x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Prince Charming in the bookstore? A new chapter in Jeddah

Returning home to Saudi Arabia for Eid Al Fitr for the first time in 10 years offers a glimpse of great change, and a smattering of familiar surroundings.

Only three things in life are certain: birth, death and change

- Arabic proverb


Every time we go back to our childhood homes, we cannot help but seek out familiar places and people to remind us of a sense of comfort and nostalgia. At the same time we cannot help but feel some distress at change, which we often hate to admit.

This Ramadan I finally returned home to Jeddah to spend Eid with my parents. It had been 10 years since the last time I spent Eid Al Fitr with my family. Jeddah Ghair - "Jeddah is different" - the city's slogan promises. Indeed it is, and it will always be my first love, which I will defend despite its many contradictions. There is a lively spirit there with stories in almost every corner.

Let me begin with one of my favourite stores, which sells underwear, as it happens. Only in the last several years, "women only" branches opened so that we could finally shop free of the leering of male salesmen whose excuse was that they were helping you find the "best fit". I used to hate to shop for undergarments, as did my sister, and my poor mother had to endure our refusals to go shopping.

Well, it turns out that several of these women-only branches have since been shut down, and salesmen have been brought back. There are still some women-only shops open, but none close to my home.

"It is always like this, one step forward, one step backward," a Saudi friend told me. "It is always a dance here."

Another telling event happened when my parents and I went out to one of our favourite cake and coffee spots. The drive to Tahlia, one of the most popular and congested neighbourhoods, aged me 10 years.

I finally understood why some of my female friends were hesitant about opposing the ban on women driving. Serious reform first needs to be tackled as men, many of them teenagers, drive like maniacs and rarely wear seat belts. I have driven on the worst roads in Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, and I swear that I would never want to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Once we reached the cafe, it was packed with groups of women smoking shisha. My father was the only male; there wasn't a single other family in the "family section". You would never have seen that in the 1980s and 1990s. Women, especially Saudi women, would not be smoking shisha in the open like that. It was frowned upon as "not ladylike".

"Where are all the men?" I asked. My parents told me to stop looking around and eat my cake.

Later on that night, I found out where some of the men were. Of all the places, there was a congregation at the bookstore. To be fair, that bookstore also sells gadgets, so that makes sense.

When I was browsing through the children's section for the Arabic fairy tale books I read as a child, several men tried to strike a conversation.

"That is my favourite book," one young man said as I picked up an Arabic version of Sleeping Beauty.

In a knee-jerk reaction, I rolled my eyes and walked away. Then, while I was sitting next to the only other woman in the shop, browsing through a book, two men came up and wanted to ask "our opinions" on the best books to buy their mothers. A likely story.

Another change was the topic of daily discussion: somehow along the way, my group of friends and I have slowly been pushed out of the upper middle class to the lower end of the social strata.

Now we pay close attention to prices, and complain about bills and how we have all stopped flying business class. It sounds lame, but you have to understand that most of us grew up in mansions and lived in luxury, so it is an adjustment process that comes with some embarrassment.

And we can't help being proud. One store, like the discount chain Walmart in the US, is always packed with an overflowing car park. Many of my friends go there, I know, but would never admit it. As the economic crisis affects the world, the news is no longer a distant reality but strikes right at home.