She came down the aisle wearing a jean boiler suit with a T-Shirt underneath and sat next to me. Bits of skin from her torso were showing and of course, her arms bear. Halfway up into the sky, she started changing, putting her abaya flow, and Burqa that covered her face, she was tightening to the hilt.
"Why are you doing this." I asked in amazement.
"It's father, he wants me to do this", she replied.
This was the first scene, I remember, as the plane touched down. It was the Arabian peninsula, long seen as the land of harems, which filled a fair amount of the book regalia I was subjected to.
It was becoming real, like translating the text-book theories into modern practices with society made tangible through its shapes, forms and people.
At the King Khaled International Airport, 35 kilometers north of the city, the first that strikes you is its auspicious architectural design made quaintly to reflect the surroundings, history, traditional architecture and culture.
The apartment hotel on Dabbab Street, in English meaning fog, is revealing as Riyadh like the rest of cities in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is a hot, scorching place, particularly in summer. Dabbab is associated with cool weather, perhaps the name was chosen earlier to reflect the coolness of the light winter months. Riyadh is taken from the Arabic rawda meaning garden.
I smacked into the division of the sexes whilst having breakfast in the hotel's dining setting, one room for males and the other for females. The fact I heard the girls twittering were Filipinos didn't really matter. The men's area was dominated by Lebanese construction workers from their accents.
My visits in the city reflected the natural instincts of a newcomer, picked up on most days from the hotel by the Sudanese chauffer never having the foggiest idea of how he got me to the company, nor how I got back to the hotel. It seemed different routes all the time. My concentration was haywire, all I saw was cars, trillions of cars, taxis and foreign bodies like myself.
I remember along the way was the Foreign Ministry, a propitious pleasing architectural site, and of other buildings designated for other ministries. We cornered further, and lo and behold, there stood our offices, which were part of a larger group of companies. In Riyadh everyone says they belong to a group of companies, it was never one, but it had to be at least four.
I didn’t feel the hotness at first, chaperoned from one taxi to another, in-and-out-of the office, in malls and coming and going from the hotel, to the small corner shop, the centre proper. There was a synthetic feel, people never walked outside en masse, they had to lock themselves inside what seemed a babbling, noisy freezer.
The mosque which was just around the corner was a large prayer hall with no special recital decorations as is the case in many in Arab countries. But the simplicity of the mosques is in keeping with Islamic traditions.
Our work was in a hightech building, air conditioned with offices stretching from one end to the other, although at times it was hot in one place and cool in the other. Every time I went to the bathroom, I felt as if the ground was moving like I was on a plane thousands of feet in mid-air. I thought it was my blood pressure and told someone about it, but he just giggled and said my mind was playing tricks on me.
I thought at first there was no women. "Where are the women, where are the women," I kept asking myself. Silly me, I realized quickly the women were seated separately from the prizing eyes of men.
I like the office I was working in, nice and cozy, a place you can definitely work in, and I felt I was able to produce, despite the fact I had to stare either at the walls, or at the seated men at their computers, all day. For anything up to eight hours, I had to look at the shaven, hard shaven and even scruffy looks of our own sex, the softer, gentler faces were missing healed to the grindstone in separate parts of the building.
Magazine, corporate magazines, periodicals, yes these were the publications I produced some of the edited content for and was sending back to the office through email read by Sudanese, Indians, Pakistanis whose English, I slowly realized was a bit tepid. Back copies were in the office to feast your eyes on, I daren't look to see, by words of honor I swore I edited them judiciously.
Coffee, tea and cappuccino were our favorites. It was drink galore, you can have as many cups as you want, just wave a hand at the Indonesian waiter, who went out of his way and got me a couple of sandwiches on separate occasions.
At 4 o'clock, it was clocking off time. On most days I left like all the other employees, because someone told me, I had no electronic card that opened and closed the door. “Get him one,” bellowed the director, "If he has work, let him finish it, he can sit as long as he likes.” I like a person with a sense of mission, and determination, I thought to myself. There was power in his voice.
That day I left the office, at around 7, did most of my work, and then headed to Al Faisaliah, a tall rectangular shaped column mall of stained glass in the middle of Riyadh’s business district sandwiched between King Fahd Road and Olaya Street.
The Kingdom high tower is another I visited, a huge mall complex down the road from Al Faisaliah dominating the Riyadh skyline, adding an aesthetic spectral illusion that makes you to want to gaze at the horizon; a structure of uses and a restaurant on the top which allowed you to see Riyadh from the bright blue.
These malls protruded in a city that exuberated completeness and built up structures. Every capital has its own distinctiveness. The high towers of Dubai for instance, the character of Kuwait, the tallness of Qatar. They were becoming a look-a-like New York, well a bit.
