As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.
It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to avoid the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.
“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. Immediately, I was forced to regret.
“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”
With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.
But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.
“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”
I chuckled and coerced myself against roaring into a laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away, possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.
“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked when night falls!” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.
“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.
I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.
“Behold: the KingdomTower – under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa when completed.”
Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizon. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages, thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. A passing gigantic Apple advert substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.
In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.
But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.
As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners (which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East), what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.
It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.
But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.
I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.
A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously mentioned that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis live here and toil under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggle amidst nightly desert-storms, while the Arabs sleep soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and go to posh shopping malls at night, while their whiny Arab kids are taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by those families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid for by the government as well.
I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.
After my chore was done, as I came out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth. And no, the people around me didn’t stare at me just like we gape at foreigners back in Bangladesh. It has something to do with the fact that Jeddah is extremely multicultural because of the huge number of foreign expatriates here.
For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.
Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion (as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off), because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.
I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze — a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world — but under her niqab, I thought I could discern a contempt for me.
By then, the horizon had already been blackened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars — a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits under their veil; some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion were even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.
Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and inquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.
“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“
“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.
“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”
With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.
“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.
“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.
“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”
So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into the restaurant.
Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.
I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka!
I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.
“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.