The Janadriyah Festival 2013

Gates to the palace

Gates to the palace

A two week long cultural and heritage festival is held each year at Janadriyah,  some 30 miles outside Riyadh.  Originally The festival was founded as a massive camel race meet,  but has gradually become a celebration of the regional heritage of Saudi Arabia.  It now has a vast purpose built site.  Think of the Royal Agriculture Show on steroids .  There is a Camel racecourse and stand, complete with Royal Box.  There are reconstructions of the various types of historical architecture from the Arabian regions,  including Jeddah,  Mecca and Medina which all look very authentic.

Medina old city at Janadriyah

Medina old city at Janadriyah

In fact there is a whole reconstructed street from Medina,  complete with street vendors selling all kinds of goods and foods.   There are stages for music and dancing and Bedouin tents for relaxing.   Whole areas are cordoned with colourful prayer mats for prayer time.   At the sides of the historical buildings are huge stands representing the Saudi Ministries and corporate Saudi Arabia all with their own hospitality areas.  The same as at any British show.   The  event is enormous and marvelous.

The DS (darling son) and I were invited to attend with a British couple,  the husband has been seconded to the Saudi military for a tour of duty.  They have an eighteen year old daughter who has made friends with my son.  They are both enjoying distracting each other from A’Level revision.    We were part of an expat military convoy invited to attend the camel racing and then to enjoy the festival.

The day we attended was the first “Family Day” and it was packed.  Later I discovered that over 600,0000 people had visited since the opening day the previous week.

Main Concourse of the Janadriyah

Main Concourse of the Janadriyah

For the Mutawwa,  the Saudi Religious police,  the festival is a hot bed of potential improper relationships.  There are many young unmarried Saudi women and men attending who are not usually allowed to mingle,  but with a combination of mobile phones and social media,  in the mele of the Janadriyah anything is possible.   The Mutawwa need to be on their toes,  and in fact my friend her daughter and I all drape headscarves over our heads in order not to draw attention to ourselves.   A year ago,  a friend of hers was hit on the head by a Mutawwa for not covering it.

It seems as though this is not to be.  Every where we go we are followed by photographers.   This, we discover, is a Saudi anachronism.  The country has an office for Tourism and Heritage,  but it is almost impossible to visit Saudi Arabia as a tourist.  So effectively there is no foreign tourism except for expats  who have visas to work.  This means that every effort is made to photograph us in order to prove that Tourism is flourishing.   We receive an effusive welcome in every area of Festival,  with local tourism chiefs (who mostly speak excellent english) exclaiming that we will have our pictures in the newspapers the next day.

Photo of one photographer

Photographer picturing us picturing him

They are most interested in taking photos of my son with his friend’s father,  who they have assumed is his son.  (How could a lone women and her son be at this festival without spousal chaperonage.)   We do not disabuse them of this fact it would create too many complications.

At every cultural house we are presented with a goody bag.  I come home with an incense burner,  several fans,  a poster of Mecca and some Saudi candy and many kindly invitations to visit other areas of the country with personalized tours to be arranged if we managed to travel there.   I am overwhelmed by the friendliness and the welcome that we receive.  We feel like true VIP’s.  In every house we are offered dates and Arabian coffee or tea.

The most wonderful tea cosy in the Jeddah house

The most wonderful tea cosy in the Jeddah house

I am not sure what we have done to warrant such hospitality and it obvious that not everyone (even other expats) are given the same treatment.  It certainly has made our visit very special.  However I feel slightly like an appendage,  I think some people are struggling to work out what are relationships are,  as it would be very unusual for a Saudi woman to be accompanied by a married man unless he was her husband or close relative.  I do hope that assumptions weren’t made.

We take a break to eat some food during prayers and sit down.   Fule,  a type of bean dip, lovely freshly baked flat breads,  little hot crisp samosas; delicious.   While we are busy eating our picnic we are approached by a girl doing henna tattoos.

