Saudi Arabia I
Inside the Kingdom
A Western Woman’s Experience of Sa’udi Arabia
by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
This article is Part I of a two-part series covering Robyn Friend’s excursion to Sa’udi Arabia. (Pseudonyms have been used throughout.)
“I am going on a business trip to Sa’udi Arabia,” my husband said. “Do you want to go with me?”
I had never had any desire to go to Sa’udi Arabia; it was the furthest thing from my mind. In my 13 years of university study in Near Eastern languages and cultures, and 12 foreign languages, I never attempted Arabic and swore I never would. Not for me the siren call of desert and palm. I grew up in the Southern California desert, surrounded by palm trees. They hold no allure for me.
Have you ever noticed how the Universe leads you around so that you end up where you never expected to be?
I suppose it began about a year and a half ago, as I was browsing through the used-book section of my favorite antiques store. I found a book titled “At the Drop of a Veil”. “Probably by a belly-dancer who married an Iranian and now is complaining that he won’t let her dance anymore”, I thought to myself. But the jacket said it was written by a Californian who was the first foreigner to marry into the Sa’udi royal family. It was only a couple of bucks, so I bought it. It turned out to be a fascinating tale of this woman’s life as a wife living in her in-laws’ harem during the late 1940’s and 1950’s. It still did not inspire me to want to go there, though.
Shortly thereafter, I acquired a young dance student whose father was Iranian, and whose mother was from Jeddah, Sa’udi Arabia. My student was going to Sa’udi soon and wanted to learn some Sa’udi dances. This meant I had to learn some Sa’udi dances, so I dutifully went off to study. Sa’udi music is compelling, and the dances are beautiful and fun. I still didn’t have a hankering to “go there”.
When a year later my husband came home from work with the news that he might need to go to Sa’udi Arabia for a business trip, and asked if I would want to accompany him, I suddenly realized I did want to go. Having arrived at that realization, I got into the spirit of adventure in a big way. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the Kingdom, as it is called, and bought some teach-yourself-Arabic tapes.
One of the amazing things I learned right away was that there is no foreign tourism in the Kingdom. No tourist visas are granted at all; one can go only on business. Very few business visas are granted, and it is rare that foreign wives are allowed to accompany their husbands on short business trips. Now, I really wanted to go!
First, though, I wanted to learn more about the history of the Kingdom. Sa’udi Arabia as such is the creation of a single man, Abdul Aziz ibn-Sa’ud, father of the current king. In 1902 he succeeded in expelling the Rashidis who had captured the Sa’udi traditional lands in Najd, the center of the peninsula. With the help of the ikhwan, a brotherhood of Bedouin warriors that he founded in 1912, Abdul Aziz went on to unify most of the Arabian peninsula under his sway, including the Hejaz on the west coast, which had been for centuries ruled by the Ottoman Turks.
Abdul Aziz’s reliance on the ikhwan was a crucial factor in the formation of the modern nation of Sa’udi Arabia, because of the material military assistance the ikhwan provided him, but even more because Abdul Aziz bound his political movement to their Wahhabi religious sect, which calls for universal Sa’udi observance of strict Islamic religious law.
Everything I read about the Kingdom and its laws and customs were so very foreign to me that I had to change my thinking about many things. I decided to look upon the whole adventure as a trip to another planet, where everything would be different, and my very survival would depend upon my successfully adapting to the environment. I would be covered up completely with an abaya, the head-to-toe overcoat required by law, so this would be my protective covering. Within the home base of my husband’s company and business associates, we would be able to behave as we always do. Outside, I would have to adhere to strict rules of conduct and dress.
But I was willing to face the unknown perils and pleasures of an alien planet in order to have the chance to experience what few others are able to experience. I would take advantage of an opportunity rarely granted to foreigners: to see Sa’udi Arabia and to view at first hand a centuries-old way of life that I had studied since my early college days, which has disappeared from all the other Islamic countries I had previously visited, but which still exists in the Kingdom of Sa’udi Arabia.
