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Saudi Arabia as Seen at the Souk

SOON after I arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to teach English literature, I learned that I could alleviate my disorientation by other means than standing on the dusty balcony of my apartment building looking out at the dustier street. I could walk down to the Dira Souk, an open-air marketplace.

My Arab neighbors had assured me that it was ``too far to walk,'' but I soon discovered that it was only too far to walk for a woman in spike heels trying to keep her abayah (cloak-like veil) closed to the desert wind with one hand while clutching her purse in the other. For someone in running shoes and a backpack, the only problem was crossing a four-lane highway.

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At first I went to the souk with the other Americans in my building, because in the midst of such foreignness, I wanted to be surrounded by people as much like me as I could find. It took me three or four such excursions to decide that perhaps they really weren't as much like me as I had supposed. And the fact that the group was composed of both men and women made us about as inconspicuous as a parade.

IT was with these Americans, however, that I encountered an American teacher named Bill, who was unlike any American I had previously met there. Although he too had just arrived in the country, he came to the door in the plaid wraparound skirt-like garment worn by Yemeni men, something other Western men would only do at the embassy Halloween party. Like the Arabs I had met, he thrust cold soft drinks into our hands before we got a chance to sit down. And unlike almost any other Western man I knew, he liked Saudi Arabia.

It was clear at a glance that Bill had been assigned a run-down apartment by the university housing department. The American professor who was playing ``old hand'' in guiding our group of newcomers through the souk told Bill to demand better housing.

``I don't know,'' Bill replied. ``I kind of like it here. It gives me more of a chance to meet people.'' And then he went on to talk about the various third-world ``guest workers'' he'd met in the park across the street, how he'd exchanged English lessons for Arabic lessons with an Egyptian waiter, and how the building's Yemeni janitor had invited him for tea. He told funny stories about his various cultural blunders that made me less nervous about my own.

I was charmed, but as we left, the ``old hand'' muttered, ``This guy isn't going to make it if he's going native already.'' At home, I wrote in my journal, ``Americans abroad either become more American or less so. We can't just stay the same.''

I can't remember any conscious decision to become less so myself. I simply drifted into it. My Egyptian neighbor across the hall, Zeinab, who had just gotten her PhD from the University of Iowa, shared my interest in feminist readings of literature. Her 10-year-old daughter, who had been with Zeinab in Iowa, was eager to be around Americans again and kept inviting me over. Zeinab and I began to spend more afternoons together, talking about our lives and our reading. And I started going to the souk with her or with her older teenage daughter, Reem, who spoke no more English than I did Arabic but who was more eager than her mother to put on a pair of sneakers and walk the three quarters of a mile to the Dira Souk.

Suddenly, I no longer felt like a majorette. At first I didn't understand my relative invisibility. I still wore my hair uncovered and, while I wore a long skirt, I didn't wear an abayah. Reem, in an abayah and turha (head scarf) but uncovered face, would have blended in with the other Arab girls if she hadn't worn sneakers and insisted on carrying her mother's U of Iowa backpack. I finally decided that my inconspicuousness was related to the fact that I was with an Arab girl, since Arab women, I began to observe, seemed to go shopping in pairs or groups.

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Feeling more at ease, I was less troubled by the differentness of shopping in a souk. The crowding seemed less threatening. Although I was used to a small Pennsylvania town where there might be three other shoppers in a store the size of a bowling alley, I was suddenly less uncomfortable to be in a shop the size of a kitchen with a dozen other people in it. It didn't even bother me that other women would take me by the shoulders, whisper ``Law samahti'' (``please'') and gently push me out of the way when I lingered in a doorway blocking traffic. The proximity of so many other people even seemed reassuring.

IT was still exotic that the shopkeepers were Pakistani, Egyptian, Turkish, and Yemeni, and that the goods came from all over the world: electrical equipment from Taiwan, clothing from India and Egypt, incense from Yemen, and silver and amber jewelry from the local Bedouin women.

The shoppers - poor and middle- class Saudis, Filipino hospital workers, Korean construction workers, Yemenis, and Sudanese - all mixed without any apparent ethnic tensions. And although the buildings of Riyadh all seemed to be the same dusty beige, the shops had their wares hanging on floor-to-ceiling racks in the front: gellabeyahs (long-sleeved gowns) of all colors, children's toys, Oriental carpets. Here was diversity in all things.

