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Marshes and Mosquitoes
Jeddah 1964-67

We made it to Jeddah before the end of December 1964. The entire embassy staff was at the airport to welcome us, right by the airplane, as we came down the stairs onto the tarmac. They were just four families! A long cry from the dozens of families in the embassy in Paris.

Saudi Arabia was indeed a backwater desert land in those days. Oil had been discovered but had yet to be felt or seen in the country’s infrastructure. We did not even have a full official embassy or ambassador there, but a charge d’affaires only. The ambassador in Iran flew in from Tehran once a year to inspect the staff. Charge d’Affaires Chao was in fact the only diplomat sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not even a Muslim in this land ruled by Islamic law. The other three families were Muslim, but only local hires. This explained why my father had been selected to be posted in Jeddah, a formal diplomat and a Muslim.

The capital of Saudi Arabia is actually Riyadh, a city deep in the center of the country. But all embassies were located in Jeddah, a port city and gateway to Makkah (Mecca). They were mostly situated on one street which was nicknamed the embassy street.

We slept in our embassy the first few nights: a two-story whitewashed villa with wraparound veranda. Downstairs were the offices, and upstairs, Mr and Mrs Chao’s living quarters. Our flight had landed in the middle of the night, so the next morning, when I awoke, and walked out onto the veranda to an impossibly blue sky and warm sunshine, I felt we had arrived in heaven. Even Beirut and Jerusalem were cold.

I wandered downstairs onto the paved front driveway and met a little Chinese girl my age. She said her name was Shadia, and did I want to jump rope with her? I did. We jumped rope and then played hopscotch. I only remember that whenever my stone landed on the line, she would call it a foul. But if her stone landed on the line, she said it was in the square. I felt upset and walked back upstairs. “Where are you going? Where are you going?” she called after me. Little did I know we were to become best friends.

We soon moved into our own one-story villa on the outskirts of the city, a property owned by Mr. Amawi. It seemed that this was a wealthy man and it was oh so posh to live in his property. Jeddah in those days had many marshes in and around the city, which bred mosquitoes like crazy. So Mama soon purchased and hung mosquito nets over our beds. That was such a new and fun thing for us, to have our own little private castles on our beds! These nets were rectangular box-like affairs, white and pretty, with the sides draped all the way over the edge of the bed. At night, once we rolled them down, we had to chase and clap/kill any stray mosquito inside it before going to sleep.

It was in Mr. Amawi’s house that Papa also instituted the nightly tradition of having us write our diary entries before going to sleep. In French, of course.

Posted in Jeddah 1964-67

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The Battle Of Jeddah
31 March 1915
The madness of the desert arises out of necessary adaptations, not just the challenges of the environment. Take the camel, which walks more slowly than a man. Caravans move at an agonizingly slow pace because the animals must be tied together with ropes to prevent loss. Prone to spitting, complaining, and stinking, dromedaries are one of the most frustrating modes of transportation imaginable. So it makes sense that, whenever possible, Kapitainlieutnant Helmuth Karl von Mücke and his men have preferred not to travel overland during their long journey home from the far side of the Indian Ocean. In spite of British and French patrols in the Red Sea, they managed to sail almost half the length of the Arabian peninsula before one of their native boats struck a reef and sank two weeks ago.

click link below to read the full story
the main port city of Jeddah

Until a half-century ago, the port city of Jeddah was surrounded by walls — and its gates were shut every night at sundown

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only the gates exist but I have been told they are just a replica.

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رسمة نادرة لواجهة مدينة جدة تم نشرها في جريدة لللوستراتيون الفرنسية عام 1858
الرسام " دوراند برجر" في البحرية الفرنسية

Extremely rare sketch of Jeddah skyline created by the French marine painter Durand Brager
It was published on L'Illustration, Journal Universel, Paris in 1858.


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رسم بياني قدبم لسواحل مدينة جدة ترجع أول نسخة منها الى 1876 ثم تمت عليها بعض التغيرات البسيطة عام 1964 النسخة الأصلية رسمت بدقة متناهية بواسطة الهيدروغرافي الادميرال وليام جيمس لويد وارتون (1843–1905) والذي كان يعمل لصالح القوات البحرية البريطانية

An old harbor map of Jeddah back to 1876 drawn by Admiral William Wharton (Royal Navy officer)


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Under Arabian Skies, Part 1

Anyone of a certain age remembers the time when instant communication didn’t exist. There were no cell phones, Internet, e-mail, FaceTime or Skype; and, unless you were rich or wished to take out a second mortgage, long-distance and overseas calls were few and far between – the per-minute charges were prohibitively expensive. What’s now affectionately known as “snail mail” was pretty much it for long-distance communication. Moving across the country or around the world meant cutting yourself off from family and friends, save for letters.

It was in just such a time that my family embarked on a great adventure shared by some, but not many, hearty souls: we relocated from the U.S. to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In today’s world, of course, Saudi is a known entity. But in 1970? Think Lawrence of Arabia. It was little more than a destination on the map.

A year earlier my father arrived home from a 15-month stint in Vietnam with a yearning to see more of the world, and set out to find a job that would enable us to do just that. The search, however, produced leads that were never quite right. One that seemed promising, with defense contractor Raytheon, was for a position in the same exotic locale where we eventually landed, but the posting was single-status only, and he didn’t want to be separated from my mother, brother and myself for another long stretch. He turned them down.

Months later, however, Raytheon called with a new offer that included bringing the brood – but, first, the family had to be interviewed. A personnel man arrived at our Northeast Philly home, showed us slides of what our life would be like in the Kingdom, and talked to my mother to make sure that she could handle the culture shock. I’d just turned 5, so my memories are somewhat hazy, but one slide that’s stuck with me through the years was of a circular pool. It looked like it would be fun to splash around in. I don’t remember if he specifically talked to us boys, but if he did I’m sure I showed him my teddy bear. Teddy was cool.

My memories of our 43-year-ago arrival are likewise vague. I’m told that as the plane circled Jeddah awaiting clearance to land, my dad looked out the window at the lights below and exclaimed, “They have electricity!” It was the first time, my mother says, that the notion that there might not be electricity occurred to her – at least, electricity for the masses. She knew, based on the slide show, that we would have it. The memories also jump past the plane’s bumpy landing and an interminable odyssey through customs, where the agent turned my teddy bear inside out (and missed the ammunition clip my mother unknowingly carried with her, everywhere she went, for the five years that we were abroad – it had slipped beneath the plastic bottom of her carry-on bag when said bag was used to store the ammo for a rifle my dad owned).

The memories pick up, however, with my dad’s new boss chauffeuring us on a late-night ride from the airport to the Raytheon compound, which sat beside the Red Sea and consisted of 100 or so cookie-cutter, single-story cement homes hidden behind a tall concrete wall. As it turned out, the lights seen from above were not widespread. Aside from the stars in the sky, the car’s headlights were often the only illumination – until we arrived at the compound, where a well-lit, military-style guardhouse accented the entrance and the Saudi guard refused us passage. Much of the back-and-forth, which was a mishmash of Arabic and English, sounded like gibberish to my tired ears, but the gist of it was this: no company I.D., no entrance; and my dad, due to our evening arrival, wasn’t slated to pick his up until the next day.

Logic, I assume, finally won, and we eventually made our way to our new home after what seemed like an hours-long standoff, though it may have only been 20 minutes.

As the days, weeks and months passed, my life wasn’t that dissimilar to what it might have been if we’d moved to the American Southwest: the days were hot and nights less so. I attended an American school (Parents Cooperative School, which was affiliated with the San Diego school system), played with American friends and stuck to the shallow end of the compound’s Olympic-sized pool. (It turned out that the circular pool I’d so looked forward to wasn’t at our compound, but another.)

In the aftermath of 9/11, it’s safe to say that broad strokes were often used when painting the portrait of the Middle East. And the current chaos in Egypt, civil war in Syria and anger across the region (much of it misdirected at the U.S. and Israel) makes it easy to do, still. Yet, like many other former expat children, I can only smile when I recall my days there – much as, I’d bet, most folks do when considering their own childhoods. To borrow a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”


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Under Arabian Skies, Part 2

Most days, by mid-afternoon, stepping outside of our air-conditioned villa on the Raytheon compound in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, felt like stepping into a furnace. Sweat seeped from the pores even before one did anything. The sand, cement homes and asphalt roads acted like a magnet for the rays of the sun, which blazed overhead in a near-cloudless sky, and even a gentle breeze wasn’t so gentle – the lilting wind lifted grains of hot sand from the ground and pelted your skin with them.

