Big green caterpillar buses line the street as people of all ages crowd up to get their box lunch and board. There is a buzz in the air because this is a big chance for expats to see the real Saudi Arabia and the Arabs are looking forward to celebrating with their fellow countrymen. There are many men in white thobes and ghutra’s. All of the women are wearing their black abayas and if they don’t have their head scarves already on they are prepared with them at hand.
The busses pull out and head to the Dammam airport about 30 miles away. We are taking a company plane to Riyadh and there is a certain excitement about even this fact. The airport is the same airport I flew into 2 months ago and I was so dazed I barely remember landing. The Saudi gentleman leading the trip passes by to make sure everyone is settled and ready to go. I am practicing my Arabic with a friend and noting that I have learned about 100 words so far!
We approach the airport and I am awestruck when I see “Welcome to Saudi Aramco Aeronautics” written on the side of a very large, very nice terminal. I knew the company owned planes, helicopters and buses. They have oil rigs, wells, and pipelines across almost every inch of Saudi and many people have to travel back and forth from the remote areas to the corporate office in Dhahran for business purposes. I had no idea that they had their own terminal – complete with security screening, ticket agents, baggage claim, waiting areas and a snack bar! It is all very modern and very organized. There are actually 2 separate concourses and of course separate waiting areas for men and women.
Once all boarding passes have been issued and there is clearance that everyone has their iqama we are ready to board. The plan is one of 6 nearly new 737 just like the ones Southwest Airlines flies. I was expecting a more military flight but instead I had a very comfortable seat complete with flight attendants, beverage service and drop down TV screens. I sat by the window so I could see the changing scenery of the desert as we flew to the capital city of Riyadh.
Janadyriah is a village about 45 km north of Riyadh and every year they host a festival that is something like a state fair minus the carnival rides. We met 12 other busses from two of the other Aramco residential camps and we were escorted by security police to the front gate. The festival goes for 2 weeks but only one weekend is for families and expats. This day there are over 500,000 Saudi men, women and children attending!! There is an absolute sea of thobes, ghutras, abayas and nijabs. The central provence is one of the most conservative areas so nearly all of the women are fully covered from head to toe in black. Some expose their eyes; others are covered completely or wear sunglasses. We were all prepared that we would be asked to cover our hair as well, we never were.
The buildings house exhibits about either the different regions of the country or the Ministries of the government. Japan was the host country this year so there was a special exhibit about Japan. Food vendors line the pathways and a steady stream of people flow in and out of each exhibit. Lines are long; it is very hot with the sun overhead and the black abaya on. A friend and I stop for some icecream and suddenly there is a crowd forming and I begin to hear drums beating. A parade is coming down the street with men from all of the tribes in Saudi dressed in costumes native to their region and performing the traditional dances and chants. The costumes are colorful and everyone is clearly enjoying the show! Simultaneously, the Saudi air force performs an amazing air show complete with smoke and daring formations. Three men dressed in desert coats ride along on camels looking something like the Three Kings.
We ate our ice cream and watched the fun, then headed off to see how camels were used to get water out of the ground in the old days. As the sun began to set we enjoyed other performances of native dancing and singing on huge stages throughout the festival. I notice the stacks of Persian carpets when we arrived and wondered what they were for. Now, in the twilight I see they have been rolled out to serve as park benches where families sit and have picnics complete with tea and coffee pots. The children take naps in the mothers’ laps and the older people just appreciate a chance to rest. I am struck by how some of the old traditions remain from the days of the Bedouin. Families also bring their own carpets much like we would bring lawn chairs. They spread them on the ground and enjoy watching the scenes around them while they eat dates and drink the Arabic coffee or tea.
Arabic coffee is made from green coffee beans which are brewed and mixed with cardamom and sugar and then served from a brass pot called a “dallah”. It has a very unique spicy taste and some is better than others depending on how it is made. It is always served with dates and the coffee is in small cups without a handle that are usually hand painted and very pretty. Arabic coffee and dates are essential to welcoming guests and this combination is served at every social function. We enter an exhibit for a southern region of the country and enjoy a lovely cup of Arabic coffee, some very nice organic dates and a private tour of the exhibit.
Traditionally, women are not supposed to be photographed. Men are probably not either but they tend to be more forward in asking to have photos taken of themselves. On this occasion though we are like rock stars! Everyone one is asking to have their picture taken with us. Some want it taken with their camera others don’t have a camera and just want a picture made with the Americans. The young girls completely covered in black ask to take our pictures and then want a picture taken with us. They are so excited to see us and can’t stop staring at our hair and faces. A young man in a thobe is wearing a cowboy hat and wants to have a group photo taken with us using his camera and of course we all want the photo taken on our cameras too! His friends are happy to oblige. As we drift from exhibit to exhibit we separate so some of us can watch the dancing on a giant stage and others can wander through the souks looking at spices, handmade sandals, handmade baskets, sweets and baked goods and other native items. We also enjoy watching the children take turns riding camels and playing with toy swords and dolls. Val, my friend that arranged for this trip and I try to buy huge dallahs that could be used for decorations in our house or garden. The old Bedouin that is selling the items is brown with leathered skin from years in the desert sun. He doesn’t speak any English and our Arabic is minimal. He is dressed in an old thobe and desert coat with his ghutra wrapped around his head like a turban. He has almost no teeth and his bare feet are knarrled and dry – evidence of the harsh life in the desert. Several women hear us trying to bargain with this man and decide to chime in in Arabic. He is steadfast about his price and Val and I decide it would be too hard to carry the pots anyway so we head off to find the rest of our group.
Our other friends are sitting on cushions on the giant stage and once we join them people start approaching the stage to take pictures of us. We all have a good laugh and a well needed rest before we head off to see more of the festival. Val and I try one more time for the giant dallahs without success and opt for a large, functional handmade basket instead. The evening has slipped into night and it is time for us to leave. The crowd has grown exponentially making navigation with the giant baskets a challenge. Long carpets are now laid out down the center of the roads and men, women, children, and elders are reclining with their tea, coffee, dates and other food taking a well-deserved break from the crowds and the heat.
Back onboard the buses to the private terminal for the quick one hour flight back to Dammam. We settle in, exhausted but satisfied by our adventure. Another amazing week with the places and faces of Saudi has come to end.