The ladies of Khamis Mushayt, Saudi Arabia
Perched on top of a formidable escarpment close to the Red Sea sits Khamis Mushayt, a small and unassuming city in the heart of a fertile, Bedouin-dominated and seemingly forgotten corner of Saudi Arabia. Khamis is one hour’s flight from Jeddah but feels like a hundred years from the rest of Saudi Arabia’s neon lit, mega-mall cities. When I moved there as a child in 1990 the ‘city’ seemed bleak. Its few roads gave way to desert tracks immediately outside the city centre, there was no such thing as a shopping mall and aside from the mind-numbing 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle we’d managed to find in the corner of a sweet shop, there was very little to do. We had settled ourselves on a compound, charmingly named ‘Arabian Gulf’, which consisted of twenty-five tin trailers prone to daily water and power cuts and an icy green swimming pool – which was intermittently heated during some times of the year and remained obstinately immune to the sun’s warm rays for the rest. It was during one of these power cuts, while seeking refuge under the palm trees in our garden - tin trailers are shockingly hot without air conditioning, that my mother and I first became the target of the famed Arab hospitality. A lady dressed in an ankle length, colourful robe beckoned to us, “Come, we have cool garden, come and eat watermelon with us.” This lady was Bessima, and from that moment on my mother and I were granted entry into the secret world of Arabian wives.
All preconceptions we had hitherto held were immediately dispelled. Far from being a timid and subservient bunch, here were a riotous, fiercely proud and obscenely generous manner of women.
We were immediately welcomed into the fold, taught to speak Arabic and versed in the art of cooking native dishes.
We also had an inside glimpse into the runnings of an Arab family and were amused and surprised at the sharpness with which the wives spoke to their husbands and heaven help the man who forgot something from the supermarket! Neighbours became friends and subsequently we became the friends of all their friends – such was the kindliness of their nature. Any party that was happening, we were invited to it. As soon as the men were out of sight, the robes came off and the women competed to do outdo each other with their glamorous dresses and perfectly coiffed hair. Far from being staid events where women sat quietly in the female room, the women were the most raucous; laughing saucily together while showing off the scandalously risqué lingerie they had bought to entertain their husbands with.
The families opened their doors to even the most intimate events. Our neighbours, a Palestinian family, had two beautiful daughters named Dalia and Doha with whom, as an impressionable eight year old, I was particularly fascinated. I was thrilled when they came round one night to bring me to a party they were throwing in their small trailer. Once there, they explained to me that they were celebrating the life of their brother, a soldier in Palestine, I immediately presumed it must have been his birthday, given all the dancing and cake that was being handed around, but in fact they had just learned that he had been killed by Israeli forces. I was perplexed by their celebration. “Allah has chosen our brother to join him and we must be happy for him,” they explained before endeavouring to show me how to dance the Arabian way – with my hips – rather than doing my silly English schoolgirl side step.
Throughout my travels the warmth with which the women of Arabia welcomed me and wished to share with me their culture has never been surpassed. Saudi Arabia may be an insular country governed by men and money but its women are worldly, wise and strong. As Westerners we are appalled at the idea of women being forbidden basic freedoms, but many Arab women pity our nation’s succumbing to raunch aesthetics and the teenagers that want to look like porn stars. They are undoubtedly undermined in society, but not in spirit. There are two sides to every story but in many cases what makes up the greater part of the story is that which we do not understand and, for the most part, are totally unaware of.
Nicola Kavanagh is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Glass Magazine, a style, culture and travel quarterly.
(Image courtesy of CharlesFred)