Henna Tattoo

Henna Tattoo

I end up with a design all over my arm.  At the same time I am not really aware of a Saudi girl,  fully covered including Niqab scoping out the DS.  She approaches my friend,  who she believes must be his mother.  She wants his phone number.  She surreptitiously shows her uncovered face on her cell phone.  She is a very pretty girl and her english is good.   We have to be very careful,  as the DS could be deported for engaging in any communication with her.   The DS cannot talk to her.  Over the coming days she continues to text my friend in order to find out how to contact the DS,  but we cannot let them communicate as our visa’s might be rescinded if this were discovered by the Mutawwa.   It just goes to show how complicated it can be being handsome and on display at the Janadriyah,  as I read about the UAE gentlemen who were deported after being considered too handsome.  I realize how fortunate we were that the DS was not caught by the religious police.

Posted in Here and Now, Tours and Activities | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Little Black Dress, Arabian Style.


DSC_4856The Abaya,   is a black tent,  which all women in Saudi Arabia have to wear by religious decree.   Abaya in direct translation from Arabic to English means “cloak”.   Women in Saudi Arabia cover themselves according to Islamic tradition with an Abaya,  Hijab, headscarf and a Niqab which is a face covering with a slit for the eyes tied to the back of the head. All Saudi women have to wear the Abaya and Hijab in public,  and many choose to wear the Niqab.  Western women are compelled to wear the Abaya but not the headscarf,  although in public places you might be beaten by the religious police for not covering your head.  Some very religious women also wear gloves and socks and cover their eyes with a veil.

The rationale behind women wearing the Abaya comes from a quote in the Qur’an: “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognised and no harm will come to them” Qur’an 33:59 (Translated by Ahmed Ali)].  However it is only more conservative Islamic societies that choose to cover completely such as the Wahhabism that is practiced in Saudi Arabia.  Before the religious clampdown after the Iranian revolution in 1979 many women in Saudi Arabia did not cover up completely.

I have discovered that, while I may dislike the Abaya,  it is not a big issue for Saudi women.  They are more concerned with other women’s rights,  such as owning property, education,  bank accounts, male chaperonage and driving.  From a purely personal point of view wearing the Abaya stops Saudi men from staring at you.

il_570xN.430325900_s5upYou would think that buying an Abaya would be simple,  but there are many things you  need to know.  Most Abaya’s are black. Black is not compulsory,  however you only see foreigners wearing other colors, and mostly Filipino maids.  I think Abayas  are probably black on historic grounds.  In the middle ages in Europe  black coloured clothes were the most expensive, as black dye was very difficult to achieve so only the richest people had black clothing.  I suspect that tradition has continued in Arabia,  and if you think about the status of the LBD in western fashion,  black still reigns supreme there too.

The style of the Abaya is crucial and it is important that it should be actually dragging on the ground despite the potential arse over tit factor for me.   Saudi women will make all sorts of judgements about your class from your Abaya.   The fabric is almost always synthetic as the material has to be completely opaque and the very thinnest opaque fabrics are synthetic.  A friend of mine is developing new natural Abaya fabrics at the Queen Noor university.  How the Abaya hangs is also important,  but I have yet to discover what the classiest cut of Abaya is.    Many abayas are decorated with intricate embroidery and with beading again it’s hard to tell between upmarket and chavvy.  (Please feel free to comment if you know the answer.)

My Abaya apparently comes from one of the best Abaya shops in Riyadh and was purchased by Saudi lady for me.  It has very wide sleeves which are a bit of a problem when eating out as they easily get into food and are now looking slightly grubby.  Its advantages include being able to leave home in your pajamas or underwear if you are running late,  although I have yet to do that.  I do find it  hot, itchy and impossible to run in.  At least I do not have to wear it when  on our compound.

