Visiting Saudi Arabia is a roller coaster experience. It began when I entered a Saudi embassy in a foreign country to begin the process of obtaining a visa, though I had to lie on the application form and claim Palestine as my place of birth - because Israel is not an available option and continues to my arrival, where an uninterested border official just waved me through, despite my anxiety. Place a finger here, look at the camera, and you're in. There is no process. Who cares.
Saudi Arabia has a great road system. I drove almost two thousand kilometers a week. Filling up a gas tank costs like a shawarma meal in Israel. Highways have five generous lanes sill, driving there is a madhouse, where eight and sometimes nine cars try to merge in the five lanes. I had to drive next to monster trucks and Landrovers (climate change doesn't really mean much to Saudis). Even a 20-kilometer ride is a war of attrition.
Saudi Arabia has no soundtrack. There is no music in the coffee shops, not on the streets, not in the cars driving on the road, not in the lavish shopping centers. Music exists only on the fringes, in the few places where the Saudis allow the influence of Western culture.
It's a silence that takes you two days just to hear. But at five or so in the morning, the muezzin's calls to prayer begin and there is no wall or double-paned window that can drown them out. At noon the the muezzin calls again and if you are in a restaurant, suddenly all the waiters who were there to serve customers and other employees drop what they are doing and go to pray.
The staple food on offer is camel meat which is eaten by the local residents, with their hands. The women, by the way, are sent to sit in closed rooms in the back of restaurants so that they can't see or be seen. It's not a welcoming place for women, but they say it's getting better.
There is enormous wealth here. You see it everywhere. In the hotels, in the cars on the road, in the houses some of which occupy an entire block, in clothes, in watches. The Saudis like to wear their wealth around their necks. The market's parking lot is packed with luxury cars. I asked one of the vendors in the market and he told me that these are cars of the rich, and after a year or so of use, they are no longer a status symbol and are sold for a song. On the other hand, you see the harsh living conditions of the impoverished foreign laborers brought in, to work as servants.
However, in conversations with people, you can smell the future in the air, in the regime's legislation and in the country's innovation.
On my last day in Riyadh, I went to buy dates in the market, a little behind Chop Chop Square, where criminals are decapitated. I sat down to talk with an architect I met at the Half Million café. He has four daughters and never stops complaining about his fate. I could only think of the 500 military men, politicians and businessmen that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had imprisoned here in 2017 under the pretext of a war on corruption and extremism.
Saudi Arabia is a wonderful journey through time. For culture, customs and gender issues it throws you back hundreds of years. but, in conversations with people, you can smell the future in the air, in the regime's legislation and in the country's innovation. You can close your eyes and smell the spices of thousands of years and the enticing smell of a sweet future.