– Originally posted 16th November 2013.
Down the mountain from Abha, the sloping landscape and winding roads from as far south as Jizan and almost as far north as Jeddah encompass the lands called Tihama. Important historically in the frankincense trade, and culturally for its Tihami flower people. They have often been cut off from the West until recently, which means I can pretty much guarantee that most people reading this have never been there, and never even had it on their list. To get to Faifa (a town starting to put itself on the tourist map), our main destination, we had to go right through Tihama, down near Jizan and then up again to Faifa.
Camels! Glorious camels! Humming birds (well…one), kites (the bird kind, and again…one), baboons, sheep, goats and donkeys all stop by at the side of the road to cheer us on at some point. Also dead dogs. They seem like road kill, but they also seem to be left to rot, which isn’t a pleasant sight for anyone – never mind just dog lovers.
We hold our breathe at times as our driver demonstrates the fine line between excellent and terrible driving. At this point, my vote was with terrible. I was later to change my mind. I think.
Abha and Khamis are quite cool at this time of year, about 20c in the day, so it was nice to drive down into 30c+ in the Jizan area on a November morning. I should explain about the driving. Whilst I have a license and I’m willing to drive to places, finding people to go with us on trips who own cars is much more desirable for many obvious reasons. This day we went with some students of mine. I should explain about the “we” as well really. My Korean friend from Britain, yes that’s what I said, has started working for our college. We’ve only ever met in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, not sure where next – Afghanistan?
We climbed back up to Faifa, and it took me a while to realise that there are trees and plants everywhere. It’s actually remarkably green, which for Saudi Arabia is welcome – especially considering Abha is considered to be one of the greener towns, which I think means more than 3 trees and 10 blades of grass. The place was deserted, as we came during Friday prayers. It gave us a chance to stop undisturbed and take photos of the sloping terraced farms, houses on cliff edges and cable cars that transport belongings and groceries from one house to another. It really is quite nice and worth checking out. After a lamb lunch (where we got a very brief glimpse of the local gat, which I hadn’t seen since Ethiopia. The mind boggles as to how they get away with chewing that stuff in the open in Saudi Arabia – it seems Yemeni culture is alive and well down there) I found a local kid wearing a wizara, the local Asiri sarong style clothing, complete with jambiya, their ornamental (I hope) daggers. With the dad’s permission, we dazzled him and another kid dressed in the more obviously Saudi thobe and shemagh, with our camera flashes and great big signs that said “we’re tourists.” There weren’t many people dressed in this local kind of clothing, which was a bit disappointing to be honest. Didn’t they get the memo that we were coming?
On the way down, we saw some white men taking photos whom our new Saudi friend took delight in shouting a thousand welcomes at out of the window. Then we nearly drove off the cliff as our driver got distracted haranguing a baboon.
Back down the mountain, we parked up on Al Shaqaiq beach where I was surprised to find a very loose form of segregation, which seemed to just be “park where you think is appropriately far enough away from families.” Since it was rammed, this meant not very far away at all. So some lucky ladies got to see our sun reflecting white bodies from not too far away. The Red Sea is warm and a little too salty. Swimming in the Red Sea at sunset, watching the glowing red ball in the sky go down isn’t too bad all things considered. It was a strange scene I think. Families swimming and having barbecues on the beach as the sun goes down, whilst the ruffians skid around in the sand behind them in their pickup trucks, flashing their lights everywhere, and inevitably getting stuck in the sand.
After dinner, we coerced some flower men into getting their picture taken with me. By coerced I mean I got my Saudi friend to ask them. They weren’t dressed like real flower men, they were just regular guys who had flowers on their head, but it was close enough. Came away with some flowers for my head, which was nice. I got given the crap ones unfortunately, the guy with the good headgear offered a fraction too late and I was already putting my hand out to take the first ones offered. Couldn’t quite think how to refuse the first ones and accept the second ones…
My opinion of the driving changed as we got close to Abha. We ground to a halt, as there was a huge traffic jam. Asking people who were turning back, it seemed there was an accident all the way in Abha (20km away) and we were advised to turn back and try again tomorrow. Well. The finest example of crazy, dangerous, precise, skillful and bullish driving I’ve seen got us to the front in no time at all. He would fail a British driving test, but I would have failed the Saudi push your way to the front test.
Some might say seeing a humming bird, or lots of camels would be their highlight of the day. Others that visiting a fairly hard to get to village (it’s steep and dangerous when it rains) near the Saudi-Yemeni border would be. Maybe seeing the sun set whilst swimming in the warm Red Sea would top people’s list. However, I think I’m going to have to go with finding a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer in one of the shops. Completely blew me away. It wasn’t even a big shop, it was just there at the side of the road. Day absolutely made.
As a final note, I need to mention something about Saudi culture. Wilfred Thesiger was right. Saudi generosity is astounding. They are illogically generous with their time, equipment and money. I had a lovely conversation with the two chaps above about culture and this blog, and I talked about this generosity which seems to come naturally, and uncompromisingly – it’s really difficult/impossible to pay for things when you’re with them (we did manage to run away and buy our own swimming shorts before they could get them though!). It was perhaps the best day I’ve had in Saudi Arabia, and when I go home and Saudi Arabia starts to slip from my mind like it will, and people throw out the usual negatives about the place, I’ll tell them about my trip to Faifa and Shaqaiq with these gents. They are Saudi, they didn’t choose to be, they didn’t write their history books or create their laws, but they did choose to be nice guys and treat us magnificently.
Tomorrow in class, we’re reading a passage from Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (a previous blog post) about Arab generosity, because I want them to know that some Brits actually do have some remarkably good things to tell about their culture. We’re also reading it because my students are most definitely better than yours and we can read classic English literature on a Sunday morning.