Traveling Iran I had to come up with a plan B regarding how to continue since Husam did not get the Turkmenistan visa. So, I reverted to my initial plan, from before planning to do travels with Husam, and went to Oman and the Emirates, namely Dubai. Since Saudi Arabia has only opened up to tourism in Autumn 2019 I jumped at the chance to go there too.
Coastal breeze in Oman
Traveling on to Oman I went all the way south to Salalah. An Oasis in a giant desert. Some times of the year it is impressively green. Not so much when I was there, which I knew. But a friend recommended me to go anyway, apparently not out of own experience but because people had told him. Well, probably the same people now actually asked me what the hell I was doing in Salalah, since it was the wrong time of the year. Should trust your own instincts, not that of others. Probably a traveler rule I should not have neglected… Well, next time.
I nevertheless enjoyed the stunning and endless white beaches and observed local peoples’ interesting behavior. The Omanis drive their big cars up close to the beach and remain seated in them while watching the waves. It felt a bit weird to lie in the sun on this wonderful white beach with palm trees, with a row of cars lined up behind me.
Since there are many immigrants working for the Omanis there are neighborhoods that could be somewhere in Pakistan. Dirt roads, the notorious trash everywhere, interesting smells, cheap prices, and strange customs. There are two types of immigrant workers however, the unskilled and the skilled – often called ex-pats. They are people from Europe, the US or other European cultured places.
Many ex-pats in Oman make good money, especially when compared to Europe. And while with that you can have a lifestyle approaching that of the one people are used to in Europe, it may feel like a golden cage at times. I stayed with a very nice guy from Scotland who had a whole house with probably 8 rooms in a gated community to himself. He had a big car, a motorbike, and all imaginable toys a man-child would need. I am not sure that it was really what he needed.
Oman – this time of the year, is pleasantly warm, not too hot. The capital city of Muscat is maintained green by using immeasurable amounts of freshwater. Most places in this region are built on sand. Literally and maybe even metaphorically. Seeing the water fountains spraying water mist into the dry desert air, and watching the many hectares of park landscape covering sprinkler systems expelling streams of water onto the sand I wondered for how long there is going to be water in an increasingly arid region with increasing population?
I dropped the thought and visited the pretty parks and palaces of Oman, met a couchsurfer host for a coffee and a very nice conversation on the beautiful beach, and felt that life in Muscat is rather calm and pleasant. Nothing wild to do, but everything is charming and welcoming. No good reason for a restless nomadic soul to stay too long though. Off to Dubai I went.
Breezing through Dubai
The Emirates are notorious for their wealth. And it is indeed ridiculous. Dubai rubs it in your face. Bling-bling everywhere. People striding wearing expensive designer wear down generous streets. The malls are bustling, showing off everything one could think of yet does not really need, especially if it is of value or simply mind-bending expensive for no good reason at all. The buildings scratch the sky, with the highest building notoriously being Burj Kalifa which is more than 800 meters high. Artificial islands extend the coastline. If money can buy it someone will do it in Dubai.
I had the pleasure to stay with a couchsurfer host from Ecuador who is a designer. His apartment is on the 63rd floor in an area called the marina. This part of town is, as so much in this place, completely artificial. Looks lovely though, for sure. The building has a lot of employees that makes sure you get no accidental injury from opening a door or carrying your shopping bags yourself.
The separation of men and women is a common occurrence in many Muslim countries. In Dubai, it took me by surprise. Unknowingly I entered a subway train for women only. Some women started pointing at another carriage and eventually asked me to leave, after me wondering what suddenly moved so many women to seek contact with me. If caught you pay a hefty fine. So while women are explicitly or implicitly forced to certain dress-codes in many Muslim countries, they are at least able to ride without the presence of men. Is that a good deal? Feel free to comment on the post!
