Ramadan Kareem

moon1_0707It’s finally here,  after the big build up.  Would it start on Saturday? Would it start on Sunday?  The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar is the month for fasting during daylight hours. It is called Ramadan.  It is the time when Muhammad was revealed the first sentences of the Koran.  It is a time for reflection, charity and good thoughts.  The start of the fast and the lunar month is dictated by the first sight of the new moon,  a tiny slither of moon that can be just seen on the horizon as the sun sets.  In Saudi Arabia,  a prize is awarded to the first person who spots the moon,  authenticated by experts.  Until the middle of last week everyone thought that Ramadan would begin on Saturday,  but as the moon was not spotted at Friday sunset it began on Sunday.

To be in Saudi Arabia, the center of the Muslim world, during Ramadan is certainly a different experience.  The run up to the month has been eye opening.  Think shops at Thanks Giving in the USA and Christmas in the UK,  then add in an American Nor’easter prediction and you can start imagining what the grocery stores are like.  The Saudi Gazette recently published forecasts by the SAMA (Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency) that household spending in June and July is expected to reach an eye watering  SAR 724 billion, (approximately US $183 billion)  Even the Grand Mufti has voiced his disquiet at the contrast between this consumerism and a month of fasting and restraint — it sounds reminiscent of the Archbishop of Canterbury condemning commercialism at Christmas.

I knew something about Ramadan before I came to the Kingdom,  but I had only been exposed to it within a wider ranging culture.  School friends who fasted,  not always diligently, and other friends who were more circumspect.  I had never visited a muslim country during Ramadan before. During the run up to Ramadan,  the stock in the supermarkets changed.  The aisles are crowded with vast pallets of un-familiar products.  So much so that two trolleys cannot pass making the usual supermarket scramble a grid lock. IMG_0897I wondered why anyone would want cases of Vimto (a sweet herbal fruit cordial), gallon containers of fortified powdered milk, (the dairies are good here), sacks of rice, big enough to feed a british family of four for a year, enormous bright orange containers of Tang.  (Do you remember Tang? the 1970’s popular powdered drink you mix with water to make an orange drink that has probably never seen an orange).  Along with vats of cooking oil on special offer,  huge arrangements of tinned oats, not mention the dates and date products of every conceivable variety. Every market is bursting at the seams.  On Friday the day before the beginning of Ramadan there was chaos at a Tamimi (one of supermarket chains here) with people literally charging the store because of their special offers. click here to see link! IMG_0898I shopped on the Thursday before Ramadan at a usually quiet time and even then most people had 3 trolleys full of food, including vast quantities of Vimto and Tang,  trays of frozen chicken, sacks of rice, cooking oil etc, tinned soup.  The queue for the check out went round the store.  It felt as though people were battening down for a siege.  All the grocery shops are open during Ramadan,  but I think that people like to get ahead on their marketing as many people seem to sleep during the day if they don’t have to work.  Everything shifts to a nocturnal schedule.  Although some supermarkets are open during the day, most shops open for two hours between 4pm and 6.00pm, and then from 9.00pm till 1 or 2.00am.  I went downtown Riyadh last night to one of the souks and it was teeming with people at 10.00pm and horrendous traffic jams.

Muslims begin their daily fast at Fajr prayers which signal the beginning of dawn and end fasting at Maghrib prayers which signal sunset.  During that time they cannot eat, smoke or drink,  even water,  which in this climate and during summer is very hard. During Ramadan it is against the law for non muslims to eat or drink in public.  All restaurants are closed during the day.  We can, of course, eat or drink in private and on compounds.

So I wanted to do some research into the products that people buy for Ramadan and what they are used for.   The breaking of the fast is known as Iftar.  It is a time when typically families get together to eat,  and many families prepare a feast of food every night.  Every family has its own traditions,  but in common with the christmas some seem essential to every Iftar.   The fast is usually broken with dates and water,  before going to pray,  after those prayers many people begin their Iftar although some families don’t begin their main meal until after Isha,  which are the final prayers of the night.  One Saudi friend explained to me that his family always ate desert first and then moved to the main course after Isha.  Another Saudi explained what the main parts of the iftar normally include.  The meal starts with a soup,  often made with oats, there will also be beans or Ful which is bean type puree.  Then there may be salads and houmous,  but there will always be deep fried samosas,  after that rice dishes,  often served with boiled lamb, a chicken dish  and then a selection of vegetables.  This will be followed by fruit and many rich deserts which are made using the fortified powdered milk. IMG_0896So where do the Vimto and Tang come in? They vie with each other to be the soft drink of choice for Iftar, with fierce price cutting wars every year.  Vimto has been the Iftar drink of choice for the last 80 years,  originally marketed as a health tonic in the UK ,  The sugary cordial has 90% of the cordial market in the middle east.  Tang is manufactured by Kraft, the mega giant processed food manufacturer.  The brand became synonymous  in the Arabian Peninsula with tinned cheese,  but they have manufactured Tang in different flavors since the 1960’s.  Tang is Vimto’s most aggressive competitor for the “Iftar drink” and runs huge TV advertising campaigns to try and persuade people to break their fast with Tang.  Although these drinks have managed a market penetration and association with Ramadan in the same way as Egg Nog has with Christmas, I feel rather the same way about all of them;  To my taste they are over sweet and not very delicious.

