At this time, I knew absolutely no one in Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t phone anyone, send an email, Skype, or walk over to someone’s house. While the heavily guarded compound I was on had several restaurants, a gym, a pool, and a 4 lane bowling alley all at my disposal, I didn’t like the idea of being stuck behind these walls for the next 36+ hours.
I went down to the front desk and they told me they could have a car take me to any one of a number of shopping malls if I wanted. I’m nothing if not a risk taker (a move to the Middle East helps make that point), so I threw on some jeans and a t-shirt (after asking if bare arms below the elbows were okay – they are) and had the driver take me to Rashid Mall, a place I would get to know very well in the coming months and years.
I was one of the few people in the Western world who didn’t own a mobile phone. In the Middle East, and particularly Saudi where it is often cheaper to make long distance calls and the service is better on mobile phones, they are a necessity. When I finally got housing in Saudi, I only ever used the landline to let people into the building or answer calls from the maintenance department. There is no shortage of mobile stores and two main providers of mobile phone packages. I was not going to buy one that day, but thought I would look around and see what was out there and what the prices were. Very few people actually bought phones with a monthly package deal, instead buying top up cards to add time and money to their credit. That is the way I choose to go as well when I bought one.
My favourite store in Saudi soon became Jarir Bookstore. Not a bookstore in the classical sense, but it was the best place to buy books in the country. They also sold small electronics, art supplies, school supplies, video games, and stationery. You could get most of the latest best sellers in both English and Arabic, and some of the classics too, and this was a good place to buy magazines with pages missing or any skin on women covered over with white stickers or black felt marker. I’m standing looking at laptops (although I had a new one anyway), and I hear what I would learn was the beginning of prayer call. I continue looking and a salesman walks over to me and tells me I have to leave the store as they are closing for prayer. I look at him and say, “really?”
I can tell he thinks I’m being antagonistic so I smile, “I landed in Saudi 8 hours ago, sorry.”
“No problem, my friend.” He smiles back, “Welcome. Yes, the shops must close for prayer but will open again in an hour minus half.”
“All the shops?”
“Yes, my friend. Restaurants won’t let people in. Even McDonald’s has to close.”
He walks me to the door of the store and I watch as they lock it and shut off all the lights as the staff file into the staff room at the back or exit the store to go and pray (well, some go and pray – most go and grab a cigarette or have a coffee that they got from the break room). I wander a little bit before heading back to the bookstore, where I want to pick up some stationery items for my first day at work. I sit on a wooden bench opposite the store and check my watch, probably the dumbest thing I could do. Like I knew what time the store would re-open. I hadn’t found one of those handy calendars that list the prayer times for the region of Saudi I was in. With one of those, I found, I could calculate pretty much the exact time to arrive at the mall to avoid having to wait for shops to open.
I’m joined on the bench by three women of various ages, the oldest two wearing a hijab so only their eyes were showing. I notice they have a son with them so I get up and offer my seat to the little guy. He smiles and says, “Shukran” – the Arabic word for thank you. I smile and say “Afwan” – you’re welcome. I had managed to learn at least that before leaving Canada. His mother, or I assume it was his mother, must have noticed my accent and says, “Oh, are you American?”
I won’t lie to you; I had no idea if I should speak to her or not. I had read up on Saudi and its customs and traditions, and I knew that interactions between unmarried or unrelated men and women is frowned upon, in fact, it is criminal. But I didn’t want to be rude either. I was at a loss. I decided to risk it.
“I grew up in Canada.”
“Canada!” Even under the cover of her hijab, I could tell she was smiling. It’s funny, but you don’t really realize just how expressive eyes can be until they are the only thing you can see. “We love Canada.” Her English was better than I had expected to hear. “I would love my daughter to marry a Canadian man.” With this she told her son to move and motioned for me to sit down. I was struggling to come up with a courteous way of declining when I heard the store being unlocked and people rushing past me to go inside. Both mother and daughter were looking at me, the son now standing next to me, not really sure what was going on. I was just about as clueless as he was. And then something completely funny and unexpected happened.
“My friend, we are open again.” The salesman was walking back inside the shop and came to get me. “I can show you that laptop now.” He grabbed my hand and held it in his, something I would later learn is pretty common and a sign of friendship amongst many Asian cultures. “Sometimes, my friend, the women just want sexy time. You must not give them it.” He smiled. I tried not to laugh.
I bought some stationery and continued around the mall, stopping briefly at the food court to see if I recognized any names – McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Popeye’s. Yeah, finding fast food here wouldn’t be a problem. I would later discover that on pretty much any corner of the city you could find a Starbuck’s, Costa Coffee, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts, or any number of coffee shops or popular food chains.
When I left the hotel the driver had given me a card with his number on it so he could come and pick me and bring me back when I was ready. I didn’t have a mobile, so I would have to use a payphone, only there were no pay phones. They didn’t exist. I would have to rely on my memory and a local taxi to get me back to my compound.
Finding a taxi at the malls is easy. Finding one willing to use his meter so you know you’re not getting ripped off is sometimes difficult. I found one willing to use his meter. Sadly, he didn’t quite know where he was going and we eventually found it, after he had to stop and ask for directions. And he didn’t want to drive into the compound and go through all the security checks required, instead he just dropped me off at the entrance and I walked in.
Before bed I went to grab some pastries from the bakery downstairs and noticed a Westerner sitting at a table on his laptop. He looked up at me and waved me over, introduced himself as Andy, and said he had been in Saudi, off and on, for 15 years. He could show me some of the lesser known places that he loved. We would do that tomorrow.