Vouga of ArabiaPosted: November 12, 2011
Last week was Eid al Adha (a.k.a. "Hajj break"), which for me meant only that there were less students around campus, and a lot of the facilities were shut down. I did get the opportunity, though, to take the bus into downtown Jeddah and do some shopping and sightseeing.
There are really only two places you can go outside of campus. The first is Thuwal, a fishing village right outside and visible from KAUST. The dining hall on campus is a typical cafeteria, serving generic international food;1 restaurants in Thuwal offer quite a different experience. To begin with, the dining area is segregated into different section, neither visible to the other: one for men, and the other for families. (In practice, a family is any group of people containing at least one woman; even groups of obviously different races don't raise any eyebrows. At least around here -- I've heard that in the more conservative regions of the country, near Riyadh, "family" might be interpreted more literally.) Secondly, the customary way of eating is on the floor, on a carpet, with no utensils. Over the past few years, though, the amount of business coming in from KAUST has encouraged restaurants to slowly invest in western concessions: they have a few tables and chairs they keep in the back, and a few sets of silverware, that they bring out as needed. Thirdly, at a seafood restaurant I visited a few weeks ago, the main course wasn't ordered off of the menu: instead, you first visit a fish market in a building next door, and pick out the fresh fish you would like to eat. Only after you've selected your dinner, haggled a bit over price, and informed the staff how you'd like the fish cooked, do you get seated and order drinks and sides off of a menu.
The second possible destination is Jeddah, the largest city in the area (population ~3 million) and about 45 minutes away from KAUST.2 A bus travels there and back once a day, which is lucky because I wouldn't want to drive even if I owned a car: lanes are strictly suggestions (and the shoulder of the road counts as a lane), driving over sidewalks and medians is the accepted way of taking shortcuts and U-turns, feral donkeys and camels wander onto the street, etc etc. Only in Boston have I seen crazier drivers (where, in addition to the ubiquitous double-parking, I've witnessed one clever guy's solution to one-way streets: drive at full speed in reverse.)
The bus makes three stops in Jeddah: the Mall of Arabia, Red Sea Mall, and downtown. I've never been to the first two (and I'm not particularly interested in doing so.) I was warned by a coworker: if you visit downtown Jeddah by yourself, take a map and a compass, and give yourself two hours to find your way back to the bus. I completely ignored him, of course, and got horribly lost. Jeddah's downtown is a vast labyrinth of twisty streets and alleys, with a scattering of larger shopping centers and hundreds of smaller stores selling incense, carpets, clothing (including abayas; I promised to pick one up for a friend), bars of gold, more different kinds of dates than I ever imagined existed, etc. The shopkeepers are all terrificly friendly. Haggling over everything is a little off-putting at first, but eventually you realize that you're arguing over what amounts to less than a buck or two.
The mosques at KAUST announce the five daily prayers, but unless you are unlucky enough to live directly under the minarets of the campus Grand Mosque the prayer times have no significant effect on daily life. Not so at all in Jeddah. When a prayer time begins, all customers are kicked out of stores and the stores close, for a not insubstantial amount of time. According to coworkers, one trick is to order take-out right before the prayer begins, and eat while waiting for it to end; of course, this strategy still requires knowing when the next prayer will begin, which changes daily. Another unique aspect of shopping in Jeddah is that stores tend to be clumped into groups offering identical wares: one block will be entirely devoted to carpets, the next to paint, etc. At first this arrangement didn't make any business sense to me: if you're opening a carpet store, why place yourself right next to your competitors? But it was explained to me that this system has established itself as a Nash equilibrium of sorts: customers looking for a carpet know to look (only) on the carpet store block, and a carpet vendor trying to set up shop elsewhere would only starve himself of customers.
- the one exception, of course, is the lack of pork: "bacon" here always means small bits of beef. [↩]
- Mecca and Medina are also nearby, but strictly forbidden to non-Muslisms. [↩]