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What will they call Riyadh’s new metro?

Abu na'am bridge. Focus of Lawrence's attack

Abu na’am bridge. The focus of Lawrence’s 1917 attack on the Hejaz railway.

When Lawrence of Arabia lay in the hills above Abu Na’am Station on the Hejaz Railway a little less than a century ago.  His mind was on the destruction of the Ottoman empire’s main supply line through Arabia: The Hejaz Railway.  A railway born of blood and sweat, was built in the most inhospitable conditions to forge a link between Damascus,  Madinah (and eventually Mecca, although that section was never built).

The last Ottoman Sultan’s dearest wish was to open up the pilgrimage to Mecca and Madinah to Muslims around the world and not just those who were wealthy enough to be able to afford the grueling desert journey by camel.   The railway was to be paid for by subscription of Muslims from around the world,  a major feat at the beginning of the 2oth Century, although donations were generous unfortunately they did not begin to cover the cost.  A decree was issued that all government employees would “donate” 1 month’s salary.  All rural villages were forced to give large donations,  under the threat of violence.

I doubt that any of those concerned with the gargantuan Hejaz Railway construction would believe the modern plans to build an Arabian wide rail transport system,  with links  East, West, North and South. It is planned to connect every major city in Saudi Arabia over the next 30 years – a massive infrastructure plan funded by the government and essential for economic development of the country.  The Kingdom, by taking advantage of the global recession,   was able to contract with the best railway engineering companies in the world, to build the system on an ambitious timescale.

In the next 10 years there are plans to build Metro rail systems in Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, Madinah and Dammam. As we live in Riyadh,  I am most interested in the Riyadh Metro and LRT.  I  recently went to talk given at the Corona Club of Riyadh, by Emad Alrajih, President and CEO of the Arabian Railway Company, ARC.  ARC have been appointed one of 3 consortia to build the Riyadh Metro. Whilst everyone has heard many rumors about the project,  this was an opportunity to hear about it from the  “Horse’s Mouth” so to speak.


The metro will consist of 6 separate lines, with 85 stations, and 4 major hubs, 176 KM of track and  21 park n’ ride facilities. There will also be a high tech integrated bus system.  It will be built by the 3 consortia,  with 30,000 staff.

Now wait for it,  the completion date is 2018,  not “Inshallah 2018” but a real deadline.  When I questioned Mr Alrajih about this,  he was clear to point out that when over 27 Billion US dollars had been invested in the project,  “Inshallah” was not an option.  The integrated bus project is due for completion even earlier in 2016. The project is going to affect every single person who lives here,  and according to Mr Alrajih there will be pain,  real pain and it  will  impact everyone at the start of 2015.

35% of the system will be underground, 5% will be ground level and 60% will be overground.  That is a lot of  heavy construction in 4 years.  There will also be 2 independent power stations built to generate electricity for the railway.  Whatever the cost, both financially and environmentally,  Riyadh needs this,  if the city is going to develop as an economic  power house.  As all those who live there know,  the traffic in Riyadh is  a nightmare.  This project will layer on frustration.  There will be road closures.  There will be terrible gridlock.  Because there are 3 consortia all reporting to a higher power,  there will be inter ministry,  inter agency and inter consortia problems, not to mention the difficult integration of 2 other major high speed rail lines, Riyadh to Jeddah and Riyadh to Dammam, and the King Abdullah financial center mono-rail which are being constructed simultaneously.

There are plans in place to try to ease the problem by controlling the amount of traffic on the city roads,  including, (but not yet confirmed.)

  • Limitation of  the number of driving licences issued
  • All down town parking to be made pay parking
  • Congestion charges for all city driving
  • Limitation on car ownership
  • ‘Park and Ride’ facilities all over the city.

I am trying not to be cynical but this does not bode well for women being given the right to drive anytime soon, I also feel that the movement of women around the city is likely to suffer most.  I would expect that Iqamas for foreign drivers will be further restricted and there will be another ‘valid’ excuse not to issue women with driving licences. How will park n’ ride work if women are not allowed to travel with men not related to them? Also if car ownership is going to be limited,  it doesn’t take much imagination to realize whose cars will likely be restricted, does it?

So, rant over! What does the Metro eventually mean for Riyadh.  Despite the immediate pain and restrictions, it has to be a positive step forward.  Although the operations and maintenance contracts have yet to be issued, the cost of tickets is to be subsidized and prices kept low to encourage people off the roads.  There will be 3 types of carriages,  1st class,  family (women and families) and single (men).  (I have not been able to find out if women will be allowed to buy first class tickets or not.)  It will certainly allow women to travel and work freely throughout the city without having to pay a good proportion of their salaries for taxis and drivers,  although there is some doubt about whether women will be able to travel with men on the integrated bus system and how that will work.

