March 1, 2000

Shifting Sands

“If you go outside, make sure you turn left. left only!” instructs Peter Voll, our tour director, as we check into the Sheraton Hotel in Medina. Along with Mecca (some 175 miles to the south), Medina is one of the two holiest sites in the Islamic world. “Take a right and you’ll be in the center of the city, which is not allowed. And ladies, you must wear your abayas and your head scarves here.”

A groan issues from members of our tour. The women, nearly three-quarters of the 42 of us, have grown fairly accustomed to wearing the black, ankle-length abaya, but a week into our tour of Saudi Arabia, head scarves are still a chore. Nancy York of Pasadena is one of three intrepid women who venture out of the hotel together, only to return promptly: two blocks out, she reports, drivers whistled and yelled at them in a threatening manner. “They think that any woman out by herself is a prostitute,” she speculates, then pauses. “Then again, we’re all at least seventy years old.”

Our two-week trip, sponsored by Smithsonian Study Tours, is the very first to bring a group of American tourists to Saudi Arabia. Prior to last fall, tourist visas to “the kingdom,” as it is known, did not exist. But the country, long insulated from the non-Muslim world, is slowly opening up. Educationally oriented groups are the target–alumni associations and museums are sponsoring many of the upcoming trips. To judge by my fellow tour members, Saudi Arabia is a destination that appeals to travelers who have been almost everywhere else and are dying for some place new and unknown. Excepting myself, my photographer, and his assistant, most of the trip’s participants are septuagenarians.

In the Sheraton’s lobby are the remaining tumblers of colorful fruit juice, dates, and once-chilled, moistened hand towels we were presented with upon arrival. It’s not a bad prison, but it’s hard to be stuck here in the anteroom of Islam. Mecca, where pilgrims circle the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, and Medina, where Muhammad’s message was first embraced and where he is buried, are the centers of the universe for the world’s almost 1.2 billion Muslims. An arrow pointing toward Mecca is attached to the top of practically every hotel dresser in the country so that guests know which way to face when praying. On most Saudi Arabian Airlines flights, a giant arrow superimposed on an outline of the plane is displayed on cabin monitors every 30 seconds or so to indicate the direction in which Mecca lies. On 747’s there is even a prayer room.

It’s hard to be so close to Medina and not be allowed in. In truth, we came here only because its airport is the nearest to Madain Salah, the country’s greatest archaeological attraction (which is still a four-hour drive away). I hear a little grumbling along the lines of “The pope doesn’t care who visits the Vatican,” but mostly our group is accepting. After all, it’s beastly hot outside–and since the fall of the Soviet Union, how many places are left on earth where you can be restricted to your hotel?

Our welcome in this land, warm but limited, reflects the way Saudi Arabia has met the non-Muslim world in the 68 years since it became a nation. This former congeries of bedouin desert tribes, united in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz, has grown into a powerful regional force by embracing Western petroleum engineering, cutting-edge military technology, superhighways, and high-tech medicine, as well as the English language–everything modern except secularism, which elsewhere seems the soul of modernity. It is a nation that claims the Koran as its constitution; you can even read it on the individual monitors beside every seat of the national airline’s new Boeings.

Saudi Arabia is no stranger to visitors: between 2 and 3 million faithful arrive every year on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. (The Sheraton Medina is set up for those guests: the five clocks behind the front desk do not show the time in, say, New York, London, Rome, Tokyo, and Mexico City but, rather, the hour of the five daily prayers that the kingdom observes assiduously.)

Some 5 million guest workers–25 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population–live here. To the country’s rulers, all of them descendants of King Abdul Aziz, these “guests” are very different from tourists. Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the popular governor of Asir province whose recent poetry reading in Jordan drew 10,000 people, told me in an interview that “twenty years ago tourism was almost a four-letter word.” The royal family (and the clerics who rule with them) associated tourism with drinking, gambling, and nightclubs–”with all these things that do not go with Islamic teachings or the Islamic way of life.” But he saw it as something that could help his mountainous, underdeveloped region, and he established the kingdom’s first bureau of tourism. “I coined the phrase ‘clean tourism,’ ” explained Khalid, to suggest visitors without vice–educational groups, sports competitions, Muslims from neighboring nations drawn by Asir’s cool summer breezes.

