When a person from the Western world thinks of Saudi Arabia, images of oppressed women, intolerant views and tedious religious pilgrimages probably come to mind. Though the country inarguably has political flaws, it isn’t entirely a repressive dystopia. In fact, this is far from the truth. Having visited the country three times (my most recent trip there was earlier this month) I have realised that Saudi is a place of immense cultural and scenic beauty, though I wholly agree that many things have got to change before it becomes a contender for ‘Most Popular Holiday Destination’.
15/02/16 06:06: I am at Beirut International Airport, after a four-and-a-half-hour plane journey in these clothes: due to national regulations, I am wearing an Abaya- a long, loose dress. We shall remain here in Beirut for a few hours before a second flight to Jeddah.
We left home at 17:00 yesterday. It took us two hours to get to Heathrow. When we finally arrived, we found the rest of the clan waiting for us: my paternal aunts, uncles, cousins and even my cousin’s nan. Asian families, am I right?
The plane journey was very pleasant, as I sat beside my two cousins, and used their shoulders as pillows. Aeroplane food is generally rather bland, but for some unfathomable reason, I always find it delicious.
16:54: We have arrived at the hotel here in Makkah. It is very lavish and comfortable, and has sixteen floors, and four glass elevators. Our rooms are on the seventh floor.
The flight to Jeddah was very pleasant because I nodded off within the first ten minutes.
The security procedures at Jeddah Airport were somewhat peculiar. A guard took a photo of me, then took my fingerprints. Since touching people of the opposite gender is disallowed, he used a tissue to press my fingers down on the ink.
Arab supremacy is a very real thing: both on the plane and at the airport, I encountered a number of Arab people discussing our nationality, wondering aloud whether we’re Pakistani or not, then guffawing. Why does race matter to them so much?
17:49: For lunch, my cousin Priya and I had chicken wraps with chips in my hotel room, on my bed.
16/02/16 02:55: For dinner yesterday, we had KFC. Behind the Grand Mosque (where the Ka’ba is situated) there is an enormous shopping centre with dozens of fast food outlets.
In the evening, we all left to carry out the semi-pilgrimage- Umrah- with our tour group. We all walked together to the Mosque, the men in their white two-piece garments, and we women in our headscarves and Abayas.
The most beautiful thing about Makkah is that people from all around the world pray together, side by side, and nobody is superior to anybody else. Women do not pray behind men here; we pray beside them.
The first stage of Umrah involves encircling the Ka’ba seven times.
Here in Saudi, a person can get stoned to death for being gay, but I saw dozens of grown men holding hands, and nobody gave them a second glance.
Anyway, after Tawaf (the first stage) we proceeded to the second, and last, stage: Sa’ee. This involves walking between two mountains, praying. The story behind this stage is rather interesting: when Hajra (the mother of the Prophet Ismail) was alone in the desert, she and her son were thirsty, so they prayed to God, and a spring of water suddenly emerged from the ground. This water is known as ZamZam water, and the spring still spouts water out today. The spring has been attached to hundreds of pipes that lead to the centre of Makkah, so all pilgrims can enjoy this water in the blazing heat.
After Sa’ee, the men got their hair shaved, and we women got our hair trimmed.
Before going to sleep, I had a very relaxing shower, but I accidentally turned the knob to VERY HOT, so the entire bathroom instantly became a sauna. I threw bottles of complementary shampoo and shower gel at the knob to turn it off, but my efforts were in vain. Then, I found a squeegee mop and used that instead.
13:05: I have just returned from an excursion. We saw many historical sites, and climbed Mount Arafat. Saudi at night is inexplicably beautiful.
22:57: For dinner, we ate at yet another fast food restaurant- ‘Al-Baik’. The food was delectable; I had a chicken fillet burger with a side of pickles. We travelled via taxi, and the driver told us about the mistreatment of South Asian workers by Arab moguls.
17/02/16 23:47: I have just returned from a painfully long shopping trip. We saw many familiar shops, such as Starbucks, H&M, Next and Body Shop. Many shopkeepers spoke to me. One kept looking at me and saying “MashaAllah”. Many of them asked me if I’m British or Bangladeshi or Pakistani. The question of nationality appears to be at the very tips of their tongues.
I conversed in Arabic with one shopkeeper, and he asked me if I’m Arab, because I have “Arab features”, and my nasal region “looks particularly Arab”. He went on to casually ask me to marry him. I stared at him in disgust. My first marriage proposal, at the grand old age of fifteen. I have mixed feelings about that.
19/02/16 13:08: Last night, we all did Tawaf again. The Mosque was even more congested than it was the other day. People were stepping on each other’s feet and practically wrestling each other to get to the Black Stone.
Dozens of birds flew in circular paths overhead, and the moon looked particularly beautiful. Many people wept- no, bawled their eyes out- begging for forgiveness from Allah. I found their enthusiasm rather refreshing.
After Tawaf, we all had ice-creams, slushies and fruit smoothies, courtesy of my uncle.
21:38: After a six-hour coach journey, we have arrived at our second hotel in Madinah. Our room is on the twelfth floor.
20/02/16 23:09: Last night, after leaving our things at the hotel, we went to Masjid-Al-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) to pray. Then we ate together at a nearby Bengali restaurant.
Today, after yet another shopping trip, I went to a little grocery shop, and purchased a bottle of non-alcoholic beer, and the sales assistant looked at me in incredulity, and told me that he’s never seen real alcohol, except on television.
So, in retrospect, I have very conflicting views when it comes to Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, I love the shops, hotels, views and weather there, but on the other hand, I detest some of its national laws and politics, not to mention the fact that the filthy rich Saudi government didn’t donate commit single Riyal to resolving or mitigating the Syrian refugee crisis. Some Arabs seem to think that money is more important than love and compassion. In truth, it really isn’t.