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Saudi Arabia: lifting the veil

Eric Lafforgue
Saudi Arabia is one of the most difficult places in the world to visit as getting a visa
can be a challenging process.

You need a sponsorship from a local travel agency. Since they make so much
money from the pilgrims going to Mecca, they are not really interested in helping
non-Muslim tourists.

Women under 30 years old must be accompanied by their husband or brother.
It is not permitted for an unmarried couple to travel alone together in Saudi Arabia.

Alcohol, pornography, gambling, and pork, are all strictly forbidden. Women will
need to wear a black dress called abaya.

But if you are ready to immerse yourself into this world, youll discover an
incredible country with more attractions than you could believe.
This is how Saudi men greet each other.
If you find a door open, you can enter, have a seat and drink coffee or tea and eat dates. There is always someone, most of
the time an Indian guy, there to welcome you. Of course, this hospitality rule does not work in the big cities, but in the little
villages, I drank liters of tea and coffee and ate kilos of dates!
It's a great experience to be in the Saudi desert during sunset. The temperature of the sand plummets a few seconds
after the sun disappears. The tourism organizations do not want tourists to sleep in tents in the desert as it gets too
No, youre not in a swiss chalet but under a tent in the desert. Urban families love to stay a few days in the
desert and welcome the foreigners.
Every bedouin will offer you a taste of fresh camel milk. I must say that I did not want to drink it as I recalled the French
president Mitterand drinking some in Mauritania and having his face turning green! I hear its delicious.
Camels are coveted in Saudi Arabia. Here are rock drawings at a site in Abar Hima.
Al Jouf Desert - A falcon hunt in the desert starts with tea, coffee, and dates under a huge tent made by bedouins. The tent
comes complete with TV, radio, and heating. The men free a pigeon and once he's 20 meters away, they remove the mask from
the falcon that promptly chases down the pigeon. The hunt is shortlived, but the men must follow the falcon with their 4 wheel
drives in order not to lose it! The falcon in this picture was bought for 20,000 dollars. Once the falcon has killed the pigeon, the
master offers the head and the heart to the hunter.
Shopping time in the Najran souk. In many parts of Saudi Arabia, it is believed that a woman's place is in the home, caring
for her husband and the children. By contrast, in places like Jeddah, a town on the red sea, you can see a real difference.
Women can share a table with men in the restaurant and even have a smoke.
In the Abha Souq, you can see what the women wear under their black dresses.
Saudi Arabia is the third largest date producer in the world. The palm tree is one of the countrys main symbols.
The sellers had all gone for prayer and the religious police punish the ones who cheat!
In the Tihama Area near Yemen, you still can see camels making sesame oil like in centuries
past. This is Far from the wealth from Riyad.
The old souk of Jeddah is the best place to see local traditions like the making of the chicha for
Old Jeddah is considered a cultural landmark. This is partly due to its unique architectural heritage that reflects the original
identity of the Kingdom. Surrounded by walls, the old area had grown vertically through the ages. This area is also close to
the sea and many terraces were built on building fronts to take advantage of the water views.
Historic Jeddah presents a unique example of a comprehensive urban fabric reflecting the characteristics of the Red
Sea Coast. It is similar to what you can find in Massawa, Eritrea or Suakin, Sudan: multiple floors and architectural
detailing on its many storeys. The wooden screening and Mashrabiyah are the most characteristic. Nowadays, most
of the buildings house Somali refugees, Yemenis, and Pakistanis and are regularly flooded by the rains.
This modern exterior at in a mall in Jeddah represents a different style.
The only way to reach Farasan Island is to ride on a boat for about one to two hours. The island is known thanks to the
Ottoman architecture and the white sandy beaches where nobody swims. Locals just walk around. To be allowed to go to the
island, I had to go through a security checkpoint like at the JFK airport! Papers to fill, passports to show, checking bags and
clothes I had to do the same when I left the island! I do not know what nefarious activity I might have gotten into on this
coral island!
The relics on the Farasan Islands vary in date between the first millennium B. C. and the Ottoman period. Inside some