I couldn’t arrange a meeting with the prince until three days after the rest of the Smithsonian tour had returned to the States. When we did meet, it was following a grand occasion: the opening of the Prince Sultan College for Tourism & Hotel Sciences. The school’s modest building sits next door to the sumptuous Abha Palace Hotel, the jewel of Asir’s infant tourist industry, and after a ribbon-cutting at the school, the prince entered a large and crowded hotel conference room. Everyone stood as a cadre of policemen with submachine guns entered the room, followed by dignitaries in thobes (the flowing white robes traditionally worn by Saudi men) draped in gold-trimmed cloaks called bishts, and six bearded men with daggers in their belts and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, who appeared to be a sort of palace guard. It was a sign of the times that on the stage where the prince sat, only three nights earlier, our group had watched an ever-so-touristic dance performance by tribesmen wearing floral headpieces. The crowd today was a bit different: the room was packed with a sea of Saudi students and businessmen in white thobes, heads covered with the square of red-and-white houndstooth known as a ghutra, held on with the igal, or black band. The hum of the crowd was punctuated by a chorus of beeps, rings, and jingles. Saudi men are mad for cell phones.

There are princes and then there are princes–four or five thousand of them in Saudi Arabia, a few destined for greatness and riches, but most destined simply for riches. Of the former variety, Prince Khalid is exceptional. Tall, white-bearded, with quiet eyes, he looked like one of the three wise men of my imagination. When Khalid made any move to sit down or stand up, the nearest minion rushed to help with the chair as though his life depended on it. At the end of the meeting, the prince was surrounded by admirers. Eventually the crowd dispersed, and I was alone in a room with him, an aide, and a guard.

The opening of the nation to foreign visitors wasn’t solely Prince Khalid’s achievement. He told me it got its biggest push from the global drop in oil prices of the past 10 years. “We need other sources of income in this country,” he said; as their coffers slowly emptied, other members of the ruling family finally agreed. The prince–who it seems would scarcely be moved by vogue–said with a little smile, “Tourism is now the fashion.” In the capital of Riyadh, Khalid’s nephew, Prince Bandar bin Saud bin Khalid al-Saud, elaborated on that theme in his airy office. “Tourism lets the rest of the world understand more about Saudi Arabia and its people. We have always been perceived as a closed society, surrounded by walls. Anyone who sees it like that would always assume bad things are happening inside these walls. But the walls are there to protect, not to hide.”

Surprisingly, according to Bandar, the Persian Gulf war speeded this process. “The gulf war was very good for Saudi Arabia,” he said, despite the fact that Scud missiles from Iraq landed only a mile or so from his downtown Riyadh office. “We were always afraid that if journalists came here, they might start hammering us. But the best reporting about Saudi Arabia was during the war, and it was because journalists got to see the people, know the country. That has changed the whole mentality of how we think of tourism.”

A hot sun pounds our heads at madain salah. it’s said that this spectacular collection of tombs, carved into red sandstone bluffs, is somewhat less impressive than its cousin at Petra, in Jordan. Perhaps, but whatever it lacks in monumentality is more than made up for by the fact that we have the place nearly to ourselves. The old Hejaz Railway, made famous by attacks against it orchestrated by soldier and adventurer T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), passes nearby, and we cross its railbed several times; we eat on the ground in the shade between our bus and an old railway workshop that has been restored by the government. It is arid, windless, dusty. The prophet Muhammad did not like this place, and many Saudis believe it to be cursed. But those who stay away are missing a true marvel. Nabataeans lived in this area, which somewhat resembles Utah’s Monument Valley, between about 100 b.c. and a.d. 100. The most prominent excavated enormous tombs for themselves in the sides of the smooth, rounded red-stone formations that dot the desert floor.

Inscribed on the tombs’ elaborate pediments, in an ancient script, are warnings to those who would dare approach them: “This tomb is sacred. . . . Whoever has inheritance rights may never sell this tomb or allow anyone to take control over it, nor shall he lease nor rent the tomb nor write on the tomb. . . . May (the gods) Dushara and Manutu curse whoever changes what is written above. . . .”

