Blue Ribbons, Black Abayas

Yesterday, in the usual spur of the moment fashion, I had the opportunity to tag along with a few friends to the annual Cultural Heritage Festival, known as Janadriyah, just outside Riyadh.

I had heard about this festival through various means, mostly my students’ parents and through the English language ‘newspapers’ that are available here. I didn’t think much of it, but Girl mentioned that she was going with the Paki and a few of his coworkers and there was room for one more in the car, so I decided it might be worth it to see what Saudi ‘culture’ has to offer.

The drive to Riyadh was fairly standard. 400 kilometers of garbage strewn desert, camels, Bedu shantytowns, and rusting crumpled remains of very gruesome car accidents. The plus side was the temperature rose significantly along the way creating very unstable conditions in the air over the desert between the Eastern Province and the capitol city. This meant strong winds that brought about a bit of a dust storm. It was interesting to drive through. It’s basically like driving in a snowstorm except the sand creates much more noise as it hits the windshield and it chips the paint off the front of your car. I didn’t have to drive, which made it much more enjoyable. The driver didn’t really find it as amusing as I did.

Some tasty snacks for the drive. 

In terms of cultural heritage, there isn’t much going on here in Saudi. At least not in the sense that a normal western person with any background in learning about or appreciating history and culture would anticipate there to be. Janadriyah is more or less a giant county fair with random food stands and small poorly put together booths that display everything from random historical tidbits to commercial and business opportunities, and a plethora of companies offering various literature on air conditioning units. Without knowing Arabic or having someone who knows what’s going on, there really isn’t all that much to do except eat food on a stick and people watch.

Some booths seemed more out of place than others

There were some interesting aspects of modern day Saudi culture that were on display, and those actually made the trip worth it. For starters, aside from when I was first dropped off in an alleyway in the middle of the night when I first came to Saudi, I don’t think I have ever been more socially uncomfortable as when we walked through the massive crowd to get through the main gate. Unknowingly, we had come during the time when the fair is reserved for families, meaning single males are not allowed in. Our group consisted of four men and one woman, none of whom were married or looked similar enough to pass as relatives, so we were a bit leery when we say the armed security guards pushing away single men who were trying to sneak in. It turned out not to be that big of a deal, because when I walked towards the gate alone I was waved through by a guard, who had a rather creepish smile on his face. They ended up letting all of us in without so much as a second guess because they assumed we weren’t likely to cause any problems.  

Walking around a large crowd of Saudis is like swimming upstream in a river of elbows. No one has ever really learned how to walk in a crowd, and because there is little personal concern for others, there are numerous elbows, knees, strollers, and flailing arms to walk into. Riyadh also has far fewer foreigners living and working in the surrounding area, so there were plenty of stares (and in Girl's case, glares) to contend with as well. The majority of men in attendance had multiple wives, so each family had a crowd of women, none of whom really get out in public as much as they’d like, who enjoyed the novelty of seeing a bunch of tall white people wandering around. Even in the confines of the festival, life stops during prayer, and as interesting as it was to be surrounded by thousands of people on their hands and knees praying, it was unsettling to be one of the few people standing, literally trapped in a sea of people who felt you probably shouldn’t be there.

I don't think this little guy felt like he should be their either

We spent all of two hours inside the festival. There wasn’t much to see, and the people weren’t nearly as hospitable as one would’ve hoped. We stood around for a while watching an awkward video about Saudi history depicted through dancing while we tried to decide if we should leave or keep walking around hoping to find some hidden gem when we were approached by a man with a microphone. He proceeded to interview all of us for Sabbah Saudia (Good Morning Saudi) and get a westerners take on what it was like to be at the festival. Awkwardness ensued, and the bright lights and camera crew attracted a bit more attention that we were hoping for. A fairly large crowd of onlookers started pulling each of us aside to take pictures and ask poorly phrased questions in pigeon English, and only after Girl was harassed for the third time by older women demanding she cover her hair were we able to break away from the crowd and head toward the exit.  

Things got uncomfortable very quickly

In many ways, culture is something that’s hard to define. It seems simple, like something people wear on their sleeve that can be watched from afar and understood without much effort. I walked through the myriad of stalls selling woven grass mats and clay water jugs thinking there really isn’t that much to being an Arab. It’s all seems the same everywhere you go. Being constantly harassed by hordes of young men trying to humiliate you in a language you don’t speak and being stared at by the steely eyes of crowds of women covered head to toe in black fabric who go out of their way to avoid you changes your perspective. Things don’t make as much sense as they should.

In reality, things aren’t simple, and it’s only in moments when you realize that you’re in way over your head that it becomes possible to see how complex culture can really be.