible to stay away from them, even though non-Moslems in Saudi Arabia were barred from entering all mosques, not just those in the holy cities.   Saudi mosques are fully enclosed, have large open inner spaces where the congregations gather to pray frequently and to hear sermons on Fridays, and have at least one minaret from which the muezzin's call to prayer can be heard throughout the neighborhood served by the mosque.   Unlike elaborately decorated mosques in Iraq, Iran and India, those in the Kingdom are extraordinarily sleek and austere, suggestive of Danish modern furniture on a huge scale.   Beyond that, there is much freedom in their design.  

The huge mosque on the Cornaish near the royal palace, with two tall minarets, a golden dome reaching right to the ground, and carved wooden doors almost twenty feet high, looked like a "flying saucer" when soft floodlights illuminated it at night.   The marble plaza surrounding it was a popular place for families to take blankets, coffeepots, portable TV sets, children and servants for picnics in the cool of the evening.

A tiny, severely angular black marble mosque with a freestanding minaret stood near the Intercontinental Hotel in Abha; a small, austere white marble mosque rested close beside the pink high rise Mahmal Center in downtown Jiddah; an imposing multistory mosque with grand entrances, one bold minaret and brilliant lighting was a major landmark on Madinah Road; a low mosque with perhaps twenty breast-like domes was reflected in the bay near Bab Madinah, the gate through which Madinah Road once entered Al Balad;   many simple suburban neighborhood mosques were surrounded by extensive gardens and trees with noisy flocks of nesting birds.

Since Moslems use a lunar calendar, the Month of Ramadan, the holy month when Moslems reaffirm their submission to God by abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours, is a movable fast. No doubt Moslems who work outside at demanding jobs find the fast to be physically difficult especially when Ramadan falls during the long, hot days of summer. But for Saudis who live in air conditioned homes and ride to air conditioned offices in air conditioned cars, the sacrifices associated with Ramadan are mainly psychological, especially when Ramadan falls in winter.

Under modern conditions, it might be more accurate to think of Ramadan as a schedule inversion than a fast.   After fasting all day, everybody waits impatiently for cannons to sound at sunset so they can begin to feast all night, and the feasting more than compensates for the fasting.   Since Jiddah became such a wonderfully illuminated city at night, being out on the streets after dark during Ramadan was most exciting: crowds shopping, cars racing, families picnicking, elementary school children playing soccer in parks at 2am, everybody feeling "high" from all the sugar they had for dinner.    And several of our Moslem friends hopped into their cars and sped to Makkah every night during Ramadan.

After being on this regime for a few days, people's physiological clocks began to re-set so that they were awake and active during the hours of darkness when it was all right for them to eat and drink, and either went sound to sleep or dozed frequently during the daylight hours when they were fasting.   The school attempted to maintain a shortened daylight schedule during Ramadan, but the students slept and nobody had the slightest interest in waking them.   Speaker systems at mosques are turned up during Ramadan and muezzins spend much of the month reading the Koran over them, while people ordinarily barred from entering Western compounds are permitted to drive loudspeaker trucks through them encouraging infidels to accept Islam as their own faith.   Ramadan ends with the Eid, a time of feasting, socializing and alms giving that Westerners working in Saudi Arabia often miss, for if possible they take vacations outside the Kingdom during the last half of Ramadan.



Despite the beauty and excitement of Saudi Arabia, it’s a difficult place for North Americans and Western Europeans to live, not because their lives are in danger as is true in many parts of the world - in fact, people are extraordinarily safe in the Kingdom - but rather because so many of the values that underlie Saudi society fundamentally conflict with Western values. As part of a small contingent of Western men and women working within a Saudi school, we could observe many of these value conflicts at very close range.

Issues surrounding the status of women presented some of the most conspicuous problems for Westerners.   One interpretation of the abaya, tarha and veil   - an interpretation common among Westerners and used to advantage by advocates of change within the Middle East - is that they mark women as second class citizens destined to function solely as breeders.   According to some of my male colleagues, men and women who can have sex together without violating Koranic incest prohibitions will have sex with each other if they have an opportunity to do so, a biological inevitability that is prevented by placing physical barriers between the sexes such that Saudi men and women live almost totally separate lives.   A corollary is that Western women who do not accept Saudi clothing restrictions and sexual segregation are presumed to be wanton, immoral people who are asking to be raped.   Not surprisingly, women who place the "second class citizen" interpretation on these facets of life in the Kingdom feel degraded, enslaved, infantilized by them. 