The desecration of the tombs by vandals over the years has given the place something of a bad vibe. I wonder whether that’s why one of the problem travelers in our group–a woman in her eighties with a strong misanthropic streak–has her worst moment here. I’ve nicknamed this woman the Hermit Crab: she often won’t let people sit next to her on our (nearly full) bus, and she generally scorns most of her co-travelers (“The women on this trip have an average I.Q. of about seventy,” she informs me one evening). Madain Salah is an amazing photo op, and she’s an avid photographer. The problem is, we’re all in her way. In telling me to move, she’s simply rude, but in order-ing our Kenyan bus driver to move, she employs a racial epithet. “I’m not going to stand here and wait for a –––!” she blurts out. Those nearby are appalled, and we apologize to the driver. A group leader has a talk with the Hermit Crab. Reportedly, she agrees to try a little harder.

Archaeological ruins are part of the texture of many small Saudi towns; the minimal rainfall means that some stone-and-mud structures endure for hundreds of years. We visit a number of the sites, including an enormous fortress, Qasr Marid, in the town of Domat al-Jandal, whose 100-foot walls look as if they might crumble at any second. Apropos of nothing, our guide says cheerily that “Islam came here and chased the Jewish.” His remark raises a pressing question: Are Jews now welcome in Saudi Arabia? When we sent in our applications for the trip, the tour leader had told us that anyone whose passport bore an Israeli stamp had better get a new one. But then we received a letter saying things had changed and such precautions were no longer necessary. The Saudis now profess not to care. A Saudi Arabian Airlines executive I spoke with said being Jewish is no impediment at all to visiting the country, never has been. (“Didn’t Henry Kissinger come here? He’s a Jew.”) Prince Khalid told me that the only thing the Saudis have a problem with is Zionism, a subject I did not pursue further with him.

What many of us most want to know about is what is hardest to see: the lives of ordinary Saudi women. I assume that the flight attendants on Saudi Arabian Airlines are Saudis but am set straight by the first one I talk to. She is Egyptian, she says; a Saudi woman would never be allowed to hold a job that brings her into contact with the public–”only in a school for children, say, or a women’s bank.” (Women in the kingdom conduct their banking separately from men.) “If you’re on vacation,” she asks, “why didn’t you pick somewhere fun, like Egypt?” The other flight attendants are from Tunisia, Morocco, the Philippines–never Saudi Arabia. They love the New York stopovers but hate the ones in Saudi Arabia, where a curfew requires them to be in their airline-provided quarters by eight every night.

Indeed, Saudi women are kept well-hidden. Typically, they can leave the house only if accompanied by a husband or male relative. On the few occasions we see women on the street, they are behind their husbands and clad head to toe in black, “like death out for a walk,” as Guy de Maupassant once wrote. Because they do not like to be seen on the street, they generally have drivers ferry them around as they do their errands. (They’re not allowed to drive; Saudi Arabia is one of only a few Muslim countries where that is the case.) It’s said that when women gather outside a school at the end of the day, their children sometimes recognize them only by their shoes, because no other part of them is visible.

Since we are the first tour group, we get to do some things that won’t be on the standard itinerary. Years ago, on a Red Sea cruise he organized, Peter Voll met Marianne Alireza, who had written a memoir of her marriage to a Saudi. In the 1971 book, At the Drop of a Veil, she describes her decision to leave her husband when he took a second wife; to keep her three children with her, she smuggled them out of the country to Switzerland. But the children have all returned, and in Jidda, Hamida, Alireza’s oldest daughter, throws a big party for our group. It is preceded by a fashion show of traditional garments, modeled mainly by the daughters of her friends. Only the women on our trip are allowed to attend; they’re thrilled. The woman I sit next to at the party afterward speaks perfect English and is dressed better than most upper-middle-class Americans. Her husband handles the Saudi Rolex franchise and is also the national agent for British Airways. Their children attend boarding schools in Switzerland and New Jersey.

Another contact of Voll’s arranges for us to tour the private primary school she and her husband started outside Dhahran. Though in many ways it resembles an American prep school, it is divided by sex, and so the males enter through one door, the females through another. Finally perceiving a chance to get some photos of Saudi women without their veils, an enterprising (and male) photographer hands a camera to another member of the group as she disappears inside. But his efforts are for naught: the Saudi women won’t be photographed unveiled, even by another woman.