That’s my memory of what the weather was like during our initial days and weeks in Saudi, at any rate, but I was very young – all of 5 years of age – so I’m sure that what I recall is more impressionistic than not. That said, we arrived in August 1970; Wikipedia states that the average (daytime) high in Jeddah for that month is 99 degrees and the average (nighttime) low is 80.8, with the following months easing up a tad. But, back then, all I knew was one thing: It was hot.

For a view of what the compound looked like

As I inferred above, because of my age, a fair chunk of what I remember is a jumble. Some of what I recall is crystal clear, however, though many memories are missing three things: the day, month and year. That’s par for the course, I’ve read, for how the brain develops – time is an abstraction when one is young, and outside of birthdays and holidays, the days themselves matter less than the events contained therein.

And, yes, that’s a roundabout introduction to a specific incident. Whether it occurred in 1970 or ’71, I can’t say. I just remember heading to the beach with my brother Ken, who’s a few years older than me. Perhaps our mother shooed us outside – we got rather rambunctious on occasion – or maybe we were simply being adventurous. Whatever the reason, we set out on what wasn’t a particularly hot day – though that part may be wrong. The sun shone overhead.

If you read Part 1, you’ll remember that the compound was a walled community that sat on the Red Sea. (To borrow a line from The Wonder Years pilot, kids could wander the streets without fear of winding up on a milk carton.) Our home, House 14, was mere blocks from the beach, so it didn’t take long to get there. We strode with purpose across the coarse sand toward the jetty that jutted into the sea, or maybe our destination was simply the water’s edge to collect shells. Whichever, a dog barked, followed by another, and then another. In the distance, a cloud of sand kicked up and cleared, revealing a pack of barking dogs charging toward us.

“Run!” Ken shouted, and we took off, the distance between the two of us expanding while the gap between me and the dogs shrunk. He made it to one of the beachfront villas, and climbed its patio wall to safety. Me? I glanced over my shoulder; there was no chance I was going to make it. I faced the thundering horde, raised my hand above my head and prepared for the worst.

Within seconds, the lead dog slid to a stop at my feet, spraying my legs with sand – and raced away. The others chased after him, barking and yelping all the while.

Salukis, greyhounds, other assorted breeds and mutts, a mix of wild and castoff canines – that was the makeup of the pack. Some were likely raised to race by well-off Saudis, then tossed aside, others may have been left behind by departing Raytheon personnel. And more than a few, like our future pet poodle Jacques would in a few years, simply left their people for a spell to be with their own. The call of the wild has pull.

In retrospect, I doubt those dogs meant us harm. (I can’t imagine that I scared them.) Maybe they were out for a run, saw two kids alone on the beach and decided to have some fun. Perhaps they only wanted to play tag.

At least, that’s what I’d like to think.

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On Assignment with Saudia
By Jon Proctor


When President Franklin Roosevelt gave a C-47 (DC-3) to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1945, TWA was selected to provide management assistance to the newly formed Saudi Arabian Airlines, later known as Saudia. Over the years, our airline helped to build it into a proud flag carrier, providing training and personnel, especially in the areas of maintenance and flight operations. Thousands of TWAers completed temporary duty assignments, mainly at the Jeddah base.

In 1975, Saudia began receiving its first widebody jets, Lockheed L-1011s. The airline requested help in training cabin crews that would include an In Flight Supervisor (IFS), to be modeled after our DCS position. To make this happen, six TWA DCSs were recruited for 6-month assignments that included training the initial Saudia crews at Breech Academy, visiting the Lockheed factory at Palmdale, California plus hands-on instruction at the Jeddah base and on-board L-1011 flights.

The group, informally called "the Saudia Six," included:

Tom Fitzgerald
Bob Henderson
Dale Kreimer
Bruce Megenhardt
Frank Messina
Tim Taylor

Tasked with sitting up on-board service procedures, safety qualifications and other facets of the job, these men completed their assignments in December 1975.

Pictured with Saudia employees and Breech instructors

But Saudia's rapid growth brought additional Tri-Stars into the fleet, which would eventually total 18 airplanes, and it became obvious that additional management assistance was needed to keep up with expanded widebody service. As a result, the call went out for more TWAers to assist, and over the next few years more temporary assignments were taken up by members of our group

Check-in at Saudia's London-Heathrow ticket counter; carry-on luggage was even more challenging.

Saudia's Jeddah headquarters building

In-cabin pet regulations were a bit different on Saudia.

Falcon hunting brought passengers to Saudia, complete with falcons!
Bob Henderson seems intrigued with a passenger and his bird

Larry Smith enjoys the moment.

As Saudia continued expanding, two Boeing 747s were leased from Middle East Airlines (MEA) from June 1977, to be staffed with MEA pilots and a basic MEA cabin crew, plus a Jeddah-based Saudi purser and two Saudia hostesses from the newly opened London base.

"Golf-Hotel" (OD-AGH), is readied for departure at Riyadh. Jetways were yet to come at Kingdom airports.

At TWA, an opening was posted for twelve 18-month IFS assignments at LHR.

The 747s were flown over just a few routes: London-Riyadh, Riyadh-Cairo-Jeddah and a once-weekly Riyadh-Beirut roundtrip. Karachi was added later. Patterns were typically five and eight days duration, In addition, charters were carried out to transport school teachers between the Kingdom and Egypt. During the winter months, London-Riyadh flights stopped at either Geneva or Rome. Annual Hajj charters were not assigned to the jumbos although pilgrim groups were carried on some of the 747 flights.

Golf-Hotel is towed to the gate at Beirut for its return flight to Riyadh.

Saudia eventually completed its program to train Saudi nationals as In Flight Sueprvisors and the TWA DCS assignments came to an end. All who participated agreed that the experience was unique, and most definitely a character builder!

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A building flanking the central plaza of the Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter
Courtesy Aramco World

View of Jiddah, formerly Saudi Arabia's diplomatic capital
Courtesy Saudi Arabian Information Office

Headquarters of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh
Courtesy Aramco World

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Jeddah, Or Djeddah Jiddah
chest of books
Jeddah, Or Djeddah Jiddah, a town of Hedjaz in Arabia, on the Red sea, 65 m. W. of Mecca; lat. 21° 28' N, Ion. 39° 13' E.; pop. about 18,000. It is built on the edge of the sea, in a sterile desert, about 10 m. back of which is a range of low hills, devoid of trees or vegetation. It is surrounded by walls, with fortified towers at intervals, and a ditch, and has nine gates, six facing the sea. The sea is gradually-receding from the town, owing to the constant growth of the coral reefs. The harbor, which is the best on the Red sea, has a depth of from 3 to 17 fathoms; it is difficult of entrance, being shut in by ranges of reefs. The streets are straight and regular, and cleaner than those of most eastern towns, and the houses of the better class are built of stone or madrepore; but the suburbs are extremely filthy, and the dwellings little more than hovels. The principal buildings are the governor's residence, the custom house, several mosques of little architectural pretension, some large and handsome khans, and the British and French consulates.

A rude stone structure outside the walls is venerated as the tomb of Eve. The climate is very trying to Europeans, the thermometer ranging from 76° to 107° F., and sometimes rising to 132° during the simoom. Intermittent fevers are prevalent, and they generally attack Europeans on arrival. During the months of pilgrimage the population is increased to 40,000, and sometimes to 60,000, about 120,000 pilgrims for Mecca and Medina passing through it annually. Of the ordinary population, about 1,000 are British-Indian subjects, a number of whom are wealthy merchants. There are also many Egyptians and a few Greeks, and several English and French merchants. The industry of the natives consists of fishing, diving for black coral, which is found for only a short distance along the coast, the manufacturing it into beads and mouth-pieces for pipes and cigars, and the dyeing of English cotton cloths. The trade of Jiddah, which is very large, is carried on chiefly by square-rigged British vessels, the vessels of the Mejidie steam company, and native coasting vessels averaging about 80 tons burden. The exports are coffee, gum, spices, balm, incense, essences, senna, cassia, ivory, mother-of-pearl, pearls, tortoise shell, ostrich feathers, coral, dates, cutlery, hardware, and leather.

