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Merry and Bright!

17 Nov

In the build up to Valentines day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, there is a city-wide ban on the sale of red flowers, especially red roses. The muttawah (religious police) make regular checks on florists and flower sellers around this time and confiscate any contraband they may find. Valentines Day is not recognised in Islam and I think that the authorities also believe that it may encourage men and women to mix in situations where they are not permitted to. My opinion though, not something that I know to be absolutely true and correct.

I relate this piece of information regarding Valentines Day festivities not because I wish to find fault with Saudi Arabia. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that our time there holds a very special place in my heart, it was a great experience for me. The reason I bring the matter up is simply to try to help my readers to understand how completely gobsmacked I was when we discovered this 2 nights ago…

christmas trees lining the pavement in front of a store! We had heard that there existed a shop that sold Christmas paraphanalia and were keen to see what they might have. We certainly didn’t expect…wait for it…an entire store dedicated to Christmas. 

Row upon row of wreaths, tinsel, nativity scenes, wrapping paper, Santa’s and even pillar candles with pictures of Jesus. We have just left a country that would probably lock you up if you were found in public with so much as a Christmas bauble in your handbag whereas in Qatar we find ourselves walking freely amongst revolving plastic Christmas trees.

    I remain, as always, continually amazed.

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A new kind of ‘normal’

14 Nov

When we first moved away from South Africa 6 years ago, I remember how very strange this new country of Qatar felt to me. From the moment I got off the plane I was struck with how different everything and everyone looked, how bizarre the guttral-sounding Arabic language sounded  even though I come from a country that has 11 official languages. I can recognise the smell of an airport in the Middle East immediately without knowing where I have landed. My senses were completely overwhelmed by this new land. I remember so well the  exact moments where, waiting in my car at a traffic light watching people crossing the road, I would be struck with how bizarre it was that I was living  HERE, in this of all places in the world. It was not a negative, “I don’t want to be here’ feeling just an amazement that my path had brought me here. 

The wonderful thing about being human though is that we adapt to new situations faster than we realise. Before you know it, your sense of normal has shifted. The fact that I can hop into a car in any country in the world and drive no matter what side of the road I need to use without any fear or apprehension is now normal. Our 3-year-old thinks it is normal to fly halfway across the world a few times a year. For a few years in my life it was normal to make my own beer and wine in the kitchen and leave it to ferment in the pantry.

Living in Saudi Arabia really challenges your ideas of normal, so much so that you can begin to lose touch with your roots. To a certain degree you can forget what it is that you enjoyed doing, seeing, watching, listening to as you have little or no access to those things in such a restrictive country. 

Now that we are back in Qatar, my perspective of the country is a little different. We have only been back 4 days so this may be a little premature but I find the place so much prettier than I did before. I am in awe of grassy parks with rolling green lawns, the sea, well-maintained curbs, beautiful wide new roads to drive on, and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors outside of compound walls. On Saturday we went for a stroll on the corniche (Doha’s waterfront). It was quiet and peaceful, the sea was like glass. We passed joggers, kids on bikes, fishermen, couples strolling, activities that are not easy to partake in, in Saudi Arabia. You take your life into your hands trying to jog in an abaya. I have tripped too many times just walking along a pavement to even attempt to run. How my ideas of normal have shifted!

Here’s the corniche on a quiet Saturday morning. It’s pure bliss…

 

Under Lockdown

10 Mar

We are currently living in a country that has a curfew! Woo hoo! It’s hotting up here and getting exciting, I tell ya. We are not allowed on the streets from 11pm until sunrise. From Friday we won’t be allowed out from lunchtime until the following morning.

Saudi Arabia’s protest day is planned for tomorrow after Friday Prayers. Nobody really knows how things will pan out. It is widely believed that nothing will come of it BUT at the same time no one really knows what will happen. Saudi Arabian society is very closed and secretive so there are few clues as to how the people are feeling.

What is not so secretive is the fact that the authorities will do anything in their power to keep control of the masses and have had time to learn from their neighbours. Apparently riot police have being practising their drills in the streets and it has been announced that any protests have been deemed illegal.