The most revealing look at typical Saudi home life comes one night in al-Jouf, a seldom-visited small town not far from the Jordanian border. Here, an American diplomat who has joined our trip for a while, Hugh Geoghegan, invites a few of us to dinner at the compound of a prominent local family, the al-Juraids. The matriarch, Terfa, mother of 13, demonstrates how to make a flat masali bread over an open fire. Her head scarf keeps falling from her face and one of her sons keeps pointing this out, but she ignores him. The home is clearly her domain, and the evening, we come to see, is about her. Pieces of hot bread are passed around with a jar of honey. I could eat the bread all night . . . but it’s on to a weaving demonstration. Her sons shepherd us over to a rough loom where Terfa shows how she weaves rugs and bags out of homespun camel’s wool, which she has also dyed. The traditional weavings that hang on the walls of our hotel lobby, Hugh tells us, were all made by Terfa.

The heavy loom has no shuttle between the strings; she does it all with her hands. A sharpened antelope horn helps separate the strands. Next, on the rugs of the large majlis room behind the house she lays out what we presume is a showing of her work: camel bags, shoulder bags, small rugs, long rugs. But before we know it, they’re all being given to us. Everyone tries to refuse the shower of gifts but Hugh says we must accept. Elizabeth, Hugh’s wife, is given a rug more than 25 feet long. All the others are laden with bags representing hundreds of hours of work. This awkward event is only happening, says Hugh, because Saudi Arabia is “one of the last places in the world with such intact cultures, such tribes.” The gift-giving is traditional. So, too, is reciprocity–but we’ll never be able to repay this hospitality.

The Internet arrived in the kingdom only a few months before us, another sign of the changes sweeping the country. (Actually, it’s not quite the Internet as we know it–all the Web sites are screened by censors before residents are allowed to take a look.) And as we near the end of our trip, government officials are hinting that, to encourage outside investment, foreign nationals may soon be permitted to own real estate. This is a big deal on more than one level. Presumably it means major adjustments to the country’s visa system, which now requires that all visitors be sponsored by a Saudi organization or individual. (Our sponsor for the Smithsonian trip, for example, is the national airline.) A subtler change is noticed by our trip lecturer, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Virginia Tech named William Ochsenwald, during our tour of the expansive new National Museum in Riyadh. The collection is a fascinating hodgepodge, presented in more than one voice. The wall labels in the rooms devoted to pre-Islamic cultures have the sophisticated academic tone one expects from museum displays. That tone shifts sharply just upstairs. In a space devoted to the history of Islam are long textual lessons and excerpts from the Koran–you can almost picture the white-bearded clerics dictating the content. Across a wide plaza you enter the King Abdul Aziz Memorial Hall, dedicated to the founding king. The building is essentially a showroom for the king’s former belongings, from his Rolls-Royce, Chrysler, and Pierce to his radios, muzzle loaders, and pince-nez. On one wall hangs the following caption:

“He was modest, kind, fair and generous to his people. Together with the power he had been granted by God, he was slow to anger, merciful and ascetic. He was multi-talented, experienced, highly respected and pious. He never spoke without a smile on his face and he hated hypocrisy and liquor.”

From what I can tell, the voices of the museum are the chorus of Saudi Arabia: the nationalism (actually, a kind of family pride) of the Abdul Aziz collection, the fervor of the Islamists, and the quiet yet confident tone of apparently Western-educated scholars. Bill Ochsenwald tells us that the Koran calls the time before Islam “The Age of Ignorance”–and so reads a sign in one of the rooms devoted to pre-Islamic cultures. He doesn’t think Saudi Arabia has ever comfortably acknowledged these cultures before. Bill also notes that there are few nasty references to the Ottomans in the museum, and that “this is real progress.”

In fact, much in Saudi Arabia should probably be judged by the rapidity of recent change. In Dhahran, the oil-producing capital, I ask if we can drive by the ruins of the al-Khobar barracks, where a massive car bomb killed 19 American servicemen in June 1996. It turns out that the government has leveled the remains, perhaps to try and obliterate the memory. No one has yet been convicted of the crime, but many assume that it was the work of Islamic right-wingers. These are an important constituency in Saudi Arabia, a country that knows what Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran learned at his cost: that modernization without respect for tradition can backfire violently. The government is taking a middle road, but one that curves sharply into the future.