The imports are provisions, including grain, from Egypt; metals, glass, bottles for essences, cutlery, soaps, cloths, silks, and cottons, from Europe; rice, sugar, timber, nankeens, muslin for turbans, and girdles, from India; elephants' teeth, ostrich feathers, musk, mules, and slaves, from Africa. A brisk trade is still carried on in slaves, the most of whom are Abyssinians; they are landed at night along the shore, and carried into the city in the morning with the connivance of the Turkish authorities, with whom the firman of the sultan for the suppression of the traffic is a dead letter. Jiddah was bombarded in 1858 by the British in retaliation for the massacre of the British consul and a number of Christians.

The American Cyclopaedia Vol6 | by George Ripley And Charles A. Dana
published 1873 by D. Appleton And Company

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Chapter 7 - Part 1. Getting to Know Jeddah

Although Riyadh was the official capital of the country and the seat of the government, Jeddah had gained its importance over many centuries because it was the gateway to Makkah, one of the three major holy cities of Islam. It was also the commercial capital, and for many years was host to the international Embassies. The city was stripped of much of its status when these were subsequently relocated to a purpose-built diplomatic quarter in Riyadh in 1986. Money poured into developing a sophisticated capital, and Jeddah, left with the less prestigious consulates and trade missions, lost its financing, drive and town planning of previous years. It was left to develop in a rather haphazard fashion, compromising its reputation as a beautiful city of art.

One of the striking things about it was that despite being a relatively new city, it had very few high-rise structures. It spread away from the nucleus of the Old Town, with new houses and buildings that were rarely more than a few storeys high. Unlike our Kenya coast, with its high annual rainfall, palm fringed beaches and lush vegetation, the shores of the Saudi Red Sea are arid sand. On a stretch of beach well north of the city was a spot ironically named 'Twenty Nine Palms' after the oasis town in California. When we finally drove out there, we found a cluster of sadly, drooping palm trees dying from neglect. Nonetheless, there was an on-going beautification programme of the City with concerted efforts to grow numerous shrubs and trees, including an abundance of pink-flowered orleander, and fuchsia coloured bourganvillea.

Where there were no buildings or plants, the environment looked liked ‘the day after’ – desolate empty lots with spilt rubble and garbage, discarded crashed and rusting cars, old tyres and other junk. Some parts of Jeddah looked like abandoned construction sites. A landmark that remained for years was the extensive ruin of a cement factory on the corner of Madinah Road and Heraa Street. This was apparently due to a family ownership dispute. Eventually, it was resolved, the old factory dismantled and the sprawling Heraa Shopping Mall was built on the land.

In the late 1970s, there had been a building boom, reportedly the most expensive in history. Jeddah’s port was still under construction and hundreds of ships bringing building materials had to anchor out at sea. My husband was flying for Kenya Airways from 1978 to 1984 and, until 1981, used to fly into the Old Jeddah Airport. He said that when they flew over the city at night, the area covered by the brightly lit ships looked like an even larger town floating out on the water. With inadequate facilities to handle the cargo, it had to be brought ashore on helicopters.

By 1984, those seventies boom days were over and suddenly everything had slowed down. It seemed that the city was left with buildings that nobody wanted. There were whole shopping centres with none of the shops occupied, like ghosts of what might have been. The concrete framework of an unfinished building, rather like that of a flying saucer, sat on the edge of Andalus Street. It was there when we arrived in 1984, and was still there when we left thirty-one years later. There were numerous apartment blocks that remained empty for one reason or another. It was rumoured that a cluster of formidable looking high-rise blocks couldn’t be used because the architects hadn’t thought to install separate lifts for the women. Other stories circulated that the poorer Saudis weren’t accustomed to living in high-rise buildings where they couldn’t keep their livestock, and therefore refused live in them.

What really impressed us about Jeddah was the roads: in 1984, the City only had a population of around 800,000, but with a view to the future, the town planners had created several major three- to five-lane dual carriageways running north to south through the town. Madinah Road was the central artery, and was the busiest, but Malek (King’s) Road running west of our compound was a magnificent highway with barely any traffic at all. Apart from the major thoroughfares, none of the roads had names and there weren’t any street maps available.

JE2 4023 BicycleMonument Jeddah However, there were impressive sculptural landmarks on all the roundabouts and most junctions, many of them the work of renowned international artists. Saudi sculptors were also involved in this extensive art project for the city. Some of the artists had used enormous pieces of rusted metal whose original purpose was now redundant. There was a massive bicycle on a roundabout at the head of Sari Street; the wheels at one time had been part of the Bin Laden marble-grinding factory. On another roundabout on Prince Majed Street was an old DC3 aircraft, elevated onto a pedestal of concrete clouds. It had originally been given to King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and had been the very first aircraft of Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Del Sal Monument Frost540 In the vicinity of the main desalination plant there was a series of huge random-looking metal pieces, stacked creatively together by sculptor Julio Lafuente. They were the remains of the original condenser units, which used British Lancashire boilers to provide the city with fresh water, the precursors to the massive modern desalination plant. Lafuente also created another favourite monument for Jeddah residents, the series of four enormous Mameluke lanterns, made with steel and stained glass, each suspended with chains from a tripod of metal pillars. The urns look grey and dusty in the daytime, but at night, as they swayed gently in the breeze, they took on a majestic beauty when the lights inside them illuminated all the coloured glass. DSC 1694 LafuenteMosqueLanterns

Fountains were plentiful and water gushed from giant traditional artefacts such as brass coffee pots and marble urns. The pride of them all is the King’s Fountain in the Al Hamra district, a gift to the City from King Fahd. The base is a giant incense burner, and water explodes out of it like a stream of smoke to a height of 312 metres.

Despite new road names and city maps, people still use these impressive features to give each other directions around the city. ”Fist with Hisham Bemjawi Frost765

Every evening, as the sun sank over horizon of the Red Sea, the City was completely transformed. The lights and fountains sprang to life and the coca cola cans, litter and plastic bottles visible by day disappeared into the shadows. The Saudis are night people and, as the heat retreated with the sun, they came out of their homes to walk, play, picnic, talk, pray, sit and think, smoke their ‘houkahs’1, fly kites and even watch their portable TVs, plugged into their car batteries. They arrived with their rugs and cushions and made use of all sorts of spaces, whether on the roundabouts, on the roadside, on any spare patch of grass they could find, under trees along the airport road, and especially on the long stretch of the Corniche Road.

Constructed on reclaimed land, it runs north-south of Jeddah on the shores of the Red Sea for a total of about 110 kilometres. The southern section is still relatively undeveloped, but all along the northern section, there are once again numerous sculptures as well as a complete open-air museum, including the hefty characteristic bronze works by artists such as Henry Moore and Miro.
DSC 1347 Henri Moore AlHamra OpenAirMuseum
Most Jeddawis loved these sculptures because not only are they fine works of art to be looked at, but they are also there for children to explore and climb on, turning the Corniche into an extensive adventure playground. During our early years in Jeddah, we were always surprised at how few western expatriates bothered to explore it – we loved getting out of the confines of our compound to get a blast of fresh sea air and to join the Saudis and other cultures enjoying themselves. 1986 Young Saudis on Corniche with our son Dusko. During the last couple of years that we were in Jeddah, a comprehensive restoration of Corniche began, creating much needed improvements along the promenade with new playground areas, restrooms and numerous cafés.

A conspicuous factor about Saudi cities in general is that there is no public entertainment: no sports centres, cinemas, theatres, bars or night-clubs. Everyone creates their own fun, and family life is central to that. The only concession to a public facility at that time was a fairground on the beach, close to the golden-roofed Hassan Enany Mosque. One evening, when Richard was away flying, an ex-Kenya friend, Leigh Allison, invited me and the children to join him and his two sons to go there. It sounded like a great idea, and a little while later we were all trooping into the fairground, the children very excited at the sight of the coloured lights, roundabouts and ferris wheel. After buying our tickets, we made our way to a ride and settled into some flying saucer seats and waited for it to start up.

The Pakistani attendant approached us shaking his head:

“No lady! No lady allowed. You get off,” he said to me.

“What? Don’t be ridiculous, what do you mean ‘no lady’?” I asked indignantly.

“No lady,” he insisted.

Apart from the driving issue, it was my first run-in with the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. Furious and upset that my evening had been spoiled like this, I reluctantly got off the ride. But all was not lost.

“You come here. You drive car,” the attendant said, “Come now.”