There has not been a great deal of publicity for the Metro and how it will work,  I think that the ‘powers that be’ are waiting until the painful part is drawing to a close to publicize it more.   As construction begins close to our compound,  I am beginning to wonder what it will be called.  I had two ideas,  The RAT,  (Riyadh Automated Transport) and or the KAAT,  (King Abdullah Automated Transport) but the idea of riding the Riyadh Rat appeals to me and hopefully will be listed amongst the worlds greatest metropolitan transport systems.

Whatever name finally sticks: “The Riyadh Metro”, “Tube”, “T”,  “L”, “RAT” or “KAAT” I am beginning to believe that I may be riding it in 2018.  Inshallah?


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Archaeologists: They’re not all socks n’ sandals.


If you read my previous post you will know that I recently went to an Archaeological conference in Riyadh.  Despite the difficulties in arriving at the meeting,  it was an eye opening event,  with a wealth of information about the Archaeological and Palaeo-Archaeological past of the Arabian Peninsula.   This area,  for Archaeologists, is metaphorically a gold mine of undiscovered information.

For those of you who grew up with Rider Haggard’s  “King Solomon’s Mines”,  you will not be surprised that Arabia has a wealth of vast ruined cites, dating back before the Romans,  with sophisticated infrastructure indicating people who were well travelled and well educated,  connecting Arabia to Egypt and beyond.  Arabia seems to have been a trunk road between Africa and Asia.  We are talking about around 3,000BC.  Quarayyah, a vast site 90kms NW of Tabuk,  potentially the ancient capital of the Midian Kingdom and Taymar,  ancient, fabled city, once home to Babylonean Kings.   These are just two of those being excavated.


The ancient city of Tayma

Saudis,  have not traditionally been very interested in the distant past,  and so many of these sites have gone un-recorded for thousands of years.  Archaeological departments in Saudi universities  are not big,  and it is impossible for a woman to take Archaeology as an Undergraduate here.  The very few Saudi Arabian women archaeologists here have trained abroad and are not allowed on Saudi field expeditions,  but have to rely on joining foreign university digs.  I would like to think that some of the women’s universities will take up the challenge and open their own Archaeology departments.

But perhaps some of the most exciting work,  is coming from a time before written history.  Professor Michael  Petraglia,  Oxford professor of Human Evolution and Prehistory,  is studying the links between ancient movements of Hominids out of Africa and through Arabia to Eurasia.

Do you remember Lucy, the earliest Hominid skeleton to be found by Richard Leakey in 1974? (3.2 millions old) She was discovered in Ethiopia,  and her skeleton is oldest known on the evolutionary trail of us,  Homo Sapiens. Prof. Petraglia is trying to track the movement of her descendants out of Africa through Arabia to Asia.

The Arabian peninsula has not always been a desert,  the climate has waxed and waned through lush green forest, open savannah and the extreme desert you see today.  Human, and indeed Hominid populations grew, moved and contracted during that time too.   Professor Petraglia is looking at what happened to those people as the climate changed,  did they migrate? did they die out? or did they scatter and become the ancestors of todays nomadic population?

His excavations today, along a system of ancient lake beds,  could have a widespread implication on future climate change in Arabia and elsewhere in the world.  Professor Petraglia is hoping that his research will be used to help create more accurate models for climate change.  Even a small temperature increase in Arabia is likely to produce a wetter climate.   Arabia could be going green yet again.


There were many other talks during the conference that were equally interesting, and I was intrigued that the Kingdom could be the next big location for Dinosaurs, although it has always be considered a desert for Palaeontologists. (Is that a horrible joke?) It mostly has to do with the fact that no one has really looked here before.  Dr Ben Kear from Uppsala University,  is looking for huge marine vertebrates,  so far he has  found partial fossils of Sauropterygians, a vast bottom feeder and Nothsaurs, an aquatic ancient croc and various types of giant fish.  In the Jurrasic deposits there is evidence for some huge dinosaurs including Titanosaurs, about 20m long and a big aquatic predator called Pregnathdon.  However compared to other regions they have only scratched the surface in terms of excavations.

With out being too negative,  It is important to say that this Archaeological conference is a big step forward for the Kingdom,  however it is not all sweetness and light.  Human Evolution,  and indeed any evolution based topic is really a tricky subject in Saudi Arabia.   Muslim teaching is widely varied, but many Sunni Muslims believe in creationism.  Darwinism is still a dirty word.  This means it is tricky for outside universities to get permission to research and excavate here. There is more interest for projects that focus on periods after the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.  This means that, in Archaeological terms, The Arabian Peninsula is still an undiscovered kingdom.

It is hoped that this will become an Annual event.  The fact that it took place,  that women were allowed to attend and contribute, along side Saudis ( a shout out for a great lecture on the Farasan islands by French Archaeologist Solene Marion de Proce), is a tangible step in the right direction.

There were many fantastic talks,  and information that cannot be easily found anywhere else was abundant.  From me a big thank you to everyone who managed to organize this event.  I am already looking forward to next year.




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Classic Saudi Morning: You’ve gotta laugh or you’d cry.

