As a children's book writer I am so fortunate to be invited to do presentations and workshops at international schools. I love to combine my work with travels to exciting places around the globe. This time I was headed for King Abdullah's University of Science and Technology near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In addition to a visa, I also obtained a black abaya in case I needed to wear this in public.
On the day I left home, I got up early - 6 AM - because I wanted to start working on the time change. First a short flight to Seattle, then with Air France to Paris on a 9 hour flight. The plane was pretty cramped, like most of them, and those seat cushions are often too worn out, so that you get a square butt after sitting for hours on end. But at least this flight was only half full and I had two seats to myself.
Landed in Paris at 8:30 AM local time. My next flight wasn’t until 6 PM. I had checked my luggage so just had my small day pack. Left the airport and took the Metro to Gare du Nord. In a half hour I was there.
More and more I feel like airplanes are time machines. You step in in one place and time and when you step out you have been transported to a whole different time and place. Suddenly, from west coast North America I was in old Europe.
Spent the day walking all over Montmartre: coffee and croissants in a small cafe, walked some more, bought a postcard. Nothing but little cheese shops, bakeries, wine shops. Lovely. Climbed all the way to the top of Montmartre to visit the Sacre Coeur. A nuns’ choir sang, adding to the lovely ambiance of frescos and ceiling paintings, plain pews and candles. Very peaceful inside. Outside large black men were have a shouting match and a fist fight...
At 2 PM I was back at the airport.
Another 4 hours to wait. The Arabian Airlines flight was lovely: had a whole row of leather seats to myself, lots of leg room and the seat was at least 10 cm wider than on other planes. The food was great: warm French rolls, white chicken breast, fresh salad.
From the plane I saw a sprawling area of lights along water. I think it was Alexandria or Cairo, probably the first.
After dinner I could no longer stay awake and probably slept for 2 hours but then forced myself to stay awake because I wanted to sleep when I got to the hotel.
Customs in Saudi Arabia was no problem. One look at my passport and he said “Welcome Margriet.”
A luxurious black car drove me for one hour to King Abdullah’s settlement where land has been reclaimed from the sea to build a futuristic “village” with the university of Science and Technology as focal point. It is the first coed grad school in Saudi and an example of research and planning for the future. But not all arabs are in favour of a coed study and research center so the place is heavily guarded. You don’t really notice that when walking along palm tree lined boulevards, looking at sparkling waters and sipping ice coffee under an umbrella... I found out later that the place has nothing but palmtrees, which are not native here. Rows and rows and lanes and lanes, and each palm tree imported at a cost of $600.-!
My hotel room is a huge suite with very large livingroom, dining table and kitchen and a kingsize bedroom. Outside I have another table on a shaded patio and a large white mosque in my backyard.
Thursday and Friday are weekend in the Arab world. The temps are absolutely perfect: around 24 degrees C. There’s a bank, supermarket, restaurants etc. around a square that functions like an old village square. Families are out strolling, people eat at tables around the square, kids play. I loved seeing Arab men in long white robes pushing a stroller.
The teachers I meet over dinner reiterate how unusual it is for men and women to work and study together in this setting. It is because of the king, who wants to end segregation. I was floored to find out that the king is 85 years old. A futuristic man, the king wants more research into oceans because of the Red Sea. There’s also a lot to do about recycling, posters everywhere to promote it and cans for recycling on every corner. The movie showing on campus: An Inconvenient Truth.
The elementary school where I am speaking is a beautiful, spacious building - not much different from new North American schools. But the population of 250 students is made up of children from all over the world. In one class are children from Egypt, France, Australia, Ireland, some Saudi’s, some American or Canadian kids, perhaps a Chinese one and someone from Jordan or Palestine. A wonderful world mix. Most of the kids speak with heavy accents and are learning English. A small perky first grader turns to her mom and rattles in French, then turns to me to translate rapidly in English. A Saudi boy in Grade Two who doesn’t speak English yet turns to his friend to find out what I said. These kids translate and switch easily between languages and cultures.
Kaust is a liberal island in a conservative sea. Headscarves and abayas are optional but many women wear them. Tonight I saw a group of young women in the coffee shop - could have been any western Starbucks place - and I noticed their shy, modest manners. It made me realize that they probably prefer the cover of an abaya over exposure and western fashion. Sometimes it seems that it would be much easier to seek shelter in a plain black robe than have to worry about how you look to others.
