Saturday, January 4, 2014

Al-Balad - A Tour of Historic Jeddah

 Yesterday was probably my favorite day in Saudi Arabia so far. Our group was lucky enough to have a tour of the historic center in Jeddah by Mr. Sami Nawar who has given tours to people like Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. For about an hour or so we walked around the historic district, meandering along the narrow streets. We saw mosques that are over 500 years old and old homes with ornate woodwork on the windows. It's exactly what I imagined the Middle East would like, with tight alleyways, dilapidated but beautiful buildings, and wandering street cats. We had the area mostly to ourselves as it was Friday and most people were at prayer. It was a wonderful experience getting to see the historic district free of the hustle and bustle of Jeddah city life. I'll never forget being able to walk along the historic pilgrimage path to Mecca, knowing I was following in the footsteps of Muslims from hundreds of years ago. 
The main square in Al-Balad. On one of the signs
it says "Historic Hajj Rout West".
We were taken up to one of the tallest and oldest buildings in the area, with a beautiful view of Al-Balad and the more modern Jeddah in the distance. It was under construction but as we walked up four flights of stairs to get to a rooftop area, we were amazed at the building's beautiful architecture. When we reached the top floor, there was a seating area with open windows and a beautiful red rug with seat cushions. We all sat down and were given some tea and bread, amazed at the experience. We all wanted to stay there forever, lounging on the floor cushions and sipping tea with the call to prayer in the distance, but unfortunately we had to leave. 
Drinking tea on the top floor of a historic
 building with Mr. Sami Nawar.
View of  historic Jeddah from the rooftop.
After Al-Balad the girls were allowed to go to a private beach on the Red Sea about an our north of Jeddah. When we arrived at the gate to the beach we didn't know what to expect, it looked somewhat sketchy, but when we walked towards the Red Sea we were amazed at what we saw. There were beach chairs, boats, water skis, wind surfing, and people in bikinis and speedos. Walking along the sand we could hear mostly Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian Arabs speaking but we also saw other Europeans and Americans. Our Indian driver told us that Saudis don't go to this private beach, which is mostly patronized by other Arabs from the Al-Sham region. It was sort of strange but somewhat fascinating to see groups of Arab women hanging out together with some wearing bikinis, other burqinis.
The private beach on the Red Sea.
I didn't bring a suit with me or anything that was conducive to swimming so unfortunately I didn't go into the Red Sea but I still had a wonderful time. I sat on a beach chair in the shade while the other girls in my group swam, listening to a mixture of bosa nova, techno, and Umm Kulthum coming from a group of Egyptians next to me. The weather was absolutely perfect, warm but with a nice sea breeze. 
All the girls at the private beach!
On the way back to our hotel we talked with our driver a little bit and asked him about himself. He has been in Saudi Arabia for 18 years, visiting his home in India at least once every year. His children are all in school, which is why he works in Saudi Arabia and sends his money back home. The wages are apparently double what they are in India which is another reason why he came to the country. Saudi Arabia has been covered in the news a lot for some human rights abuses related to their foreign workers, but our driver said that he was lucky because his employer is generous and nice. He said that he has lived in Jeddah so long that he can tell what nationalities people are. 

Jeddah is a city with a lot more diversity that the rest of Saudi Arabia, with it being the principle gateway to Mecca for Muslims from around the world. This international influence and exposure gives it its more liberal reputation. We've met Saudi citizens with Turkish, Filipino, and Pakistani backgrounds. Once again I realized how ignorant I was, imagining that all Saudis are Arabs coming from families who have lived their for hundreds of years. 
Later in the day we returned to Al-Balad to go shopping. The streets had completely filled up and the place was transformed. I was really surprised how crowded it was and I couldn't believe that we were in the same area. We grabbed dinner at Al Baik, a sort of Saudi Arabian version of KFC that is incredibly popular. The place was packed because it was right after prayer time, with lines going down the street. The girls had to wait in the "ladies line" which was much longer with only one cash register. It was worth the wait to see what all the fuss was about though. 
The crowded streets of Old Jeddah at night.

The Al Baik ladies line.
After eating we split up into small groups to check out all of the shops. There were a lot of gold jewelry, scarves, rugs, and date shops. I've realized that I'm really not a fan of haggling so I didn't buy anything, but we go shopping again in the next few days so I'll have to get over it. A few of the girls bought some abayas and gold rings and earrings for some great prices and the rest of the guys bought their thawbs and keffiyehs. They put them on in the shop they bought them from and walked around for the rest of the night in them. It was hilarious how much attention they received for wearing them, with people shouting Masha'Allah at them and other compliments. One of the guys in my group is even mistaken for an actual Saudi, with people on the street speaking to him in Arabic. Our Ministry of Higher Education guides jokingly call him an undercover Saudi. Everyone in the streets seemed really excited and or amused at the Americans wearing traditional Saudi clothing and wanted to get pictures with them. There must have been at least twenty Saudi men who requested pictures, and the guys in my group happily obliged them.
Our guide Abdullah from the Ministry of Higher Education in the center
with the guys in our group. His face was priceless when he saw them wearing
traditional Saudi clothing. 
Random Saudis on the street taking pictures with the guys.
I have a feeling that today will be my favorite day of the whole trip, but I'm excited to see what our last four days in Saudi Arabia have in store for us! Today I think we go shopping again and talk with a reporter from the Saudi Gazette News Paper. More to come. Stay tuned. 

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