Day 1: Saturday
9:30 p.m. The flight from London to Riyadh was really no different from any other 8-hour overseas flight – we’ve been on plenty! – until we neared our destination. As the plane began decreasing altitude for final approach, an announcement came over the PA saying that travelers with alcohol or magazines depicting women in lingerie or bikinis should kindly pass these things along to the flight attendants, as these things are forbidden in the Kingdom. I had left behind in London a copy of a belly-dance magazine that had been given to me there; I had been well “prepped”!
In the arrival area at the beautiful, sparkling clean, and modern Riyadh airport, there was a huge atrium with a massive marble fountain and waterfall with tropical plants in it, and a tessellated marble floor. We were surrounded by lines of men, women, and children going through passport control. Western women had pulled out and donned wrinkled abayas, and Sa’udi women had covered hair, face, and everything with abayas, gloves, and scarves.
I had put my abaya on and was ready to cover my hair, though I had been told I didn’t have to. Within one half-hour of arriving in Riyadh, I nearly committed my first faux pas. I had been thinking about finding an interesting spot at which to have my husband take a picture of me in my “costume”. As we were about to leave the terminal, I saw some lovely hand-carved and painted wooden screens and thought “What a lovely spot for a photo”. We were walking so fast I didn’t have time to act on the thought. As we continued past the screens, I discovered they were there for the purpose of providing a little privacy to those praying at the airport. I realized I would need to curb my impulses and adjust my assumptions, or else my stay in the Kingdom might be remarkably short!
After a short drive from the airport to Riyadh through empty land, we arrived at our hotel. No Gideon Bible in the room, but a copy of the Holy Qor’an, and a sticker on the TV cabinet indicating the direction toward Mekkah, that informed the traveler in both English and Arabic: “Praying carpet available – Dial 5”.
Day 2: Sunday
We met my husband’s colleague Faruk and his wife, Sadya, for breakfast in the hotel. Now Americans, they are originally from Egypt. Sadya would be my companion and guide during my stay in the Kingdom, during the day-time while my husband and Faruk were working. I was very glad to have a companion who spoke Arabic!
I had come down to breakfast wearing both my abaya and scarf. Sadya laughed a bit and said I didn’t have to wear the scarf. In fact, she said that a law was recently passed that Westerners do not have to cover their hair. Except that it turned out that sometimes they do, if the mutawwa are hanging around.
Mutawwa is the short name for the organization known formally as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a sort of religious police. They can usually be identified by their slightly different style of dress (shorter thobe, long beard, and no aghal). They are especially visible in the souq and shops around prayer times, making sure that all the shopkeepers are closing up and heading towards the mosque for prayers.
I guess this is why Sadya often told me to cover my hair when we were in the souq. It didn’t matter to me; I usually have my head covered with a hat at home anyway, and missed having something with which to shield my eyes from the sun. There is a big issue with who covers their hair and how; it can be a no-win situation for women on the street. If a western woman covers her hair, but she looks Sa’udi, the mutawwa might hassle her for not covering her face also. And a Sa’udi woman must cover her face, or risk being arrested, and remanded to the custody of her husband, who will get a lecture from the mutawwa on how better to manage the conduct of his wife. Faruk put it this way: If the mutawwa see that your hair and face are properly covered, they will complain that you are not wearing gloves. If you are also wearing gloves, they will complain that you should be wearing black socks. If all is perfectly in order, they will say “You are obviously a good woman. You should be at home, not out on the street.”
Sadya said that we would go to meet a friend of hers, a Sa’udi lady named Azhar. This was a great concession on Azhar’s part, to meet us at (for an upper-class Sa’udi) the ungodly hour of 9:30 a.m. Though shops are open from 9:00 until noon prayer time, most wealthy Sa’udis don’t venture out for shopping until shops re-open in the afternoon at 4:30. Because of the lack of public entertainment (no movie houses, and of course no bars or discos), the majority of Sa’udi entertainment comes in the form of evening parties at each others’ homes. These parties, especially wedding parties, start late, about 10:00 p.m., and go until the 4:00 a.m. call-to-prayer.