The men wear either western clothing, on campus, or long white shirts. Some wear head scarves, others a prayer cap, other no head dress at all. Many Moslems here are from other countries and they all vary in dress.
After school I rode my bike to the supermarket and spent half an hour wandering around. It’s a brand new large store and has the large S from Safeway on the door... a Safeway in Arabia! They have many North American items but also a bakery with traditional honey pastries like baklava. And an area with fresh nuts, raisins, dates and spices. They sell adapters for electrical outlets, abayas and toothpaste. And everything in between. A service personal on the ‘base’ are Philippino. The cleaning staffs in the hotel, in the pool, etc. There must be thousands. They come and go in busses and live in Jeddah. I wonder how much money they make to leave home and family to come and work in Saudi. The buildings all gleam and you could literally eat off the floors - the marble, glass and steel are all spotless.
I bought a tray of pastries, with honey, almonds and chocolate dipped dates. And a large bag of fresh cinnamon sticks to take home.
Rented two sit-on-top kayaks with a teacher and paddled on a windy, wavy Red Sea. The water is luke warm and looks very clean and blue. Afterwards we swam and snorkeled above some low corral reefs and found shells on the beach. It’s wonderful to sit in the warm sun in January!
I wake up every morning at 5:45 AM when the call to prayer sounds over the muezzin. Am at school by 7:45 and conducting writing workshops with all grades, all classes all day. After school I had tea at the home of a Muslim family, with beautiful pastries: round circle cookies filled with dates, sesame snaps, fresh nuts and small cakes. Tea with sage and lots of brown sugar. When I arrived at the house, I heard loud clattering in the kitchen. I thought my hostess might have a maid. But she smiled and said “My husband is busy in the kitchen, he will join us later. He is doing the dishes and making tea.”
When I laughed, she said “You probably did not expect Muslim men to be like that? The media always depict them all wrong but for a Muslim man, family comes first.”
I’m learning about different Middle Eastern countries, cultures and religion. You can tell by the shape of the abaya or by the head scarves if someone is from Lebanon or Egypt, from Saudi or from Palestine. But those who say ‘we are Palestinian’ may never have been there. They may be Palestinians born and raised in Lebanon or so. They speak arabic but with the same dialects as someone from Scotland sounds different from an Aussie or a New Yorker. People here explain to me similarities in the Qu’ran and the Bible and how the origins of many beliefs and customs are the same.
The room was carpeted in reds and golds, matching the wallpaper and table coverings. We sat on small pillows on the floor by a low table. First we were served arabian coffee with cardamon and dates. Then they brought in enormous plates of fried fish, three kinds of rice, hummus, babakhoush, fried pita bread and prawns. It was truly delicious.
For dessert came a huge ‘pancake’ each, thick and filled with cream. It was made from vermicelli and almond paste and drenched in honey. Delicious!
On my last day here, a sedan picked me up to drive me the hour to the airport. This time I could see something because it wasn’t night time. But all I saw was desert... Not nice sand desert but dirt and sage brush. We were on a regular 6 lane highway. To the left in the distance I spotted an enormous white dome. I figured it was a huge mosque but when I asked the driver he said no, it was the prince’s palace. He said it is shaped like a ship and is on a small island just of the coast.
Once in a while we drove past a village, all buildings are the flat roofs that are typical for the area. Here and there were white tents in the desert, reminding me of the Gobi. I noticed a flock of goats on the outskirts of one village and suddenly spotted a huge herd of camels milling around, too.
Jeddah’s outline hinted at a big city, a mix of old buildings and tall skyscrapers. The airport is not very big. Nothing but men in long crisp white thobs and white or red/white checkered head scarves. Over top of the head scarf they have a black belt, and underneath they were a white prayer cap. Most men in the airport were followed by several wives and a small herd of children. In the ladies restroom, women would take off their scarves, do their makeup and then wrap up again. Every single person smiled at me and nodded or tried to make conversation. One tall man in impeccable white asked how long I had visited and what I had seen. He said “you must come back and visit Jeddah. You come and visit any time!” Everyone is very friendly and hospitable. I do hope to return some time to this magical land.