Five days in Saudi Arabia

On Thursday evening I was sat at a low table with Maureen.  “It is nice to be able to speak to people”. She clarified “At most events the majority would have had several beers by now”. “We can have a real conversation and I like that.”

I knew that Saudi Arabia was alcohol free, but it was a different thing to know and then to live it and see so many of my own cultural moments where alcohol has become part and parcel of the experience – relaxing after the last meeting with a beer, wine with food, a beer as we watch the sun go down.  Diageo, Budweiser, Heineken have done a powerful job in rooting alcohol at the core of my ideas of enjoying special moments.

I woke my first morning to the call for prayers from a mosque that was six floors down outside my bedroom window.  Saudi Arabia is the Muslim country – protector of the two shrines – Mecca is the centre of the universe for one billion– they know its location each time they kneel down to pray.  Abraham built the shrine at Mecca – the Abraham of my bible, the Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his son.  There is a security cordon 30km around the city of Mecca and only Muslims can enter. I only saw photos, and heard stories.

That Thursday night a man spoke to us in steady and clear English. He was dressed in a white thobe, a long dress shirt and a traditional desert head scarf with the black two ring snake-like bands that hold the scarf in place. This man’s thobe was not the simple sheet for everyday wear; I suppose he was in thobe formal. We were outside in the desert hills an hour from the beach at Jeddah. A friend was hosting the group at his horse and camel ranch.

The man spoke of Hajj. The fifth pillar of a Muslim’s life. The completion. Three million people a year come to spend a week following the steps of Mohammed.  More would come, but Mecca, a town of three hundred thousand squeezed in between mountains cannot handle more in a safe way.

The man is a descendant of a family from Mecca that for generations has been in the vocation of serving pilgrims. There are five associations – each tasked with serving pilgrims from a different geographical region. Those that serve speak the languages of their pilgrims and take care of those on the Hajj during their time in Saudi Arabia. The three million want to be in Mecca on a specific 8 days in the Hajj month.

The man described the rituals of Hajj. “A person must be spiritually, financially and physically ready to do Hajj – it is not compulsory”.  After Hajj, one is “cleansed”. This means that many leave Hajj to the last possible moment, sometimes too late.

Part of the tradition of Hajj is a visit to the central shrine. The man spoke of his habit, a habit widely shared by those who serve pilgrims, of looking not at the shrine, but at the faces of the pilgrims. He talked of an incredible moment where he knew immediately who were the first-timers. As they catch their first full image of the massive black cloth covered temple there is a paralysis, no more than 30 seconds, a whole life running by in front of your eyes in deep connection with something thought about for their entire lives.

This is a country that is a generation and a half away from an existence as tribal nomadic tent people. Oil wealth has transformed the buildings in which they live, but the culture and rules that kept peace amongst proud tribes of the desert remain. These are strict rules.

Ziad spoke to a small group on the first evening. He spoke of his life in Saudi and in the west. He spoke of a time when he was walking through a public shopping area holding the hand of his wife whose head was not covered.  An old man came up to them with bright eyes and a charming smile. He said “this woman is a flower. Not all men are so lucky. Think of the others, you will make them jealous.” The religious police can be poetic.

Doctor Ghazi spoke to us of real connection between people. He spoke of the traditions of the merchant traders on the old trade routes. In his grandfather’s tented village there existed a place called the medulus, a place where all would share their meals at the end of the day and share stories; a place which allowed a deeper connection because people shared food and stories of their lives, their homes, their travels. He spoke of it not being enough for governments to speak to governments – our world needs connection between people and people.  He spoke of the superficial nature of a tourist visit, and the deeper connection that happen when Saudi doctors sit with English doctors, when Saudi dentists sit with German dentists, when teachers sit with teachers and in our case when entrepreneurs spend four days together and share common desires, frustrations and challenges.

Maureen told me that she was scared to come to Saudi Arabia, was scared that she would break some rule unknowingly.  When I first reached the hotel and two fully covered women entered an elevator I paused before entering thinking “is this ok to share an elevator with women?”  I had a great few days and got to know interesting, thoughtful women and men from this country of oil, Islam and desert.