I discovered a couple of weeks ago that May is Europe Month.  A month of activities in and around Riyadh funded by the E.U.   Unfortunately there is little advertising of the celebration in case the whole thing might be shut down by the religious police,  so although there are many interesting events happening,  no one knows about them.  I think that “the powers that be” hope to transmit through psychic powers or osmosis,  or that local knowledge will then seep into people’s dna to remember that “May is Europe Month”.  Although what the long-term aim of spending hard-working Europeans’ euros in Saudi Arabia is,  who can guess.  To attract Saudi Tourists to Europe?  It seems that the people benefiting most from these events are those associated with the foreign embassies,  few of us outside the diplomatic circle have heard of them which brings me to crux of this blog post.

On a recent Friday a friend emailed to say that she had discovered that an Archaeological workshop was being held at the King Abdulaziz  Conference center, that Sunday, as part of Europe Month,  and that she was hoping to get tickets.  As you know from previous posts,  there is a wealth of history and pre history in the Arabian peninsula,  but very little information about it.   Unfortunately there is not much appetite here for any archaeological research work that is pre-islamic.  This is now changing and a number of foreign universities have been invited to undertake research by the Saudi Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities in association with Saudi Universities.  The workshop represents a  window on what has been achieved and the future possibilities.

Anyhow my friend and I managed to get last minute tickets for the event,  and set off brightly on Sunday morning full of expectation.  We knew that the conference center was close to the Ritz Carlton hotel,  one of the largest and opulent places you will find in Riyadh.


Anyway we decided to go to the Hotel first,  as they must know where the conference was being held and would be able to direct us.  How wrong could we be?  We drove to the front door and asked the door staff,  they had no knowledge of the conference and promptly directed us to go down the road to the main gate of the conference center.  When we had done a drive past earlier we thought the gate looked shut.  We decided that we should see if there was a back gate,  as my driver seemed to think that was the way in,  so we circled round to the back of the hotel and found the way out,  and followed a road that looked as though it would lead us where we wanted to go.  A kilometer or so on we come to a check point,  hurrah we thought,  at last we had found the way in.   Disappointment,  quickly followed,  a military guard appeared from his hut only to direct us back round to the front gate of the conference centre.


The gate looked extremely imposing and still very shut.  No guards, no one in sight. However a little ways down the road we spotted some national guards and stopped to see if they could help.   This might have been a mistake.  A young looking officer in a track suit with an FJ cruiser came across to help.   Unfortunately his english was not so good and he was determined to help us.  After making a few calls he directed us to follow him,  we now  had no choice.  We followed for a couple of Kilometers around the back the complex on the other side to the earlier check-point,  then stopped for about 15 minutes at the side of the road while he made phone calls to his boss (we think) and few other people.  Afterwards he then directed us back to the hotel.  So back to the hotel we went.  This time,  we decided to go and find someone who could speak better english,  and thought our best bet would be inside the hotel.

The Ritz Carlton is very hospitable,  and we were immediately greeted and offered coffee and dates,  a helpful gentleman said he would go and find where the conference was.  After many refills of coffee and several dates later,  a different manager appears and asks how he can help.  And we then discover that the conference is not at the hotel,  but although the hotel and the conference center are co-owned he has no idea if an Archaeology conference is taking place there.  So we had wasted another 20 minutes.  The manager told us that the only entrance he knew about was at front.

It is very often difficult to find entrances to places in Saudi Arabia,  so we decided that we would have one last try.  We went to front entrance of the center again,  I got out and tried to knock on various doors,  no luck.  Just for kicks and not wanting to give up we decide to drive around the back again and see if there was another gate.   So round the back we drove,  at a roundabout covered with flags we turned towards the conference center only to be stopped.  A Royal Guard officer,  explained that this was the entrance to the Shoura Council only,  and that the Abdulaziz International Conference center was for GCC events only.  However,  he thought that the conference center that we wanted was just down the road,  and gave us simple directions to get there.  Hurrah again, or so we thought.   A few minutes down the road,  and we turned into the drive of a large white conference building, the King Fahad Conference center.   There were even cars in the parking lot.  We looked for a way in,  the steps didn’t seem very well used,  but we found a back door open and a Janitor lurking nearby.   So in we went.  The Janitor directed us upstairs,  into a vast empty marble atrium,  it did not look as though much was happening.  We wandered around for a few minutes until we found someone,  who promptly told us there was no archaeological  event at the center.   We were now two hours late.  Depressed we slunk out of the building.  What now,  give up?

By now I had got the bit between my teeth,  and there was no way we were going to give up without tracking down the Archaeologists even if we missed the event.   We decided to call a friend at the British Embassy who might know someone who might know where this event was actually taking place.   After a quick phone call, we discovered that the event had been co-organised by the British Council and E.U. ,  Ironies of Ironies we had found out about the conference from a friend at the German Embassy.   We made another phone call and discovered that it was at the Abdulaziz Conference Hall, (not center) which is close to the national museum in the middle of Riyadh.  None of the information we had been given made this clear,  in fact it was written in black and white “Abdulaziz conference center”

We then rushed over there, to be met by a member of the British Council,  and we arrived at the Conference in time for a very excellent buffet lunch.   We were sad to have missed the whole morning,  but we still had the afternoon and the whole of the next day.

