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On Adventurous Day Trips, Cotton Candy and How I Got a New Name

Some people here believe that friday is always the hottest day of the week.

Walking down the road to the gate, my floor long abaya wiping the dust after me and my black hijab covering the majority of my head, I was on my way to the place where a friend and I were supposed to be picked up by another friend of ours, to go to a place called Al Batha souq with the rest of our group. As I kept walking as fast as my abaya allowed me, I had to agree that days in the kingdom are incredibly hot. Especially when covered in black clothes.

You do realize that you live in a completely different culture when doing so-called everyday life things with other people makes you nervous as hell, because of local social norms. I think that it was in this moment, when I sat down to wait for the car, that I experienced real culture shock.

All this time, until a couple of hours later, I was worried that someone may become suspicious and find out that I was in a group of people without a male relative but as it so happens, I was the only person worried about that.

M. was already waiting at the agreed spot when I arrived and I could see on his face how he had great difficulty not to burst out in laughter when seeing me “dressed up as Saudi” as I would call it. I also learned an interesting lesson that day. If in the Middle East someone tells you to be somewhere at such and such time sharp, don’t worry about punctuality too much, like I did thanks to my German mentality. I would be surprised if anything in this region would actually start at agreed times sharp.

But eventually our friend showed up and here the adventure began. I got into the back of the car and found myself surrounded by a group of guy friends. Quite frankly, I find it ironic that it is in Saudi Arabia of all places in the world, where I managed to make male friends who don’t look at me like I am some sort of prey, for the first time in my life. I couldn’t be more grateful for finding such people.

A couple of months earlier some Saudi commented on one of my posts and said: “If you don’t have family here, you make yourself family”. Well, that was pretty much the emergency plan. If worst came to worst, I was someone’s cousin that was visiting. Alhamdulillah nothing terrible happened but I was amazed about how pretty much everyone in our group was willing to be my “cousin” or even my “brother” if anything.

We drove over to a neighborhood in town to wait for another friend of ours to show up with a bigger car and more people. You know what? Riyadh has some very lovely looking neighborhoods here, where the locals live. If it was up to me alone, I wouldn’t even necessarily live on a compound but rather in town. The streets and playground looked neat to me and so did the houses. A lot of the homes here remind me of the buildings I saw in Spain. Stone material, light colors and fancy looking gates. Even though this is Saudi Arabia and many people consider this place backwards, people live here normally like everyone else in normal and modern (Middle Eastern style) homes. Believe it or not.

“You are wearing a black hijab”, my friend said to me. “Let’s put you in the shade before A. shows up and asks why there is a piece of grilled meat on the ground and I have to admit that you didn’t make it in the sun for long”. Greatfully and cheered up by the humor, I accepted a spot under a tree, watching how S. was teaching another guy how to play a Russian card game called Durak, while we were waiting.

A few years ago, I watched a Russian comedy called What men talk about, which is basically a movie about a group of friends on a road trip to Kiev. For the next 20 or so minutes I felt like one could make a Middle Eastern version of that film, that would be just as hilarious. B. had trouble remembering what my name was and even though he heard it at least 5 times before, since that ride I have been renamed into Ireen. Next time I’ll make sure to request a Saudi name!

Al Batha is a district in old Riyadh with a huge bazaar. It is mostly run by Filipinos, Indians, Pakis and Yemeni people and some classify the sections as Indian Batha, Pakistani Batha, Yemeni Batha etc. You can get pretty much everything there. From gaming console parts, to Russian labeled electric cookers to fake watches to thobes. Who needs malls when there is so much to see on the bazaars? Seriously.

I wouldn’t say that it is a dangerous place per se but you should never leave anything valuable in your car and watch the stuff you have on you!! If you have never been to crowded places before, mind the large crowds there. And don’t think that I am talking about something like “crowds” at PRIMARK on a saturday afternoon. Compared to what’s going on in Batha, those little “gatherings” at PRIMARK are like a child’s birthday party, wallah!

After some quality time of hiking all over the place, we found the coffee shop we wanted, or at least I believe it’s the one A. and S. were looking for. I am pretty sure that our group did look kind of suspicious, as people kept turning around after us but nobody said a word or stopped us. We got there around prayer time, so the boys played a round of Durak in front of the café, to find out who would pay for the tea and the food. Card games in public. In Saudi Arabia. All I could do was just stand there and stare. Culture shock at its finest.

Turkish tea, Yemeni tea and the salad is what I believe is called Tabbouleh?

Turkish tea, Yemeni tea and salad

We grabbed a plastic table and chairs and made ourselves comfortable outside, around the corner. To most people the atmosphere would seem everything but inviting but if you ask me, it is not about the place but about the company you are with. I personally had a great time out there with my friends and the Yemeni food and tea, which were totally fine by the way, compared to having lunch at fancy and expensive restaurants like other expats prefer them.

We were just finished with the first serving of kebab when two of us decided to play another round of Durak. This time, should S. lose again, we would order another round of meat. He lost.

Riyadh’s infrastructure may seek a lot of improvement but if you really want to, you can actually walk to places. So here we were, making our way to Chop Chop Square by foot. Over the next half hour or so M. and I got a thobe for each one of us, A. spotted a place that sold sugar cane juice and full of joy, treated us all to a cup of it each.

But thobes and juice were still not enough for us. Shortly before we reached the square, we passed by a cotton candy booth. That was my third treat for the day and I was secretly trying to figure out how much money I owed to whom.

So, armed with cotton candy and the remains of khobz bread from our lunch, we walked around the square. This is where people get their heads cut off and here we are with cotton candy. What a strange world, isn’t it?


I am totally aware that this story contradicts one of my earlier posts about how non related people should not go out together and I was extremely sceptical about joining in at first but my friends convinced me after a million insuring words that nothing will happen to me and I can say that this trip was totally worth it. Riyadh is a very nice place. It just takes the right angle and the right company in order to see the beauty and the interesting aspects of it.

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