Hello Jeddah. So we meet again! A lot has happened in the 5 years since our last rendezvous. Historically, sure (insert a global pandemic), and personally, you bet (insert two kids). To say things have changed at my end would be an understatement. But it pales in comparison to you.
If I have accelerated, you have moved lightyears. Take Jeddah airport, for starters. Its bigger, better, friendlier. As soon as we land, we are greeted in English by at least a dozen airport personnel. Every single immigration officer in sight are women. ‘Samira!’ says a niqabi lady in firm, commanding English, snapping me out of my jetlag. Out in the streets under the scorching Middle Eastern sun, I spot them taking up their God given space behind steering wheels, trendy abayas swishing out of fancy Mercs. This was a far cry from Jeddah 2017 and I am genuinely, delightfully, taken aback.
At arrivals, we bump into Papa (my father-in-law), along with an army of sharks. And a host of other Red Sea fishies. Part of King Abdulaziz International Airport’s new façade boasts a spectacular aquarium – the largest of its kind in the world – strategically poised at arrivals to wow you. The rest of the trip will continue in that vein, as the city’s beautiful art, architecture and mosques enamour us wherever we go. Flags flutter in abundance from every corner of the city, as though one wasn’t quiet allowed to forget. Once again, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me remind you out here. You are listening to SRFM, your one stop entertainment. The People’s radio – is the heart of KSA!
Its only my second visit to Saudi (as Bangladeshis love to call it, much to Nizar’s bemusement) but its far from foreign to me. The combined effect of my Jeddawi husband’s childhood stories, a prior visit in 2017, and a spiritual connection forged from afar with the birthplace of Islam, makes this distant land feel achingly familiar. I have only spent mere weeks here and yet as the Azaan blares from the magnificent mosques, I feel an instantaneous connection to this land. Like a Wi-Fi network whose password has been set in my heart since birth.
I auto-connect to this special Wi-Fi even before we leave London. Taking off from Heathrow, we find ourselves in an alternate multiverse, such is the speed with which things change within our surroundings. People scramble to pray (there is a designated prayer area inside the aircraft), while travel duas are recited as the cabin crew prepare for take off. The airhostesses greet us with Salaam, and praise my children with Masha Allah. It’s as though someone had commanded a very specific instruction. Alexa, switch to Muslim zone!
Saudia Flight SV112 touches down at Jeddah Airport at 1 am the morning. That tell-tale rush of being someplace different hits home but I don’t fully register it. Flying across continents with an infant and a 4 year old has sufficiently dulled my travel-induced dopamine levels. I am desperate for sleep and it takes a full day for me to recuperate enough to post our mandatory Airport Reel (my favourite kind, FYI). Jetlag somewhat under control, we step out to tend to the first order of business – Al Baik. We order without restraint – chicken meal, spicy chicken meal, chicken fillet sandwich and fish fillet meal. It costs us around 93 SAR (Saudi Riyal) which translates to roughly £20. Its a DEAL. (And this is after a significant rise in Al Baik prices in recent times).
Tummies full, we make our way to a local mall – the first of many. Malls in KSA are a way of life. Mall of Arabia, Haifaa Mall, Al Salaam Mall, Le Mall (talk about originality, LOL) – there are too many to count. With closing times being 2 am in the morning, there’s absolutely zero rush to get your shopping done. Aryan makes a beeline for the play areas while I rush in my abaya to grab Tim Horton’s (I can confirm that my Canadian friends don’t overhype their Timmies one bit!).
You don’t realise the extent to which your modern life relies on apps till you have to make do without them. Whatsapp calls are still flaky in KSA, much to my annoyance. I begrudgingly download IMO, but eventually figure out that I can use Facebook Messenger. One of the prerequisites for entering KSA was to download the tracing app Tawakkalna, a residual thing from stricter Covid days.
There is no such thing as ‘too many apps’, so under the heavy influence of targeted ads, we quickly download Hungry Station (Jeddah’s Deliveroo). We use it to order more Al Baik. Aryan has fallen in love with their garlic sauce, making his father beam with pride. I have to draw the line when my son starts to treat it like a meal on its own.
From the day our Jeddah plans started taking shape, Nizar and I had been looking forward to the city’s culinary offerings. The Jeddah food scene is LIT – you aren’t spoilt for choice here, you are literally bombarded with them. The diet is heavily Pepsi-centric. Every menu in every restaurant is married to the drink – to eat a meal without Pepsi is simply unthinkable.
Only in Jeddah would you come across Pepsi cans flaunting the city name, a nod to the ongoing Jeddah Season. For the unversed, Jeddah Season is a local festival dedicated to celebrating summer, and how. With events such as Jeddah Jungle, Jeddah Yacht Club, and Jeddah Art Promenade, the nine festivity zones set up across the city had something for everyone. Jeddah lacks an extensive public transport system – apart from that, its an undeniably wonderful city for a family with young kids.