As not much skin shows in public,  Saudi women care enormously about how their hands, feet and eyes look.    Look for Louboutin shoes,  a great mani-pedi,  and big eye make-up,  much more than I would normally wear during the day.  Also the handbag is a big giveaway of a fashermes-birkin-bag-35-premium-ostrich-leather-orange-silverhionable woman.  You will see the most expensive arm candy on display everyday.  I am trying to persuade the DH to invest in a “serious” handbag in order that I should be noticed.   I thought a Hermes Birkin bag would be most suitable.

Posted in Need to Know | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Weekend Away Day to Al Usayla or Graffiti Rock.

Graffiti Rock from the tumuli

Graffiti Rock from the tumuli

Our first Sunday aka Friday here in Arabia,  we have been invited to join a tour to Al Usayla or known in English as Graffiti Rock.  A pre historic sight with many fabulous petroglyphs documenting Saudi Arabia around 5,000 years ago.

We meet outside the cafeteria at 8.00 am,  Our party consists of the enthusiastic organizer, an American visiting economist,  and his wife,  the DH and myself,  a collection of multi-national colleagues,  and two French Children, in total eleven of us.  Our bigger teenagers cannot be asked to move from their beds on a weekend  to see rock carvings.

We set off in a taxi van and an SUV. The site is about 120 kms from the Riyadh,  for most of which there is highway but the last 4 kms are off road,  we don’t know if the driver will be able to get the van all the way there.  The taxi is quite uncomfortable and I have a middle seat,  I am also itchy and hot in the abaya.  Our able organizer gives us a lecture about the site,  and directs the taxi with maps he has downloaded from the internet.  We reach the turn off from the main road,  and track looks okay so the taxi follows the SUV,  after we cross a rocky ridge we can see the rock which sits up on its own out of the rocky desert near to an escarpment.

We find “The Rock” has recently been enclosed with a chain link fence with a heavy padlocked gate , no doubt  to prevent Expats from inspecting, however there is a hole round the back and we climb through.  Thank you to the person before who had remembered wire cutters.  Next time I will include them in my kit bag.


The neolithic etchings were extraordinary. Tiny pictures of leopards, ostrich   families and many other animals etched into black rocks.  The rocks have a black coating, “desert varnish” it is produced over a long period of time by manganese and iron oxide reacting with clay, bacteria and condensed water.  It makes a perfect drawing surface.   Any European or American site like this one would have been surrounded by a hoard of tourists but the neolithic sites of Saudi Arabia are still a hidden treasure.   I dared to climb the rocks, without the penguin suit, you definitely need trainers and to be reasonably fit,  otherwise binoculars would be a good idea. It brings a whole new meaning to “come up and see my etchings”.   The DH suddenly called that cars were coming across the sand.  So the girls had to rush down the rocks and back to the cars to don abayas.

Luckily it was a group of other Ex Patriots who were also on a Friday outing.  Doesn’t that sound weird,  it should be a Sunday Afternoon outing.

After that we climbed the nearby escarpment to see ancient tumuli.  The view was good and the Tumuli,  were as all tumuli, piles of rocks so not very interesting but very very old.  The French boys were disappointed that there were no skeletons or treasure to be seen  and I rather agree with them.

After a hot picnic,  with the taxi van engine running the whole time as the driver wanted the Air Con on,  (Not very salubrious and actually very annoying)  the party started back home.

This time the off-road trip did not go according to plan,  and we got stuck or at least the van got stuck in the sand due to the stupidity of the driver.  The DH took control and tried to make him understand that he had to go fast, only for the driver to say “Yes Yes and then do the opposite,  in fact we got stuck two more times before he actually understood what he was being told. I thought the DH would explode with frustration.

We were tired out by the time we got back to Riyadh,  although some of the rock formations and Red Sand on the Journey back are  spectacular.   I still had to rush out and buy food when we got home.  I barbecued Lamb,  but the Aubergines I cooked with Thyme and Balsamic were not successful.  Still missing the saute pan that I didn’t get from Ikea.


