Having got out of bed at 0430, driven for 2 hours across the desert, and survived the festering concrete block toilet at the edge of the little town of Al Hadr, Catherine and I were ready for breakfast. The toilet had been an apocalyptic experience almost certain to be brought up in future therapy sessions or remembered as ‘the horror’ creakily spoken ‘sotto voce’ in the ear of the nurse who is charged with keeping my dilapidated body clean. We had seen the sun rise over an hour and half ago and with it our need to eat had increased with every passing roadside camel. We stood beside the car, taking in the morning breeze and recovered our senses. I made a mental note to write to the Crown Prince requesting that he fire bomb the offending at his earliest convenience. Failing that, he could turn it into a prison.
Safely back in the car and slightly traumatised we were ready to go. Faisal, our driver, set off through the outskirts of the small town of Al Hadr to our first stop. No one else was on the road save for the few eddies of dust and a pigeon. Being at nearly 6,000 feet, the outside temperature was perfect under a blue sky. The houses reminded me of those featured in the white stucco pueblos of films such as a “Fist Full of Dollars” – enclosed walls, small windows, interior courtyards…all very private. Occasionally the red of bougainvillea erupted and spilled over a garden wall, while cacti dotted the grassy verges where the road edge just crumbled and cracked to merge into dust and rocks. No dogs roamed the streets as they are dirty animals in Saudi culture.
Suddenly, Faisal turned off the road and onto a rock strewn dirt track. Bear in mind we are not in a Land Rover. I half expected the exhaust to be ripped off or the suspension to come loose from its mounting. We left houses behind us as this track weaved its slow meandering way through shrub and small stunted trees on either side.
After about 5 mins of slow bumping along we pulled in to a small car park, which in reality was merely a patch of flattened rock strewn ground surrounded on three sides by dry twigged shrubbery. There was no sign indicating where we had arrived or why. But evidently this was our first destination.
We followed a narrow path between more shrubbery hiding the views until suddenly we arrived and the panorama opened up. This was a rose and fruit farm. Small dry fields of rose bushes, others of apricots, were laid out before us. The hills rose a few miles away as a protective shield for the fields. The owner was already hard at work picking fruit from the trees. Another worker was picking the pink rose flowers from the bushes. This was a scene out of a film, a national geographic about old agricultural methods, wicker baskets being the height of technology. Dressed in a very loosely wound white turban, a floppy blue shirt and trousers, the owner continued his work, the lines on his sun cracked skin as testament to the hours and years tending his crops. He turned and flashed a smile, happy to see us, while continuing his picking. I wonder what time he had got out of bed?
The field structure, each bordered by tall shrubs, gave the feel of being in a maze as we followed a winding path, but we knew breakfast was here somewhere. Suddenly out from between the trees stepped our guide for the day, dressed immaculately in his white thobe and red and white shemagh. He looked like Omar Sharif and spoke impeccably in English and Italian. He was followed by a small group of visitors who had arrived from various destinations, some as far away as the capital Riyadh and from Damman in the East. I think the ladies were rather taken with the tall handsome guide and were rather looking forward to the day. None of them were Saudi nationals, so this was a trip for foreigners.
He welcomed us in the poetical style of language so common here, and explained that were were in one of the farms that supplied the roses for the local factory in Taif, and that we were ‘most welcome’ and must enjoy our breakfast. He led us down another short path again bordered by high shrubs until we stepped out into a glade whereupon a magical mystical sight greeted us. The trees provided shade but let in enough sunlight to provide warmth. A large red carpet was laid out on the grass. I’m no expert on patterns but I likened it to the Persian style patterns familiar everywhere. It was wide enough for three people to sit in comfort and long enough to accommodate eight. There were cushions placed around the four sides. Cushions, not chairs. We were to sit upon the ground on the carpet propped up by the cushions, to help ourselves to the huge variety of delicious food in front of us. At the far end a tent like arrangement provided decor, while on the other three sides the small trees provided the canopy.
The food was served in small ceramic bowls rather than plastic tupperware, classy. Fresh Arabian flat bread had just been baked, brought to the ‘table’ and laid out. The smell of any fresh baked warm bread is heavenly and this was no exception. This, being Saudi Arabia, was a breakfast for Kings, or Sheikhs. Olives, vine leaves, hummus, cheese in never ending supply. Fresh honey with ‘yoghurt’ does not do it justice, coffee served in elegant sliver and gold pots poured out from the distinctive shaped bird like spout only seen here. Arabic coffee beans are roasted with cardamom and ground down. This must be done fresh to honour the guests drinking it. Oh, and dates, delicious sweet bombs of soft tender taste. We ate slowly, leisurely and at peace. Our host spoke from time to time to explain the importance of food and hospitality, and ensured that we had enough of everything. Refusing food is poor manners while leaving a little on the plate is a sign to the host that they have provided enough. They will keep feeding you until you have to leave something.
I turned to my new companions sat on my right. Two women, perhaps in their late twenties, or thirties who worked in Riyadh. Turns out they were both from Philipino families, but have lived in Saudi Arabia all their lives. They were two of the few Catholics in a Muslim country and of course spoke lovely English. My Arabian, like my Philipino, is non existent apart from ‘thank you’ (shukran), ‘fantastic’ (mumtaz) and ‘I wouldn’t if I were you’ (ln ‘afeal law kunt makanak). They were both very happy to chat. I wondered about being Catholic in a Muslim country and the fact they were not dressed in the traditional Saudi ‘abiya’ – the full body covering. Neither had a hair covering. Saudi Arabia is transforming rapidly, including its strictures about what women can do and wear. These women were very comfortable in the country and were very clear that the modernisation process was happening at speed.
To my left were two other women talking with Catherine. There is a concept called six degrees of separation and the premise is that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. I am reminded of this idea of being connected as we talk. Catherine has worked in Brighton and London, Hounslow. So did the other two, who’re English, and it turns out they both knew the same places…and yet here they are sitting under the trees enjoying breakfast in a small farm near the little known town of Taif in Saudi Arabia.
Overhead the leaves on the trees rustled in the slight warm breeze, mynah birds chattered and swifts cut across the sky. Coffee aromas drifted across the carpet and every now and then the waft of rose meandered in the air. I could have sat there all day.
2 thoughts on “Breakfast in Arabia”
Loved this. The roses must have been amazing.
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