There is a huge lounge clad in gold and marble, with heavy and comfy seating plus a bar offering fancy coffee and drinks, and a rack of international newspapers to read while you feel terribly rich and important. You will find a gym – separated by male and female, of course, a spa with steam bath, sauna and jacuzzi, a hall with pool tables, fuzzball and other games, as well as rooms for meditation or prayer and of course a cinema. My favorite room, however, was the elevator, that catapults you from zero to the 63rd floor so fast that your ears pop.
I cannot express in words how misplaced I felt.
A second night I spent with a family that has their own business. If the first experience seemed luxurious, it was dwarfed by the second. While sitting together for breakfast in one of the exclusive ex-pat fortresses with a large selection of different nuts and cereals on offer, fresh fruits, and berries the cleaning staff walked by. My host told me of his plans to travel like I do. Serious plans, it sounds like. Once he and his wife retire. There it was again, the feeling of the golden cage. But who am I to judge? Maybe this way of life can be satisfying? It is not for me though, it seems.
We drove around in a large Lexus SUV and talked about life in Dubai. It sounds like the Emiratis live their life and the foreigners live theirs’. A parallel society within a parallel society, when you consider, that nowadays the immigrants are separated into strata of the poor, middle class, rich and super-rich in addition. Often separated by physical walls as well.
Breeze of change in Saudi Arabia
Off I went to Saudi Arabia, thinking that I would experience even more wealth. We keep hearing about all the riches of the Saudis. However, the Saudis have managed to build a society with poverty while owning the world’s largest reserves of easily extractable crude oil. Many people are not benefiting at all from the oil wealth of the country while others are drowning in their riches. The streets of Jeddah partially not being better than in many developing countries left me startled. It felt like having a cake fight at a birthday party instead of eating it, while some at the party are starving to death. Bizarre. More so than my strange analogy.
I stayed with Julie from New Zealand at her place, couchsurfing. Julie was kind enough to suggest things I could do in Jeddah and showed me around. I was being quite lazy though. Partially maybe from an increased travel speed in the previous days, partially maybe due to the required adjustment to the heat in Jeddah, which is a very humid heat that does not make you feel like going out before sunset, and partially maybe simply because there were no novelties – it seems – around.
However, walking at night through a green stripe in the middle of Jeddah, being smoked in traffic exhausts, or by the nicely built beach-front allowed me to observe people and their daily life. Women exercising in long dresses, people picnicking in large groups sitting on the ground, oriental smells and sounds all abound. And only alcohol-free beer. On the beachfront. During a nice and hot night. When you have a beer-thirst. I had an alcohol-free beer with cherry flavor instead. It reminded me very pleasantly of my childhood. I guess in Europe these artificial flavors are not permitted any more since the seventies. Sweet memories…
Visiting the mall finally catered further to my stereotype of unnecessarily unevenly distributed wealth. I most of all enjoyed the group of fully covered Saudi Women who were standing in front of a lingerie shop admiring the offer in the window. A picture I would kill for to have, but I did not want to die for. So, I did not take it. Sorry.
The notorious prince with the acronym MBS who currently runs the country, and remodels a lot, has been accused by the CIA to have killed a journalist. You probably know all about it. The Saudis apparently largely do not believe that and hold him in high regard. The great thing about staying with locals is that you get more insight into their thinking.
Just a note on the dress code in Saudi: Women are required to wear a long gown, but it is not compulsory to cover your hair. Nevertheless, you will see many women completely covered, also wearing black gloves, thick socks, and even covering the small opening for their eyes with a semi-transparent cloth. How about men? A Turkish friend who works in Saudi Arabia told me the story of him walking down a street with two other ex-pats. One of them being US-citizen with Saudi heritage. All three were wearing shorts, but only the Saudi looking dude was approached by the religious police. He was in the end fined as punishment for wearing indecent clothes. His main mistake was probably to answer to the police in Arabic. The other guys were not being bothered. I am anxious to see how long people will put up with such unequal treatment. It feels to me as MBS has released a Geni when opening up for tourism which he may not be able to get back into the bottle again if it becomes inconvenient for him.