Riyadh is another design and structure, a mélange meandering between tradition and modernism of buildings in parallel, not-too-small and not-too-big, but definitely “horizontal” rather than vertical. Here there was no comparison to New York. Its area stretches to 600 kilometers but metropolitan Riyadh is about 1600 kilometers into what can be called the Arab desert outback.
Images waver and hover in the back mind gnawing in my inner brain cells. In my last visit to Dubai in 2004, I felt it was a big workshop of noise, steel cement and mortar but not Riyadh.
The construction was nearing build up with the downtown neighborhoods hardly having an area to put your foot in, the city joining the other world metropolitan spaces, and gaining an identity of its own.
In Al Faisiliah, I went straight to the food court, flashing through the chic and branded boutiques, more concerned with the nosh. But the extensive variety from the numerous restaurants, from fish and chips to India, Chinese, hot-dogs and burgers and donuts delayed my appetite. Men were in one area, women in another. This was new to me.
I sat in a table breathing of men aftershave. A Syrian, no doubt professional, placed his tray next to me and asked if he can sit down. He was telling his friend he can't wait for his wife to get back from abroad.
It was a pleasant atmosphere getting to know people from a distance. In the corner-shop I brought a cold bottle of milk having been driven there by a slightly "elitish" red London Cab that happened to roam the streets of Riyadh as a taxi. In a way it brought back fond memories of the old Albion even though the driver was from the Philippines.
The city was definitely cosmopolitan because of expansion and oil money, what westerners used to call petrodollars. It was a mish mash of kaleidoscopes and cultures besides the Saudis found in slightly larger droves in the private sector; definitely not the case in other Gulf states where the attitude of "it’s a desk job for me", is the prevailing one among nationals.
Alongside the Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Indians, French and Americans, I saw Saudi locals as journalists, working in public relations, airline, ticketing officers, stewards and much more. Good, Saudi is a large economy, and the government cannot create sedentary employment unlike Kuwait for instance.
In between meandering its streets and highways, and though its large street signs, I got to know of the King Abdelazziz Historical Center, the National Museum and the King Abdelazziz Public Library. Down the main road, there was the King Fahad National Library, which I sadly never visited because of the scaffolding to upbeat the place.
Lots of public and private universities exist in Saudi land, the oldest being the King Saud University established in 1957 to stress educational content. Today, Riyadh has at least seven other universities, including the Princess Noura Bint Abdel Rahman University for women on the Airport Road.
It, a city of 6 or 7 million, a major conurbation in the Arab world packed of what seemed to be malls, right, left and center. I didn’t visit them all. I was told during Salat or prayer time, they close their doors, and no one is allowed to enter. For a man standing in the sun, it's tough luck, you should have been here earlier!
My taxi driver said although the Sahra Mall is one of the biggest, he suggested I go to the Riyadh Gallery, one of the newest and hippest in the city.
It was past 10 in the evening, teeming with locals, expatriates, men, wives, children, assembling mostly at the food courts. Here there was no segregation of the sexes, everyone tucked in, or was it families, I couldn't tell. One Saudi friend told me Riyadh livens up in the evening.
Bright lights, billboard flickers. The roads all lit as my taxi tried to out-beat the next red stopping. Traffic congestion everywhere, but everyone appeared calm forced into snail-pace.
One lazy dusky-appearing afternoon I braved the heat, and flagged down a taxi who turned out to be Pakistani, one of the many I came to realize and a Pashtoon. He took me to Jareer Bookstore after I told him I wanted a good book shop.
Its size struck me, a modern palatial building, and was just one branch among many sprawled in Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf like Kuwait, a big mega store. On the ground level, it was the high tech lap-tops, pocket-books, mini-computers, stationery and magazines. I was more interested in that art form called books, upstairs.
These were the minted books, the novels, novellas and hardbacks, not the tattered ones you see in roadside kiosks, but high quality readings in English and Arabic, on culture and traditions, literature, history and the list keeps growing.
You lose yourself amongst the shelves and coffee table books. The literary world is at your finger tips with you stealthily looking at the titles, covers, flickering the pages for a great buy and a potential buy. If my best friend was there, he would smell the paper! Then there were the books at discount prices. I saw books by the old master Arabists among the thousands of other titles.
I left the bookshop, a couple of hours later, unsatisfied with having bought much less than I wanted to consume and made my way to Al Fasaliah and segregated food court where men idly look at the skies out of the windows; then headed to my psychedelically mottled hotel.
On my way to the airport biding the Saudi capital goodbyes, there was to be a final fling with passengers chaotically waiting to get their airline reserve passes to board their planes. To add insult to injury, the airport computers were down, adding to the backlog of passengers.
Luckily though I got through and boarded my plane back to Amman, half heartedly thinking I would see the same girl on the return trip, unveiling herself, disrobing her abaya, and tossing her burqa in her bag. It was idol thinking!