Sunset in Old Town, Jeddah
Flying to Saudi Arabia
The screen showing gates for flights departing at Addis Ababa flicks and our gate for the flight to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia finally appears. We walk towards it.
It’s after 2 am and the airport is fairly empty, only a few flights remain before the masses of people arrive for the early morning flights. We arrive at the gate and were immediately approached by the airport staff, we clearly must have the wrong gate. The surprise on his face when we reconfirmed our destination is obvious. Visit Saudi Arabia is not a common thing on everyone’s bucket list. There are not many western female travellers boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia.
We are being watched. There are only two types of people at this gate. Saudi middle-aged men dressed in their traditional clothes, returning home, most likely after a business trip. The other is a group of mostly young Ethiopian women, dressed in their colourful dresses and scarfs heading to Saudi Arabia for work.
The one thing I notice is how serious they all look, not a smudge of the joy and the zest of life we’ve experienced in the past two weeks in Ethiopia when interacting with women in this beautiful country. I have read many articles about the working conditions in Saudi Arabia and the alleged abuse so my mind keeps wondering what awaits them in Saudi.
On board to Saudi Arabia
The flight is ready to board and both groups are asked to line up in separate lines. It’s clear the division starts before we even get to Saudi Arabia. Somehow we are asked to stand with the men, as the staff is unsure what to do with us as we are still in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a country where men and women sit together for hours during their morning coffee ceremony. It’s also a place where half of the government is female.
We are both wearing an abaya, the traditional dress required by all women in Saudi Arabia. We certainly attract some attention. The women look at us puzzled and the airport staff seems to be baffled by this too.
We board the plane. But first we get patted down by the plane staff and our bags get checked again.
Food is being served. Of course, there is no alcohol and a prayer sounds before the take-off. I try to watch a TV episode while the food is served and another difference becomes obvious. Any naughty scenes have simply been cut out of the movies and I am amazed to watch an episode of Friends, where Jennifer Aniston’s fitted t-shirt also didn’t pass the benchmarks and two blurry circles were placed over her chest.
Arriving in Saudi Arabia
We land in Jeddah and we both wrap our scarves around our head to cover our hair. We do look ridiculous. Wearing trekking shoes, black abaya, green scarf and a carry-on backpack on our backs with a small backpack in the front, we are a rare sight.
Surprisingly, going through passport check is very straightforward, no questions asked. Of course, the lines are separated for men or women and family only. I guess once you’re lucky enough to get a visa for Saudi, you are good to go. We are picked up by a friend and ready to nap. It’s been a long night. The temperature is in the high 30’s and it’s only 6 am.
First views of Jeddah
We drive through Jeddah to our hotel and we are both stuck to the window. You don’t get to see Saudi Arabia every day. One thing is clear immediately; everyone drives here, everywhere. There are no pedestrians, which makes the fact that women were only just allowed to drive for the first time this year resonate with us even more.
We check into our room and for a second you could be anywhere else in the world. But there are a couple of things missing. There are no miniature alcohol bottles in our hotel fridge. Alcohol is strictly forbidden. The list of programs on the TV is of course mostly in Arabic and seem to be more focused on the religious events and of course, there is the live stream from Mecca. Also, there is no bible in the top drawer as any other religious material is also banned.
Corniche in Jeddah
Sightseeing in Saudi Arabia
After a quick nap, we decide to venture out for lunch and see the famous Corniche, a walkway along the seaside. It’s deserted and after a few photos, we decide on lunch in a nearby café. We find the café but the main door is an entrance for men only. So we walk around the corner to find the family entrance.
Upon entering, we are greeted with friendly staff and seated. It’s interesting to see that some women wear a veil even in the family section, but then the staff is all men, and they’re mostly from the Philippines. The menu features only western dishes which is disappointing for us, but eventually, we order burgers. We sit back and observe.
Friday in Saudi Arabia with friends
Our evening is spent with friends of a friend. This is when we truly get the insight we have been looking for. We head to the old town of Jeddah just before the prayer time and walk the tiny alleyways, we try sugar cane juice and listen to the call for prayer as our friends duck into the mosque to pray.
After travelling the world, one thing is clear. There are 50 shades of Islam, the followers of the same religion practice it in different form across the world. They pray, eat and behave differently. If there are 50 shades of Islam then black would be the colour for Saudi Arabia. Here, the teaching of Islam is observed in the strictest form.
After prayer, we drive across Jeddah, a city that combines old rickety buildings in the Old Town, with somewhat dusty looking buildings of the 90’s and the shiny new modern structures you see across Dubai.
Inside a Saudi home and shopping malls
We arrive at our friend’s house and it’s a real honour to be welcomed into their home. They are eager to chat with us about our travels as we sip coffee. At some point, we’re encouraged to take off our abaya and make ourselves comfortable. We have to admit that we are not wearing any underlayers. Of course, this causes laughter and confusion as women wear abayas as an overcoat! We didn’t get this memo and it’s hot out there, so naturally, we wear it as a dress. We decide to head out again – shopping mall and dinner.
The shopping mall is huge and it seems that everyone from Jeddah is here. There is plenty of bling going around and if it wasn’t for the local attire you could be anywhere in the world. We try a new type of coffee called Arabica coffee, it’s a yellow colour and has a butter-like texture. We leave the mall and we’re ready to eat.
Our dinner in Saudi Arabia
Eating out in Saudi Arabia
We asked our friends to take us for a traditional meal and they decide on a place that makes the best manti – slow-cooked lamb served on a platter covered with rice. It’s so delicious. We are seated in the family section and we are closed in a small box for privacy. It has walls and a door, and the waiter comes in and out.
When I think of the social way of eating in Europe, where squares are turned into outdoor seating with music and ambience and people watching is the trend, this sure seems to be a different way to enjoy a meal. We chat more about travels and our friends rave about how much they loved Prague, Paris and other parts of Europe.
The dinner is over but our friends have one more suggestion – shisha and music! Hello, is this for real? Live music is not something we expected in Saudi Arabia! We drive to a nearby place and here it is! There is live music! We order shisha and some tea and hang out.
More friends join us, the women are exceptionally dressed and they are not wearing scarves as it’s not compulsory. They all seemed to be super proud that this is now a Saturday night for young Saudis. We snack on dates and talk more about this country and of course about our travels.
A selfie on the empty streets of Jeddah at midday
Time to leave
It’s now after 1 am and we have had two hours of sleep so we are ready to call it night. We are dropped off at our hotel and it really feels odd to say goodbye to our friend with just a handshake as he is a male. It would be unacceptable for us to hug on the streets.
Our visit to Saudi Arabia was an eye-opening experience. It is a country that is certainly different to anywhere else we have been on our trip to visit every country in the world. Getting a visa wasn’t easy either. But once we’ve arrived, the people we met have once again proven that people are all the same; and that people, in general, are good. The government and their action almost never reflect its people.
We would have loved to stay longer, but perhaps if the visa policy will change, we might one day return. And by then we really hope Saudi Arabia will abolish their controversial guardian law. At least then, all our sisters in Saudi can be a step closer to the rights of women in the Western world.