A Visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Jeddah is a city that perhaps many Americans have never heard of and more likely than not, probably have no idea where exactly it is. Prior to my trip there, I was one of those Americans despite the fact that I pride myself in having a great deal of geographical knowledge. Although I knew that I would be traveling there, I waited until the last few weeks before my trip to learn more about Jeddah and the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia. Once we arrived, I realized it was a metropolitan city with many of the same things I could find back at home like traffic, malls, lots of shopping, and much more.

The population in Saudi Arabia as of April 2010 was just over 27 million people. In Jeddah, the population is just over 3.2 million people living in roughly 579 square miles. Jeddah is the primary resort city in Saudi Arabia and the principal gateway to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Jeddah borders the Red Sea from the west and the Al-Sarawat Mountains from the east. It has no rivers or valleys but it includes Sharm Ob’hur, which connects the Red Sea to the other end of the city. The Sharm of Salman (also called the Gulf of Salman) borders the city from north.

Our first real outing in Jeddah was the day after our arrival and even though we were somewhat jetlagged, we were excited to go out and explore. Our host was kind enough to pick us up and take us out for the day on a boat on the Creek. Who could have imagined that such a glorious body of water existed in a place so otherwise dry and desert-like.

As we sailed along the water admiring the multitude of sculptures along the roadways that the previous king had installed, we also admired the many homes, from small to quite grand and exquisite. Here I could sail on the boat without an abaya and so did our host’s sister. In fact, despite being unable to drive in the Kingdom, she could drive a car inside the marina without issue. It was like being in completely different world although we weren’t really sure what that was since we had only just arrived. A few drinks (non-alcoholic, of course, since alcohol is not allowed) and some sandwiches and we were enjoying the laid back life in the Kingdom. I wish we could have spent more time on the water, but since I forgot to bring my passport with me on the boat, we couldn’t leave the area. Maybe next time we will be able to venture out a little more.

We were invited to our host’s family’s home for dinner where we would be in the company of others attending the same conference. Our host was extremely gracious and his family went out of their way to accommodate us on every front. Their pristine home was beautifully decorated and we were ushered into the front room where we took a seat. As others arrived, I became extremely self-conscious of the fact that I was the only woman present. Back in the United States if men entered a room where I was sitting, I wouldn’t stand up. Maybe I was tired or maybe I noticed that the few women there on the other side of the room were indeed standing up when the men arrived. That’s when I noticed that as the women entered, they joined the other women on the far side of the room. So it then became a question of do I join them or do I stay where I am? I became preoccupied with what was the correct social etiquette to follow that everything I did I overanalyzed. Maybe I shouldn’t have shaken that man’s hand. Maybe I should stand up. Maybe I should stay seated. I was riddled with anxiety and sweat before we ever sat down to dinner. The irony of this is that my host was not the one to instill this anxiety as I did it all to myself. Instead of enjoying being in the moment, I was preoccupied with norms and formalities, which I am not even sure anyone noticed what I was doing or not doing.

Dinner was served and we were ushered into the dining room, another beautifully decorated room with an extraordinarily long table that sat over 20 guests. Unbeknownst to me, the host’s daughters were sitting on the other end of the table watching me as I sat down near the main course, a roasted goat. I hadn’t noticed where I was sitting and I sat down quite oblivious to the carcass strewn out behind me. The staff on hand to help serve and cook were a group of young women from the Philippines, a country from which many people emigrate to live in the Kingdom. The feast on the table stretched out as long as the table on which were about to eat our meal. Every possible food that one would want was available from salads to vegetables and more. They were kind enough to point out which items did not have meat and I helped myself to those while they carved up the goat and put the meat on large platters of rice at the center of the table.

As we left that night with our stomachs full of goat meat (ok, you knew I had to say that. Any SNL fans out there reading this?) and mine full of vegetables, it started to rain. Since rain is an anomaly in the Kingdom, it does cause them great concern when they see it. We could hear thunder in the distance and we were glad to be back in our hotel before the sky opened up and the rain came pouring down over Jeddah.

During our stay, we had another trip in Jeddah that took us to the home of architect Sami Angawi, the former director of the Haj Research Center and the founder of the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage. From an article in arabnews.com:

Placed in the city of Jeddah, a gateway to Makkah and Madinah, the Angawi family home, better known as Al-Makkiah, represents today a main center for Saudi Arabia’s restricted artistic and social landscape. An environment where local and foreign artists, businessmen, diplomats and politicians can meet, thanks to the organization of weekly cultural events. The house is an ideal location for the arrangement of seminars, lectures, exhibitions and concerts and has hosted various dignitaries including two visits by former US President Jimmy Carter.

The home is an architectural wonder and it was a privilege and honor to be allowed into his home and to learn about all of the changes which we are now starting to see happen in Saudi Arabia such as women getting the opportunity to vote and drive and so much more. We also learned that it was here that stand up comedy was first performed within the Kingdom. Kind of cool, huh?

Shopping will be my next topic on Saudi Arabia so don’t forget to bookmark this page and come back regularly to visit and read up on my adventures.