We have been here about six days now, and It’s been interesting, I’ve noticed a few things. There are malls, and then there are sort-of-malls. Women’s movements are restricted, yet ironically there are more options for them to choose from than men, although, a woman can forget about exercise (Amore Fitness would thrive here). They don’t socialise through clubs, under the shroud of darkness, but the young socialise in malls in a sort-of shroud of darkness. People really don’t head out til past 5pm when there’s a larger gap between prayer times, and then finally no more prayers scheduled for the rest of the evening. It’s dawned on us though, we won’t be one of those people because the kids wind down for bed at about 6pm, but then, perhaps that means we will be avoiding crowds then.
We’ve been using Uber to get around, and after six trips I’m pretty satisfied with the service so far ; the cars are clean, the drivers are polite. How did I find out about Uber..? Oh my, I can’t even remember, from one of my internet trawlings no doubt, but thank goodness I did! I understand it originated in the US, and then has tried to make a mark in Europe but was met with a bunch of taxi strikes against them. It then established in the middle east in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and probably other cities in the GCC, before venturing into Riyadh and finally Jeddah. They’re not considered Taxis, but kind of work on the same premise. They’re not flagged down on the street, but summoned through their smart phone app. There’s one other company called Careem that was here first doing the same thing, but I’ve not tried them.
The reason I decided to skip taxis entirely is because of all the stories I’ve heard and read. The instruction from my parents on using a taxi here was, use them only when desperate; my husband must get in first before the children and I, and on alighting, my husband must exit last. I’ve read on forums and blogs where the authors, women travelling alone, were taken for a long ride while getting leered at, women and children simply disappearing into thin air, receiving propositions of marriage, fending off attempted kisses, it all sounds really traumatic so I’m not even going to go there. Uber on the other hand is advertised to be very professional and safe for women.
The way men and women interact here is very different from what I’m accustomed to, but it does explain a few things. Being friendly, smiling, making small talk simply because we are human beings no matter male or female, doesn’t apply here. If a woman smiles at a man, makes eye contact, says hello-please-thank you, it is perceived as a show of interest, or even being loose. Particularly so if a woman’s hair is not covered. This explains why to us, some people seem really stuck up, or rude! So the lesson is, to draw less attention to oneself, if alone, cover the hair, don’t chat unnecessarily with the opposite sex, and don’t make eye contact. Pretty easy for me because I’m not a particularly friendly person to begin with. But I have not covered my hair.
Still there are exceptions. There are many, many, many Saudis who have travelled, are educated abroad, and understand cultures other than the local one. In our cultural language, we understand this genre of people to be a bit more like us, which is always a little comforting when somewhere foreign. I met one lady like this at a shop called The Store.
Malls! Jeddah is not bereft of shopping. The major ones here are Red Sea Mall, and Mall of Arabia, and at the time of writing,I think are one of the newer additions to the city. They are the malls as I understand malls to be, a huge building where upon entering you will find all the stores inside them, spread across several floors (like in Singapore, Takashimaya, or Paragon, or Raffles City, or in London, Westfields). Then there are malls which I don’t understand to be malls at all, but here they’re called malls. It’s more like a slightly smaller, huge building (whut?), where the shop fronts of that building each open to the outdoors, so there is no main lobby. The few that I’ve seen are pretty flash looking, and several of them line a street referred to as Tahlia. One is called Le Mall and that building houses Strarbucks, Pizza Express, Piatto, Shake Shack, The Cheesecake Factory and PF Chang’s, which all open up to a little driveway parallel to the main road, which means they’re in full view of Tahlia Road. There are other malls like this on Tahlia, like Etoile, Le Chateau and the one where The Store is on except I don’t know what the name of that building is… Apart from these malls, there are the traditional malls on Tahlia road, like Tahlia Mall, or Teatro mall which have a main lobby indoors, and a main entrance to enter the building before you dart off to whatever shop you fancy. Then there are also the large standalone buildings that line Tahlia, housing brands like Bvlgari, Burberry, Cartier, Patchi, American Eagle, Marks and Spencer. We visited Teatro mall for lunch, and upon entering, discovered it only houses a bank and restaurants. A huge, ostentatious building with a high, glass ceiling and all it has is about 8 cafes and restaurants. It was beautiful, but slightly bizarre.
Down the road (a 5 minute walk) from Teatro Mall, is The Store. It’s one of the stores that make up a small stretch of about six stores housed in one rectangular building, each store having their own entrance from the road. You can see it from Tahlia road, but look out for Cartier and Patchi which are larger and more prominent, and The Store sits right behind them. Ooh I love The Store. I think it’s considered upmarket, it is rather westernised in design, has a very ‘industrial, vintage, rustic’ theme (I hate those words) running through the three floors that make up its shop space. And it only admits Women. So, the kids and I headed in to the cool air-conditioning while the husband waited outside in the heat. This is what I mean where women seem to have better options out here. Some malls have timings where single men cannot enter, some shops in the malls have signs that say Families Only, which means, women or women with their families (ie, their husbands are allowed to tag along). The Store doesn’t allow men in at all. The husband wandered off to Tahlia mall, but because it was in between afternoon prayer times, the shops in the mall simply shut because the two prayer times are so close together that there’s no point opening at all. He felt weird; there were mainly women there, and their families in the mall, all looking at him like he didn’t belong, it was very dimly lit, and shops were closed. Retreat! The kids and I on the other hand had a lovely time. I felt safe, women were smiling, staff were friendly and helpful, and because there are no men, the abayas were not necessary. On the second floor there is a cafe, which I will be back for soon I’m sure.
