One of my husband’s first shopping experiences was in downtown Al Rahima, a small town near the Ras Tanura compound. He was looking for an electrical appliance and found that he had to walk around a rather large crowd of Saudis who were watching a TV set in the window of the store.
On emerging from the store, he got curious and navigated the crowd to secure a better view. He was flabbergasted that they were watching Billy Graham, a fundamental Western Christian preacher, holding forth and preaching the gospel of Jesus. Apparently, the crowd was enthralled.
My first shopping experience on the compound in Ras Tanura was when I spotted a large truck laden with fruit and vegetables parked outside a neighbor’s house. I immediately marched over to discover two Indian brothers selling their goods. I remember being thrilled to find lemons from Lebanon, mangoes from India and kiwis from Sri Lanka; this was literally a global fruit basket on wheels.
This truck became the primary provider of all our fruit and vegetables for six years. After bagging my choices, they would politely carry the bounty into the kitchen and place it right on the counter. I noticed I was always more grateful for the service and the foods than I am in a grocery store back home. I loved the sense of simplicity, the ease and grace we were privileged to observe. We also were relieved of concerns regarding Monsanto and GMOs. Because the produce came from around the globe, we had to throw concern to the wind and simply receive, be grateful and eat well. Sadly, after 9/11, the fruit men ceased coming. We were told that they did not fulfill the new security rules, so they were no longer permitted on camp. I often look back on that shopping experience with great longing.
Another perennial colorful character was the “fish man,” who would come to the door with a battered and beaten old truck laden with coolers of amazing fresh fish. His unique value-added proposition was delivering fresh produce directly from the sea. Not only would he sell the shrimp, hamour or red snapper, but he would come into the kitchen, hijack one’s sink and start peeling and cleaning the fish. He varied from being grumpy to feisty and funny. Speaking broken English, he basically commandeered the kitchen, demanding specific equipment. I laughed and let him get on with the task.
And then there was Tex, practically an institution in his own right. Tex was a Saudi who grew up in Texas in the seventies. He traveled door to door around the compound with artifacts: old Yemeni or Bedouin jewelry, amazing pots, old rugs, samovars—and a Texan accent as big as his truck. He showed up with a driver and would march into the house with armfuls of junk or treasure. Over the years thousands of Aramcons have become the owners, custodians and beneficiaries of various and sundry pots, old knives, ancient jewelry, doors and window frames, which now decorate their homes and remind them of their other home in Saudi.
Lots of treasures and fun experiences were gleaned in the markets and souks. Souks were full of wonder and amusing items that either tickled or puzzled my Western mind, and they made life easy, as they were essentially groupings of similar stores. There are souks devoted to gold, spices, electrical items, kitchenware, clothing and household goods. One friend found a perfume called Viagra when shopping in the very old city of Hofuf. There were multiple “fix-it” stores. My favorite watch store handled all the major luxury brands, and everything could be repaired in a couple of days. We formed personal relationships with people, like Abdullah the watch repairer, Mohammed the tailor and another Mohammed from Pakistan who repaired our shoes. (Everything got repaired and/or recycled.)
After years of exploration, my personal favorite became the kitchen souk, which was run by a tall willowy Saudi fellow who perennially wore dark glasses and reminded me of Geordie in the Star Wars movies. Piles of pots and pans were stacked as high as the ceiling. They even spilled out onto the sidewalks where dozens of teapots, kettles and coffee pots—from primitive to modern in every size, shape and color—seemed to reflect the basic Saudi value of hospitality. To this day my kitchen reflects the contents of these stores.
Shopping was limited to stealing short windows of opportunity between prayers, meals and after sleep basically. The average shopping day would be relegated to getting on the 9 a.m. bus. When our girls were little, my friend and I would take our four-year-olds down to the bus in the morning. Frequently the merchants would hand them sample perfumes or a little set of brass cups and saucers and other miniature goodies that produced delight and surprise from the girls.
The buses would take us to either Al Shulah mall downtown or the Al Rashid mall, a large, shiny facility opened recently after our arrival. Sadly the Al Shulah mall burned down in 1996, shortly after we arrived. The streets around King Khalid Street were our primary stomping grounds. We came to know the shop owners by name; they were warm, friendly, gracious and welcoming. If we arrived early in the morning we would often score a wonderful little gift, a baksheesh, since their tradition states that making the first sale of the day is an omen of success, and ritual requires that you give generously by giving back, like paying it forward.
Prior to 9/11, getting ready to go shopping meant dressing relatively modestly with arms and legs covered with loose, flowy garments. During the “reign of terror” years, security became a much greater issue, and we were asked to show our ID cards upon getting on a bus, so the driver could be absolutely certain we were bona fide Aramcons. The other major shift was in how we dressed. In the eighteen months after 9/11, more and more Westerners could be found wearing the abaya downtown and in the malls.
This was a very personal decision. No one told us to wear one, and to my knowledge no one suggested or requested we wear one. If they had, there would have been an outcry. As a matter of personal choice, I started wearing the abaya because I could wear no sleeves and a pair of exercise pants underneath it, which gave me a sense of freedom. My primary focus was to avoid attention. A conversation could frequently be heard between the old-timers who had lived in Kingdom for decades and the newbies who had just arrived and were doing their best to “follow the rules,” except the rules were never one-hundred percent clear.
About the Author
A native of Scotland, Doreen Cumberford worked for the British Government in London and Cameroon in the mid-1970s, then an American corporation in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates immediately after. She has been an entrepreneur, coach, writer and speaker while traveling these last four decades.
Doreen has lived in seven countries on four continents, including the Middle East for 18 years. Doreen coaches, speaks and writes about using travel as a tool for transformation, together with the necessary mindset to process international transitions and constant travel with ease and grace.
Life in the Camel Lane, part memoir part primer, reveals stories from her time in Saudi Arabia, and is her 2nd book.