Islam is the guiding principle around which all aspects of Sa’udi life are organized. The five daily prayer times provide the structure for all social and business interactions. The work day begins after the Fajr (dawn) prayer, breaks mid-day for the Zuhr prayer until after the afternoon ‘Asr prayer, and closes briefly for Maghrib (sunset) prayer. Business continues into the night and ends with the ‘Isha (night) prayer. Parties take place from the time the ‘Isha prayer ends until it is time for Fajr once again. Those travelling in vehicles are not obliged to stop for prayers, but the mutawwa will accost people who are not on their way somewhere by prayer time. Thus the day is broken up every few hours with prayers; westerners must plan accordingly.
Of course, women do not drive in Sa’udi Arabia, the rationale being that their veils prevent their having a sufficient view of the surrounding driving environment. If women are not to be confined perpetually to home, they must solve the problem of who is to drive the car. Many hire Muslims from other countries — Philippines, Sudan, Indonesia and so forth – to drive. Some women who would rather not to be in the car with a man who is not a relative prefer to have their sons, who may drive at age 12, drive them. Of course, having 12-year-old boys driving leads to many tragedies on the road. Western women are included in the prohibition on female drivers.
Azhar’s house, like so many others in Riyadh, was built of white stone blocks, surrounded by a high privacy wall. As we passed through the gate, we entered a courtyard that was being used for parking cars, and that had a Bedouin tent that Azhar’s husband had had built on a platform in the garden. The tent itself was made of Bedouin goat-hair weavings in brown, black and white. Inside the tent were low divans and pillows, and low tables, with interesting Arabian decorative items hanging on the walls. Sadya said that many Sa’udis had such tents for wintertime when the weather was cooler, making it pleasant to sit outdoors.
We entered the house via the back door, which led to a small entry, and thence to a reception room (majlis) with baroque-style gilded chairs and tables, and lots of small tables for tea and coffee cups. Next to this majlis was a dining room, with low divans against all the walls.
The staircase leading up to the second floor of Azhar’s two-story house was surmounted by a 10-foot partially-glassed dome, and the stairs wound around the lower walls of this dome in a gentle curve up to the second floor. The stairs opened on to Azhar’s majlis, again lined with low divans.
Sadya and I sat down in the downstairs majlis and waited for Azhar. She was heartbreakingly beautiful: café-au-lait complexion, thick shining black hair, deep soulful brown eyes. Once Azhar came down the stairs, we were served qahwa ‘arabiyya, Arabian coffee. This coffee was very strong indeed, sweetened, flavored with cardamom, and served with milk in it. Azhar offered some chocolates as accompaniment, since the coffee was so strong, but I really couldn’t drink it. Azhar laughed; she agreed it was pretty strong. “It’s our whisky!”, she said.
Then we got into Sadya’s car and headed for the souq.
Riyadh is a very new city, mostly having been built in the last 40 years. The architecture is mostly simple block structures, though the old-style architecture, as represented by Al-Masmaq fortress – the one remaining old building in Riyadh – is reflected in roof crenellations here and there. This fortress in the center of town near the souq was the last holdout in Riyadh of the al-Rashid family, and the scene of Abdul Aziz ibn Sa’ud’s victory over them. We found a place to park, and got out to see the fortress. Al-Masmaq is made of unbaked mud bricks mixed with straw, and rambles over quite a large area, and includes some multi-story sections as well. We were taken on a quick tour through the fortress, which is very interesting, as it included photos of old Riyadh and other items of historical interest.
Al-Masmaq is surrounded by dirt and rocks, with an added a bricked courtyard that leads to the square where the executions take place. Sadya said that the executions usually take place on Fridays, but not always, and that she had once inadvertently stumbled into an execution on her way to the souq on a Monday. Fortunately, no such thing occurred while I was there.
