Riyadh. Skyscrapers in the desert.

AL-FAISHAL SKYSCRAPER – RELIGIOUS POLICE – AFHGAN TAXI DRIVER 

July 2013

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A BURNING DUST-STORM covered Riyadh with a reddish-brown haze as I landed in the Kingdom’s capital city. With temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius or even higher, the pavement of the roads seemed to be melting down.

Ramadan had just begun, and no food or drink was allowed from down to dusk for the believers, for the rest, only in hiding. Once in the hostel I took breakfast in a tiny room they had prepared for the outsiders, so we could do it without disturbing them. On leaving the hotel, the doors opened and a wave of heat hit me like a flamethrower, welcoming me to Riyadh’s summer.

After an hour of chaotic traffic I arrived at the industrial area, to a dusty factory in the desert whose metal structure was hammered by the sun. If outside we were reaching 50 °, inside the factory, with ceramic kilns firing tiles at 1200 celsius, even flies would not enter. Nevertheless, I decided to follow the same rules that keep Muslims during Ramadan, eating nothing from sunrise and sunset, but drinking some water and juice, otherwise it would be dangerous to work, but even that, but it had to be done in hiding. First they consider an offense that a non-Muslim would eat or drink in front of them and second because it is prohibited.

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Riyadh is the most conservative city of Saudi Arabia, which is the most conservative country in the world. It is a city of Skyscrapers, huge shining-shopping-molls, luxurious cars, great mosques and religious police. I could not find a bookshop though. There is no trace of the charming traditional architecture of Jeddah’s old town, everything there is new and shiny as if it was build yesterday. There is an extreme gender apartheid; women are almost invisible in the street, they all must wear full veils, restaurants have two doors, one for “Single” the other for “Family”, where women are allowed only in company of relatives. Five times a day everything closes down, the Muttawaa, or Islamic religious police for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice patrol the malls and the busiest areas of the city ensuring Sharia is imposed. Cinema, alcohol and most forms of entertainment are banned.  All those singularities made the place all the more interesting to me.

I made some friends with filipinos and indian, also with one spanish and one italian technicians. Domenico was a very crazy italian electrician. We almost got into trouble in the factory due to some of his out-of-place remarks about religion. I had to let him know that in the center of the city, there is a nondescript expanse of cement known by expats as Chop-Chop Square, where convicts are publicly beheaded by sword…the penalties for theft are amputations of hands and feet. Blasphemy is one of the things you shouldn’t play with in Saudi Arabia.

Thursday night is when the city comes alive.  The streets were full of luxury cars and noisy motorcycles circulating over the sidewalk, everywhere was full with the smell of fuel. The two most famous skyscrapers in the city are The Kingdom Center and the Al-Faisalyah Tower. We went fist to see the Al-Faisaliyah since the view of the sunset there is spectacular.

P1050231_pecWhen we came down from the tower we decided to go for dinner to Tahil Lebanese Restaurant, my favorite in town, near Al Olaya street, behind Kingdom Tower.

Most cab drivers in the kingdom are foreigners. The taxi driver who picked us was a man of sharp features,  high cheekbones, sharp nose, hazel piercing eyes and a thick beard. He weared a white turban and conveyed a certain kind of presence and nobility of character, that called my attention

‘Where are you from?’ I asked. ‘Where do you think I’m from?’, I’d say you are Pashtun, from Afghanistan, right?’. He seemed surprised, ‘how do you know?’, ‘I know some Pashtun over here in Riyadh’. ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘Seven years’, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Massoud.’ ‘What does it mean?’, ‘Fortunate.’

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Pashtuns are the ethnic group the Taliban belong to, I had never spoken with one of them. At first moment I thought he may not want to talk, but he looks amused with the conversation. My curiosity about his culture encourages me to keep asking more questions.

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What do you think about Saudis?, his features get harder, “I dont like them, they treat foreigners very badly. Specially if you come from a poor country, like me.”

How are things going in your country? I heard Hamid Karzai gor reelected. “Yes, I hope he stays”. I was surprised to hear that, since Hamid Karzai’s government is the one backed by the USA. I was judging him by his conservative look.

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“We need foreigners to stay in the country, otherwise it is going to be ruin”, “Taliban are very bad people, they kill everyone, my village was attacked by them many times”. He tells me that he is afraid they may kill his family. He has being fighting them, and hates them. When we stop, he shows me pictures of he with his family posing with AK47, and even an RPG (Rocket-propelled grenade)… “I have to sleep with this under my bed”.

He said he wanted american troops to stay, otherwise his country will be in civil war again. I was surprised at that. I thought most afghan hated Americans for bombing their country.

When we finish the ride I ask for the bill. He makes a waves his hand. You have to pay, he says. Come on I say! you are working hard, here is the money, I lay 20 Rial. He gives teh back. I insist. Then he says.

“In seven years in this country, you are the first person who has asked me my name.”

I was really taken aback. I thanked him and wish him good luck for him and his family. After all his name means “fortunate”.

Back to  the factory I met a guy from Pakistan with whom I have to work over the next fifteen or twenty days. Massoud is big, has a neatly trimmed beard, and greets me cordially. We work in a windowless room with a greenish light, luckily there’s an old air conditioner, but it smells pretty bad. I realize that it is of Lahore in Pakistan. He says he earns 400 dollars for his work in the factory, sending half to his family in Pakistan, which depends on his income, pay for college especially her sister.

He is happy, the salary is twice what they charge in their country.  I’m surprised when he proudly shows me his newly obtained license for Muttawaa, he is currently in reserve until they call him, so he works in the factory until then.  I begin to think that they are going to be two very long weeks.