An alternative interpretation that my wife heard frequently from her female colleagues is that veiling and segregation place women in a special, exalted status, honored and treasured by their husbands, protected by their families from any possibility of shame, and free to live their own lives without the responsibilities that males face daily.   In this view, a liberated woman is one whose husband cares for her in accordance with the Koran, and is therefore free to live her own life in accordance with the Koran.    Men are truly free when they submit to the will of Allah; women are truly free when they submit to the will of Allah and, by extension, to the wills of husbands who submit to the will of Allah.   My wife's Arab friends often speculated that I didn't really love her since I allowed other men to see her.

Veiling, then, is an external symbol of profoundly different views concerning sexuality and human biology, gender roles, honor and shame, the nature of freedom, individual responsibility, architecture and much else.    Assigning primary importance to veils misses the point.

Conditions of employment present somewhat more subtle problems for Westerners.    Before Iraq invaded Kuwait last August, about a third of Saudi Arabia's twelve million residents were foreign nationals: hajjis who arrived for the pilgrimage and never left, Western expatriates providing senior managerial and technical services required to develop the Kingdom, skilled Arab workers from elsewhere in the Middle East, and TCNs, mostly non-Arabic and non-Moslem unskilled laborers brought from the poorest countries of Asia as indentured servants to do jobs that nobody else would touch.

Our Saudi colleagues generally deplored their country's dependence on foreign workers, but attempts to hire Saudis to do jobs held by Western expatriates throughout the country consistently failed.  Saudis tend to see themselves as executives, not as managers, technicians or laborers, and have neither the training nor the attitudes required for such positions.  Western expatriates may become quite uncomfortable when working for people who view them as inferiors precisely because they are willing and able to do the highly skilled jobs that Saudis cannot and will not do for themselves.

TCNs occupy positions that inferior slaves would have occupied had slavery not been formally abolished in the Kingdom in 1962.   They may be "mail order laborers", selected from catalogs and ordered just as you might order a pair of socks from Sears.   They perform menial jobs as domestics, janitors and construction laborers, or have more responsible positions as electricians, guards, private chauffeurs and so on.   Regardless of their positions, they receive low wages and have almost no personal freedom, often being on call twenty-four hours a day for the duration of their contracts.   Yet they remain year after year, earning far more than they could earn in Bangladesh or the Philippines, tolerating their low status and near exhaustion, and sending money home every payday because that's a lot better than living back home and having yourself and your family starve there.   Seeing these people live and work as near-slaves - not physically abused, but not treated as fully human - is stressful, but it's even worse to realize that the Saudis expect other expatriates to treat them that way too.

The strictly fundamentalist Wahabi version of Sunni Islam practiced in the Kingdom - and of course in the school - holds that each person's relationship with Allah ultimately is direct, one-to-one, without intermediaries such as saints, priests or images of any kind.   This austere simplicity accounts for the equally austere simplicity of Saudi mosques, but also it results in a very shallow "organization chart" of the religion:   Allah at the top and everybody else at the bottom with no "chain of command" in between.  

This Koranic form of organization characterizes the relationship not only between God and Moslems, but also between the King and his subjects, all of who may petition the King directly, and even between employers and employees.   There may be many layers of administrators between a chief executive and his lowest employees, but administrators implement decisions made above them and only rarely make decisions for their own or lower levels in the organization.    As a result, employees seek to establish direct ties with the man at the top, not with their immediate supervisors.   The shallow structure thus gives the employer complete freedom to run his business as he sees fit, but when he's away, everything screeches to a halt for nobody is responsible for making decisions.   That's entirely acceptable to Saudi employers and employees, but it can drive Westerners to distraction, especially when employers are inaccessible in Europe for extended periods then drop in unexpectedly to micro-manage for a few days.