On reflection,  despite the frustration of not being able to find out where to go,  all the people we met were trying to help us, and send us in the right direction even if the results were unsuccessful.  But this is a recurring hazard in Saudi Arabia,  everything that happens on cultural level is hardly advertised and mostly you have to rely on help on the ground to point you in the right direction.  Almost everyone is extremely helpful,  but sometimes the help can lead you even further astray with a combination of language difficulties and misinformation.  In end the epitaph to this blog post,  is “lost in translation.”


As a post script,

It took me almost as long to find the vacuum cleaner repair shop,  because a misinterpretation of the address,  and confusion between the computer mall and the gulf trading mall,  but I’m not even going there, because you will be reading the blog for at least another hour!


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Update on The MERS Virus


I thought as there has been another recent flurry of concern about Mers that I should update my readers on the status quo here.

This week there has been a flood of articles around the world about the virus mainly due to an American being infected.  I  am surreptitiously checking to make sure that I did not travel on the same BA flight as him!

Since I last wrote,  scientists are now fairly certain that the virus was transmitted from Camels to humans,  but that the original progenitor of the virus was  (possibly) bats. Evidence from blood testing indicates that the virus is widespread in camel populations around the middle east.

More worryingly there has been a recent upsurge of cases in Saudi Arabia, by late yesterday (May 7th) another 18 cases had been identified pushing the total number to  449 cases and 117 deaths (in total).  Originally,  most of the infections were directly from camels or immediate family members,  but the most recent cases 75% can be traced from Human to Human transmission,  particularly in a health care setting.

In April (2014) there was a spike in the number of cases,  a 65% increase,  and without warning the Saudi Health Minister, Abdullah al-Rabiah, was sacked.  The bulk of the cases have occurred in hospitals which suggests a breach in infection prevention and control measures.  A WHO team was dispatched to Jeddah to investigate, but they have been clear to suggest that there has not been a change in the virus’s ability to spread.  The Saudi Ministry of Health has set up 3 emergency centers to deal with the disease, in Jeddah, Riyadh and Damman. 

There is a lack of epidemiological information about the virus,  in as much it could have infected large numbers of people mildly,  but because the situation is changing so rapidly there has not been enough testing to have a broader view of its transmission.  WHO, is suggesting that anyone who is admitted to hospital with mild respiratory problems should be automatically tested for MERS,  this of course, in the Middle East has cost implications.  One of the problems of tracking this disease is the number of people who have no contact with health care professionals.  Nobody really knows how many cases there could be that are un-reported.

I think the question that everybody is asking is:  Should I be worried? I have asthma,  so for me any respiratory disease is literally a killer.  So far, I am not wandering around Riyadh in a face mask, but I have to say that I am a great deal more thorough with hand washing.  I will, if possible, avoid all contact with hospitals and doctor’s waiting rooms.

I have noticed that there is an increased vigilance amongst the general population. Check-out staff in super markets are wearing face masks.  Flyers in bathrooms everywhere stress the importance of hand washing,  and people  glance worriedly at any cough or sneeze in public.   The Filippino population are definitely concerned,  my driver says that many people are considering leaving Saudi Arabia because of MERS and that the Filippino  government is conducting stringent health checks on anyone returning from the Kingdom.  A friend of mine’s daughter was called by the public health department in the UK, to warn her about symptoms, as someone on her flight was diagnosed with MERS after arrival from Saudi Arabia.

People here talk about transparency and worry that they are not being given the whole story about the disease.  When speaking to friends who have lived here for years, they believe that there is likely to be a woeful un-reporting of cases,  the tip of the iceberg so to speak.  And even if this is not true, the perception is there.  In my opinion,  there is enough international concern about the virus that the number of cases published and information being given to the public is as accurate as it can be.

I will continue to update you on this subject.


Links to relevant pages: Saudi Ministry of Health,  World Health OrganisationHuffington Post




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Breaking Bread, The art of cooking sourdough.

DSC_6465A fact you may not know about Saudi Arabia is good bread is very hard to come by here.  Delicious and varied types of Flat bread are available, but properly fermented,  boutique bakery style breads are not available apart from in a very few speciality stores in the centre of Riyadh and once a month at The German Bakery stall at Kingdom Compound Coffee Morning which I can’t be bothered to queue for.  The supermarkets sell the usual or worse than usual sliced white,  full of sugar,  and of a plastic texture.  The brown bread is similar but coloured brown with caramel.  You start to get worried when it lasts forever and seems to be full of preservatives.  And as Julia Child once said (of America) “How can a nation be great when its bread tastes of Kleenex”.  I can tell you I’ve eaten a lot of kleenex over the years.

After a couple of months,  I became so fed up with Kleenex bread that I decided to try and make my own Sourdough Bread.   I had little experience of bread making,  apart from the odd quick yeast loaf and Pizza dough.  I don’t consider myself to be one of those keen baking types but my yearning for really good bread and butter was so great that I was prepared to have a go.

