Friday, April 29, 2005

Riyadh Travelogue - episode 1

Last Thursday, I completed 3 weeks of my stay in Riyadh. A lots of things happened which kept me from updating this blog. Here is my long overdue take on the trip.

I landed in Riyadh on the 7th of April at about 13:00 hrs local time. The immigration and baggage clearance took less time than I anticipated and I was out of the airport within 45 minutes. My colleagues came to pick me up after about 10mins of waiting and finally we were on our way home.

Riyadh has changed quite a bit since the last time I was here, which was nearly a decade ago. A lot of western departmental stores like Debenhams, Harvey Nichols, Saks Fifth Ave (the store where Liz Hurley recently introduced her beachwear collection), etc have set up shop. Mall culture is evident and booming. Kingdom Towers which caters primarily to the affluent is a must see. It boasts a 56m long observatory SkyBridge at the top giving a breathtaking view of the city. I haven't been to the SkyBridge yet, but will definitely make a trip before I return.

There is also another part to Riyadh which one can observe here. This is the more mellowed version where Islam is so central to all aspects of daily life. Shops and businesses remain closed during the prayer timings (which lasts between 10 - 15 minutes) allowing Muslims to perform their prayers. Women wear abaya and gender segregation in public is common. Some of the malls have specific timings for women and families.

For the expatriate population, entertainment is something that is unheard of here unless ofcourse you have the privilege of spending time with family and friends. Thats what I thought..

The weekend before last, my colleagues and I decided to visit Faisaliya Mall, which is walking distance from office. When we got there, we were surprised to see hoardes of cops and security personnel outside the mall, running about chattering on their radio. The scene was tense. We got into the mall and it was crowded; mostly women in their teens or something (its difficult to tell anyway!). Our first thought was that we got in at the wrong time, but then decided to stay as we spotted a few men around.

We headed to the top floor to check out a few gadget stores, the kind I'm interested in. We were greeted with no space to walk. People, mostly women folk were thronging at the center of the mall. We found out that a local celebrity named 'Hisham Abdul Rahman' was visiting the mall to sign some copies of his new album. Apparently, Hisham was the winner of a recent talent search called Star Academy in the Middle East (a la 'American Idol' in the US and copies of the same in India). There were security people (the men-in-black kinds) talkin into their suits and trying to control the crowd. Members from the 'The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice' (called 'mutawwa') were present too, doing their round of checks. Women were blatantly screaming, waiting to catch a glimpse of their celebrity son.

Due to lack of space and also because some of us were scared, we decided to go to the nearby coffee shop and stay away from the crowd, lest we get into trouble with the cops. I had my camera with me and I knew that this was the only chance that I'd ever get to take a snap of a spectacle of this kind and that too, in Saudi Arabia. Now public photography is sort of banned here. But when you have hundreds of people using their camera phones to take pictures, you tend to think twice. So, I took a colleague (the more daring one) and we headed to the centre where people were thronging. We waited.. for Hisham to arrive and, more importantly, for the cops standing right behind us to leave. After waiting for sometime and realising that the cops were busy, we waded ourselves through the crowd inching towards the center where the action was slated to happen.

We stopped when it became impossible to go any further. I took out my camera and started to break sweat. I asked my partner in crime to check if the coast was clear. Meanwhile, a young arab standing right next to me noticed my camera and told me it was okay and showed me pictures that he took on his phone. I changed setting on the camera to night mode, switched of the flash and got ready. After confirmation from my colleague, I took a few snaps.

We headed back to the coffee shop soon after, to join those who hadn't come. On our way back, we noticed the cops ordering all the shops to pull down their shutters. We decided to leave and headed home, discussing what happened, all the way. It was one evening that we will remember for a long time.

One of the things I like about Saudi's, is their taste for cars. That, I'll save for my next post. So, stay tuned..


At 6:42 PM, Blogger Khushee said...

Riyadh looks like such a nice city. Hopefully I'll be able to visit that side of the world someday :D

At 9:53 AM, Blogger adel said...

Almas, it is quite a big city, but a tad restricted. If you're planning a trip this side, do visit Dubai - a place I'm sure you'd enjoy. I miss Dubai so much! *sigh*

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Kapil said...

I am surprised to see Riyadh is such a beautiful city. Looks pretty advanced in technology excellent infrastructure and some good shopping malls. Of course Dubai is like heaven. I've always enjoyed my visits there.

Good blog.

At 10:53 PM, Blogger Dave said...

This is a great article... I really appreciate it! ##KEYWORD##


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