We've been told that Jeddah, an ancient port city and gateway to the holy city of Mecca, sits on the Red Sea. We wouldn't know. We haven't seen it and probably won't. In fact, we believe we might be staying in the only hotel in the city that's not on the sea. It was chosen based on its proximity to the office and the lack of other options during Umrah (sort of a practice Haj), rather than the aesthetic demands of its guests. Thick windows keep sand, heat and atmosphere out and nuclear-powered airconditioning in.
- It has a pool and a gym. Because we have a vagina, we can't use it.
- It has some restaurants, but we haven't been in them because they are closed for Ramadan.
- Turn down service includes a tasty chocolate and unspeakably awful "Moussy" brand nonalcoholic malt beverage, brewed in Switzerland.
- Room service (the only Ramadan eating option) serves possibly the best cheeseburger we have had outside the US. The only explanation is the use of U.S. beef, probably imported in great quantities for the compounds.
So, we spend a lot of time in our room, which overlooks a parking garage, which is backed by mid-rise apartment blocks that lack even Soviet-level attention to design and detail. The desert is there, buried beneath cheap concrete. Dirty white and beige desert colors stain the buildings and its light absorbs shadows and sharpens edges. No natural geographical feature obstructs the horizon.
We arrived expecting a subdued, puritanical Dubai, but have been confronted by an austere city that looks like it was built in -- and unevolved since -- the 1970's. With block after block of decaying concrete, haphazard signage and exposed electrical wiring, the center has a distinctly third world feel to it. With as many South Asians as there are working here, it's easy to imagine that you're in a more male, more transient Kathmandu or Delhi. The ostentatious malls on the city's edges, however, suggest that the modern Saudi's consumerist impulses can be satisfied without effort.
In an efforts to escape our polite cage, we hired a car today. In preparation, we put on our ugly, long coat (abaya not necessary), tightly tied our Bursa silk headscarf and clipped it to our head with hairclips (headscarves are annoyingly difficult to keep in place and require constant adjustment) and covered our feet with socks. Ashok, the car manager, asked uncomfortably where we wanted to go.
"Um, how about anywhere? Old Jeddah? Shopping? Souks?"
"You know everything is closed, right?" Brows furrowed. Concern expressed.
"Yes. Just tell the driver to take me anywhere. I must go out."
The empty highway from the hotel offered directional signs to Mecca and Medina, exits that, as a heathen, we wouldn't be taking. Once downtown, we stepped out the car and almost passed out from the 100 degree heat and humidity. Thirty minutes later, after walking around the shuttered old city's collapsing old buildings, we returned to the hotel, drenched in sweat.
We wonder if abaya'ed Saudi women give in to the same impulse we did upon arriving home -- to immediately remove all our clothes, flinging sweaty headscarves and confining long coats on the floor as an impotent protest.
This place looks normal on the outside, but it so clearly is not. Social codes and cues for women are impossible to interpret without assistance. Where can we go? What can we do? What do we do if we run into trouble? What kind of trouble could we run into? Will we be able to recognize the trouble when it comes our way?
Some trouble is screamingly obvious. We recognized it immediately when we arrived in Jeddah at midnight, after our passport was taken away.
"Where is your brother?" snapped passport control.
"I'm sorry. What?"
"Your brother. He is picking you up?"
"Uh, no. The hotel is picking me up."
Like a naughty child, we were told to sit next to half-naked Nigerian hajis while arrangements were made to accommodate a rogue foreign woman without a brother. Our resentment brewed, but remained unexpressed. The problem resolved itself, with no intervention from us, and we departed the arrivals hall two hours later, with our brother, the hotel driver.
We have two days left in The Kingdom. So far we've met a Christian Lebanese woman, a Kashmiri, an Egyptian, a Kuwaiti Armenian, a Lebanese Muslim and a Nepali. We're hoping to meet an actual Saudi.