My daughter will be having a baby in the U.S. in February, which is fantastic. I’m so excited to snuggle a little newborn girl and to play with her toddler brother. This guy:
But nothing good comes for free. I’ll be making a substantial sacrifice to go. See, if the baby were coming in, say, July, I’d feel as if she was doing me a favor. But February? That’s the peak of the Saudi expat season. Flowers. Tomatoes. Breakfast on the patio. All the friends here in town. I’ll be missing the best part of the year! And that’s not all–in a country in which festivals or holidays other than Ramadan are not observed (or allowed), there is one: the Janadriyah national culture and heritage festival in…February. Drat.
I got to go last year, and for some reason didn’t write about it at the time, and since I won’t be able to this year, AND I couldn’t think of a single darn other thing to write about this week, BAM. Janadriyah it is!
Similar to state fairgrounds in the U.S., the Janadriyah festival grounds, at the northeast edge of Riyadh, are a permanent installation that just waits for the festival to come around every year. Each region in the country is represented by its own pavilion, featuring whatever it wants to be famous for. Fruit.
Perfumes and oils. Sweets.
Jewellery. Clothing. Baskets. Handicrafts.
Flowers. Falconry. And camels, obviously.
There are displays of Arabian heritage:
And for the more settled, mud-brick types, home-building demonstrations. I’m super-proud of catching the mid-flight mud ball, by the way:
There are performances. Music:
And, of course, drama:
This was some sort of a skit that involved a lot of yelling and stick-smacking on the part of the teacher, a lot of ducking and arguing from the students. Given what I see in the papers about both disrespectful students and abusive teachers in Saudi schools, some of the cross-cultural humor went by me.
Dance is the headliner, and is easier to understand. This is quick, but should give you the general idea:
That’s really just a warm-up so you can appreciate my favorite, the captain of the junior crew:
Which brings me to my typical distraction, the people around me, just folks out for an evening at the fair:
Well, I guess an evening at the fair in the U.S. would involve a lot of sweatpants and free t-shirts. By contrast, coming out to Janadriyah is a big deal. Have you seen fairgrounds that look like this?
So a lot of folks dress up.
Then there are, of course, the idiosyncrasies of Saudi culture, which tend to leave Westerners wondering whether they’re allowed to be here or there. Watching the dancing, for instance. The men:
Got the idea? That was your practice round. Now see if you can sort things out for yourself at the coffee stall, where buyers are queuing up in anticipation of re-opening after prayer:
Nope, I can’t explain the dude standing large and in charge behind the women, with another group of women behind him. Janadriyah most definitely targets the Arab audience, and Westerners can spend a fair amount of time wondering whether they should go here or there, what’s a sample and what’s to purchase, which is the women’s side or when it’s okay to just go somewhere together.
My big learning point, though, which I WISH I had the chance to fix this next year, would be to go later in the evening. In the all-American mode of trying to “beat the crowd” we went in the early afternoon. Oh, we beat it, all right. Got there about 3:30, parked right up front, sailed in, and found things…less than fully lively. Then at a little after 5:00 all the stalls, vendors, and activities closed for prayer, for about 45 minutes. Then at a little after 6:30…they closed again. It had gotten to be a moderately chilly evening (hush, all you snow-bound folks–if you’re wearing flip-flops and don’t have any sort of wrap, you’re cold), my pre-surgery foot hurt, we’d been there for three hours, and didn’t want to stay for another two or three.
Last February we still weren’t fully wired to how thoroughly Saudis are night people. (It takes a while to really, really, really get it.) Leading into the final prayer, we’d seen the crowds start to grow, and more and more people in dress costume. Large performance venues were empty between prayers, and we could only guess the serious performances would start later. I knew we’d be missing out, but told myself we’d come back another night. The festival is free, after all, and not that long of a drive.
But one night after another wasn’t good, and we promised ourselves we’d do it right next year. Life lesson: As an expat, that’s a silly promise to make. Wherever you are, it’s temporary, and you never know what the next year will hold. If an experience is available now, grab it.
*The Janadriyah festival organizers for 2015 don’t have their online stuff together enough to give me any links just yet. But according to Eye of Dubai, the dates for 2015 are February 4-20. When the festival gets closer, check online, with friends, or in the newspapers (Arab News, Saudi Gazette) to get detailed information. Some days and times are for men only; others are for families. You can also refer to the Blue Abaya guide from 2014 for where to go and what to look for. The GPS coordinates are 24.958592, 46.794462.