Riyadh – The old quarters

8 Oct

One of the great things about having visitors spend 10 days with us is that I was forced to find interesting places to take them during their stay. Now let me begin by saying that Saudi Arabia is not a country that caters to tourists. Should you, by some strange twist of fate, want to visit the country just to have a look around, you would find yourself stuck in the airport at passport control temporarily before being sent off home on the first flight out. You simple wouldn’t be issued a visa. Visa’s are only granted to pilgrims coming to perform Haj or Umrah, or those of us coming to work in the Kingdom. We are permitted to have guests who are immediate family members but we certainly would not be able to invite our friends over for a weekend. And then there is the long and arduous visa application process so you really have to love em to get em here.

The culture shock is so huge for any western visitor that the trip home from the airport can be classified as entertainment. It makes up for the lack of touristy stuff. I did some research before Kyle and Mikhaela arrived about places to take them so that their visit would be a good mix of the huge, modern shopping malls and an understanding of the history, culture and religion that makes Saudi Arabia so unique.

Just finding the opening and closing times of the various places of interest appropriate for the three of us was a challenge. Men and woman cannot always visit places like public parks, the zoo or even the museum together except on family visiting days so we had to get our days and times right otherwise someone in our little group of two gals and one guy would be left outside.

So after much googling to find the “official” websites and many wasted phone calls we headed down to Deira with our driver, Noor 2, in the hope that I had indeed gotten it right. Noor took us to some of the places that he suggested we see and waited very close by just incase we found ourselves in a spot of trouble. One of them was Masmak Fort.

Built in 1865 from clay and mud-brick it plays an important part in the history of the country as it was the site where the Al Saud’s recaptured Riyadh in 1902.

It has been restored and is well looked after so is a very pleasant, peaceful place to visit. It is also not very big so it does not take more than half an hour to get around. It has a reconstructed majlis right in the beginning as one enters which was good for the children to see as it still plays an important role in Saudi Arabian society. A majlis is a large lounge where the ordinary people get the opportunity to meet with the leader of their area to discuss problems that he could help them with. Having direct access to the governor in the area is an essential part of the Saudi Arabian culture.

The area that this fort is in is such a serene and peaceful place when it is not busy. I purposely took the kids there when it was quiet as it can be rather scary when it is full of people and I didn’t want them to be harassed by muttawah (religious police) or anyone else. It is a conservative area and one has to be quite wary of those around you at the best of times, let alone one woman and three children so I needed to be careful. There are not that many westerners around and it is not really a place that you want to stand out in. As you stand at the front entrance of the fort you look out over a series of courtyards which are really lovely. In the distance is Deira Square, known to all as chop-chop square where public executions take place. Fortunately, they were not in business on this particular day. Imagine if we had pitched up on a day when they were, talk about a culture shock!

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4 Responses to “Riyadh – The old quarters”

  1. jana October 10, 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Chop-chop square? Public executions not in business the day you went? You meant the century you went, right? I mean, really? Still? How? I kind of feel embarrassed now by counting bra-shopping as part of my cultural “hiccup.”

    • dustbusting October 10, 2010 at 5:09 am #

      Yes, STILL!
      I honestly haven’t researched how often this still happens as just reading about if makes my blood run cold. But heads still roll here. Apparently the people are first drugged these days so it is probably less dramatic than it used to be, although how can anything like that be less than the most insanely dramatic thing to witness. Our driver Noor watched 2 people being put to death 5 years ago. He said it was very upsetting to watch and he ended up having his first car accident here on the same day.

      Check this article out: http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2009.05-field-notes-chop-chop-square/

      • jana October 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

        Thanks for the link – the article was interesting without being too gory. I probably should say that I (Jordan always says naively) believe there should be stricter punishments for most crimes. Still, I guess the shock came from the idea of witnessing an execution.

        On the other hand – based on your description of how much “freedom” of movement you have – the chances of you stumbling upon a random execution are probably slim to none, right? Are women even allowed to witness executions? I remember the article mentioned merchants, and I suspect those are only men. Either way, thanks for teaching me something about Saudi that I had absolutely no idea existed. Pretty cool, when I think about it (the learning part, not the killing.)

  2. dustbusting October 11, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    The thought of people watching others being put to death seems very medieval to me but it is the way things work here. I hope I NEVER stumble apon such an event. It isn’t really a great place to hang around in and is in a very conservative area so westerners are not likely to stumble apon an execution whilst doing a little shopping.

    I have a feeling anyone may watch as both men and women are put to death publically, but I speak under correction.

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