Leaving Leigh with the children, I followed the attendant over to a large tent. Inside it was a dodgem car arena. Although not allowed to drive cars, women were ironically the only ones allowed behind the wheel of the dodgems and, fully veiled, were zooming around bashing into each other. So I contented myself with joining in with the ladies while Leigh whizzed around with the children on the flying saucers. Ladies were also allowed to join their menfolk in the ferris wheel cages.Fairground Ferris Wheel, Jeddah

Not long after this, we went back for another evening of fun at the fairground. This time, a Saudi couple, not knowing the ‘no lady’ rule, had installed themselves in one of the flying saucers. When the attendant instructed the young woman to get off the ride, her husband very firmly said: “La. No. We are staying. You start the machine.” Instructions like this from a Saudi carried more weight than they did from an expatriate and the attendant complied. From that day onwards, ladies were allowed on all the rides – but men still weren’t allowed on the dodgems.

Chapter 7, Part 2: Shopping and Eating Out

Family sections were frequently at the back of a building, sometimes with no windows and, in smaller towns like Taif, mixed groups would be ushered into gloomy private cubicles where the women could remove their face veils.

Years later, with the advent of modern shopping malls with their extensive open food halls, these boundaries in Jeddah became blurred and it was more difficult to impose the separation – and it seemed that the people didn’t mind. After all, they mixed freely when wandering round the shopping malls, the supermarkets, hospitals and airports, so what was so different about being in the same restaurant?Open Food Halls where boundaries became blurred By the time we left Jeddah, there were excellent restaurants and chains of cafés all over town creating a thriving café society. As more and more families and women began to use these facilities, family sections became larger and better appointed, and at weekends would sometimes spill over into the singles area.

The only meal that we usually enjoyed eating out was Friday Brunch when the major hotels provided a gourmet buffet where you could eat as much as you wanted for a fixed price. Among our favourites was the Red Sea Palace Hotel. It was one of the older establishments, situated on the edge of the Old Town, overlooking a lagoon. Very close to it was the attractive, multi-domed Juffali Mosque. 57 Juffali Mosque It had a large car park with a raised granite rectangle in the centre. This was where the regular beheadings took place after the mid-day prayers on Fridays. Occasionally, we would arrive at the hotel to find huge crowds had already amassed around the car park to witness this medieval event. It was unsettling to think that while we were surrounded by luxury and enjoying good food, prisoners were being decapitated.

56 ladies underwear mannikins Women – Saudi and expatriate – were not allowed to work in the public domain, so cosmetic shops and women’s clothing stores, including those selling lingerie, were staffed by expatriate men, usually from Egypt, Syria, Pakistan or India. We always wondered how, in a country advocating strict gender segregation, the Saudis could advocate that a Saudi woman buy her most personal clothing items from a male shop assistant. However, anonymous behind their face veils and their bodies draped in shapeless black abayas, they didn’t seem to mind and, according to a Syrian friend of mine who had been married to a Saudi, the Saudi women didn’t consider these expatriate men as ‘men’. They belonged to a subservient category that didn’t pose a moral threat or compromise their honour. I was always amused that despite the strict modesty codes for women in public, it was still perfectly acceptable to have brazen lingerie window displays on headless manikins (complying with certain religious connotations with idolatry in Islam) in shopping malls.

61 Families only LingerieBy 2015, the laws had changed and all the lingerie shops had to be staffed by women. An irony was that in the past, because of the male staff, men had been allowed into these stores unaccompanied by women and apparently spent a lot of money on lingerie for their mistresses and girlfriends. Once they were staffed by women, the goal posts changed completely: only ‘families’ were allowed in. There were no changing rooms to try clothes on in any of these shops, so one had to buy the items, take them home and try them, and then return them for exchange or refund if they didn’t fit. The shopkeepers were very reluctant to give refunds, so you had to clarify their policy before paying.

Many years later, around 2010, I found one day that my mascaras had run dry. It was sometime before I was due to go to the UK, where I normally bought my make-up in Boots so there was only one thing for it: I had to go to one of the cosmetic shops in Jeddah. Gazzaz is one of the best-known department stores in the Kingdom with a good make-up and perfume section, so I took a limousine to the nearest one on Tahlia Street. As I entered the large cosmetics section, a young Syrian, smartly dressed, immediately approached me. “Good morning, madam, may I help you?”

“Yes,” I responded, “I am looking for some mascara.”

“Come with me,” he said immediately, “I have just what you want.”

The various stands represented more up-market varieties than the Boots ones that I was used to: these were expensive designer products. The Syrian was up-beat and confident in his approach and quickly had a variety of mascaras on the counter for me to try. He showed me the different brushes in the various tubes and explained their benefits, as well as eye-liner pencils with useful pencil sharpeners at the other end, and other special offer sample products. He invited me to try them out, complimenting me on my appearance in a slightly flirtatious and amusing way, yet with impeccable manners, and altogether was an excellent salesman. I eventually left the shop with my new designer mascara and a bag full of useful free goodies, and an inflated ego which set me up for the next few days. My opinion of male assistants in a cosmetic department had soared – I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the charms of the Syrians and Egyptians working there.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only woman to be so beguiled by them. On another occasion, Richard took me to the new Debenhams store on Tahlia Street in hopes that they might have a haberdashery department. The cosmetics section was on the ground floor at the entrance. As we went in, we were fascinated by the sight of a pretty young Arab woman, dressed elegantly in her abaya1 and tarha2 , sitting in a chair beside one of the stands. Her head was tilted back and her mouth slightly open while the young male assistant leaned over her, applying red lipstick to her full lips. It was a strangely erotic scene in full view of everyone in the shop and we couldn’t believe our eyes that this was permitted. We were unsuccessful in finding our haberdashery, but had witnessed a scene unlike any other we had seen before in Jeddah.

There were very few shopping malls in the city in 1984 and the only two that we ever went to were the International Shopping Mall, commonly known as ‘Sarawat’ because of the large supermarket by that name, and Printemps on Palestine Street. The supermarkets were well stocked, including excellent fresh fruit and vegetables, local and imported, and provided for the various major expatriate groups: Sarawat had special sections that catered for the Asians and Far Eastern expatriates; Safestways for the Americans; Caravan for the British, and Happy Families for the French. You soon learnt which ones stocked the things you liked – especially in their bakeries where they baked their own fresh bread – but stocks were never consistent. One week they might have Lea & Perrins sauce, Mango Chutney and Marmite, the next they were out of stock. At Christmas time, it was sometimes possible to find Mincemeat, but always difficult to know whether it would be found in amongst the jams or pickles. If you asked any of the shop assistants “Do you have any Mincemeat?” they would inevitably reply: “Yes, madam, in the meat section, over there.”

Jeddah merchandise was generally clustered in Souqs and it took us a while to realize this. If you wanted anything to do with electrics, you went to the electrical souq; in the Old Town, there was a vast fabric souq; another area had a plastic souq; but until you knew your way around, it was almost impossible to find something as simple as a needle and thread, buttons or a lampshade. It took years to track down these different places. Our quest to find a tent to go camping was never realized and we ended up buying an unwieldy monster of a frame tent from some departing expatriates.

In the Khalidiya District, there was a parade of shops just outside our compound, at first known as the Mini Market and later as the Filipino Souq because of all the Filipinos working there. It was popular among the western expatriates because of the cheap cotton clothing, sports shoe shops, and several small stores selling music cassettes. The music shops were another random area where women faced discrimination and there were signs on their doors that read: ‘No Dogs of Ladies Allowed’. Someone must have pointed out that this was rather insulting because it was changed to read more politely: ‘Women are kindly requested not to Enter’. Women Requested Not to Enter I used to ignore these signs and go in anyway, but it would upset the Filipino shop assistants who would plead with me to leave: “If the Matawa see you, we will lose our jobs”, they would say. The Matawa were the religious police who cruised the cities in their massive GMC trucks, on the look out for behavior that, in their opinion, broke their rules of ‘vice and virtue’. They could be extremely obnoxious in how they dealt with offenders. A few years later, an excellent music shop called ‘MusicMaster’ was opened in the City Centre building on Madinah Road by a Saudi who was nicknamed ‘The Virgin of the Middle East’. This became the only music store that allowed women to browse their selections without any problems.

A major factor that we had to adjust to was all shops, restaurants, cafes and banks closing during the scheduled Muslim Prayers. 55 Closed for PrayerIn Islam, there are five summons to prayer every day and commerce is affected by four of them. The words ‘Allahu Akbar!’ (‘God is Great!’) resound from the loudspeakers on the hundreds of minarets around the city, always slightly out of kilter, each call creating an echo of the previous one. People down tools, there is a clatter of security gates closing, people are herded into the streets and many head for the nearest mosque. There are frequently Matawas patrolling to ensure that these rules are adhered to. In the supermarkets and restaurants, customers could stay inside during prayer times, but there was no service.