Directions to Graffiti Rock:

A 4×4 is best,  but if you know how to drive in sand and your car is not too low you can reach it.  To get there take Makkah Road out of the city.  At the check point set your odometer to zero. At 90km (approx) you’ll pass through the town of Jelah.  At 105 km there is an exit to Musayqirah. Take this exit and turn right to find the road ends in about 500 meters.  Follow the trodden track on your left for about 4 kms to the Graffiti rock. 
Co-ordinates: N24 18′ 58.23″, E45° 38′ 25.84″

Posted in Tours and Activities | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ikea Here We Come


The D.H. announces that he has invited 10 people to dinner on our first day in Riyadh.  This he says is not a problem because he will cook!  It is a problem though because the kitchen, while perfectly delightful in its Italianatness and superdoopa appliances, has no equipment apart from cutlery, plates and glasses.   We have to shop for not only things to cook but things to cook with.

I knew that Riyadh had an Ikea after there was such a row about the company photo-shopping out all pictures of women in their Saudi Catalogue.  I also pre- sourced a store location of a big american Weber barbecue,  so we can grill.

Shopping here is like planned military ops.  You have to be organized there can be no browsing because you are limited in the time you have.  All shops close periodically for prayers.  So for instance shops open at 10am and close at mid-day, open at 1pm and close at 3.00pm and then again 6.15 pm and 7.30 pm closing for between 30minutes and an hour each time,  (I haven’t quite worked that out yet.)  Prayer times vary depending on Sunrise and the calendar.   If you want to visit more than one shop in one shopping period you have to be precise.

Shopping in Ikea,  is almost identical to shopping in Ikea in the UK or USA,  The maze, to trap you in the store,  screaming children who don’t want to be left in the play area,  and women filling giant trolleys while the husbands look on in horror.  I even found the Swedish meatballs,  which I avoided in case of unknown contents.

We left with Expedit, Smarta, Gosa, Favorit and Skanka amongst other things,  I will leave you to work out what they.  It’s called the Ikea name game.

The check-out queues were as long as London Ikea’s on a Saturday afternoon,  by now we were racing against the clock,  would we make it before prayer time.  The metal store blinds were half way down before our turn came.  Here there is no last person,  the check outs stop whether they have rung up all your items or not.  Oh no we run into trouble,  there is no bar code on the saute pan.  We are told we can’t buy it,  and there is no time to replace it,  (I have yet discovered how to run in an abaya without tripping up).  I also leave behind a salad bowl.  So what we serve the salad in who knows.

Posted in Shopping | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Would Jeremy Clarkson approve?

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson would approve of the size of our new car. There’s no eco or green about   this beast of a GMC Yukon.  The car is provided by the company and who wouldn’t be happy about someone giving you a brand new car.  I would love to see JC do a desert challenge to see which of the big SUVs handle sand.  Hard to know how this beast will go in dunes as the weather is becoming too hot for camping trips.  In the mean time,  I cannot tell you about its cornering or  torque or even about pressing my foot to the metal.   I am banned from driving,  I have to accustom myself to being chauffeured,  while I perch on the back seat.

The biggest new challenge to my life, apart from the Penguin suit, is that in Saudi Arabia it is against the law for women to drive.  They are not allowed to drive cars, bikes,  or even use push bikes as transport.  As of April 3rd this year women are allow to ride bikes in public parks and recreation areas  but only with an abaya on.  Not sure how you make bike clips work for an abaya but hey ho baby steps towards womens’ rights.  This has not always been the case.  Before 1975 women were allowed to drive,  and I have heard that outside the cities Bedu women drive in the desert.

What all this means is that if I want to go anywhere I need someone to drive me.  As my husband is earning the daily crust,  enter our new driver,  Ronnie.  Luckily,  my husband warrants a driver as part of his contract and as part of my agreement with him to be here the driver is actually seconded to me.  Ronnie is Filipino and his English is as yet unknown and by that I mean it is hard to tell how much he understands.  He is very polite and willing,  “Yes Ma’am” being the default position,  but does not know Riyadh well,  two people without a clue where they are going is a recipe for disaster.  There is a SAT NAV in the car but it is also without any sense of direction,  and indeed confuses the situation by pretending that we are somewhere completely different to where we actually are.  So we have not ventured very far.

