Saudi Arabia: Between sand and abayas

img_3252Traveling to Saudi Arabia generally requires an official invitation before a visa is issued. I was fortunate to be invited to speak, for the second time, at KAUST – King Abdullah’s University of Science and Technology. Both the University and the King are/were pretty amazing.

King Abdullah was in his eighties when he decided to create the ultimate university where the brightest brains in the world would study, research and develop science and technology.


Kaust campus

“The University shall be a beacon for peace, hope, and reconciliation and shall serve the people of the Kingdom and benefit all the peoples of the world,” said the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. And so a towering beacon is the focal point of the campus.

I flew for several hours across Saudi Arabia, seeing nothing but brown sand and the odd road beneath me. I arrived by airplane in Jeddah, a small chaotic airport. Cleared immigration quickly and walked outside through the exit doors where many men in white or beige robes waited for arriving passengers. A driver from KAUST collected me and drove me about two hours north of Jeddah, where KAUST is located near the town of Thuwal, built on desert sand and flanked by the Red Sea.


The Eye

KAUST feels like a vision. Its buildings are ultra modern, eco friendly and state of the art. The university library is built from alabaster so that, at night, the light shines through the walls. Walking around the campus is like walking around in the future.

The university is the main focus of KAUST. The ‘town’ surrounding it is there to support it and make research viable. Wide avenues flanked by palm trees are lined with homes, ranging from townhouses to near palaces in size. This is where graduate students live, university professors and other staff, but also all staff that make KAUST tick. It is the ultimate Pleasantville to live but quite different from the rest of the country.

There is a supermarket, banks, fast food outlets, a dining room, coffee shops and corner stores. Several recreation complexes offer pools and squash courts, running tracks and more.


Me on my moped

A preschool, elementary school, middle school and highschool are home to all KAUST children. The ‘compound’ is incredibly safe: children can walk to school, ride their bikes or take a (free) bus.

Within the compound, which doesn’t really feel like it is enclosed, women can drive, work, teach, even wear bikinis on the beach.

As soon as I left the compound, though, I had to wear an abaya to cover up clothes but not my hair.

During my week of author presentations at the elementary school I stayed in a beautiful room in the Kaust Inn. A kind teacher lend me a moped and thus I was able to ride to school and all over the ‘town’.

Each day I rode my moped to school, then explored, visited teachers, stopped at a coffee shop or went to eat dinner by the pool. The air was a balmy 25 – 30 degrees in December. But in the summer the mercury can reaches 50 C here!

I enjoyed a beautiful dinner and great conversation in the home of a Palestinian teacher and her family. img_3304

And some other teachers kindly treated me to a long anticipated trip into old Jeddah. Wearing black abayas and in the companion of two male teachers, we walked around old Jeddah. Not many westerners get to see this historic city, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Traditional homes are at a point of collapse and I hope that restoration will not come too late to save the leaning, traditional buildings with sagging, wooden balconies.

We roamed narrow alleys in the dark, a souq with stalls selling roasted peanuts, pumice, prayer beads, dried sap, Qu’ran stools and much more. The people were friendly, smiling and greeting us.

img_3203When the call to prayer danced through the night sky, men flocked to communal wash basins to wash hands and feet, then streamed down the alleys to the mosque.

Later, we passed a mosque with a minaret that was said to be over 800 years old. “Please,” a man in long robes gestured, “come inside, come look around.” Everyone was kind and gracious.

We sipped avocado smoothies, watched old men sip tea on wooden benches, and young men playing dominoes in a circle on the ground. They all laughed and waved as we, westerners, walked by.

Driving Jeddah’s choked main roads – it is a city of 2 million – I was taken aback to spot a Tim Horton’s and signs to IKEA, jarring me back from a charming, middle eastern setting to a generic western influence.


Jeddah is only about 60 miles from Mecca. This explained the chaos at the airport. At any given time, muslims from all over the world flock to Mecca. When I arrived at the airport for my return flights home, hundreds of women were sitting outside on the sidewalks, next to bundles and bags. I wouldn’t want to be here during Hajj pilgrimage when millions of Muslims from all over the world ascend on Mecca and the Jeddah airport. I had to push my way through a packed crowd of families, carts, piles and piles of luggage, to get to the doors. Huge endless line-ups flowed from check-in counters right to the exit doors. “Really?” I asked a uniformed security guy. “No ma’m,” he smiled and led me straight to a first class check-in counter where a polite man handed me my boarding pass, even though I wasn’t flying first class.


Mosque in Jeddah

Then I made it to a packed departure hall where people of all colours, in all possible kinds of traditional clothing and languages, sat on chairs and floors, eating, drinking, praying and sleeping. I revelled in soaking in the exotic colours of so many cultures. Finally, at 4 AM my flight boarded and a few hundred people pushed and shoved their way into busses, up the long outside staircases and into the Boeing 777.

About 40 hours later, 4 flights, many time zones, and a lot of degrees difference (I went from + 32 to -23!) I was home. Grateful to be able to do author visits to international schools, what a privilege.