We discovered that there was a lot more to going shopping, especially in supermarkets, than met the eye. For some of the young Saudis, being locked inside during prayer time provided a golden opportunity for flirtation. Although the women were often fully veiled, it was easy enough to identify the young ones: their hands, the style of the shoes, how slim she might be (so many older Saudi women put on a lot of weight), and her bearing. Many young Saudi women have excellent posture and a natural elegance, and move very gracefully in their long black abayas. Young men would scout the aisles for them, and follow them, hoping that a piece of paper with the girl’s phone number would be dropped into their shopping trolley as they passed by. When my husband was on occasional layovers in Riyadh, his fellow pilots would sometimes ask him to join them on shopping excursions: “Come on, Captain! You are missing all the fun!” they would say enthusiastically.

1. Abaya: the black cloak worn by Saudi women.
2. tarha: headscarf worn by Muslim women, in Saudia Arabia usually matching the abaya.

Chap. 7: Getting to Know Jeddah Part 3

We returned the next day with the money and the attendant was astonished. It seemed that it was a common ruse to say that you had no money, and then the customer would just drive off, never to return to pay his debt. This easy going ‘buy now, pay later’ attitude was common in other establishments in Jeddah. Carpet dealers would happily let customers take home quite valuable rugs to try in their homes without leaving a deposit, and often without leaving their name or phone number. We had one carpet in the house from the Afghan carpet souq for six months before we suddenly remembered that we hadn’t returned to pay for it. When we arrived back in the shop with the money, we got a warm welcome and the man said: ‘I know you come back. You want chai? Bepsi5? More carbet5?’

Unlike most cities in the world, which have well-developed public transport networks, Jeddah was almost devoid of any. Saudis generally had their own cars, and didn’t appear to care about those who couldn’t afford them. Motorbikes didn’t exist as a mode of transport and only became popular as recreational toys in the late 90s when Japanese speed bikes and Harley-Davidsons were introduced into the Kingdom. During the late 80s, the police stopped the few Pakistanis who rode bicycles and confiscated them on the spot. For several days, we saw them senselessly thrown in untidy heaps on the side of the road. The authorities considered them to be ‘the Devil’s donkeys’ because they couldn’t understand how, when a bike was stationary and unsupported, it fell over, and yet when someone got onto it and pedalled, it didn’t fall over! Virtually all expatriate un-skilled labourers lived in company compounds and were transported to and from work in dedicated buses. With the women and working classes under strict control, the need for a city bus or train service was radically reduced.

However, there were a few mini-buses, for men only, that went along Madina Road. There was also a large Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) bus that went from just outside Saudia City from what was King Abdullah Street (later to become Rawdah Street) and this went via Madinah Road to the Old Town, half an hour away. Ladies section Jeddah bus A small section, with two or three rows of seats at the back of the bus with its own door, was designated ‘Ladies Only’. It was separated by a metal partition, or in some cases by a token piece of string, and was right over the very noisy and hot engine, and with no air-conditioning. No matter how far you were going, a ticket cost SR1, the equivalent of about 18p sterling. I used to enjoy using this bus to go down to the Old Town, partly because it gave me a sense of freedom, and partly because I felt that I was engaging with the city in a way that you don’t when getting around in your own vehicle. The windows were usually jammed open, allowing air to blast through the bus when it got going. There was no bell for the ladies to let the driver know where they wanted to get off so they would shout, and use their rings to rap loudly on the metal door poles.Ladies Section roped off Jeddah Bus

On one occasion, when this rear section was full of young women and school girls, it pulled up at one of the Old Town bus stops. An elderly man, dress in a thobe, was by our door when it hissed open. It was soon obvious that he wasn’t a Saudi, because he was quite happy to step up into the ladies section. Before we knew it, the driver had closed the doors and set off. The poor man unexpectedly found himself surrounded in a very small space by over-excited women, all shouting in shrill voices and banging on the metal poles with their hand and wrist jewellery. The bus driver stopped, and amid shrieks of laughter, the old boy, who had had no idea what he had done wrong, got off and went along to the men’s section. It was probably the most fun the women had had for a long time.

There were two types of taxis: the yellow ones, driven by Saudi Bedouin6 drivers, and not recommended for westerners, and the slightly more up-market white taxis, driven by expatriate Asians. Occasionally these white vehicles were in good condition, but many were beat-up old Japanese cars with broken shock absorbers and no air-conditioning. Here was another anomaly in the Saudi gender segregation laws: a woman wasn’t allowed to be in a car with a man who wasn’t a member of the immediate family. She could get into trouble – even if she was an expatriate – for being in a car with a man who was a family friend, not a relative. However, no such rules applied to her being in a taxi, driven by a strange man. Although I never heard of any unpleasant incidents occurring with foreign women in taxis, the driving was sometimes appalling. This rule, therefore, did beg the question as to with which driver she would have been safer: the family friend, or a completely unknown foreign limousine driver with dubious driving skills. The same applied to the Saudi families with their immigrant private drivers: a Saudi woman could be alone in a car with him, but this would not have been the case if he was a Saudi driver. They, and their children, also had to suffer being driven by men who drove badly, if not dangerously.

If you were new in the city and had to take a taxi, things could be difficult because house numbers and street names didn’t exist. You had to know where you were going and direct the driver. The chances were that he was a new arrival himself, another stranger in the city, probably from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, speaking very limited English or Arabic. Western expatriate women soon learned basic Arabic road instructions: ‘Shumal’7, ‘Yameen’8, ‘al atul’89, ‘henna’10 (usually repeated several times to indicated arrival). Women frequently shouted at drivers in the age-old belief that if you shout at someone who doesn’t understand your language, they will then understand it.

For the first few years in Jeddah, I felt very frustrated at not being allowed to drive. There were so many places that I wanted to explore, but once Richard was away on a flight, I was more or less confined to the compound. I depended entirely on friends whose husbands were at home to get lifts to the beach or to outside supermarkets. When he returned home, all he wanted to do at first was stay at home and relax; conversely, I was feeling horribly caged in. My head used to throb with the frustration of it all and I desperately needed to be taken out somewhere. It took time to work out how to deal with these conflicting needs, and all pilots’ wives were in the same boat.

Shortly after our arrival when Richard was away on one of his flights, I was faced with another serious draw-back to not being allowed to drive. Our son, Dusko, only just three, developed a very high fever. I had no idea what was causing it, so monitored it for a while and gave him some Calpol, but there was no improvement. We had a small medical clinic on the compound but it was closed and I had no way of getting him to the main Saudia clinic, miles away on the other side of town - and there was no such thing as dialling 999 as you would in the UK. I called my neighbour to see if her husband was around, but he too was away on a flight. Between us, we rang about fourteen other households. The only man who was home had a broken down car being fixed at a garage. I called the Saudia medical section who were very reluctant to help, but were eventually persuaded that I needed some form of transport to get my sick child to see a doctor. They sent an ambulance and it arrived outside our flat with lights flashing and siren blaring. Within a few minutes, we were on board and dashing through town, still with all the emergency lights and siren going. Dusko was so thrilled at this unexpected adventure that by the time the doctor saw him, his temperature had settled down to normal. It was nonetheless a warning to get a better system in place, just in case we had a more serious emergency.

For some expatriate women, not being allowed to drive had its advantages. They came from lives where they had been tied to their cars on school runs and driving children to extra-curricular activities. Because husbands weren’t in a position to do this, expatriate compounds organized school buses. The women were then free to either find jobs – which in those days was relatively easy – start their own small businesses, or pursue interests that they previously hadn’t had time for. Other women enjoyed being released from the obligation to work to supplement the family income as their husband’s tax-free expatriate salaries were probably double what they had earned at home.

Finding out what was going on in the community was all done by networking. There were several large active women’s groups, including the British Wives Group, known as the British Knives in the British expatriate community until the name was changed to the British Women’s Group. Every month, the BWG produced a very useful little magazine called the Jeddah News. As far as I know, it was the only magazine of its kind in the western expatriate community and it was a great source of information from knowing where to find a doctor, to finding a job, to hearing about the latest play being put on by one of the local amateur dramatics societies.