Here’s the fun part for us: we have a few days in Abu Dhabi planned for this weekend. We booked our flights months ago to coincide with the birthday of a friend living there. We should be able to get to the airport this afternoon but we are not sure whether we will get back in again on Saturday. Olaf is not keen to go as he wants to be here if things hot up. The men have big plans for BBQing, watching DVD’s and general holiday frivolity whilst we are locked in the compound for a month (the fact that we would probably have no electricity and run out of food eventually doesn’t seem to be a problem for them).

Should we actually go, the pile of all our important documents sits on the dining room table ready to be packed in. My biggest concern right now is that by not going we miss out on the opportunity to ride the world’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World. Aaaarrghhh!

The King Returns

26 Feb

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah arrived back in Riyadh on Wednesday amidst much fanfare and celebration. He has been out of Saudi Arabia for 3 months, spending time in the US where he underwent back surgery. The city of Riyadh has been decked out with flags and massive banners for the last week in preparation for his return. Apparently people (and throngs of security personal – who are, of course, also people!) lined the streets as he drove from the airport to his palace, many of them waving and dancing as he passed by. Celebrations continued late into the night. The sound of screeching tires and horns being honked could be heard until the wee hours of the morning and the festivities culminated in a day off for schools and government institutions today. I took a few pics whilst we were out on the bus on Thursday morning. Every available signboard, flag pole and overhead bridge was adorned with photos and banners of the King.

 

With all the protesting and upheaval currently underway throughout the region, it is not really surprising that he has returned. It is probably in his best interests to be home during this time of uncertainty. In appreciation of the unprecedented joy and happiness shown towards his recovery, the king announced a series of benefit measures for his people amounting to a cool 36 billion dollars!

Despite this very kind gesture, which is obviously in no way related to threats of protest here:-), news channels are reporting about plans for protests in the near future. Saudi’s are fairly subdued folk and it seems that for the most part King Abdullah is well liked by his people so we do not anticipate too much trouble in these parts but we did stock up on a few extra food items today and are keeping some extra cash on hand just in case.

Another City, Another Souk

3 Dec

Whilst we were in Oman recently, we paid a visit to the Muttrah Souk. It was not a very long visit as a toddler with impending flu is not a fun companion on such excursions! Having a bit of a thing for souks, I would have loved a couple of child-free hours exploring Muttrah. It was heaving with people, both locals and tourists, as evening approached. The tourists  buying the kitsch souvenirs and the locals sitting on benches in the alleyways drinking tea and watching them.

The actual building housing the little shops is beautiful. With well-worn, uneven paving and the most wonderful ceiling made from a combination of woven matting, carved wood and stained glass it felt very old-world and traditional.

As is the case in most Middle Eastern souks, one could furnish and decorate a house, clothe an entire family and find enough paraphernalia to keep you entertained for years in the souk. From the traditional khanjar: the Omani dagger, to frankincense, myrrh or plastic toys that you know will be broken before you have even left the souk there is something for everyone. Here are some of the things I loved:

 

 

 

Muscat – A Beautiful City

21 Nov

During our stay in Muscat, Oman we had the opportunity of being driven around the city by our good friend, Toby. We met Toby when we were living in Doha, Qatar and have managed to travel to a country that he is living and working in for the past 2 years, at exactly the same time of year. Last year we met up with him in Abu Dhabi, when Olaf and I went to watch the inaugural Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix. This year we visited Oman and lo and behold Toby was there. We wonder where next year will take us in our quest to keep up the new tradition.

Muscat is a beautiful city and although it is very clearly a city in the Gulf it is also very different to many of the other Gulf countries we have visited. Being situated on the coast, Muscat gets very humid and I expect that summer must be tough. But over this time of the year it is glorious. The little towns along the coast have a distinct beachy feel, the crisp white buildings set against the jagged granite mountains with beautiful blue skies above. Amazingly, Muscat is not very dusty at all so the colours are vivid and bright and due to  lots of rain and water from the high-lying mountainous areas it is also quite green.

