Saudi Report — Part II
Posted on April 18, 2011
It’s late here in Riyadh. Arrived after a 90 minute flight from Jeddah on Saudi Airlines. It was an interesting process checking in and all. Not a single person asked for an ID and then sitting on the plane it occurred to me that maybe id’s aren’t so useful if 40% of the people on the flight have their faces covered (what a great id photo that would make though). Hey, I’m not complaining – I think security at American airports is theater of the absurd — it was just interesting to watch. I couldn’t decide if the Koranic prayer played just before takeoff was comforting or slightly alarming. I still find modern flight a bit of a miracle, Bernoulli notwithstanding, so I guess I’m okay with anything that might help ensure that my landings equal my takeoffs.
Getting off the plane was good. Because of a connection to a gracious member of the royal family, I was whisked away at the jetport and escorted through a seperate exit to a VIP lounge where we sipped tea while someone was disaptched to retrieve my check-in bag. We then exited through a private entrance out to a special lot and sped off to the hotel. No passport control for us! Also provided a cell phone for my use while here, as well as a car and driver (I suppose the latter is a bigger deal). I’ll be back in August. Did I mention that it is good to be a member of the royal family?
Riyadh appears (I’ve only seen it on the ride in so far) organized and stately and grand in comparison to Jeddah. The latter has the chaos and messiness and warrens of streets and alleys that recall Cairo and Damascus and other ancient cities (Jeddah is reported to be 2500 years old), while Riyadh has the feel of Washington so far. Jeddah feels like the trading and fishing port it was and is while Riyadh feels like the center of power and money, which it is.
We had a little time in the late afternoon yesterday and I insisted to Faisal that we needed to see the Al-Balad, old city, and its suq (market). There is no official tourism in the Kingdom — everyone is a pilgrim or a business person — so there is not the kind of tourist related development you see even in a place like Damascus (just starting to be rediscovered by travelers before the current troubles). A small section of the old city had a handful of tourist shops and there was some attempt to repave the small square. Otherwise, the area was unspoiled by the Disneyesque desire to make a place look a more perfect version of itself (Prague, I’m talking to you).
Shops has large canvas sacks of spices whose aromas filled the air: cardomam, rose petals, cumin, corriander, and tumeric. The colors themselves were beautiful. We were invited to try different dates, an amazing variety of dates actually. The best? Dates stuffed with almonds and coated in local honey. I’ve never tried crack, but I imagine it must be something like these dates. I had to stop myself from gorging on them.
Actually, and I mean this without judgement, it appears that having a nice round tummy is a sign of well being among Saudi men. Having eaten a year’s worth of dates, hummus, and tabbouleh these last three dates, I’m working on the same look. The old city, as yet ungentrified, also had refuse strewn side streets and some powerful smells, especially in the butcher section where huge slabs of meat hung and full goats were for sale (sans fur). Overflowing dumpsters were the feeding stations for feral street cats. Faisal was beside himself that we would be touring such an area and kept saying his father would kill him if he knew he was letting me see this area. I thought it was great. Life not so diferently lived than it has been for centuries.
By the way, an electrician could make a killing in that section of the city. As is true in the old parts of many cities in the ancient world, wires are tangled and run everywhere, huge nests of wires leading every which way. It looks like there was a lot of ad hoc tapping of the grid. I have to believe that death by electrocution is not rare in these places. The oldest houses, often in states of grave disrepair, still had their beautiful mashrabiya, the lattice like wood screens that provided shade and thus cooling while letting air pass through. They are quite ornate and often cover the whole facades of buildings. They provide a delciate and ornate contrast to the stone and stucco buildings. I found the whole area funky and charming and it was good to be a visitor in a place where I was the only western face.
We ended the day with dinner with an alum from the 1980s, someone who now enjoys a quite senior position in a large Saudi bank. He recalled his days on our North Campus and classes with Massood (Massood, how old are you?) and the “quiet of New Hampshire.” We had a good conversation about the unrest in the region, the challenges facing the Kingdom as it tries to balance reform with tradition, and the differences in countries like Tunisia and Egypt versus Libya and Yemen (to borrow from Tom Freidman, the latter with a strong sense of national identity and the latter collections of tribes). His theory: until people get hungry, unable to feed their families, real revolutions don’t begin. The Kingdom has the resources to take care of its people, so has time to get it right, in his view.
I think that might be simplifying things too much, though our daughter Emma, who has just returned from Syria a week ago, would say that one of the underreported dynamics in Syria is the hundreds of thousands of drought displaced farmers who don’t have enough to feed their families, often surviving on less than a dollar a day while food prices are rising. Hunger breeds desperation breeds unrest. But so do corruption, petty daily injustices, and brutal repression. Thus a petty official slapping a poor harangued street vendor on the face led to his self-immolation in Tunisia and then ignited a fire of indignation across the region. It’s fascinating.
A Saudi businessman at the airport tonight told me a local joke:
On Judgment Day, Gamal Nasser shows up at the gates of Paradise and is asked, how did your rule and your life end?
He says, “Poison.”
Then Anwar Sadat steps up and is asked the same question.
He says, “Shot.”
Then Mubarek has his turn and is asked “How did your reign and life end?”
He answers, “Me? All I got is Facebook.”
The Middle Easty is a most ancient part of the world, but its population is among the youngest and it feels like there is a new energy unleashed here, fueled by technology, education, a thirst for opportunity, and to matter. It’s a very exciting place.