Over the next thirty-one years, we were to see huge developments and changes, both physical and social, in our compound as well as in Jeddah and Saudi Arabia as a whole. As the airline became Saudi-ized, more and more skilled western expatriates left Saudia City. They were replaced by a large Filipino population and it seemed that the Saudi managers in charge of looking after the place decided that they no longer needed to keep up the standards. The maintenance of the housing and gardens deteriorated rapidly, which was very demoralizing for the long-term residents. Nonetheless, despite becoming very shabby, the compound still had something very valuable going for it: the central location in a very upmarket area. Jeddah developed enormously from being a medium sized town in 1984 with a population of 800,000 to a thriving city and, when we left in 2015, with a population of 5.1 million, with horrific traffic jams. I had been quite convinced that, with all this rapid progress, within ten years, women would be allowed to drive. How wrong I was!

3. Mafi felous: No money.
4. Mafi mushkila: no problem.
5. Bepsi & carbet: Arabs don’t have the letter ‘p’ in their language & usually pronounce it as a ‘b’.
6. Bedouin: nomadic desert Arab.
7. Shumal: left
8. Yameen: right
9. Al atul: straight on.
10. Henna: here.

6,553 Posts
Attributed to MILES EDMUND COTMAN (1810-1858)
19th century watercolour of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia


Although signed J.S.Cotman, our opinion is this watercolour is principally the work of John Sell Cotman's eldest son, Miles Edmund Cotman (1810-1858), after either a drawing taken on the spot by Captain Robert Moresby during his survey of the Red Sea or possibly Commander Robert Elliot R.N. (1790-1849) during his service in the Red Sea and India with the Bengal navy in the 1820s.

6,553 Posts
My Travels in Arabia Deserta 1974 and other Miscellany
A Trip to Madain Saleh in 1974. By car from Jeddah to Beirut via Petra in 1974 with an unscheduled stay in Haql on the return journey. Four go to Spain in a mini and other holidays in the 1960s.

Part 1 - Madain Saleh

The thought that perhaps I might be pregnant first came to me about 400 miles north of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in the middle of the desert, after what was, for me, another uncomfortable night of attempting to sleep in a Land Rover. It was early morning and other members of the party had scattered to all points of the compass, some carrying shovels, for their morning constitution. Although my periods were usually regular I thought perhaps this gruelling journey was to blame for its lateness and put any thoughts of babies to the back of my mind.

This five day camping trip had been particularly arduous and I have to admit to very little enthusiasm on my part, thankfully I have become much more culturally aware in my later years. The year was 1974 and looking back on it now it was a real adventure to set off into the desert to visit the ancient Nabatean ruins in Madein Saleh. One member of our group worked for the British Embassy and procured a British Embassy Land Rover for the trip. Then there was Charles Stuart, a member of the British aristocracy and a descendent of King Charles Stuart, at least that is what he told us. Charles was charming and extremely knowledgeable introducing us to the delights of Charles M Doughty’s ‘Travels in Arabia Deserta’ and T. E. Lawrence the first of whom I knew nothing, the second very little, although I had seen the film!

We were to trace the journey of Lawrence of Arabia, it sounded as though it should be full of romance and adventure so I went along for the ride but not expecting too much.

The first obstacle we encountered was the paper work, we needed permits to travel, permits to allow us to view the Nabatean remains, permits to dare to go within a mile of Medina, permits to breathe were waived on this occasion, although we could have breathed our last had we taken a wrong turn and ended up in Medina.

When we had acquired the necessary paperwork, paying the compulsory baksheesh along the way, we could get down to practicalities. Vehicles had to be mustered, we had the land rover, previously mentioned, other members of our party included the manager of the British Bank of the Middle East who spoke Arabic and his wife who was a nurse, which was reassuring and they had a Toyota four wheel drive and another Toyota was also hired to accommodate our party of twelve.

So, we were twelve people travelling in three vehicles. My husband and I were separated; I travelled in the British Embassy Land Rover with the diplomat, his wife and Charles Stuart. My husband was in the British Bank of the Middle East’s Toyota.

Provisions had all been arranged by the bank and embassy wives, we had adequate water supplies to get us to the first watering hole, some we carried in traditional canvas water cooling bags, or chuggles, suspended from the vehicles; it was a bit like drinking from an old sock.

We had chosen to travel during the Feast of Ramadan, the five day break following the fast. The previous week I had witnessed a public flogging in the Souk where several people were being beaten by the Matawah for breaking the fast.

We set off on the first day of the holiday heading for Medina 200 miles north of Jeddah, from here we had to take the Christian highway, so named because it bypassed Medina (no Christians allowed).

The journey to Medina was uneventful, just the occasional dead camel, beset by vultures, at the side of the road. The traffic was the usual mix of cars driving down the middle of the road some with children crouching in the boot, small pickups with the men cosy inside and the women and the goats in the back. The funniest cargo I ever saw in one of these pickups was a huge wedding cake, open to the elements, swaying precariously.

In Jeddah locals rode their bikes with no consideration of safety, they could be seen wobbling along whilst gazing around them often resulting in a fall. Donkeys tottered along on their spindly whip scarred legs, children begged, mainly for the fun of it and the religious police were to be feared as they were known to beat the legs and arms of women who had failed to comply with the dress code, tarring them in some instances. Men did not escape the Matawah they could be dragged unceremoniously into a barber’s shop for an enforced haircut if theirs was deemed too long, my husband experienced this indignity but I digress back to this journey.

We reached the outskirts of Medina where there was a border control, papers were perused, passports checked by everyone around, we were studied curiously then dismissed with a vague wave as to which direction we should take. We discussed between ourselves which direction the wave had been towards we decided it had been towards the road in front of us and drove on. We hadn’t got far before we realised that all was not well, I don’t know if the wave had been deliberately misleading, perhaps they were in need of some excitement or target practice but we were being chased and when we stopped we were vociferously reprimanded by a bunch of gun toting guards.

Our experience led to the following being added to the guidelines issued by the British Embassy for future travellers:

‘On leaving the police post, cross the central carriageway to the left and take the loop road which is on the left and bears to the right onto the Christian bypass’.

Continuing north towards Al Ula we eventually ran out of good road and we were on the well worn track as described in our brief from former travellers. It was at this point I found my contact with the seat becoming increasingly less and so it went on until our return to the main road four days later.

As soon as the sun began to set we had to find a place to camp, it was a very rough terrain, not picture book desert with dunes and soft sand and there were trees and shrubs which came in handy when nature called. It was this first night when I realised the delights of camping in the desert. During the day we had not seen hardly any wildlife apart from camels but at night the ground became alive with dung beetles. During hours of darkness all I could think of was avoiding contact with these creepy crawlies, on the ground were the beetles and around the lanterns were hundreds of kamikaze flying insects, including hard shelled flying beetles and moths the size of kites.

It wasn’t long before everyone started preparing for sleep, camp beds were erected and I was told how lovely it would be to sleep under the stars, something I would love to do now, oh for those dark dark skies! However, all I could think of were the bugs and when everyone was nicely tucked up I crept into the Land Rover, I wasn’t going to risk having a scorpion as my bed mate.

When day dawned I was happy, I’m definitely a day person and always will be. I remember the nights in Jeddah very vividly, when my husband was working late, which was most nights, it was dark by six or seven in the evening. One particular evening it had been raining and the house was invaded by flying ants about an inch long and they were coming in under doors and crevices where air conditioning units didn’t fit properly. I attacked these things with anything that came to hand until the rooms were littered with gossamer wings, which fell from the creatures on impact. On another occasion I saw something bobbing around the room close to the wall but the movement wasn’t like the more familiar movement of a cockroach or gecko. It wasn’t until I had noticed mice running around my vegetable patch that I realised they must have got into the house.

The dog caught the mouse and my husband took it from him, a tiny little thing, holding it by its tail he proceeded to wash it under the tap, at least that is what it looked like, he thought he was drowning it! When this didn’t work, I can’t think why, he took it outside and let it go. On another occasion I opened the back door to check on the chickens and came face to face with a rat, I hadn’t realised until then that they could climb walls.

When I first went out to Saudi Arabia, my husband was working in Al Khobar, near Dammam on the east coast, we had just married and I had been pleasantly surprised on arrival as it wasn’t as grim as I had expected. However, I was incredibly naïve and when some workmen arrived to fit an air conditioner I showed them to the room and left them to it. After they had gone I went to look at their handy work and couldn’t believe what I saw. The carpet was littered with nails and splinters of wood and other debris left over from a ham fisted attempt to force a rectangular air conditioner into a badly cut hole that didn’t have right angles. The air conditioner was crooked and where it didn’t fit you could see daylight through the wall. I cleared away the mess making a mental note to supervise any future work.