The architecture, though still possessing many of the same characteristics of other Arabic countries, also has a slight mediterranean feel. I couldn’t get enough of the crisp white buildings sans the dust we have become used to. It was simply dazzling.

The city is also very well manicured with vast green open spaces and well-tended gardens along the roadside. It was the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos and so celebrations were underway whilst we were there with many visiting dignitaries insuring Muscat was in ship-shape. However, according to Toby it is generally a well-kept city.

Below is a shot over the harbour just before sunset. The sea is very calm in this part of the world and in the harbour it is like a lake. You just feel like jumping in and going for a swim, I tell ya.

The Grand Mosque is situated in the modern part of Muscat and is quite beautiful, especially when lit up at night. We passed by it on our way in but it was 2 in the morning and I just couldn’t grab my camera fast enough. I got this quick pic whilst flying past on our drive.

Incidentally, I got that shot of the hole in the rock that I discovered whilst kayaking (mentioned in my previous post). Luka and I discovered that we could actually walk around the mountain during an early morning walk before breakfast which means it wasn’t quite as secret and hidden away as I thought aawww! But beautiful none the less.

Muscat is the most beautiful city that I have visited in the Gulf, by far. I would return again in a heartbeat.

 

 

Need a camel, anyone?

9 Nov

In the event that you may be in search of a good, healthy, strong camel, I know just the place. It may, in fact, be one of the best places in the world to procure such a glorious creature. It will involve a trip to The Land of Sand but I can tell you it will be worth all the effort as these guys breed some beauties. Camel breeding is a BIG deal in Arabia. The fact that a ‘top of the range’ camel can fetch upwards of a million US dollars is proof of just how big the camel trade is here.

We popped into the camel souk on our way back from our recent camping trip to the Edge of the World. It is situated on the outskirts of Riyadh along the side of the highway so one just needs to pull over on the side of the road and pick out a camel that captures your heart and budget. You’ll be spoilt for choice, there are thousands to choose from.

I cannot promise that it will be the most glamorous shopping trip that you have ever been on. It’s dusty, smelly and hot. The men may chuckle at you walking around checking out their camels if you are female. You will also dirty your abaya which can be a little inconvenient plus it’s best to wear a pair of sneakers which don’t look great with abaya’s. All in all, very unglamorous. And that’s what I love about it.

Once you have made your purchase, your camel will have it’s back legs tied up and it will be loaded into the back of your pick-up with a crane. Be prepared for a very unhappy camel, there is something about being tied up and suspended above your previous dwelling that they just don’t appreciate. They can be incredibly noisy during the entire saga.

You may be able to score a 2 for the price of 1 deal if you visit the maternity section. This section can be identified by the obviously big-bellied mother camels but you can also just look out for the only enclosure where all the camels are lying down.

If I were in the market for a new camel on the day we visited, I would have chosen this guy (or girl).

Judging by his (or her) size, he seemed to be around the teenage years. And the big bonus… he seemed to be the responsible sort as it looked like he had been placed in charge of a group of young ‘uns. A babysitter of sorts. Now a camel that can double up as a babysitter seemed a good buy to me. We could go out in the evenings knowing that Luka was well taken care of at home and not even have to pay anyone to do it! Olaf was not so sure about the idea, something about the cost of keeping it fed in a country with very little grass. I dunno, I think it may be worth a try.

Should you need any other camel paraphernalia once you have made your purchase there is even a camel accessories shop right at the souk so you can leave with everything that you need. It’s a one-stop-shop so to speak with everything from the essentials to the bling.

In my quest for our very own teenage camel, I even suggested to Olaf that I could use the camel for getting around Riyadh during the week. We would just need to buy one of these saddle bags…

and I could do the grocery shopping on Saturday mornings without the use of a driver. Imagine Luka and I cruising down the streets of Riyadh with our teenage camel packed to the hilt with the weekly grocery requirements. The only thing I need to inquire about is the camel parking policy at Tamimi, our grocery store of choice, before we make a final decision.