by Robin Freeman October 11, 2016
I first arrived in the kingdom in late June, when thirty days of fasting for Ramadan had begun. The black abaya and headscarf I wore was moist with perspiration, and the summer heat permeated everything. I missed my linen tunics, jeans, and jersey hijab’s. For the life of me I could not fathom why Muslim women wear black in such hot climates.
My husband had arrived months earlier and looked forward to normalcy in our new home. As we drove from the busy airport to our apartment, my brain only visualized two things: insane drivers and trash. The city of 3 million was alive with cars and people. As we neared our neighborhood I saw handsome, unique, designed buildings, which lined the streets, most in stone and granite, five or six stories high, planted just a few feet from each other. But litter strewn around, open garbage bins chocked-full of skinny scraggly street cats and no green space made it difficult to appreciate.
The male drivers scrimmage on the road comparable to a team of football players in a foul mood. It goes something similar to this: driver needs to turn right; he’s in the far left lane, other lanes are occupied. No problem, honk your horn like a train barreling through a railroad crossing, drive straight towards the right lane, the other cars will move or be hit. I tighten my seat belt and laugh because in the craziness, it works.
Our 5th floor flat was gorgeous and huge, only a few minutes’ hike to the Red Sea. Ornate medallions filled the ceiling in each room. The place had 12 foot walls, large wooden doors, a salon, dining room, family room, three bedrooms, maid’s room, kitchen, four bathrooms, and private elevator. This meant we needed to shop the entire month of Ramadan and forgo a treadmill as the walk from the front of the apartment to the back would keep me fit.
Transportation and shopping was a challenge. The first couple weeks we used taxi’s, and I hated it, as most smelled of rotten eggs. Finally, we discovered Uber, which ended the need to stick my head out the passenger window. Next, we learned to shop based on the five daily prayers. All stores must close for prayer. Most stores lock-up an average of forty minutes. Once inside you can continue to roam but not checkout, leave, or expect any help from the employees. Initially, I found the experience tiresome, and too long, the typical prayer is a ten-minute process at most; but soon appreciated the opportunity for myself and those who worked in the shops to pray in peace.
After we furnished the apartment, we connected with friends and saw the charm our new community offered. My favorite part is the old city. It reminds me of a different century, a simpler time, with narrow passage ways, sellers hawking their goods, traditional buildings and the chance to snack on fresh Yemeni breads. Late night strolls on the Red Sea are calm and relaxing. Lovely picturesque mosques dot the landscape and novel art sculptures exist all over Jeddah. Things are not perfect here, the environmental state of the kingdom saddens me. The lack of clean usable green space within neighborhoods need attention. But the Saudi people have proved kind, generous, and welcoming. I have found through my own experiences and travels, once you peel back the layers of stereotypes, generalization, and assumptions, we are not much different from one another.