We walked across the courtyard to the gold souq. It was quite an amazing sight, so much gold: bracelets, pectorals of coins, Central Asian-style necklaces, rings, and on and on.
It was hot, about 105 degrees, and noon prayer time was approaching, so from the gold souq, we dashed off to the Bedouin souq. In a small courtyard sat toothless old men with all kinds of old copper vessels: pots, vases, platters, trays, on and on, piled high in the courtyard. Surrounding the courtyard were small shops with all manner of jewelry and decorative houseware items. One shop had a room filled with Bedouin silver jewelry, bracelets, head pieces, khalakhil, and a belt that was so heavy I couldn’t get it off its hook, let alone put it around my waist and wear it. In another room were hand carved wooden chests, doors, and window frames, some with mother-of-pearl, some with bone inlay. I wanted to take it all home with me!
As prayer time was approaching, we decided to leave and head off for lunch at a hotel. We selected a restaurant in the hotel that featured an extensive open buffet. The restaurant was closed because it was prayer time, but we were invited to sit and wait until they were serving, and to seat ourselves wherever we would like. At first we chose more exposed seats, but then Azhar found a nice spot in the “family” area, behind a screen.
Not all restaurants in the Kingdom allow women. In fact, a restaurateur who is not licensed to sell to women and who is caught so doing can have his license revoked, and his business shut down. Sadya told me a story of trying to buy some felafel in a little shop run by an Egyptian man she knew. She noticed that there were only men in the shop, but this is common and she didn’t think anything about it. She could tell that the Egyptian was really uncomfortable for some reason. “Next time, just order by phone and send your driver to pick it up”, he said. Finally, he explained that this was a men-only shop and that if the mutawwa caught him selling to her, they would shut his business down. In every restaurant in which I ate in the Kingdom, there was one section for men, and another section called the “family” section, where men with women (and unaccompanied women) can sit.
The buffet was extensive and delicious: Arabian dishes, plus a lot of well-prepared western dishes as well. To drink, we ordered “Sa’udi champagne”, which is a mixture of club soda and apple juice, with the addition of a generous sprig of mint, and was quite good.
When we returned to our seats with the first course, Azhar told us she had seen a Sa’udi man on a “date” with a Sa’udi woman. But not a “date” in our sense; the man was at his table with another Sa’udi man; the woman was with another woman, seated in one of the “family” areas. Each had a cellular phone, which they used to talk to each other, while seated about 20 feet apart. Were the mutawwa to show up, they could hang up their phones instantly. According to Azhar, this hotel is infamous for such “assignations”.
After lunch we went to Azhar’s house. She invited us up to her majlis on the second floor. There a television was tuned to an old black-and-white Egyptian movie that included dancing and singing, and appeared to feature the adventures of a very young girl, maybe 8 or 10 years old. As we sat in Azhar’s majlis, we were served mint tea, and cold water scented with orange blossom water.
Then came the moment I had been waiting for: Sadya told Azhar that I was interested in dancing, and ask her if she would dance for me. Azhar at first demurred, saying she couldn’t dance properly without a long dress and high heels on. “Oh, that’s all right, you don’t have to get fancy, Robyn just wants to see what Sa’udi dancing looks like”. Azhar then disappeared and came back wearing a long dress with a scoop neck and a slit up the front to mid-thigh, and high heels.
Azhar’s dancing was very elegant and graceful, and deceptively simple. The tempo of the music was much slower than we are used to hearing for “Sa’udi” music here. Of course, she insisted that I get up and dance with her. When she got to flinging her hair, she wanted me to take my hair down, and was impressed with its length. Azhar disappeared again and returned with a beautiful lightweight red and gold silk brocade long coat with long pointed sleeves, which she said was of a type only worn by the Sa’udi royal family. She showed absolutely no shyness to dance at all, and we kept it up until the call to prayer started, and one of the maids thought it best to turn the music down, or risk the mutawwa.