Sourdough bread has sort of mystery about it. It is a confection of wild yeasts,  flour and water,  simple ingredients you may think,  its production is shrouded in hidden secrets and passed down concoctions.   In fact,  before the nineteenth century almost all bread was made with passed down pre-fermented cultures.  Commercial bakers used cultures from breweries and their own local handed down “preferments”.  In France and Italy today,  these cultures are closely guarded,  and some, are boasted by their owners, to date back to the 16th Century.  The famous San Francisco Sourdough bread culture dates back to 1849.   But when it comes to making some yourself, everywhere you read recipes,  large letters are printed “do not try this if you are a beginner”.  That for me is red rag to a bull.   Sourdough bread is made from a natural yeast culture that you capture from the natural yeasts on fruit, in flour and in the air around us. What could go wrong?  I thought that maybe I would be lucky and be able to encourage local yeasts to make “mi casa su casa”.

My first attempt at a sourdough culture was an abject failure!  I had been attracted to the bright lights and blue eyes of the “Great British Bake-off” presenter, Paul Hollywood and decided to try his recipe.  It is published on the BBC website.   After following the instructions precisely for several weeks,  I tried to make bread,  again according to his instructions.  It was disgusting.  I am sorry I didn’t take a photo of the result, but the loaf,  if you can call it that, had to go straight in the trash can.

I felt despondent after all the effort I had expended,  but then decided that I would have one more attempt but using a different recipe for the  sourdough starter.  This time I used a recipe from the Moro Cookbook.   I followed those instructions almost exactly,  although,  I did add some Rye flour,  as apparently more wild yeasts grow on Rye. After a number of days the rather rank mixture looked decidedly dead!  However,  as I perceived a few bubbles,  I continued with the twice daily feeding process.  After a couple of weeks,  I was seriously thinking of murder by drain as it was disgusting,  but decided that I would have a now or never attempt at baking a loaf using the unpromising looking mixture.

So I made the loaves according to Sam Clarke’s recipe,  I had little hope of this working out, but almost unbelievably the starter worked and the dough rose. I was childishly excited by this.

IMG_0668The next trial, was would they bake without collapsing and be edible. They came out of the oven perfectly.  The DH can attest to their deliciousness.



When you have a starter culture that works you can keep it in the fridge and feed it once a week. You can even freeze it successfully if you are going away.   I have discovered since I started baking this type of bread that it is not very good for waistlines,  and although my bread is not quite of a professional standard,  I and all my family and friends seem pleased with the results.

The bread making process for this type of bread takes between 12 and 15 hours in two parts.  The first rise takes between 8 & 12 hours and second rise between 3 & 5 hours.  I do the first stage over night and start the second next morning to have baked bread by Mid-day. The times depend on the mood of the starter and the room temperature. It is different every time.   The dough for this type of bread is wet and difficult to handle,  so if you want to make round loaves, you have to have a banneton,  which is a proving basket.  It is easier to make in tins, but I have been successful with bannetons by adding just a little more flour to the dough.  You can order bannetons online,  but any whicker basket would work with a well floured linen lining.  It is also much better to bake it on a Pizza Stone if you have one.

I have also learnt a great deal more about doughs in general and am branching out into other bakery items,  such as rolls and fermented cake doughs. I think croissants will be a step too far as I might eat too many and become a Pilsbury dough boy.

I am not sure if I will continue to bake this bread when I leave the Kingdom as making it is a lifestyle choice,  and I know I can easily buy bread as good or better than mine for no effort in Europe or the USA.   But while I am here,  I challenge anyone to bring me a better loaf.

Follow the link to find the recipe page and web-sites that helped me.



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Going, when Desert Camping.


I know I left you all in the lurch with our camping trip at the end of the year.  It has been a busy few months.  I wrote a post about our trip and then when I read the blog back it sounded like a “When we” type of letter.  You know what I mean,  slightly boastful of all our adventures and not necessarily helpful apart from to make you all jealous of the fabulous places we have visited over the last couple of months.

The kind of camping that we have been doing is “wild” which means for those uninitiated, no home comforts unless you bring them yourself.  In fact all the camping you will do in this part of the world is ‘wild’.  You won’t find a “hook-up”, water or washrooms.   To get down to the nitty gritty,  it also means planning your “bathroom breaks” (to use an american euphemism) or you are going to end up with chronic constipation.   I thought I would write about this to give everyone the heads up.  This alone can put some people off camping at all.

Most our trips have involved a lot of driving,  to get from Riyadh,  to wherever we have been going.  Saudi petrol stations almost all have a mosque attached.  It is generally behind the mosque,  where you will find the ladies prayer room and conveniences.

DSC_6417 The state of the gas station is not necessarily an indicator of the standard of the washrooms,  but it can be an indicator.  Both of those below had 3 stars on my rating system.

DSC_6298 DSC_6418

 If men have been planning the trip the stop will not be based on the standard of the facilities,  it will come down to good logistics.  i.e.  refill your tank when half full and then you will always be able to get back to the last place you filled up.  This makes very good sense, but I think it would be good to be able to give gas stations loo ratings.  Most Saudi public loo’s are not great, (understatement?) and almost all are squat versions and virtually none have paper, so you need to be prepared.

I think on the blog,  it would be good to have a rating system,  so we know the best service stations to stop at.  So please if you are in Saudi Arabia post co-ordinates and ratings for facilities that you have sampled.