of the old houses some newer decorations can be seen like this one that features guns.
Saudi Arabia has more than just
desert. The Al Faifa mountains are
2,000 meters high. They have become
a place where many Saudis people
from the coast come for fresh air.
These traditional adobe and brick houses in Najran are called midmakh buildings. They reflect the Yemeni influence in the
Province. The buildings are made up of several floors. The lowest level is for livestock. The next level is for human habitation,
complete with small windows to keep out intruders and heat. As you go higher up the building, the windows get larger to let in
more light and air. Some of these buildings are estimated to be several hundred years old. Fortunately, there seems to be
considerable interest by some Najran residents to preserve their traditional homes - often modernizing them for current lifestyles.
Many saudis keep their old houses to visit on Friday or at festive times. They are happy to make welcome
foreigners to show their cultural heritage.
Forget mingling with women in Saudi Arabia. The only ones you can chat with are the Somali girls like the
one pictured. You wont see them driving though as they are not allowed to.
Muslim shop owners from Indonesia in Abha Souk
Bin Hamsan house in Khamis Mushayt,
Aseer area. Many of the modern houses are
still brightly painted inside. This work is
made by women and has become an art.
The houses are made of mud. To protect it from the rain, people put some stones to let the water drain properly.
The huge walls are the best way to keep the cool temperature in summer time. At the top, there is a terrace.
Those towers were used as granaries until just a few years ago. Some villages are protected by a wall,.
In some, foreigners are not welcome as the tribes who live there are famous for their traditional way of
life, far from modern world.
The flower men live in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They wear a headdress made of fresh flowers and grasses and
live in the hills. Meeting them in the souq of Al Farsha was really special as I needed a police escort to go. They
still live in a very tribal way, and do not like to meet foreigners. It looks like they come out from an antiques fresco
in the British Museum.
This one has put some fragrant flowers and dried herbs on his head, and a cotton ribbon tied around to hold it all together. The police
did not want to stay more than 15 minutes since the flower men are notoriously independent in the way they live, think, and act!
Rijal Alma village, made almost entirely of stone. The whole village has been turned into a tourist attraction.
Most of the people have left the old houses for easier access to water.
Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia, a sister city to Petra, Jordan. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, located in the
Al-Ula sector. This archaeological site is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans south of
Petra in Jordan. It features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st
century BC to the 1st century AD.
It has 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated. There are also water wells. The site is an
outstanding example of the Nabataeans' culture that you can visit without any tourists!
The mosque of Omar Ibn al-Khattab is located in the town of Dawmat al-Jandal, a major intersection of ancient
trade routes linking Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. The mosque was built in 634-644 with stone.
The Hijaz Railway, conceived as a convenient
route to the holy cities of Medina and Makkah for
Muslim pilgrims from the Turkish Ottoman Empire,
had a short but eventful existence in the early
years of the 20th century.The railway was built In
May 1900, work began to build the single track line
almost 1,100 miles long from Damascus to
Its strategic importance was recognized by the
British in the First World War, and a sabotage
campaign was launched by Lawrence of Arabia
and his Arab guerrillas. So successful were these
raids on the railway that when the war ended in
1918 the Hijaz Railway was effectively destroyed,
just 10 years after it opened.
Al Hamra Open Air Museum is the largest open-air art gallery in the world. During the oil boom in the late 70s and 80s, there
was a focused civic effort at bringing art to Jeddah's public areas. As a result, Jeddah contains an unusually large number of
modern open air sculptures and works of art. Sculptures include works by Arp, Cesar, Calder, Henry Moore, Joan Mir and
Victor Vasarely. Subject matter is often elements of traditional Saudi culture. Islamic tradition prohibits the depiction of living
creatures including humans.
eric lafforgue