Belief in God's will is total in Wahabism. This doesn't mean that people are predestined automatons or that their lives are determined by a capricious fate.   Rather, it means that if they strictly abide by the sharia (Islamic law), they are wonderfully free to live their lives as they see fit, and God gets both the credit and the blame for whatever befalls them.    Our Moslem colleagues, both Saudi and non-Saudi, asserted that Saudi Arabia's astonishing wealth was due solely to God's will.   Nobody argued that the Saudi's did anything to deserve all that wealth:   they were just sitting there minding their own business when somebody came along and found oil beneath them.   Why is poverty so common in the underdeveloped Moslem world? God's will. If God had wanted Syria and Pakistan to have oil, He would have given it to them.  

Insh'allah (God willing) is part of every sentence or idea concerning the future.   "Can you fix that computer?   Yes, insh'allah."   "I'll meet you for lunch,   insh'allah."   It may mean "I'll do my best" or "eventually" or "possibly" or "don't hold your breath", but it always means "God is responsible." Trying to run a Western-influenced school under these conditions is difficult since schedules and curricula assert something definite about the future.    If they are strictly enforced, they may be seen as infringements of God's will and man's freedom; if they are not, chaos results.   We experienced a fair amount of chaos.

It was startling to discover that Jiddah has some of the world's finest hospitals but no public emergency ambulance service.   If you have a heart attack or are involved in an accident, that's God's will.   If God wants you to survive, He will get you to a doctor; otherwise, He won't.   An emergency ambulance service in this context would be sacrilegious.   Likewise, motorcycle drivers don't wear crash helmets and automobile insurance is illegal in some places since both are seen as attempts to thwart God's will.   How do you teach boys to drive defensively when they feel that doing so would implicitly weaken their absolute faith in Allah?

The intersection of religion, science and technology presents problems everywhere, and schools in Saudi Arabia, like religious schools in North America, are not exceptions.   Conflicts in the Kingdom over Western technology have been minor compared with those that have plagued Saudi relationships with the methods and explanations of science, both of which clash with Islamic teachings in the core curriculum.   It's hard to teach critical thinking when thinking critically is discouraged by the culture; it's hard to prepare bright students for admission to major Western universities without referring to evolution and genetic engineering in their biology courses; it's hard to teach hygiene when cleanliness is viewed in terms of ritual purity rather than germs and epidemiology.

It's especially hard for liberal Western educators to adopt the view that all students are not entitled to equality of educational opportunity.   As is true everywhere, some Saudi children are intellectually limited, most are ordinary, a few are brilliant.   Coming from a society in which much more special education is provided for the limited than for the brilliant, we were uncomfortable when we found the opposite to be true in Jiddah.   Since individual differences are manifestations of God's will, students with limited intellectual ability are accepted that way, while extraordinary attention is lavished on those with the greatest potential. They can benefit from it the most, and in turn can help their society the most.   The logic is impeccable, but the strain for many Westerners is intense.

Perhaps our greatest problem, both in the school and in the country as a whole, concerned strict limitations on access to information.   At home, we like many Westerners read several newspapers and listened to news reports on several radio and TV stations, and shared information with colleagues and expect them to share with us.   To arrive in Saudi Arabia was to fall into a black hole with regard to access to information.

The English language Arab News provided adequate international coverage, as did Time, Newsweek, and other foreign publications that entered the country only lightly censored.   But domestic news in the Kingdom and in the school was almost nonexistent, and that which was available came primarily as official press releases.   Presumably high-ranking Saudis kept themselves well informed on domestic matters, but others received information on a need-to-know basis, and the assumption seemed to be that foreigners really didn't need to know anything about domestic events.  

These limitations were based to some extent on the rigid separation between public and private that characterized all aspects of Saudi life, leading Saudi women to wrap in black in public and dress like peacocks in private.   But for Westerners, the sudden stimulus deprivation generated incredible rumors and uncontrollable paranoia based on the assumption that the Saudis must be spying on you, hiding something important from you or plotting something against you, else they wouldn't be so secretive all the time.    These anxieties were made worse by the fact that punishments for violating the law were extreme but are used only rarely and capriciously; that your limited access to information meant that you probably wouldn't know the law until after you had violated it; and that asking for information with which to allay your anxieties only made the Saudis suspicious of you.   Catch-22.