4 stars  = Sparkling clean loo, with flushing system,  no flies, no smell and locking door.  Wash basins with running water and soap. Clean floors and proper, emptied trash cans.

3 stars = Lighted, reasonably clean loo, running water with hose,  some smell, locking door.  Washroom area with handbasin not overflowing with trash.

2 stars = Semi clean loo with window but possibly dark, a water tap somewhere, a few flies, nearly bearable smell and  locking door.

1 star = Loo, no locking door, a smell that you can bear if you hold your breath,  and an outside tap and possibly a bucket.

Unrated = One look at named facility and you run out retching,  knowing that any bush is better.

The other reasonable option is behind the nearest rock, bush or dune.  These locations have their own hazards,  what can seem like the ideal location in darkness,  by day can end up overlooked by camel herders.  This can give you performance anxiety,  which can mean an uncomfortable day if unable to pee in a hurry.


You can see the camel appearing in the photo,  causing a very quick haul up operation for me.

Also,  you need to take a shovel and paper with you.  On the good side, unlike Africa, you are not worrying about lions, elephants and hippos.  There is some wildlife to contend with,  bats, camel spiders, snakes and scorpions to name a few, and not forgetting the ubiquitous mosquito,  which undoubtedly has done the worse damage to my derriere than anything else on these trips.

But when all is said and done,  there is nothing quite like contemplating the beautiful view and the sun rising or setting while doing ones business.






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Apologies: Life overtook blogger. Christmas keeps on coming.


Too long since my last post.  So a bit of catching up here.  Since my last post I have been doing a great deal of  family wrangling, followed by a few minor killings of contractors around the world and such like.  In the next few posts I hope to update you on camping trips, clandestine christmas, bread and blacksmithing.   I  also intend to have an ongoing feature on building golf courses with no previous experience.




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Preparations for the Eid Al-Adha holiday


The sacrificed goats

In Saudi Arabia there was an 11 day holiday for Eid Al-Adha this year. Eid Al-Adha celebrates Abraham’s proving that he loved God  more  than anything else by being prepared to sacrifice his only son.  More than 100 million animals are sacrificed by Muslims around the world to honor the holy day.  The celebration is perhaps a mixture of Christmas and Easter (in other words, it’s a big deal):  People put on their best clothes,  say special prayers at the mosque, give gifts to children and families share the sacrificial goat or lamb.  It is also a time of charity where people are encouraged to give generously to the poor.

The dates for Eid Al-Adha change every year as it is calculated by the lunar calendar.  This year it was on the 15th & 16th of October.  Offices and schools are closed from the weekend before to the weekend after,  and everyone is on holiday.

I had long been interested in exploring more of the Arabian Peninsular but it is hard to get information about where to go.  There are few guide books,  or even roads to get to some of the most interesting places in Saudi Arabia.  So the DH and I jumped at the chance when we were invited to join an overland trip to Oman.

In order to take part we would need a vehicle that wouldn’t get stuck in the sand.  Easy you might think,  but actually of all the hundreds of SUV’s available very few are suitable for driving off-road over steep dunes.  We have a monster GMC Yukon,  which looks tough and rugged,  but when it comes to going in the desert, it is a lame duck.   In fact the leader of our trip has a list of banned vehicles, because there have been so many problems with them on previous expeditions.  Unfortunately the Yukon is near the top of that list.  The majority of 4wd vehicles only engage 4wd after the tires start slipping,  and in sand that is already too late.  You also need low ratio gears, the ability to lock differential (and I know what that means), and enough room to carry water, fuel, food and camping gear for 10 days.  When you start looking for all of those features the list becomes very meagre.  After consulting local experts, our list came down to: Nissan Patrol,  Landrover Discovery, Range Rover, Toyoto Landcruiser, Toyoto Prado, Nissan Pathfinder,  or a Toyoto Pick-up (which the DH fancied so we could carry our camels in the back)IMG_0086 Our local expert told us to leave out the Landrover and Range Rover as they would mark us out as rich B**stds ideal for kidnapping or carjacking, (yes seriously).  As I researched the second hand car market in Riyadh,  it became increasingly obvious that these cars were like gold dust, even the pick-up is apparently back ordered.  If we couldn’t get the right car,  we wouldn’t be able to go on the trip.  Then one of the DH’s colleagues offered to help as he knew a yemeni car dealer who acts on behalf of a prince, selling off second hand vehicles with low mileages that the prince wishes to trade in.   We rushed to buy a second hand Nissan Patrol only to find that it had been sold an hour earlier to someone who turned up with the cash in hand,  while we were still trying to get the money out of the bank.

So having said he didn’t want to buy a new car the DH took matters into his own hands and acquired his new ‘baby’,  a Toyoto FJ cruiser,  beloved of texan hairdressers, but here considered a boy-racer car… Is that the male menopause I hear you ask?  He is secretly or perhaps not so secretly delighted with it as all the young staff in his office have asked him to take them dune riding.   As far as I was concerned at least we had a ride,  I only have two other words on the subject; boys’ toys.