Another eye opener was the delivery of a large American style fridge freezer; several people arrived ushering in what looked like a walking fridge, it wasn’t until the fridge came nearer I noticed the small hunched figure, of a Yemeni, beneath it nearly doubled over with the burden on his back.

The second day of our trip took us just 12 kilometres short of our destination. During the day we had at least two punctures and a lot of problems with the roof rack on the hired Toyota giving rise to this note in the guide for future travellers issued by the embassy:

‘Put only lightweight items on the roof rack and make sure that they are well tied down’. In fact the supports had forced holes in the roof of the vehicle as well as many items being lost along the journey.

Through our experience we were able to leave another important guideline for future travellers it is this ‘Railway (Hejaz) – in parts the track actually follows the railway track. Watch out, there are gaps at some culverts. Do not drive along the railway unless you can see a well-worn track along it. If you have to drive down an embankment make the turn as much of a right angle as possible. It is probably better for passengers to walk down.’ The latter part of this refers to a near accident when the vehicle, in which I was travelling driven by Charles Stuart (descendant of THE Charles Stuart), on seeing a culvert ahead, he drove down the embankment diagonally and we very nearly turned over. During the seconds that it took when it felt as if we would turn over and for Charles to bring us back from the brink with his skilful driving we sat in stunned silence.

We were all numbed by this incident; the occupants of the hired Toyota had seen what happened and thought we were going over, it was only on reflection I realised how lucky we were not to have had any accidents or illness on the trip.

It was when we joined the route of the old Hejaz railway we started to see some incredibly incongruous sights. Engines, from the time of Lawrence, standing majestically in the desert perfectly preserved in these dry conditions. Twisted railway tracks and empty station buildings that looked as if they had just been built but the only occupants were goats.

By now the terrain had changed and could be likened to parts of Arizona, red rock formations artistically chiselled by the wind. On the outskirts of Al Ula we were stopped by police who could find no copy of the authority for our visit. After showing our copy of the document our drivers were taken to the Deputy Emir’s office to play the waiting game while the rest of us were shown where we could have the tyres repaired and also where we could replenish our water supply at the local well. It wasn’t until we had quenched our thirst that we noticed the tadpoles swimming around in it! However, no one suffered any ill effects.

By the time we had arranged for the punctures to be repaired for our return trip and the Emir had satisfied his curiosity it was getting late and we were unable to reach Madain Saleh before nightfall, we camped within twelve kilometres of our destination.

The next day we drove into Madain Saleh, after we had partaken of half a dozen cups of tea with the Emir in his sitting room fitted with black vinyl settees and chairs from which, in the intolerable heat, we had to prise ourselves off to leave. The Emir told us we could now visit the tombs but someone would find us during the day to check our papers but we should not look for him, possibly to add a little intrigue?

I can remember feeling too tired to want to do anything I was completely exhausted from the journey, whereas Charles rushed from one group of rocks to another expounding their beauty. I sat and wondered why my enthusiasm didn’t match that of Charles, I think we all descend on historic sites expecting to feel some sense of history and lost civilisation with the expectation that it will radiate something of its past but I felt nothing except disappointment.

Here we were surrounded by tombs of an ancient Nabatean tribe, a settlement related to Petra. It was and still is an amazing site for anyone with an interest in archaeology, when we were there very few people had visited the area and no excavations were allowed. Looking at pictures of Madain Saleh on the internet today and in ‘1000 places to see before you die’ it is obvious we didn’t see the large tombs and monuments, we only saw roughly cut caves and nothing spectacular and I think the disappointment I felt at the time was justified. I have the original documents we used to find our way to Madain Saleh together with photocopies of the drawings taken from Charles M Doughty’s aforementioned ‘Travels in Arabia Deserta’ and we saw nothing that spectacular. This seems to be the story of my life as, if you read on, my visit to Petra also ended in disappointment. What we saw were roughly hewn cavities in the rocks, probably burial chambers as they had steps carved above the entrance as if for the soul to ascend to heaven.

We were eventually tracked down by the man seeking us; he studied our papers for half an hour and left. Later we were ‘found’ again by more men who entertained us by crawling under our vehicles, trying to read and record our number plates, studying the travel permits again and perusing our passports, sometimes upside down. John Hill, the Arabist amongst us tried to assist them but they were beyond help and by this time we had had enough, it was hot we wanted to explore not waste our valuable time and we knew our papers were in order. Eventually they left probably without the information they required because they were unable to read our documents.

Although tourism had not yet reached the area, only a handful of visitors a year at this time, small children appeared to sell us their treasures; they poured them onto the ground from small pouches, old coins and trinkets which may have been authentic and so time was spent bartering for the treasure.

We camped close to a rocky escarpment with some of the group choosing to sleep on top of the rocks to be at one with nature, I climbed into the Land Rover.

The return journey wasn’t particularly eventful, we made a slight detour to visit a fort of Turkish origin, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in what I consider desert proper, it looked like what once must have been a flourishing oasis, sand dunes and palm trees some erect some fallen, in fact it looked like an abandoned film set quite surreal. Along with the true desert image had to be soft sand and we spent a lot of time driving in and out of it hence another footnote for other intrepid explorers:

‘In soft sand – keep going with high revs. If stuck reverse out (try again).

We travelled home using the sun as our compass and the occasional signpost. The boredom of our journey had been broken by incongruous sights such as locomotives, carriages and twisted tracks left over from T.E. Lawrences’ guerrilla attacks during the Arab revolt. On another occasion we encountered a gang of Korean road builders who were, presumably, building the highway that would make the journey much easier for subsequent travellers. Bedouin tribes along the way were visibly shocked by the sight of khawajas driving across the desert but always proffered help and hospitality.

Back in Jeddah, the bone shaking journey was behind me but still no period!

Part 2 - A Christmas Tale
Travel broadens the mind and enriches the soul. Great poets have written with fervour about places they have visited, or when abroad written passionately about home. In the same tradition I would like to share my visit to Petra with you. We, my husband Colin and I, were going to spend Christmas, 1974, in Beirut, not such an unusual destination as we were living in Jeddah at the time and the Lebanon was the nearest country where we could find civilisation, as we knew it.

We had been deprived of bacon and beer for quite long enough and were going to drive; or rather Colin was, women not being allowed to in Saudi Arabia. We headed north from Jeddah towards Medina taking care to keep to the Christian bypass because as Khawajas or non-believers to the Saudis, we were not allowed to enter the holy city. Signs along the road had warned us of the severe penalties for getting too close to Medina; death is one that sticks in my mind. If there was ever a need for accurate map and compass reading this was it! My mind went back to my early attempts at navigation when I had sent us heading back into the centre of Yugoslavia instead of towards the Austrian border I had never seen Colin get angry and he did well to control it on this occasion by walking round and round the car in disbelief, we only needed to make an error of two miles here to be in deep water unlike the sixty mile detour in Yugoslavia!

After carefully avoiding Medina our first stop would be Tabuk where we planned to stay overnight. We were travelling in a new Honda Civic which we had just bought but its size was no match for the heavy lorries that hurtled down the middle of the road, which was quite narrow in parts and we were nearly driven off the road on a couple of occasions. We arrived at our destination in the evening and looked for somewhere to stay. We found a building with a hotel sign; Colin went in to see if they had a room. We knew from friends' experiences that if we were shown a room with two or more beds we had to make it clear we wanted to pay for all of the beds to ensure we had the room to ourselves. If we did not we would run the risk of being disturbed in the middle of the night by other travellers seeking respite, on reflection not dissimilar to a Youth Hostel.

Colin returned with the news that there was "room at the inn" (I had been pointing out a bright star on the way), we went inside, there were four beds in the room and they all looked dishevelled. Just as Colin was going to commit us to this dark dingy cell for the night, I don't know why but I glanced upwards, the ceiling seemed speckled. I wasn't wearing my glasses so I squinted and the speckles came into focus, flies, and dozens of them parked up for the night. I immediately thought of what it would be like in the morning with the flies performing aerobatics then zooming in to land on our recumbent bodies. It was the only time I said emphatically: "I can't stay here" and I have stayed, under duress, in some unsavoury places. Colin reluctantly agreed to drive on to the Jordanian border where I was convinced there would be somewhere better to stay. We arrived there about midnight, having avoided the hazards of the night, lorries hurtling down the middle of the road without lights, herds of camels, the usual thing.

