Shopping in Saudi
Jubail, Saudi Arabia
The thrill of the shops was my personal little escape in Saudi Arabia, a departure from the world of total male dominance in which I was deeply ensconced. I found the women of this vast desert kingdom infinitely fascinating; their outlines could be vaguely seen and an occasional mumble or peal of laughter could be heard from afar, but that was as far as my knowledge stretched. To me, they were formless black shapes with no identity or emotion to which I could attach.
Walking towards the mall, along the date palm lined corniche, I would observe the men and women, sitting in their separate groups, white for men and black for women, enjoying their weekend picnics next to the impossibly turquoise Arabian Gulf. The women would occasionally have their faces exposed if there was no one around, to feel the ocean breeze on their cheeks and the sun on their brows. As soon as I, a single white male was spotted, full-face veils would be donned in a matter of milliseconds, rejecting me from even the fleetest of glances.
My local town, Jubail, is reminiscent of the desert outpost in Star Wars, with a staggering blend of ethnicities. Omanis, Pakistanis, Sudanese and Chinese would shop and eat in tumbledown restaurants, avoid piles of rubbish cluttering up the pavements and dodge drips of water from the plethora of broken pipes. On a dark humid night, after the final prayer of the day, I wandered down a back street, a short-cut to the bicycle repair shop, when I bumped into a full bin bag. This bin bag screeched and with horror I realised that it was a woman, begging, dressed head to toe in black, that I had walked in to. I stumbled quickly down the alley in fear of the potential consequences of my folly.
It was in the supermarkets that I was able to move freely around the women, to stand close to them in queues and watch them bustle with business-like efficiency around the bread counter. On one occasion, I was approached whilst reading the back of a shampoo bottle in the hygiene aisle. I noticed a black shape approach my space. This brazen girl came and stood right next to me, turned her head and said “hi”. Now, elsewhere globally, I would return such a greeting. However, heeding the words of my male students who had said that they would become violent, should a man be seen conversing with their sister, I remained silent, staring at the shampoo composition, getting lost in the Cyrillic scripts of the Russian and Bulgarian languages.
The girl must have sensed my heart skipping beats as she walked around the back of me and remained by my side for what seemed an eternity. Eventually, a Saudi entered the aisle and she was gone in no time with a swish of black fabric leaving only the sweet smell of her perfume lingering in the air.
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