FJ cruiser turning the camels’ heads

Now we needed the rest of the kit for the trip. (I have put a list on a separate page for anyone planning their own trip.) The most testing of the purchases was acquiring a second spare wheel.  How could it be so difficult? Let me begin by saying I had to buy the wheel separately from the tire,  The wheel came from the main Toyoto dealership, which is akin to  Sainsburys on a Saturday morning at all times.  I had to queue to ask a question,  and men kept on barging in front of me,  then I had go home and establish which wheel I needed from a picture print-out of 3 different possible wheels and then return to the dealership, order the wheel and collect it the following day.  So only 3 trips.  Buying  the tire to go on the wheel was even more exhausting,  having eventually established what tire we wanted, buying it was a bartering process down the Khourais road.  After a while I couldn’t face it any longer so I asked my driver to get the best deal he could and come back with a tire.  I am sure that we were ripped off.  It all seemed terribly expensive and took me the best part of 3 days to sort out, 6 different trips in total!  Nothing is straightforward here.

The list of everything we needed for 10 days in the desert was huge and  read like Ratty’s picnic hamper,  although no pickled gherkins, but 40 liters of water and a lamb curry for emergencies.  Our camping equipment as it exists is spread across the globe,  some in the UK and some in the States and some has spread its wings and flown goodness knows where,  so for this trip we bought some new specific things,  like a monster air compressor for re-inflating tires after sand driving,  and an enormous (magic?) carpet that the DH couldn’t leave in the shop.  And then friends lent us other stuff.

A magic carpet?

A magic carpet?

By the time we were to leave nearly our entire utility room was stacked with gear.  I wondered how we would fit it in the car without a roof rack. But never fear the Meister Packer was near,  after a few re-packs he managed to squeeze everything in and strap it down with bright red webbing ratchet straps.

At 5.30am on 11th of October, full to the gunnels we set out on our first Arabian camping adventure…………

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Bats about MERS


Since I returned,  conversation turns at every opportunity to “MERS” and it goes something like this:

“What’s this MERS thing?

“Some sort of flu”

“Is there much of it about?”

“You have to have contact with Camels”

“Do you know anyone who’s had it”

“Well, one girl I know, was in hospital, and I bet that could have been it, but I don’t know if she’d had contact with Camels.”

“I’ve got a bit of a cough, I think I’ve got it”  (spot the hypochondriac in the room).

So why the sudden interest in a Virus that has only affected a hundred odd people? I thought I’d try and find out and put together a post of what I’ve found from trolling  newspapers, academic publications and so forth .  So here it is.

What is it?

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Cor V to give it its full name is a Coronavirus. It’s related to ‘Flu and for that matter the common cold.  It can cause respiratory and kidney failure. Its first deadly appearance was in June 2012.  But it may have been around since 2007 or even earlier.  It seems to have originated in Saudi Arabia.

Where did it come from?

I can’t find a definitive answer.  So far the culprits range from retired Omani Racing Camels (quite convenient) to Egyptian Tomb bats.  (Is this the beginning of a “return of the Mummies?”) Scientists have found anti-bodies for the virus in Omani Camels,  but not in other domestic animals tested to date.

From research I  looked at it seems that there may be more than one host for the disease. The virus may have jumped from its original host to other animals and then to Humans,  but it also seems that there are different genetic variations of the virus.  This may be due to its evolution in humans and/ or to separate and distinct infections from different animal hosts.

At Columbia University, Emerging Diseases specialist, Professor Ian Lipkin,  discovered a tantalizing link between MERS and the Egyptian  Tomb Bat.  Last October (2012)  he was invited by Ziad Memish,  Saudi deputy health minister, to assist in researching the source of MERS.  They collected samples from bats captured close to where the first known victim of MERS lived.  From those bats The University has isolated part of the genome of a virus closely matching the MERS virus.  Unfortunately due to US customs ruining their samples they were not able to get definitive proof of the link,  and their findings have only recently been published after a second bat in South Africa was discovered to have a link to the MERS virus and thereby giving weight to the discovery.

Professor Lipkin along with a host of other microbiologists, epidemiologists and public health officials from Saudi Arabia and all over the world continue to search for the source of the virus.

Should we be worried?

Yes and no.  Here in Riyadh, there has been a flurry of information and public health advice about the Virus leading up the Haj,  (The pilgrimage to Mecca and Madinah that all Muslims should make once in their life). The Kingdom is expecting around 3,000,000 pilgrims from all over the world in the next few weeks.  This would give the virus the ideal opportunity to hitch a lift around the world.   However the World Health Organization has not made MERS a public health concern.  They have issued public health advice on how to avoid contracting the disease,  not withstanding the fact, with so many people from around the world descending on Mecca,  there may far worse lurgi’s waiting to catch out the unsuspecting.

So far there have been 136 confirmed MERS infections and 58 deaths, many of those in the Kingdom (96 cases & 49 deaths).  However most of those who died were already  compromised with an existing condition or hospitalized.  There is also reason to believe that the virus may have been circulating in humans for sometime in a milder form.

The main concern lies in the  possible evolution of the virus, its ability to spread between humans and its capacity to kill.  MERS is considered more deadly,  but currently less transmissible than SARS.

As of today there is no vaccine against this virus,  so prevention is the best protection.   Where’s the hand sanitizer?

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