Down the mountain from the capital of the Asir region, Abha, the sloping landscape and winding roads from as far south as Jizan and almost as far north as Jeddah encompass the lands called Tihama. It’s important historically in the frankincense trade, and culturally for its Tihami flower people.
We were driving alongside camels. Hummingbirds (well… one), kites (the bird kind, and again… one), baboons, sheep, goats, and donkeys all stopped by the side of the road to cheer us on at some point. Also dead dogs. They seemed to be roadkill, but they also seemed to be left to rot. It’s probably something to do with the fact that dogs are all wild here, as domestication of animals is generally frowned upon.
We held our breath at times as our driver demonstrated the fine line between excellent and terrible driving, something everyone is forced to get used to here. At this point, my vote was with terrible. I was later to change my mind. I think.
Abha and Khamis Mushait are quite cool at this time of year, about 20 degrees Celsius in the day, so it was nice to drive down into 30+ degrees in the Jizan area on a November morning. We climbed up to our destination, Faifa, and it took me a while to realize there were trees and plants everywhere. It was actually remarkably green, which for Saudi Arabia is welcome. The place was deserted, as we came during Friday prayers. It gave us a chance to stop undisturbed and take photos of the sloping terraced farms, houses on cliff edges, and cable cars that transport belongings and groceries from one house to another. After a lamb kabsa lunch (where we got a very brief glimpse of the local gat—somewhere in between caffeine and cocaine—which I hadn’t seen since Ethiopia and was quite surprised to see it used so openly in Saudi Arabia), I found a local kid wearing a wizara, the local Asiri sarong style clothing, complete with jembiya, their traditional daggers. With the dad’s permission, we dazzled him and another kid dressed in the more obviously Saudi thobe and shemagh with our camera flashes and great big imaginary signs that said “we’re tourists.” There weren’t many people dressed in this local kind of clothing, which was a bit disappointing to be honest. Didn’t they get the memo that we were coming?
On the way down, we saw some rare westerners taking photos to whom our new Saudi friend took delight in shouting the famous Asiri “thousand welcomes” at out of the window. Then we nearly drove off the cliff as our driver got distracted haranguing a baboon.
Back down the mountain, we parked up on Shaqaiq beach deep in Tihaman territory where I was surprised to find a very loose form of segregation. The sexes are well and truly segregated here, and in public places this usually means “family” and “single male” sections. Swimming in the Red Sea at sunset watching the glowing red ball in the sky go down isn’t too bad, all things considered. It was a strange scene. Families swimming and having barbecues on the beach as the sun goes down, whilst the ruffians skid around in the sand behind them in their pickup trucks, inevitably getting stuck in the sand.
My opinion of the driving changed a little as we got close to Abha on the return journey. We ground to a halt, as there was a huge traffic jam. It seemed there was an accident (not a surprise—I see them daily) and we were advised to turn round and try again tomorrow. Well. The finest example of dangerous, precise, skillful, and bullish driving I’ve seen got us to the front in no time at all. He would fail a British driving test, but I would fail the Saudi push-your-way-to-the-front test.
Some might say seeing a hummingbird or lots of camels would be their highlight of the day. For others, visiting a fairly remote village on the Saudi-Yemeni border would be. Maybe seeing the sun set while swimming in the warm Red Sea would top peoples’ list. However, I think I’m going to have to go with finding a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer (a Scottish delicacy!) in one of the shops. It sounds uncultured and ignorant of local traditions, but when you’ve been out of your home continent for more than three years, these small reminders of home are welcome. It completely blew me away. It wasn’t even in a big shop, it was just there at the side of the road in the most random global location I could think of placing it.
As a final note, I need to mention something about Saudi culture. Saudi generosity is astounding. They are illogically generous with their time, equipment, and money. When I go home and Saudi Arabia starts to slip from my mind like it might, and people throw out the usual negatives about the place, I’ll tell them about my trip to Faifa and Shaqaiq with these gents. They are Saudi, they didn’t choose to be, they didn’t write their history books or create their laws, but they did choose to be nice guys and treat me magnificently. The guys here are very conscious of what the outside world thinks of them, and they are quite uneasy about it. I assume that most people reading this won’t ever set foot in Saudi Arabia; you’ll only read a negative news story at some point. The least I can do for the people I meet here is to tell you all about the many positive experiences I’m having in their country.