1 At the Drop of a Veil, Marianne Alireza, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1971.
2 Thobe: The long simply cut garment worn throughout the Gulf nations.
3 Aghal: The cords worn around the crown of the head to secure the man’s headcloth (dishdasha).
4 Sharia forms the body of Islamic law, and includes both the teaching of the Qor’an and the traditional sayings (hadith) of Muhammad. Sa’udi Arabia is one of only a few nations in the world in which sharia law is the sole basis for the legal system.
5 ‘Ulama is the plural of ‘alim, “one who knows; learned; a scholar.” In the plural the word is used as the title of those bodies of learned doctors of Islamic divinity and law who interpret sharia law for use as the basis of the legal system.
6 The last family to rule Riyadh before Abdul Aziz ibn Sa’ud recaptured it decisively for the Al-Sa’ud family in 1902.
7 Khalakhil: heavy ankle bracelet.
Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Saudi Arabia”, National Geographic, volume 129, number, page 1.
Alireza, Marianne. At the Drop of a Veil. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1971. An account, through an American woman’s eyes, of Sa’udi Arabian life during the 1940s and 1950s.
Alireza, Marianne. “Women of Sa’udi Arabia”, National Geographic, volume 172, number 4, page 423. Ms Alireza returned to the Kingdom after many years absence and documented life for women there in the late 1980s. Beautiful photographs and extremely interesting text.
Campbell, Kay Hardy. “Saudi Arabian Women’s Music”, Habibi, volume 9, number 3.
Campbell, Kay Hardy. “Arabian wedding nights”, Arab News, 1 August 1979.
Campbell, Kay Hardy. “Saudi Arabian Folk Music”, Saudi Arabia, Summer 1988, Volume 5, Number 2, pp. 12-15. Saudi Embassy, Washington D.C.
Ingham, Bruce. The Simple Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Arabia and the Gulf States. Global Books, Ltd., England, 1994.
Lacey, Robert. The Kingdom. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Incorporated, 1981. Comprehensive account of modern Sa’udi Arabian history. Mr. Lacey obviously has a great respect for the Kingdom in general and for Abdul Aziz in particular, though he is realistic about the negative aspects of Sa’udi life.
For some wonderful live field recordings of Sa’udi Arabian music, write to Kay Campbell at P.O. Box 296, Accord, MA, 02018-296; e-mail email@example.com.
For an excellent tape of Sa’udi Arabian and Kuwaiti dance music with a more commercial sound, write to Aref Records, 3270 Kelton Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90034, fax 310/474-0499; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright©1998, Robyn D. Friend, Ph.D., all rights reserved.
Robyn Friend, Ph.D., a first-generation Bulgarian-American, is a singer, dancer, and choreographer, specializing in classical and folkloric dance of Iran. Robyn has studied with noted teachers in Iran, Turkey and the U.S. She has a Ph.D. in Iranian languages from UCLA, and has authored numerous papers in both scholarly and popular publications. Her singing repertoire includes the classical music of Iran and Turkey, traditional songs from the Near East and the Balkans, Gypsy music, and other European and American selections. Her teaching and choreographic credits include work for the Aman Folk Ensemble, Het Folkloristich Danstheater of the Netherlands, and the Duquesne University Tamburitzans. She has performed as a solo singer and dancer throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East, and teaches and performs primarily for the Iranian community in Los Angeles. www.robynfriend.com
 At the Drop of a Veil, Marianne Alireza, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1971.
 Thobe: The long simply cut garment worn throughout the Gulf nations.
Aghal: The cords worn around the crown of the head to secure the man’s headcloth (dishdasha).
 The last family to rule Riyadh before Abdul Aziz ibn Sa’ud recaptured it decisively for the Al-Sa’ud family in 1902.
Khalakhil: heavy ankle bracelet.