On a mountain hike, I took the chance to talk more about the changes the country experiences. From it, I gathered that roughly 30% of people are religious extremists who are sternly against more rights for women, democratic freedoms and any introduction of modern culture. The 30% of religious extremists (or so) in the country dislike MBS quite thoroughly. After all, he gave women the freedom to drive cars, let foreigners into the country, and restricted religious extremism more and more.
Curiously, the country comes to a standstill five times a day for half an hour each for prayer time. Shops close, restaurants stop serving, even doors of buildings close, so you won’t get out any more. There are apps that tell you when the prayer times are, which inconveniently change every day, so that you may not happen to be locked up against your will. For the first time, people expect that to change. Debilitating for the economy and generally just really annoying, it is nevertheless something that the religious zealots would not want to see change.
But MBS has started to arrest anyone who may dare to question him. So, while before, under the king, the country was unfree and nothing ever changed, you were free to complain about it rather openly, people tell me. Now, under the prince, things change rapidly, but you cannot speak freely any longer. Many seem to prefer the latter, not thinking it will come back to bite them in the butt.
Oriental stories of one thousand and one night have probably been thought up in the region around AlUlah. The sand continues into the far distance, touching the horizon. Rugged rocks and mountains look as being dropped into this hostile landscape, forming a sand maze of endless valleys. The Nabateans came to this region and fell in love with it. At least it looks like that judging by the fact that they have left behind countless tombs that, so people tell me, rival the beauty of the tombs of Petra in Lebanon.
Bandar runs tourism companies and does related businesses for a long time now. Supported by his friend Meedo they try to set up a company offering many trails through the rugged country around AlUlah. The guys welcomed me with open arms, and we quickly realized that our outlook on life was very similar, as are our values and approaches to life. Sitting on the ground in a large room, we shared coffee and philosophized, getting to know and trust each other. Before we even shared lunch I knew that I had come to the right place for this moment in my life.
Sadly, the tombs were closed off to tourists, and they still are well into December. I was hoping that Bandar – well connected as he is – could help me to enter the tomb area anyhow. But the government is now in full control of things and has a clear agenda of keeping the area closed off until the official opening. It feels awkward that a country opens up to tourism, but keeps many, and maybe the most interesting things locked up.
While Madain Saleh, where the tombs are, will open up eventually, Medina and Mecca will remain closed to everyone who is not a Muslim. Will that ever change? Probably not, until the most fervent representatives of Islam drink a decent portion of Kool-aid, and take a chill-pill. And not before liberal Muslims are being tolerated instead of being threatened with death.
Then all the Muslim holy-sites would probably open up, from Jerusalem to Mecca. Just as the most religious sites of other religions are open to all visitors, irrespective of their believes. Such as for instance the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, the Western Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Jingū shrine in Ise, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of JC in Jerusalem, or the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, which are open to everyone.
Of course, that would mean that these sites acquire a cultural dimension that rivals or better yet, complements the religious aspect. From my perspective that is a good thing. Anything that restricts religious zealots of any faction from going overboard with their beliefs based on their private fantasy is a positive thing that helps to further understanding and peace in the world. I am positive that Islam will get there eventually. Maybe the development in Saudi Arabia is the first step?
Instead of visiting the tombs I spend time with people who became friends. A fair deal, if you ask me. We cooked together in an earth oven, a great experience for a hobby chef as myself! We drove around the dessert maze and looked at drawings that several generations of inhabitants of this part of the desert left behind. We had tea and dates sitting on a sand dune, watching the sunset, spectacularly mirroring the orange of the sand with its own orange spectrum of colors. And we met representatives for the government, who run the project of turning the remote Saudi desert into a prosperous and lucrative tourist spectacle.
It felt awkward to be a tourist in a place where tourism does not exist yet, but certainly will very soon. I helped write project documentation, making me feel somewhat anxious, after having left that part of my life behind me on purpose. But it was also strangely reaffirming to quickly brush over existing documents, without much subject background knowledge, and to being told right afterward that they now had been accepted by the project board. Maybe I learned something after all, no matter how bloodless it may have seemed and still seems?
