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Tuesday, 07 May 2013 09:15

A former expat’s reflections on Makkah

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Columbus, May 7: On our way to Makkah from Jeddah, I was surprised at the traffic. What was wrong? Everyone was actually driving within the speed limit and in their lanes. There were no cars on the shoulder. I was here for Umrah from the United States, visiting the Kingdom after seven years.

“There are cameras everywhere. You get snapped and fined, if you break the law. I have received speeding tickets worth SR 900 in the last two months alone,” said our friend, Qureishi.

There were occasional speedsters, who didn’t seem to be afraid of the cameras. But I soon found out why. Qureishi pointed out that some drivers had placed a white tape on the license plate number, hiding one or two digits hoping to render their vehicle untraceable. I did not see any major accident that day. But I did notice that a large number of vehicles had signs of a fender-bender; broken taillight or dented bumper. I had never seen so many dents on vehicles in a single day in my life.

As we sped toward Makkah, I was amazed to see how Saudi Arabia seemed to have grown. There were no signs of recession, but on the contrary economy seemed to be booming. Things were gone or closed, but only to be replaced by something better or bigger. The Beautiful Creatures Zoo was gone. That was a good thing. I remember doing a story on it for Arab News. I had gone at a time when it was breakfast time for pythons. I still remember with a shudder how live rabbits were fed to the snakes.

Gone was also the Al-Watani supermarket. This is where we did our grocery. I could still remember Al-Watani General Manager Leslie Lloyd who was perplexed as to why oats were the No. 1 seller in Ramadan when it was a breakfast food and people were fasting. He at the time did not know that oats were used for shourba (soup) which was what Saudis ate after breaking their fast.

The visit to the Grand Mosque in Makkah was a very emotional and nostalgic experience for me. I could not believe my eyes when I entered the vicinity of the mosque. It had grown so much. The Clock Tower stood out in its splendor. There were so many new hotels. A portion of the mosque was closed; there were many cranes and construction work going on. There were so many pilgrims, enthusiastic and vibrant. It felt a bit like Haj. The Grand Mosque needed this expansion because of the increase in Haj and Umrah traffic from within and outside the Kingdom.

The “saiee” downstairs was closed and was only being performed on the top level. The sight of mechanized carts was a pleasant surprise. My 89-year-old mother was with us. She had performed Haj in 1996 and was here for her first Umrah. We rented the battery-operated cart for SR 100 which my husband drove. There was just one slight mishap. Two women riding their cart crashed into ours, but because the speed is never high no one was hurt. However, I noticed two similar mishaps and they both involved women, perhaps because they aren’t accustomed to driving.

After Umrah, we stopped to eat. I did not have the heart to eat at Al-Baik. When we lived in Jeddah from 1994 onward, my daughters, aged 6 and 7 at the time, loved Al-Baik. “When we go to Makkah, it is ‘Labbaik’ and when we come back it is ‘Al-Baik,’” they said. Now in their 20s and married, I asked them if they wanted anything from Jeddah? “Only Al-Baik,” they said.

Jeddah looked so different. We lived on Arbaeen Street for seven years but I couldn’t recognize it. The roundabouts were gone replaced by flyovers. Even Arab News had shifted to a beautiful new building. Jeddah looked all dug out, ugly and inconvenient but that is a necessary evil needed in the expansion and beautification of a city.

Downtown Jeddah looked every inch the vibrant place that it was. Toys were still selling at SR 15.

Women working at checkout counters in department and grocery stores were something I had never imagined seeing in the Kingdom in my lifetime. I had read about it, but seeing it in person was an awesome experience. Many women I spoke to were all praise for Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and said he understood women’s issues and was a very kind and fair ruler. They were also confident that if women were ever allowed to drive, it would be in his reign.

Men on the other hand, seemed to be the same. Most of them were tired of Jeddah’s traffic delays and diversions. They complained about their wives watching soaps all day. Some also complained of the strict government rules regarding visas and iqamas. In all fairness, I think it is a good thing to streamline the iqama industry. There have always been too many shady practices going on. People came on one company’s iqama, worked for someone else and even their profession was not registered correctly on paper. If implemented thoroughly, everyone will benefit from it. Right now a handful of corrupt people are able to make a lot of money and oftentimes cheat the people they are dealing with.

We were there for only a week and left Jeddah with mixed feelings of joy and sadness. Immigration and security officers were actually polite and even smiled. I would love to come back to Jeddah in a few years, once the dust settles on the construction, expansion and deep excavation projects. Who knows, I may have a female cabbie, then.


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