This gave the souk an entirely different feeling than the rest of the city. Because of this, I didn't even mind getting lost in the souk, which seemed at first a maze of winding alleyways, so narrow that the surrounding buildings always cast shadows on the shoppers. I soon learned that each type of good was sold in a separate section of the souk, so that I could begin to determine where I was by what was being sold. Someday, I told myself, I would find my way around Saudi society and culture with similar ease.

Instead, I always remained more of a spectator. I never got used to bargaining for everything, perhaps because I wasn't any good at it and could seldom get more than a couple of riyals (about 70 cents) off the original price. Yet I enjoyed watching Zeinab and Reem in action - the sudden coy smiles, the protestations of having only a few riyals with them, their lack of embarrassment at having the shopkeeper show virtually everything in the store to them, only for them to shake their heads dubiously and walk away slowly (to give the merchant time to run after them offering a better price). The only time I ever got a bargain was when I discovered I'd left my wallet at home and only had the money in my pocket, a ploy I felt uncomfortable about contriving.

At dusk, when the shops closed for prayers, Reem and I would buy sodas from one of the women vendors who sat in the corners of the souk with washtubs full of ice water and cold soft drinks. Women, who are not normally allowed in mosques (although they are in many other Muslim countries), would wait outside in the alleys (or in cars) until the shops would reopen about 20 minutes later.

We would sit on the curb, drinking soda and watching the sunset. The dust in the air and the cloudless skies made every sunset spectacular, and I came to think, as I watched the crowds thin out and felt the beginning of the evening breeze, that moments like these were ones I would miss when I left Saudi Arabia.

When the sunset prayer was over, Reem and I would go back to our shopping, which consisted mostly of looking and debating about whether the items before us were helwa (beautiful) or wihish (ugly). The most garish purple taffetas and silver lames invariable struck Reem as helwa, whereas virtually everything that I found tasteful she declared wihish, frequently accompanying her remarks with gagging noises in case I had missed her point. Despite this, we got along well.

But the souk itself was shades of meaning.

BY evening, the shawarmah stands would open, filling the air with the scent of garlic and lemon and chicken. Watching the Lebanese shawarmah makers whittling the meat off the rotisseries, mixing it with parsley and tomatoes, and wrapping it in pita bread, all with great flourishes of carving knives, was like watching Japanese chefs, except that the show was conducted on the street for anybody to watch. Sometimes we would buy some shawarmah sandwiches to take back with us, the grease from the meat inevitably soaking through the bag by the time we got back.

In the evening, Riyadh suddenly seemed more livable, the darkness covering the building rubble. The empty streets that made the city look like a ghost town during the day now filled with people. If I didn't feel at home, I certainly did feel more comfortable with being out of place.

Yet even then, flush with new confidence and still excited by being in such a strange new place, I saw reminders of a more complex world that should have alerted me to another layer of reality beneath the exoticism. The carpet section of the souk, I learned, was called ``the Afghan souk'' because most of the merchants were Afghani refugees: quiet, stocky men with high cheekbones. They were different from the other merchants in manner as well - slightly more formal, almost withdrawn.

Looking at the carpets, I found it odd that the stylized flowers and trees of traditional Afghan and Persian designs would suddenly give way to equally stylized tanks and Kalashnikovs woven into the soft maroons and indigos of the carpets. I didn't know it then, but virtually all the third-world foreigners were refugees from some sort of political or economic disaster: the Filipinos from the collapsing Marcos regime, and the Sri Lankans, Sudanese, and Lebanese from civil war. But at the time, none of this seemed to have anything to do with me.

I thought of the souk later as the essence of what Saudi Arabia could have been, had times and governments been kinder. To a first-time visitor, the exterior of Saudi Arabia suggested uniformity and artificially clear distinctions: beige buildings, black-cloaked women and white-robed men, everyone carefully categorized as Saudi, Western, or third-world national. Everyone even gave the same carefully worded responses to strangers' questions about politics and religion. But the souk was color, pluralism, and tolerance - the same traits I found when I got past the exteriors of houses and relationships. I was always a guest there, just as I was usually a sightseer in the souk, but what I saw was as real as the shops and the alleyways.

Yet if the souk was one layer of reality beneath the barren exterior, a different, harsher reality also underlay the world of the souk. For one thing, I found out that the Saudi government performed some of its public beheadings in a nearby square.

Nothing of this world showed in the souk. The winding streets created a natural cooling shade, and in the dusk, everything ugly vanished with the sunlight. The lighted shops revealed only excited crowds of shoppers from all over the world.

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