Besides all that I wondered if I should really help to turn a largely untouched region into another tourism Disneyland? I think I should not. But of course, I also know, that it will benefit in multiple ways, as described above. Maybe even opens up a country to values that are still experimental to a region that is in constant turmoil for much of the past century. Things are not often black and white. Sadly.
Visiting Ahmed’s farm was certainly a highlight for me. Standing in the middle of the prosperous green reminded me of my childhood obsession with Sindbad and the stories of 1001 nights I watched on TV. We plugged ripe oranges and tangerines right from the trees and enjoyed the amazing flavors right on the spot. They are obviously different species of fruits than the ones I know. Even when slightly green they were very sweet and had a wonderfully light bergamot note to them. Additional Hesperides shape a spectrum of not before experienced flavors.
Anyone who knows what the difference in species is, is welcome to contact me! This stuff should be exported! Unless, of course, it is just the “Greek wine in Greece effect”, that strangely tasted great sitting at the feet of the wonderfully lit Acropolis at night, watching Athens bustling about. But that tastes like a lit philosophers’ feet when back home.
I grew to love the eating together with our hands, everyone sitting around a huge plate of food, more or less quietly munching away. I liked the evenings when Mr. Tea (his real name Ahmad) would make tea of a mix of black tea and freshly picked mint leaves, to accompany the conversations and sometimes the Shisha smoking while sitting on cushions on the floor in our huge nomad-style room. I loved how Johnny (Abu Omar) and Mr. Tea would drive around with me in the 4×4, them being as amazed by my awkward behavior as I was by theirs.
Meedo, their boss from Jordan is US-American now and was able to translate. Both, the language at times, and also the behavior. It was a little amusing to me to see, that even he struggled with certain aspect of this rich culture, that holds values high that often are called honor, when it always remains vague what that means, and which values family over most other things, except maybe Allah. At least in theory.
The society is built on friendliness, especially to visitors. Maybe because once upon a time, when the nomadic life-style was the norm, a visitor in the dessert was a rare occurrence. And the visitor was always in need of water and food to survive. So, helping each other generously was a prerequisite for everyone’s survival in this harsh desert neighborhood.
I was very glad to have Meedo around, and I really enjoyed his travel stories. He has seen the world during a time when tourism was an entirely different story than it is today. When things were more adventurous, may be less predictable, maybe even more dangerous? Either way, the past is always better than the present of course. Nevertheless, someone – maybe me? – should write his stories down. I have not often felt so entertained by someone’s experiences. And it makes me feel that my own travels almost pale in comparison.
This deep sense of hospitality is ingrained in many societies in the middle east, many say, and I concur. I observed with amazement and a deep feeling of thankfulness that I was welcomed like a family member by Meedo, Bandar, Mr. Tea, Johnny, and all the others. I really felt like part of a family within a few hours. Everything about the lifestyle, including sleeping in the same room in a randomly selected spot, that could change each night, felt comfortable. But make no mistake, I also felt that I had to tread lightly, that there were cultural misunderstandings lurking behind unconsciously spoken words, or unreflected behaviorisms.
It is funny, how traveling does both, it makes you more open, more accepting, more flexible, and certainly more tolerant. And it also shows you the limits of tolerance. Especially the kind of tolerance that is motivated by a lack of knowledge and/or experience. The tolerance that tolerates intolerance. To its own demise. Traveling informs you about this more clearly than lounging lazily on your soft silk sofa in your wealthy white western dwelling reading the newest know-it-all neoliberal newspaper narration.
I really felt oriental and Arabic being with my new friends in a way that I had not experienced up to this point in my trip. It feels like I will be back. And maybe my newly discovered – thanks to one of the DNA tests – northern African and middle-Easter nomadic heritage was stimulated by the experience. Maybe some ancient molecular memory was triggered and resuscitated. Or maybe it is just nice to be with friends in an environment as vast as your thoughts when sitting in the sand at night, gazing into the endless star-speckled black of the universe right above.