Saudi Sjaturdi

I live in a rented, furnished villa in a mostly-Western compound in Riyadh. Now be careful that with the word “villa” you don’t conjure an image that looks anything like what I get when I Google “villa”:

Google results for “villa”

Or that by “furnished” you imagine anything like what I get with “villa interior”:

Google results for “villa interior”

I’m particularly fond of the grand-hall showpiece in the upper left. No, you can find all the furniture in my living room in the IKEA catalog, and although this is probably the way most IKEA furniture is put to work in the real world, I don’t think you’ll see a picture like this on the catalog cover. May I present my living room, my own villa interior:

Interior of my villa

I call the collection “drabvit.” It’s a lovely space, and the palm trees and bouganvillea out of sight outside are my favorite part. I’m looking forward to improving it as we travel and find things we love, but right now, it’s far from homey.

The thing is, moving to a foreign country with nothing but the contents of suitcases and a few plastic totes means you arrive like a college student. Or worse, because you have no hand-me-down pots or pans or basic household supplies. You’re setting up house like a very unpopular newlywed, who had no friends to throw bridal showers or bring presents to the wedding. I came without a broom. Or a cookie sheet. Or a spatula. Or the most important feature in any room, lamps. All those travels are off in the misty future, and we needed to set ourselves up. And what’s the best place to start adding to an all-IKEA collection? IKEA, of course.

Saudi IKEA gate

The Swedes and the Sauds get along very well, it seems. Well, of course there are the occasional cultural gaps.

Corkscrews at the Saudi IKEA

I wonder if the corporate office has noticed that the corkscrews aren’t moving very well. Or, come to think of it, maybe they do–a country in which alcohol is illegal is not the same thing as one in which alcohol cannot be found.

The dining area is also unique to Saudi locations, and is essentially what you see in any restaurant here. The dining area for men:

Bachelor dining at IKEA

The dining area for women and for men who want to eat with their wives/mothers/children/anything but other men:

Family dining at IKEA

The curtains at each booth allow the women behind them to uncover their faces. Otherwise, you have to pull the veil aside, sneak a bite in, then drop the veil again, something like this:

Eating under a niqab

If it were me, and the dish were soup, I’d be walking around the rest of the day with a wet veil. Around conservative Riyadh, the vast majority of women I see wear veils. (And the one in the picture is being unusually bold for anyone who wears a veil in the first place.) I understand that when you get out to the coastal areas where there is more Western influence, and that number drops to about half.

So this is what a typical Arab family eating out looks like:

Family dining at IKEA

Those kids, by the way, must be REALLY enjoying the food. A more representative picture would have a two little streaks going by the curtain as they ran up and down the aisles.

Anyway, we found dishes, silverware, kitchen organization tools, bed linens–all the routine things you go to IKEA for when setting up house. And it would have been the same trying Saturday-at-IKEA trip a person would make anywhere in the world but for one thing unique to Saudi Arabia: prayer time.

In Saudi Arabia, five times a day, you hear the call to prayer (adhan) all over the city. When I’m at home, I love it. We’re situated between four different mosques, and the muezzins’ voices cross over each other. (To get an idea, click here to hear a really beautiful one on YouTube. I’ll record and post what I hear sometime, but it’ll have to wait for winter–right now all a microphone would pick up is the air conditioners.) At its root, it’s a constant reminder to me of the universal human movement upward, toward something better and bigger. It humbles me personally as well, makes me stop and ask whether I’m grateful enough, seeking enough, pointed in the right direction. And it reminds me of the amazingly, impossibly exotic and faraway place where I now live.

But when you’re trying to do business, it’s a colossal pain. Retail businesses hibernate for anything from 25 to 45 minutes. If you’re in most larger stores or restaurants, you can keep doing what you’re doing–and most people do–but employees stop working. Cash registers close, kitchens stop serving, salespeople disappear. The call to prayer happens on a sun-driven schedule that varies from day to day and is published in the papers like you find the tide schedule in coastal towns. In general, it happens at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. The dawn call doesn’t bother anybody, but noon, 3:00ish, 6:00ish, and 8:00ish are gonna cause you problems, guaranteed.

At IKEA, midafternoon prayer on Saturday looks like this:

In the checkout lines at prayer time at IKEA

Not a yellow-and-blue shirt in sight. We’d been racing to get to the checkout before the call, but because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to hit (unless you havee an app, which can make you crazy because it’s adding to all the calls you hear around you), you’re only guessing and hoping. In our case, the checker cut off the line with us. So we sat. Like everybody else.

In the checkout lines at prayer time at IKEA

That pile of red cushions went to good use. The good news? We had a flat-bed cart and therefore a place to sit (no thanks to IKEA and their stand-up tables in the bistro area). The sunset call to prayer caught us in an appliance store and unable to read the descriptions on the microwaves and blenders for 45 minutes, but the evening call found us crashed at Chili’s, iced diet Pepsis in our hands, with the food just hitting the table. Sometimes, things work out.

But I still don’t have a lamp.

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