I have never been as happy about thursday coming up as I was this week. Thursday ment the end of the scholweek but also a trip to the desert on this particular day.
Those who already have an idea about life in Saudi will know, that social gatherings as we know them from Western counries (or pretty much the rest of the world) do not exist here. Men and women that are not related to each other may not interact in public or in general, to be very strict. However, in some cases, there is some sort of a way around that.
Many expats prefer renting a space in the desert near Riyadh and have a social gathering there. Imagine it like some sort of fence behing which there is a sitting area made of carpets in the hot sand and some tents where either tea and coffee is being made or where people go when it is time to pray. There were several of such small “arenas” to be seen outside of Riyadh, just a tiny bit into the endless desert.
It was a very modest gathering among Saudi and non Saudi families that knew each other from work. People just chatted with each other, drank tea and Arabic coffee and generally stayed in small groups with the people they were already familiar with. More or less the typical Western way.
That may not sound very spectacular at first but when you actually think about it, there is something quite unique about all this. I mean, how many times do you get to sit with people of different nationalities, somehwre in the desert, drinking Arabic coffee that is being served to you by Saudi men wearing traditional Saudi clothes?
Yes, you read that right. As I was sitting there with my family, some young Saudis were walking up and down the sitting area, with little china cups and a pot of Arabic coffee in their hands, offering some of it to every guest and by offering, I mean offering constantly.
I used to be a very passionate coffee drinker once and considering the workload I am exposed to in school right now, I can imagine going back to that habit again. Arabic coffee is probably the most interesting thing I have ever tried. I would never have guessed it is coffee if no one had told me before. It is a little thick and smells heavily of some oriental spices. I love the scent of it but I guess it will take some time until I can actually drink it.
Luckily there was also sweet tea for people like me:
My personal highlight of this trip, aside from the fact that there were actually SAUDI waiters serving westeners, was my first ride on a camel. That was actually quite a fun experience even though I felt very sorry for the poor thing, which is why I tried this only once.
When you get on a camel, make sure you hold on to it as tight as you can and that you keep the weight of your body in the middle, otherwise you will fall off its back faster than you can cry for help. If you are afraid of height however, I would suggest you to observe these majestic animals from a distance. Camel riding is far away from pony riding. Camels are tremendously tall animals and you will find yourself bouncing up and down their backs as they walk slowly forward.
When the prayer time came around, the majority of the Saudis and other muslims disappeared inside one of the tents to perform their prayers. I watched them silently from a distance, admiring that sort of discipline. I mean, I know some people that think of themselves as believers but only few of them actually stop doing what they are doing for half an hour just to do their prayers. I must admit that this is something worth respecting very much.
As time kept passing and the sun disappeared on the horizon, somebody put on Arabic music and the Saudi waiters started going around with fruit juice and more Arabic coffee. I kept sitting there watching the sitting area, the atmosphere around me marked by the sweet smell of coffee, the cries of the camels and some people speaking Arabic ocassionally, while I couldn’t keep my hands off the dates on the plate in front of me. If you ever go to Saudi, you HAVE to try the dates here!
Lastly there was a large buffet set up a little away from the camels, tents and sitting areas. There were dozens of tables set up in the sand. Tables and chairs covered in red and white cloth with plates, cuttlery and all that. The choice of food was as remarkable as the effort that was put into the organization of all of this. There was Arabic bread, different salads and mostly rice with chicken dishes.
There was of course a dessert table as well. And what a dessert table…
So here is to desert social gatherings.