Ronnie thinks that the Saudi Drivers are not very good, Filipinos are much better drivers apparently  and indeed the rules of the road  here seem to include using roundabouts the wrong way round and other heinous crimes.  This is plain scary.   My view is that all driving would improve if women were on the roads.  The boys would have to watch their manners and standards would go up.  It is a fact women have less accidents than men.  A  2011 survey by Met Life in the States found that men were 3.4 times more likely to get a ticket for reckless driving than women.

May be the Bloke’s Bloke,  Jeremy Clarkson should be imported to forward the cause of women drivers in Saudi wouldn’t that would be a turn up for the books.


I have discovered that women actually own more cars in Saudi Arabia than men,  and so for every car they own the must employ a driver.  If that was the case elsewhere I wonder what effect it would have on un-employment.

Posted in Here and Now | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Arrived. Phew!!

After months of medicals,  form filling,  and general faffing around.  The Family,  that is the children and me,  (Saudi terminology ,  I promise you will get used to it) arrived at King Khalid international airport,  Riyadh,  late on the 27th March.  The airport is vast, with more runways and space than any of the large European or US airports.  It has the potential to be a huge hub and there is unlimited room for expansion.  Although the current terminal building is relatively small but modern.  I have expunged all Nutmeg from my luggage,  as that is a banned substance along with poppy seeds, alcohol and many medicines.  The list includes mouthwash and perfume if they contain alcohol.  I find it hard to come terms with the idea that I might drink a bottle of Channel No.5 followed by a chaser of listerine but who knows how desperate I might become.   Actually the alcohol ban is in fact the least of my worries and I am hope the reduction in wine drinking might actually be good for losing some pounds.

The DH,  (darling husband and designated hitter) had arranged a lovely surprise,  a VIP greeting service.  We were met on the Jet-way by a man, smartly dressed in a thobe and keffiyeh,  holding a large sign with my name,  very Brangelina!  We were whisked off through a special gate to the VIP lounge.  This was intended to be a luxurious and relaxing  experience, however while our greeters were hurrying to deal with our immigration forms and luggage a  sinking realization  fell upon us that the DS (darling son, or not so darling in this case) had left his baggage tags on the plane.  Oops.   A furious Darling Daughter (DD) whipped the DS in pursuit of the greeter claiming the bags in order to identify our luggage.

Meanwhile the DD and I sit in silent splendour being served dates,  Arabic coffee, cakes and tea.  There is a frosty atmosphere as the DD is so concerned that the DS has lost her bags.  I am just longing to get away and wonder if it is rude not to drink the coffee or if I drink it they will continue to fill my cup. I don’t know the custom.  After 3 cups I decline more as I know that I will need a bathroom visit and would rather not have to ask where the bathrooms are.

The DH is arriving from Jeddah and manages to meet us in VIP suite at the same time the   DS reappears with the greeters.  All is well.  Now is the big moment,  I don an abaya bought by the DH.  The abaya is a black tent like garment that goes over your clothes, compulsory for all women, unless your name is The Duchess of Cornwall, or Hilary Clinton.   I am naming it the Penguin Suit from now on,  as that is how I feel,  like a giant penguin.    The children have called it my Dementor outfit,  which might tell you something about my character.

The “Red Carpet” way has been remarkably smooth, I could get used to this.  However, when I find out how much the VIP greeting service costs  it is clear next time I  will have to “slum it” and wait in line for at least 2 hours.   I think the DH was trying to gain brownie points to make up for various misdemeanors by booking the service.

We walk out onto the concourse into a barrage of heat.   Our new driver,  Ronnie, has managed to maneuver our new big black SUV into a competitive position with the other equally big SUVs jostling for position.  It’s obvious that no one here cares about the cost of fuel it’s only 50 cents a gallon.

We head for the company compound and our new  home.

Posted in Here and Now | Tagged , , | Leave a comment