As we flew in on Sunday, I studied the flight map in wonder as we flew high above ancient cities of the world: Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad, with our course set for Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (everyone here refers to SA as “The Kingdom.”).
In the descent of the airplane, passengers are reminded in an overhead message that it is forbidden to bring alcohol or explicit materials into the kingdom. A friendly, firm reminder to all who travel to say, “Welcome, AND/BUT there are certain rules that are to be followed.”
As I exited the airplane, the immediate thing I noticed was the change in fashion: most men wearing thobes (long white robes) with ghutrahs (red and white headwear) – Cleanly pressed, proudly worn. Most women wearing hijabs, niqabs, burkas (but not all women). Many people also wear super-sharp watches, the new bluetooth Apple earbuds, slick sneakers, and designer sunglasses.
The pace of life is really interesting to me. Traffic operates like it does in most big cities I’ve been in, but on foot, people go about leisurely… I’ve seen hardly anyone hurry, I’ve seen no one run (except visitors at the hotel gym) – just a confident, mellow stroll. Always.
Cafes are full of people all day long, and well into the night. People sip coffee, talk with friends (all sit with members of the same gender – unless you’re in a family section of a restaurant which is partitioned from the singles area… though some restaurants are changing), they smoke, vape, and drink tea and coffee. Because it’s so hot during the day, many people make the most of the night. You can get coffee, tea, and good food until well after midnight.
We spent a good amount of time in a place called Oud Square, and had a phenomenal Lebanese meal with a new friend from the embassy: Hummus, veal, lamb, chicken liver, walnut paste, all fresh and deliciously prepared… The food has been exceptionally exceptional.
Serving as a cultural ambassador of the U.S., it’s been my distinct joy and pleasure to get the opportunity to go to oft-untraveled places by folks from America, to learn a little more than what is able to be relayed in two-minute news pieces, and to relay as many interesting details to you as I am able.
Through countless conversations with local teachers, diplomats, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and children, I’m learning first hand that this has been a place of some tension, and people share their awareness of some of the scrutiny in the eyes of the world (I’m constantly asked by local folks what my thoughts were about SA before coming here, and what they are now).
I can tell you that people have welcomed me generously (Maybe the most generously I’ve ever experienced. The hospitality is remarkable.). I know I’m in a place and time that is very exciting. Everyone I’ve met is talking about change. Some love it, and can’t wait for more. Some have said, “It feels weird, and it’s hard to keep up.”
As a preview of my next blog, I’ll share one last thing for today: I’ve been told constantly that everything we’re seeing happen here was not happening even three years ago: meetings with artists out in the open, visiting an all girls school for a discussion and concert, public jam sessions where two years ago people would have had their instruments confiscated and likely broken for doing what we’re doing. Not the case this week.
It’s a beautiful land of generous, thoughtful people, vast sandy deserts, the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, oil, American/Saudi close-knit history, and fighter jets flying overhead constantly as a reminder that there is a lot at stake for this land and people at all times.
I can’t wait to see and share more in the days ahead.