Blessedly, my trip ends in an area where there are none. The rest of the group has returned home, but I am accompanying Peter Voll on an exploration of a somewhat remote region near the town of Najran, south of the border with Yemen and hard by the Empty Quarter, a desert the size of France that makes up nearly half the kingdom. Many people think desert when they think Saudi Arabia, and Peter is considering adding a desert stop to his itinerary.

Our Toyota bounces off the highway to join three other SUV’s parked in the sand. The drivers confer a moment, and then we’re off, over the desert, which they treat like a big, soft highway with no lanes. The speedometer keeps climbing until we hear the warning beep that all Saudi vehicles emit when they reach speeds over 65 mph. The sound is almost drowned out by the roar of the wind. I’d guess we’re going about 75 miles an hour. Occasionally there is a big drop, or an unexpected bump–Voll and I, way in the back, brace ourselves against a pile of suitcases. Not how I want to pass from this life, I think to myself. A pickup truck I’ve never seen before shoots diagonally across our path, less than 10 feet away, like a stray comet. Sand sprays the windshield. Our driver takes one hand off the wheel–no, no!–picks up the mike of the CB radio, and begins chatting animatedly with the driver of a truck 20 feet away.

“This is giving me a negative impression of the culture,” I warn the Canadian woman who has set up the trip. She works for a prince in Riyadh, a nephew of Prince Khalid, and is friends with the local mayor, who arranged a desert night for us in hopes that it might induce Voll to include it on his itineraries.

“They’re just like boys sometimes, aren’t they?” she asks, sounding fond. As abruptly as the hellish ride began, heaven appears: a tented camp in the crook of a dune three stories high. We take off our shoes, but before moving to the rug I linger on the sand. It is warm and dry, even well below the surface, and feels great. A campfire, ringed by rugs, is burning outside a large campaign tent, into which workers are carrying new mattresses and blankets. A Kalashnikov is draped casually over a tent pole.

We are on the edge of the Empty Quarter, near dusk. This is one of the sights I had most hoped to see, the land that Wilfred Thesiger skirted with bedouin in his book Arabian Sands. A goat, slaughtered before our arrival, is soon on the grill. A bedouin assistant to the mayor who, unlike the other assistants, wears a greenish thobe and ghutra, demonstrates how to make bread by rolling some dough in ashes, placing it in the hot coals, and turning it judiciously. The mayor, an attentive, sharp man named Muhammad Atiah, asks where we’re from. While I’m falling deeply in love with the severe beauty of our surroundings, he steers the conversation to the pleasures of rain. He has spent time in Paris, he says. “You know the Champs-Élysées, the arcades where the shops are? I love to stand there in the evening and watch the mist. I love rain.”

In Saudi Arabia, I guess it’s literally true that the grass is always greener somewhere else. But I am delighted to be here. Among the highlights of the trip, I tell the mayor, was an afternoon with teenagers in a park. They were drinking tea and Sprite, reading a new book of poetry by Prince Khalid, and smoking sweet Indian fruit tobacco in large, elaborate water pipes known here as hubbly-bubblies.

“Ah, you like the hubbly-bubbly!” says Mayor Atiah. He speaks in Arabic to his bedouin assistant, who looks sheepish and delighted at the same time. Yes, the man confesses, he has brought his hubbly-bubbly. He did not want the mayor to see it, in case he disapproved. But now he brings the hubbly-bubbly to us.

We smoke and talk around the fire until late. The mayor ushers those who are tired into the tent, where the mattresses and blankets await. But I find the crackle of the fire so restful, the low hum of Arabic so soporific, that I drag my bedding outside to fall asleep by the fire. Later, certainly past midnight, it gets a little smoky so I pull the bed up a dune and resettle. The sky is moonless but bright with stars. As I close my eyes something moves: silhouetted atop a nearby dune is a Saudi in flowing robes. Has he gone there to pray, I wonder, to admire the glory of the land? Then I hear a faint electronic ringing. He’s taking a call on his cell phone.