Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A week and a half in KSA

Hi everyone,

I've been here in KSA for about a week and a half now, I've been meaning to write this mail for a long time but I just haven't had a chance. So this is a few things I've noticed or thought about.

The two guys that are directly in charge of me, Dino and Stuart, live in a compound. Pretty much all the westerners that stay here permanently live in compounds. Compounds remind me allot of the cluster home complexes in South Africa, except way more hard core. I've been to a few compounds now and all of them have the same sort of security. When driving in first you get to speed bumps where you have to slow down in good shooting range of the pillbox at the first gate, once you get through there you have to stop for them to check your papers and scan the bottom of your car for bombs. Then you enter through the armored gat and the 15 ft walls. Inside the walls the compounds are really nice, green grass and trees everywhere, nice big houses and civil liberties. At all the compounds I've been to the houses are referred to as villas, a bit grandiose perhaps. Only people with "western" passports are allowed to live in compounds, thats a Saudi law. But realistically the compounds are some of the nicest places to live so allot of Syrians and Lebanese and the like go and pull some strings to get an American or British passport, and can then legitimately claim to be a westerner. So in Dino and Stuart's compound I haven't seen another "white" face walking around. That specific compound is also only meant to be for married couples, they got in there because the big boss knows the owner, so the running joke is that they're the resident gays (Which in reality they aren't, since they couldn't be, since they'd have been executed already, since they're in Saudi Arabia and homosexuality is illegal).

Life inside the compound is much like America or Britain, I've specifically spent allot of time in the British Aerospace compounds. British Aerospace maintains the Saudi air force, so they have 900 employees in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi police cannot come into a compound without the express permission of the crown prince in charge of the region, which would never be given. This gives rise to the possibility for a truly western past time, drinking. almost every compound operates a pub. These pubs have to make there own drinks since they can't import them, so each compound has something akin to a brew master who makes sid.

The local liquor is called Sadeek, which means "my friend" in Arabic, its shortened to "Sid". Sid is pretty much 90% alcohol. They get really creative with it though and in a compound pub you can buy beer, drought, whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, Malibu and clear. These drinks don't really taste the same as there names though, for example "whiskey" is really just sid thats been diluted and then soaked with wood chips to give it colour (Which is how real whiskey gets its colour), and the beer tastes more like a cider or ale. But its still damn good and fucking strong. If you've been drinking sid then you make sure you have allot of water before you got to bed or the next day you will have a headache sent by Allah to punish you, I know.

The brewmaster at the British Aerospace compound I last drank at brews 18000 litres of beer a year, which is about 50 litres a day. It takes at least a two weeks to brew and distill, which means at any one time there are over 700 litres of sid lying around in spare rooms of the compound, and thats just for the beer. He makes more money off beer than off his day job, and he gets paid allot to fix fighter jets. Like they say in Jurassic Park, " Life will find a way"

I went to a car dealership sometime last week, the company needed cars and I came along for the ride. Cars are allot cheaper here, its not because Saudi has cheap cars, its because in South Africa we get ripped off. A car that costs the equivalent of R90 000 in Saudi costs about R160 000 in South Africa. Its ridiculous. While I was at the dealership I saw a group of teenage girls dressed in the traditional dress. I could see they were teenagers because of the way they sat, which was slightly awkward and bored, with the same posed lack of comfort you can see in a group of underage girls trying to look cool and old in a club in RSA. When I saw them I thought how basically similar we all are, how stupis these divisions we create between us really are.

I was fortunate yesterday to get invited to the house of the big boss yesterday. Ahmed seems like a really smart nice guy. He entertained us in a tent in the front yard of his house, I say tent because basically thats what it is, but it was a really nice tent with air conditioning and a TV. We ate on the floor. The food here is very good and I think its pretty healthy. There was way too much food, as is the tradition when entertaining, the Saudi's are very hospitable when the entertain. It was really interesting to talk to him, since he is Saudi but was educated in America and in private is willing to talk about pretty much any subject openly, something that is very rare to find here.

The traditional drinks here are sweet tea, Arabic coffee and ginger milk. Arabic is made with un-roasted coffee beans and a spice I wasn't familiar with, so it tastes very different to western coffee. The tea here is served very sweet. The other popular drink is what it sounds like, warm milk with blocks of ginger inside it, its very nice.

Today was my day off, so after waking up at about 2 pm I decided to go for a walk around Khobar, the town I'm staying in. The streets of Khobar are a grid, with numbers going the one way (e.g. 4th Street) and princes going the other way ( e.g. Prince Hamoud Rd), finding your way around is pretty easy and the inner city, where I stay, is fairly well sign posted in English and Arabic. When I started walking one of the five daily prayers had just started, so all the shops were closed and the streets were all but deserted. It was eerie to walk around this foreign ghost town. It was as if i was the only thing there with eyes, the only witness to its existence except for the slow wailing from the minarets of the mosques. The weather has cleared up, the skies are a perfect blue as far as the eye can see and slowly the puddles are drying up. Much like Johannesburg in the winter there is a late afternoon glare on everything here, giving the city a strange aura, making everything look slightly out of focus, or like a film that has aged. As the prayers ended I found myself standing outside a mosque. The difference was immediate, in minutes the streets were buzzing with people dodging cars. The shops opened up and business resumed as normal. The romance of the moment was lost.

I continued on my way and eventually got onto the main road that runs through the city. This road is called "The custodian of the two holy mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Rd", thats the official name of the road, and since road signs here are in Arabic and English the road name takes up four lines on a road sign. It used to be "Prince Abdullah Rd" but when he crowned they had to include his official title every time his name was said or used. This makes Saudi news reports very long winded, since they use official titles for everyone important. It's a nice road though, with a big public park where it crosses another major road. The park (Whose name I don't know) is a bright emerald green right now because of all the rain, I saw a family having a picnic and playing soccer, soccer seems to be the only popular sport here, no girl teams yet though.

A little way on I turned down a side road. I'm not very well traveled so sometimes things that may be pretty ordinary tend to surprise or amaze me, this may have been one of them but I thought it was incredible. The whole street was full of tailors, dress makers and jewelers. It was the dress makers that amazed me. They were all small shops, with rolls of fabric on the back wall, but in the front window they put there display dresses. They were beautiful, made of bright vivid materials with sequins and jewels sown into them everywhere. I don't have the gift necessary to describe the scene to you. The dresses were exquisitely made and when displayed on mannequins the dresses didn't simply hang, they very pinned and drawn out to make it seem as if the mannequins were constantly spinning or dancing. Shop after shop it was the same, like a strange ball room full of invisible dancers. I would walk by and then see a Saudi women dresses in her Abaya and hijab and niqab (The Abaya is the Robe, the hijab is the head scarf and the niqah covers the face, leaving only a long slit open for the eyes), these women would stop and look at the clothes,point some of them out to there friends and walk on. I had to find this odd, since these clothes in no way conformed to the Islamic hadith, but they were there, and in great quantity, so there must be a market. If a women were to buy one of these dresses then she could only be seen in it by her husband (and male relatives). But despite that people put so much effort into creating these beautiful pieces.

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