We manage to catch some of the fun at Jeddah Pier (think
Winter Summer Wonderland). The atmosphere at the pier is the closest thing to a party that I have attended in a while. Enlivened with Western music pumping loudly over burkha and thobe clad crowds, it’s a scene that many may not expect to see in this part of the world. I sneak away from my family to get my face painted and sip on Iced Pistachio Latte from @essocoffeeksa, gazing into the sunset along the Red Sea. What a privilege, and delight, it is to witness sunset in a different corner of the world. In ten minutes, I am energized and upbeat. I am feeling myself.
On Day 10, we are back at King Abdulaziz International Airport for a domestic flight. The new terminal’s vibe is very modern desert oasis, with gorgeous ceiling details, abundant greenery, and a majestic control tower. The Zuhr azaan, so rarely heard inside an airport, makes it feels like a little corner of Paradise. A Paradise that serves Al Baik chicken sandwiches.
Landing into Madinah, I stare wide eyed at the towering band of rocky mountains, standing upright like God’s soldiers. Oh the history they have seen! The weather is both piercingly hot and strangely peaceful, in a way only Madinah can be.
We grab karak chai on our way to the hotel and its so good, I find myself plunged into a sudden crisis. How was I supposed to navigate a future without my 10 SAR doses of Karak? ‘Tea doesn’t cool at the same rate here as it does in London,’ Nizar observes solemnly, his lips hovering cautiously near the piping hot cup.
We freshen up at the hotel and immediately make our way to Al-Masjid an-Nabawi to catch Maghrib prayers. The hot wind hammers down on us with full July force as we join the throng of people walking towards the mosque. The first sight of the minarets is a pinch-me moment, and we unanimously quicken our pace. The heady mix of spiritual adrenaline and the Madinah heat makes me feel giddy with anticipation. Was I truly back here, with my children, to pray at my beloved Prophet’s (SAW) mosque?
We part ways in front of the green dome. I take Aydin in my arms and make my way to the women’s section while Aryan goes inside the mosque with his father and grandfather. Aydin falls asleep within minutes, so I lay him down on the prayer mats. Someone gives me a bag of food. Its the first day of Dhul Hijjah and most people gathered at the mosque are fasting. Inside the bag, I find a wholesome array of dates, yoghurt and the precious Madinah Bread.
The golden hour setting upon the beautiful minarets is so surreal, suddenly I cannot quite believe it. How was this MY life? How did I, of all people, get chosen to come here? To this place? I sat there eating my London snacks (Nutella sticks), cradling my 7 month old, and marvelling at my good fortune. At the significance of all the imperfect life events that had lead up to this one, perfect moment. As I looked around me at the believing mothers and their children, a strange sense of belonging surged through me. Seeing motherhood through the lens of faith was so powerful, it felt like an out of body experience. This was a side of worship that I did not have access to growing up in Bangladesh. It reassured me that women, and mothers, belonged right here, at the mosque. The Prophet’s (SAW) mosque, no less.
Post Maghrib, Aryan comes bouncing out with his new prayer mat from @khamsa.co. People inside the mosque had showered him with treats as a token of appreciation for showing up to pray. As we snuggled into our hotel bed later that night, he cannot stop asking questions. Why doesn’t Allah come to visit us, Mummy? When can we meet Allah? When will we visit Makkah? He has seen the live Hajj footage on the hotel TV and is looking forward to visit. This one trip has done more for my Aryan than all my attempts to expose him to Islamic books and YouTube channels. I go to sleep feeling a wonderful sense of contentment.
Next morning we have a quick breakfast before heading back to pray Jummah at Al-Masjid an-Nabawi with 90k+ Hajj pilgrims. My heart swells with gratitude. I hadn’t specifically planned this, but surely, Allah is the Best of planners. The midday heat scorches us dry so we help ourselves to the coolness of Zamzam. Lunch is a hurried affair at a Pakistani restaurant where we chance upon the best mutton karahi I have ever had.
On our flight back to Jeddah, everyone falls asleep – except me. I crane my neck to peer down at the little water bodies and mountains, wondering what kind of organisms live amongst them. There is something about watching uninhabited lands from the vantage point of the skies that makes you take stock of the smallness that is you and the Greatness that is Allah. The golden hour haze makes the land down below look like a giant molten chocolate cake.
Two weeks into Saudi life, I find myself saying la la when Ary wants the nth treat (Dada Bhai has been spoiling him like crazy). Salamalaikum. Marhaba! Mafi Mushkil. Khalas. Kaif halak? My basic grip of Arabic makes me very proud. I slide into my burkhas with ease, and cant help buying new ones, at one point so sure that I can wear them in London that I don’t even feel guilty about my dubious excuses. Cats lulling in the streets, softy icecream by the Corniche (which melts instantly under the 35C weather), Danube grocery hauls and a side of Tabbouleh with our meals – we have found a happy rhythm amidst the sights, smells and ways of Jeddah. But then the bubble gets broken when Aydin gets ill from the scorching heat, prompting one very panicked hospital visit. He has started crawling during this time so we find ourselves spending a big chunk of our day stopping him from hurting himself, something he seems to be keen on doing.