Exit Only

We knew we were adapting to Saudi Arabia when we saw camels on the highways and thought of them as traffic obstructions rather than as creatures from an exotic bestiary, or visited a souq in Al Balad to buy a shortwave radio rather than to appreciate the architecture, or went to the Red Sea coast on Friday morning to sleep on the sand rather than to marvel at the astonishing beauty of the reef and the fish.  

As things larger-than-life assumed normal proportions, things once overshadowed became increasingly visible.   We became attuned to the phases of the moon and the lunar calendar, for the night sky was never obscured in the desert.   We drove out into the sands to touch the soft yellow flowers of deep-rooted acacia trees, and planted hibiscus and bougainvillea in our garden where they matured and bloomed for us.

We joined the Saudi Arabian Natural History Society which met at a secret location, and attended slide illustrated lectures about birds, bedouins, gold mines and agriculture.   We heard concerts by the Hejaz Chorus where Bach masses were called something else for fear of offending the mutawah; had a Christmas buffet dinner called something else at one of the Western hotels; and like most other Westerners, produced virtually undrinkable wine of grape juice and sugar, it too called something else, in plastic jerry cans in our bathroom.

Saudi Arabia was reputed to contain no books fit for expatriates to read because Western literature was censored, but that was untrue.   Shops selling new and used books occupied prominent places in most modern malls. European and American books dealing specifically with the Kingdom were missing, but throughout our stay we bought and read good Western literature and English translations of Arabic literature such as the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate, and never came close to exhausting the supply.

But buying new parts to repair old cars was more difficult.   As our Mazda passed midlife and accelerated toward senility, the mechanic at our compound garage kept it alive by making frequent trips to a strip of desert several miles long where all of Jiddah's dead cars were deposited when the city was thoroughly cleansed in the late '80s, and where more carcasses accumulated hourly.   Because of what appeared to be a Saudi predilection for high speed collisions, most of the cars were crushed beyond recognition in their accidents, but salvageable parts were stripped from them by a swarm of micro-entrepreneurs whose mechanical organ transplants kept the city rolling.

We felt that we were really beginning to fit into Jiddah when the academic year ended and suddenly it was time for us to leave.   We advertised the car on bulletin boards at Safeway and Happy Family Supermarkets and sold it to a group of men from India's Malabar Coast who worked at the desalination plant.   As we packed our belongings and finished our predeparture paperwork, we could see that the month of the Hajj was approaching, for the air over the city was filled with Saudia 747s and an astonishing assortment of antique passenger aircraft from all over Africa and Asia, some pilgrims reportedly flying "toilet class" in the only available seats on planes so overloaded that they theoretically could not get off the ground.   Only hours before we left, we were guests at a bedouin wedding where men from the desert spent the evening smoking shisha and watching a World Cup soccer match in their section of an elaborate wedding hall in suburban Jiddah, and the women in their section belly danced far into the night.  

Just as a representative of the school met us on arrival, another had to deliver our travel papers to us at the airport and certify that we actually left the country.   We arrived two hours early but he arrived only moments before the airline check-in counter closed, by which time we were near panic: impossible to leave without our passports and exit visas, illegal to stay beyond the time set for our departure.  

He got us past the check-in counter and into the government inspection area where hundreds of people in every conceivable style of dress, headed for destinations throughout Asia, Africa and Europe, crushed together in a silent mob hoping to pass the immigration counter before their planes left. The departure board said ours would leave on time at 9:00pm, insh'allah.   At 8:57, our sponsor got us through immigration and into the hands of the security inspectors.   At nine sharp, we raced to the empty departure gate and learned that we were the first to arrive, not the last.

Shortly before midnight, we and two hundred others boarded an Air India A300 at the Hajj Terminal, fresh from Delhi with a load of pilgrims.   As the Empty Quarter passed invisibly below us in pitch darkness, we embarked upon a pilgrimage of a different sort to South India.



A few days before we left the Kingdom, we were asked to sign a statement saying that we would never publish anything harmful or embarrassing to Saudi Arabia or the school where we worked.   In typical Saudi style, the nature of the punishment that might result from our failing to abide by the agreement was unstated, as were definitions of "harmful" and "embarrassing".    I sincerely hope this article doesn't harm or embarrass anybody, for such is not my intention.


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