When we reached the border it was deserted, on either side of the road there were small government buildings but there was no one to be seen. We didn't want to risk driving through without first obtaining permission; it was important to follow the procedures to the letter or be prepared to suffer the consequences as we were to find out much later. We found a sleeping guard in one of the buildings, he stamped our papers and we drove into Jordan. By now Colin, having driven all day, was extremely tired and there was nowhere to stay at the border the only option was to sleep in the car.

When we found a suitable lay-by, we reclined the seats and settled down for the night. Colin had no trouble he could sleep standing up if necessary. I, on the other hand, was of a more nervous disposition, it was the middle of the night and we were in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't sleep, I thought I saw shapes and heard noises. I woke Colin and told him I had seen something, he said I was imagining it, I probably was. He slept on, I did not. I woke him again and this time persuaded him we should drive on.

We proceeded on our journey, it was uneventful except for more trucks without lights juxtaposed with the ones adorned with fairy lights and looking like Christmas trees, we saw no wise men, shepherds or angels although it was Christmas. In a couple of hours it would be morning. It was shortly after dawn that we saw a sign to Petra, hadn't we heard of this place? Were there some ruins or something? We decided to take a look. We drove into yet another small dusty town, littered with small box shaped buildings in no particular order and because of the time; there was nobody to be seen. We pulled off the road into what appeared to be a car park and turned off the engine.

“What shall we do?” asked Colin to which I replied “I don’t know, I can’t see anything can you?” “No” he replied.

We searched through our maps to see if we could find any information about this place we thought that we had heard of. We couldn't find anything and we were too tired to get out of the car to have a look around. We set off again and drove through the town and we still couldn't see anything of interest so we continued on our way. It was when we reached Amman (not to be confused with Maan as we nearly did) and collected a batch of leaflets that we found out what it was we had missed, Petra "a rose red city half as old as time" later to be brought to everyone's attention in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

We had a good time in Beirut and skied at Cedars, well, to be truthful Colin did and I didn't because I was expecting my first son and thought it would be rather foolhardy in my condition. We didn't visit Petra on our return journey, we didn’t have time, which is ironic considering what did happen to us on that journey, but that is another story.

So you see Petra remains the most beautiful place I have never seen, although if asked if I have been there I just say yes and move swiftly on.

Part 3 - Haql
We thought the drive from Jeddah had been worthwhile when we finally arrived at the Lebanese border and it had put the new Honda Civic through its paces but why were we being kept waiting by the border guards? Our papers were being examined, arguments ensued none of which we understood. When we were finally approached by an English speaking guard we were told we didn’t have an entry stamp into Syria so could not have an exit stamp! Their solution was for us to return to our point of entry (the other side of the country) to get an entry stamp. We protested as strongly as we dared how could they expect us to make a round trip of 300 miles to get this entry stamp that had been an omission on the part of a Syrian border guard. Eventually after much discussion, waving of arms, lots of tea and after a sufficient passage of time to show they meant business, suggestions were made, palms were greased and we were allowed into the Lebanon.

The next stop was Beirut where we visited friends from Jeddah also on holiday and other acquaintances in the city. The shops were exotic and the first I had seen that offered gift-wrapping. I bought a silk tie for my husband and watched it being wrapped in a way I had never seen before with curled ribbon and bows. We had a compilation tape made, the large reel to reel type, of music we selected in the shop I remember it included ‘Mrs Jones’ by Billy Paul and Perry Como’s ‘The Good Times’. The days were punctuated by sonic booms as Israeli jets flew overhead and at night you heard gunfire. One night we went with friends to the famous Cave du Roi from where we had to run back to our hotel like criminals, fortunately only a couple of hundred yards, because it was after curfew.

We had planned to go skiing so on Christmas Eve we drove to the Cedars. I didn’t ski because I was three months pregnant and didn’t think it would be a good idea. Christmas can be a depressing time of year and I spent Christmas day walking and then sitting in a mountain side restaurant listening to a fellow Brit pouring out his heart about how his wife didn’t understand him. We had chicken and chips for dinner and red wine that made me ill, this was before the days when drinking whilst pregnant was deemed bad for you but my body already knew!

After a week of civilisation we filled our cold box with bacon and beer and headed back to Jeddah. I can’t remember much about the journey until we approached Aqaba where we were going to stay the night as we thought it would have better accommodation than anything in Saudi. Ahead of us was the Red Sea reflecting the lights in the bay a welcoming sight we headed towards them. We soon realised our mistake when we encountered the roadblocks and barbed wire fencing we were heading towards Eilat, which had literally outshone Aqaba. We turned round and found the road to Aqaba, which didn’t live up to our expectations so we carried on to Saudi.

We had kept two beers to drink in no man’s land between Jordan and Saudi Arabia and as we left Jordan we were confronted by Saudi guards, there wasn’t any no-man’s land. We knew they were going to search everything it was such a novelty to have ‘khawajas’ driving in this part of the Kingdom our dilemma was do we hope they don’t find the beer or do we come clean? We decided on the latter laughing as we told them and then had to witness the ceremony of the ‘pouring of the beer onto the ground’. We were worried they had thought we were trying to bribe them with it, we were worried about what they would do to us, and we were taken to the police office.
Precious time was passing we wondered how long it would be before we could leave if indeed we ever could! It was Eid and all public offices were closed communication was poor at the best of times and we were told we would have to wait until after the holiday. We spent the evening in the company of the village dignitary and his family I took out some magazines I had with me thinking his wife and daughters would like to see them but they were taken by our host Mohammed who started to look through them. I told him they had been bought in Jeddah and were censored the evidence was plain to see on all of the advertisements where flesh had been replaced with black ink, but despite this neither his wife nor his daughters were allowed to see them. We really had to be careful we didn’t want a charge of dissidence adding to our crime.

We were resigned to the fact that we had to stay the night and hopefully things would be resolved in the morning we were consoled by the fact that we were being treated as guests and had not been slung into a jail if indeed the village had one! We were shown our bed for the night, our host’s bed! If only I could have seen the funny side then, the bed was so high because it had about ten foam mattresses on it, remember the bed in the Princess and the Pea? But unlike the bed in the fairytale this bed enveloped you once you had managed to climb onto it because it sagged in the middle. I tried not to think about the cleanliness of the sheets I had to believe they had been changed. The next day we returned to the police office. Again we were told that because of the holiday nothing could be done everything shuts down for Eid. We knew that the possession of alcohol was illegal but did not know if this was the only reason we were being held. After more waiting we were told there was a ‘villa’ we could use. We were taken to the rudimentary building and took stock of our situation. We would need sheets so we went shopping.

We thought it strange that all of the small shops had windows full of eau de cologne and it wasn’t until a much later date that we learned this was the local tipple! We were sold what were described as bed linen but looked and felt more like curtains with their blue and white pattern and embossed texture. We had bacon and mushrooms in our cold box that needed eating and we headed for the beach.

We were soon cooking our illicit meal on the camping stove; the appetising smell filled the air. After we had eaten and cleared everything away we saw two helicopters heading towards us flying either side of a speeding cruiser. This intrigued us and as we stood there watching we didn’t notice the police cars approaching until they were beside us doors flung open and several agitated armed police jumping out. It was beginning to feel unreal were we becoming part of a mirage as the sandstorm generated by the vehicles engulfed us? Another fine mess we seem to have got ourselves into! More questions more anxious moments why were we there whilst King Hussein of Jordan and the lovely Queen Noor were travelling by boat to Aqaba? Were we potential assassins?

Our local dignitary bailed us out, everyone in the village knew us, they had just been following orders etc. etc.

We returned to our cell like ‘villa’ and listened to James Taylor on our small tape recorder; that depressed us even more. I was actually three months pregnant at this time but we had tried playing that card but it hadn’t cut any ice, the general response was a smile and to congratulate us. Not all responses to our presence were pleasant I’d had stones thrown at me by local children; I was, after all, despite my modest dress, a decadent western woman.

At times we thought of making a run for it but fear of the consequences made good sense prevail.

Having missed the Rose Red City of Petra on our journey to Beirut we had reluctantly decided not to go there on our return to Jeddah because we didn’t have time as my husband was due back at work, ironic really, as the days went by and there was no way of contacting anyone. Nobody knew where we were. I often think of this with today’s society and their obsession with mobile phones and the need to be in constant contact with each other.

Five days we spent in Haql, I shall never forget them, it gave me an insight into how hostages must feel as the days slip away and you become resigned to the enforced situation. We returned to Jeddah on our release, our pleas that we had not intended to bring alcohol into Saudi must have been believed. I have looked Haql up on Google Earth and it is now a city not a village, I added my ‘pin tack’!


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