It was while browsing for abayas on the 1st floor that I met a lovely Saudi lady. I asked her what the deal was with abayas that have no closure in the front, and basically resemble a bath robe. I wondered how this was accepted as modest in the local context. She said, that open abayas are really meant for ladies who basically come out of the house, hop into the car, and get out at school, or at a friend’s house where they shed the abaya again anyway. These were not what she considered as shopping abayas, where a closed front abaya would be more practical or comfortable. And the length needn’t be so long such that we’re sweeping the floor, because really, it’s not safe, despite seeing a lot of women wearing it this way. Fancy getting stuck in an escalator or shopping trolley wheel? Not really. She also said, it’s perfectly normal for ladies to sew on snap buttons onto open front abayas to make them a bit more versatile if the need arises for (even) more modesty. She then asked me if we’d met before in South of France, because I look so much like a Singaporean girl she’d met there twenty years ago. Well, I would have been 13 years old at the time, and I thought, you know, us Chinesey faces all look the same. In any case, I’d never met her before, but for a first encounter, she seemed very pleasant. She even offered me her telephone number if ever I need help navigating Jeddah.
Today, I took the kids out to a mall nearby in the hopes of finding a pharmacy again. (The last pharmacist gave me a syrup meant for my 3 year old daughter’s cold with his instruction, “3ml, twice a day” . But when I got back and checked the leaflet it said, 2.5mls for children 6-12 years old; for children under 6 do not give. Excuse me, but what an idiot.)
Serafi Mega Mall caters to a completely different demographic from what I was hoping for. I realise I sound like a snob, but in this environment where I feel safer with people who are slightly more global, smaller malls hold no attraction for me, the lone grownup and my two young kids. We got there soon after opening time, and many of the shops were open. They were however small, and the mall is oldish. We wandered up to the foodcourt, and while waiting for our pizza, I was watching the goings on. First of all, everybody smokes indoors (insert expletive). Second of all, there were alot of young people, moving around in same sex packs. Then I realised (and I could hear my parents voices in my head from when they were in Riyadh), these people were socialising! Albeit from afar. (Right, anyone who hasn’t been to Saudi will probably find my astonishment weird, but here, segregation of the sexes is very apparent and is the norm. To say that the reason for it is Islamic might be a bit myopic, it really is a bit more complicated than that, and could be a whole other post altogether.)
Now all the girls, and ladies are dressed in black abayas (in a poshier environment, we’d see more colourful, designer abayas), many are actually really pretty (the abayas not the girls, although many of them also have very pretty faces). All wear hijabs, expertly wrapped and somehow very securely, despite not using pins. I noticed one young girl re-wrapping and she pulled the portion of hijab from under her chin, up to cover her face up to the nose. Interesting. There was one group of five girls sitting at the table next to us. Then I noticed this one bunch of boys going round and round in circles. And each group glancing over at the other. It’s all very subtle, but obviously, something is going on. So here we are with young girls in the safety of their modest, black abaya, clothed in darkness, somehow managing to put out signals to the opposite sex, and vice versa from the boys (who aren’t dressed in black, but you get what I mean). Then it dawned on me, how it wasn’t dissimilar to a club in the westernised context. Many club because they’re hoping to meet someone, and in the safety of darkness and drink where we become a bit more bold, and our flaws are a little bit blurred. Here, it happens in the malls. Not much different, no?
Brought the pizza back to the hotel, and now we’re holed up in the room with nothing to do (explains maybe the epic post today), because afternoon prayer times are so close together and most shops in the mall would be closed. Which explains why the Red Sea Mall was so quiet that first time we headed out. Luckily for us, that day, Applebee’s was open, yeahhh burgers! Maybe I’ll bring the kids down to the pool, where I cannot get into the pool for fear my ovaries become weapons of mass destruction upon contact with water. Am really upset that I can’t use the gym as well. Women can’t lift, we’ll break.
[I don’t work for Uber, but in case you’ve found this post because you’ve googled for more info on Uber, I hope this has helped you. It works by phone app, which you sign into and where you save your credit card information. You set your pick up location via its GPS, and then request for a car where you then indicate your intended destination. The app will tell you if the request was successful and give you an estimated time at which your car will arrive. I have had one driver cancel on us on his way to us, and I had to make another request. Twice I’ve been prompted by the app if I would accept a rate surge because demand for uber cars were high at that time. I didn’t completely understand what that meant, and I had accepted a 3x rate surcharge (300%!). After the ride, we get sent receipts in our email and I compared the ride out and the ride back, and the ride out was indeed 3 times the return trip, along the same route. So you can either decline the surge and wait it out or accept it and get a car sooner. This is a cashless system. You get into the car, reach your destination, and get out. Your credit card is charged for the ride. Also, their office tracks their drivers on their GPS system which the drivers use to navigate the roads, too, which makes the whole thing that little bit safer (although let’s not get complacent alright, there’s always a risk). If in the system, let’s say, you keyed in that you wanted to go to Red Sea Mall, but on their system it shows you were dropped off about 1km away from the mall, the office will call the driver, and maybe call the customer to check if everything is okay. In another scenario (and this was told to us by one of our drivers), if a driver regularly uses a route that is too long, the office will call him, and enquire as to why, and suggest a better route.
Like iHerb.com, for signing up and using the service, I now have a code for you to save SAR40 on your first ride if you use my code. I will earn SAR40 as a credit to my account when you use the code, so it’s win-win. This is not dodgy, have you used iHerb?? It’s brilliant, and painless. Use the code. I wish I had had one when I signed up. Uber Promo Code: safiraa2 ]