Notes from Riyadh
After making my third trip to the Middle East I finally attempt to put pen to paper. Unlike most trips when I manage to get a few notes jotted about what I have seen those made to the East have been without my muse. Its hard to know why exactly. Perhaps the intense business focus has not really allowed insight into the local and what he or she thinks. And that is what I am mostly interested in. Or is it because the local is not so very visible, or is reluctant to get engaged in the street with a Westerner? Perhaps they assume I am an American!
It is a couple of days before you realise that women are noticeable by their absence. And then you are startled by that vacuum. There are none circulating around the business premises. No secretaries, businesswomen or even clients. In the shopping mall every shop assistant is male. If you think thats not so unusual imagine a stroll through a David Jones perfumery or lingerie department, or any other part of the store for that matter. Instead of well dressed women in attendance find well coifed young men instead. Not a woman in sight. At least not until you are in the shopping precinct proper and the occasional cluster of women with a few young children stand out – for their presence as much as for their black covering. They seem furtive, disjointed, out of place, awkward. In and around the mall on another night a number of women are much more self contained and assured, bright and confident and brazen – allowing their faces to be completely uncovered and eyeballing us aggressively and not without some curiosity. But their heads remain covered. The occasional male berates them for their lack of respect but young, and with the advantage of numbers – five or six of them – they huddle up and scurry off. Columnists in the paper two days later kick around the need for women to be more liberated but I suspect that while ever men in the mall dislike an uncovered face we will be watching these sorts of confrontations for a while yet.
Interestingly the women have become art masters of the eye. With it being the only thing visible it makes sense – they love dark shades and metallic colours and these burnished jewels are doubly striking for being cast in the black frame of their chador. Later I walk down Olaya Road to the Kingdom Tower and am diverted into a couple of malls which sell dresses. I am completely startled by the lush, deep flashing colours and fabrics. Daring cuts and imaginative combinations of material I have never seen anywhere. We are all missing out if this is what they wear. Alongside these fabrics are a staggering array of jewellery as well, with deep Middle Eastern roots in their design and nothing like what we might see at home.