One thing that strikes me repeatedly over our nearly month long stay is the ease with which you can live your life as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia. Here prayers didn’t have to fit around busy lifestyles, you dropped everything to pray. There are mosques in every corner of the city, even inside malls, so you don’t have to make your prayers qaza while shopping. It really made me think hard about the urgency with which I offer my own prayers. It is not the same in London, obviously, and how lucky were those who get to keep prayers at the forefront of life wherever they go? As it is meant to be?
Every day in Jeddah is an opportunity to indulge our gustatory senses. I love the idea of eating Shawarma that costs 6 SAR (the average London shawarma costs £6, or 26 SAR). Tongue sandwich at Palm Beach is a treat, but when I try their liver sandwich, I know I have hit jackpot. We brunch at @siblings.sa and it’s hands down one of the best brunches we have ever had. When I post the stories on Instagram, people cant quite process the modern Jeddah vibe. Old Jeddawis who have grown up with mutawas are shocked by the free mixing of both sexes. Compare this to 2006 when Nizar and his guy friend had to ask a female family member to join them just so that they could enter a café, and you begin to appreciate the trajectory the city has taken to get this far.
Its not just the fancy places that sell the good grub. Nizar goes crazy at Danube supermarket and gets me hooked on Saudia icecream sandwiches. Then there’s sun chips, the BEST chocolate doughnuts at Dunkin Donuts, and of course, the ubiquitous cups of karak chai. Pistachio is a common flavour here, we consume it in copious amounts in doughnuts and even lattes. We cannot have enough of mandi, a traditional Saudi food. We visit As Sajjah restaurant twice for this special meal. The ritual of tucking into a giant plate of rice topped with the most tender meat has its very specific charm. Both times we order the kunafah for pudding. The overdose of meat finally gets to me, so much so that I make it a point to eat grilled hamour (an Arabic fish) the night before our flight back to London.
The Western culture influence in Jeddah has gone up several notches since our last visit. Maybe it was always present, but now it almost feels state-approved and abetted. From the music at Jeddah pier to the explosion of cafes with names like ‘Overdose’, you really cannot miss it. What is also very visible is the huge group of women who have joined the public workforce. Women working the cafe, some of them without a hijab or even abayas, all pointed towards a Jeddah rapidly shedding its stricter codes.
During this short stay, we got to spend two special occasions with my FIL: Nizar’s 34th birthday and Eid-Ul-Azha. The boys got traditional Saudi attires while I bought a pretty two-toned abaya. As we pottered around doing some last minute shopping at the mall, the Takbeer Tashreeq blared loudly from the speakers in an unending loop: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, La Ilaha Ilallah. Wallahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Wa Lillahil Hamd.
On Eid morning, Nizar and my father-in-law woke up early for Eid prayers, and visited my mother-in-law’s grave. Lunch was a fabulous seafood affair by the Red Sea with a lush side of sunset views. I don’t think there is any feeling in the world that comes close to witnessing the sun dipping into the sea, with the soft lapping music of the waves crashing inside your very heart. Subha Na Allah! Aryan loved watching the crabs scuttling on the rocks and Aydin loved his first taste of fish.
Normally Makkah would have happened earlier in our trip but Hajj season dictated that we wait. On Eid Day 3, nearly 3 weeks into our KSA trip, we set off for the holy land by bus. I love bus journeys in general but a bus journey to Makkah is as special as it gets. Spiritually, yes, but visually too. I love the mountains whizzing by, the arid desert stretching out for miles on end. I drank in the views over fistfuls of Bugle chips as my little one snoozed on my lap.
Umrah is a life changing experience. The first time feels overwhelming, and completely surreal. The second time, you really get to savour it. Even though it was a different experience as a parent, I loved doing Umrah with my kids. Even though it was over 2-5 am, even though I had to wear Baby Aydin most of the time, even though it was a lot more humid in June. I knew and understood the whole process more, and I had the profound realisation that Allah had willed this for me and my family. We were invited to His house – the honour and beauty of that thought felt too big for my human mind to adequately process.
After the physical exertion of Umrah with a 4 year old (who did Safa and Marwah like a champ – he was excited to run under the green lights and thought it was a fun game) and an 8 month old (who was excitedly up for most of the time, sleeping just before the grand finale of Fajr prayers), we trooped back to the hotel completely spent. We were up in less than 6 hours to catch our return bus. For lunch we snapped up some wraps from a local boofiya. Once back in Jeddah, I also got to try the street food Balila, a bit like a tangier version of our deshi chotpoti.
Almost a month in Jeddah made the goodbye quite hard. The kids loved spending time with their grandfather. Aryan got to play at Chuck E. Cheese (an obsession he had picked up from watching American Kid YouTubers), knock himself out at the playground at Prince Majed Park, and eat all the Al Baik sauce his little body could digest. Nizar got to spend Eid with his Dad in his birth town after 12+ years and celebrate his 34th birthday with his most favourite food in the whole wide world. As for me, this blog post will testify how much the trip meant to me. And how much I still hoped to get out of this land.
As we embarked upon our return flight, I had no doubt that we would be back, In Sha Allah. For the food, for the spiritual top-up, for the (hopefully more expansive) sightseeing (I have my sights on you, Al Ula). I am so not done with you, KSA!