SHWARMA AND SPIERS
The other night, a group of friends and I headed into downtown Riyadh for the evening. It's not often that we're allowed to venture outside the barbed wire-topped walls of Eskan Village, the American base on the outskirts of Riyadh. So we eagerly anticipated a night out. Just in case we were tempted to enjoy our freedom too much, we made sure to carry our "get out of jail free" cards. These cards, with writing in both English and Arabic, declare that we inconsiderate thugs of Americans are sorry if we have inadvertently insulted Saudi or Islamic customs. We're supposed to present these cards to the mutawa, the hawkish Saudi religious police, if we get involved in a cultural snafu. I hoped we wouldn't.
Below is a list of perhaps unrelated observations from our adventure:
Soaking up Saudi culture
Lane markings and road signs are completely advisory on Saudi roads. In fact, so are most other rules that govern the sane flow of traffic. Zipping down the highway at 120 kilometers per hour, it's not unusual to encounter another driver careening towards you in the opposite direction at high velocity, using the road's shoulder as a short cut. Most amusing is the behavior of drivers at intersections. When a traffic light turns red, drivers begin to jockey for position, sometimes resulting in six or seven cars crammed at the front of the line in a space designed for two. Usually, the lead car is too far out in the intersection to see the light change, so the driver relies on someone behind him to honk when the light turns green. A favorite game of American drivers is to honk while the light is still red, causing the lead driver to dart out into oncoming traffic. Some spectacular near-wrecks result. I am aware that this game is probably not in keeping with the spirit of international cooperation that we're trying to foster here.
Yes, the rumors are true: if you break certain laws in Saudi Arabia, the authorities will hack off various parts of your body. What's more, they carry out these sentences every Friday afternoon in a huge public square in the middle of downtown Riyadh. During most of the week, Chop-Chop Square (in typical ugly-American fashion, we never learned the square's real name) looks like many other large urban plazas. A geyser of water shoots skyward from an ornate fountain as smiling people stroll past on their way to work or the souk. Young boys whoop and holler as they engage in heated games of pick-up soccer. And on Fridays, in front of cheering crowds, felons get beheaded and minor offenders have their fingers or hands chopped off. As we wandered through Chop-Chop Square (alas, it was a Sunday), my friends and I got into a heated argument about whether we ought to adopt such a form of punishment in the United States. My friends, Republicans all, eagerly thought so. Eat your heart out, John Ashcroft.
Supermarkets and Video Stores
Looking for a taste of home, we wandered into a large, Western-looking supermarket on the edge of downtown Riyadh. Since the same conglomerate that operates stores such as Safeway and Von's also owned this market, it looked like any other supermarket in the United States. Except that a box of Co-Co Puffs costs the equivalent of nine dollars American, which seemed worth it to me at the time. The market even had a video store near the checkout, just like back home. I perused the titles, noting that the shelves held all the latest releases. Yet there was one interesting anomaly: wherever a woman appeared on the cover of a movie box, someone had taken a permanent black marker and colored over her face. On every box, the Meg Ryans and the Drew Barrymores had been hastily scribbled over, in keeping with the Saudi custom that woman--even pictures of women--should not be seen in public. Not surprising, the cover of Erin Brockovich looked a lot better with Julia Roberts blacked out. But strangely, this rule didn't apply to the covers of the compact discs that were for sale next to the videos. For example, dozens of copies of Brittany Spears' albums sat on the shelves, Brittany's half-clothed teenage body gracing the cover of each one. In a flash of international goodwill, I quickly purchased a permanent black marker and scribbled over Brittany's face, happy to have participated in a bit of Saudi culture.
Saudi fast food isn't. Hungry after several hours of haggling in the souks, we stopped into KuKu's, a sidewalk shwarma stand. There was one thing on the menu at KuKu's: shwarma. That's it. So we Americans, used to the moronic efficiency of American fast food restaurants, thought we'd be in and out in no time. But we soon discovered that getting a shwarma out of the proprietors at KuKu's was a physically draining task. The place was a madhouse. First we had to fight our way to the register (line? what line?) to place our order. Once we paid, the man behind the register gave us a receipt and directed us to a counter on the other side of the restaurant to get our orders filled. A throng of people stood at the counter trying to muscle their way to the front to give their receipt to the shwarma maker. This was no place for the timid. The shwarma maker wouldn't even take my receipt unless I pushed, pleaded, and cajoled my way to the front of the line, as if only the strong were worthy of shwarmas (perhaps this is so). Seven or eight employees manned the counter. But inexplicably, only one of them feverishly made shwarmas while the others looked on in idle silence, enjoying the spectacle of the hunger-driven melee. Finally, I grabbed my shwarmas and dashed for the exit. Ah, sweet shwarmas! There's not a culinary delight so perfect: chicken (at least I hope it was chicken), pickles, french fries, peppers, and special sauce, all wrapped up in a warm pita. True Saudi soul food.
No, I'm not proud of the fact that I squandered a rare chance to experience Saudi culture by going to McDonald's. But it's not my fault that there's a McDonald's on every street corner in every major city on the planet. Besides, I really wanted a McFlurry to help cool the fire in my gut from the shwarmas. Interestingly, even the Golden Arches has to succumb to the rigors of Saudi culture. There were two entrances to the restaurant, as there are in every Saudi restaurant, one for men and one for women and families. Inside, an imposing gray barrier separates the dining area, ensuring that men do not eat with women. As I ate, I could hear little kids laughing and playing on the other side of the barrier (the ubiquitous McDonald's ball-crawl was, of course, on the other side of the restaurant). I found it ironic that such a division could be found in a McDonald's. For better or worse, eating at McDonald's is probably the single experience that billions of people on the planet can share. To that end, McDonald's fries taste the same everywhere. Just don't eat them with a woman who's not your wife. The mutawa might get you.
--Jeremy Neuner is on assignment in Saudi Arabia.
By Jeremy Neuner