A lot has been written about Makkah; Islam’s Holiest City, but some things you can only find by yourself. And this is what expat life in Saudi Arabia can give you: true insight into a culture that is not well known. Here is what I have discovered about Makkah:
#1 – The ClockTower
The famous building called the ClockTower has been designed with many useful features in mind. The first one is to help people travelling in and around Makkah to easily locate the Kabaa in the Holy Mosque. Indeed, the ClockTower is so tall that it can be seen anywhere within the city of Makkah and even further away, like in Mina for instance. People performing Hajj (the Muslim Pilgrimage to Makkah) will necessarily make a stop at what is known in Arabic as the Jamarat (the Stoning Pillars). There, after casting their stones against the three large pillars, they will take a few minutes to remember God and ask for His blessings and forgiveness. Muslims like to offer supplications in the direction of the Kabaa and at the Jamarat, nothing is easier since the ClockTower can clearly be seen, day and night, just beyond the mountains as can be seen in the picture below:
Another one of its features, that I only recently discovered, is to announce the time of prayers. I have been to Makkah many times since I moved to Saudi almost 2 years ago now, but it’s only a few weeks ago, as I was waiting for the night prayer on the ground floor of the Holy Mosque, that I noticed that the top part of the ClockTower was actually glowing a deep shade of green during the whole time of the Adhaan (call for prayer). It then occurred to me that it was another way to tell people that the time for prayer was getting close. Not sure why this additional feature since the Adhaan is really loud and the traditional way to call Muslims to prayer.
#2 – Inside Masjid Al Haraam
It is walked on by literally millions of feet every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you can be sure that when they built the floor of the Holy Mosque, they put some serious though into it. Do you know that there is a cooling system underneath the white marble tiles? Indeed, the white tiles, which also helps to define the limits of the mosque’s ground, are never hot. And that’s saying something in a city where temperatures hover between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius all year long! Since Muslims take off their shoes to enter the mosque, and that circumbulating the Holy Kabaa is done in the scorching sun of Makkah, the cold floor comes as a real blessing. Indoors, they also have AC and huge fans every meters or so. Those can also send a very refreshing spray of cool water in the air. Basically, don’t worry about visiting Makkah, summer or winter, you won’t be bothered by the heat as much as you would imagine.
The white color also serves another purpose; that of making it easy for pilgrims to know when they are stepping onto the mosque’s floor. It is customary for Muslims to remove their shoes upon entering a mosque. In Makkah, the mosque is both indoors and outdoors, which would be confusing if it were not for the white tiles.
While it is fairly well known that the floor is kept cool, did you know that the floor is also perfumed? I already knew that the giant cloth covering the Kabaa (called Kiswaa in Arabic) was sprayed with perfume regularly and that this is what people can smell when going close to the Kabaa but it wasn’t until my most recent trip to Makkah just a few weeks ago that I discovered that the floor is also sprayed with that same perfume. I was sitting on my praying mat on the ground floor of the mosque, a few minutes before Sunset prayer, when men arrived and sprayed some perfume just in front of me on the floor. The distinctive smell immediately became obvious and I was very pleased to noticed when I got home that my praying mat had retained some of that fragrance.
#3 – A New Train for 2017?
A brand new train line is currently being built to link the two Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. The train is actually already operational as we speak (December 2016) but it is not open to the public yet. They have made test runs, and some dignitaries have been allowed to ride the train but it is not quite ready for public use as some stations still need to be completed. What’s the big deal about a train you ask? Well, for one, it is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia. It won’t just be a train, but a bullet train that will allow people to travel between Makkah and Madinah in about 90 minutes!!! It’s a 475km journey which currently takes about 5 to 6 hours by car. So yes, a 90 minutes ride will be totally welcome and will make life in Saudi Arabia much easier for a lot of people, as it means that the trip to Madinah could be done in just one day instead of a weekend (big savings on hotel nights and all).
#4 – No Jokes Please
I’ve always enjoyed the ‘lost in Translation’ situations and foreign signs are always great fun. I have recently spotted those and while the translation is OK (I assume, as I can’t read the other 2 languages apart from the English) it’s the silliness of the sign itself that made me laugh. I couldn’t help but ask myself why there was a need to put up this sign? And in three languages? Are people so dumb that they don’t know how to use a toilet?
To stay on the same topic (I don’t think I have ever talked about toilets so much and it’s probably the last time), you might be surprised, the first time you use the bathrooms in the malls, to hear a bathroom assistant ask you, in Arabic ” ‘arabi aw kursi?” That means that she is giving you the choice between “kursi“: a toilet cubicle with a toilet seat (western style) or “‘arabi” a sqating toilet, very popular in this part of the world. Now you know…
#5 – Size Matters
If you’ve been following this blog, you may know that life in Saudi Arabia and shopping in particular can be somewhat frustrating. Be warned! When you buy shoes in Saudi Arabia, you had better double check the size. No matter that you have been wearing a size 38 or 5 all your life. In Jeddah, you may need a 39 or 40… you never know. Shoe sizes don’t seem to be consistent at all. I have no idea why this is, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that your usual size will fit you. The same goes for clothes. I recently bought 5 house dresses, all the same size… on the label that is, because in reality two are my size, one is larger than I expected and two are way too small for me and have now been given away.
Another issue is that salespeople tend to be quite lazy. If you ask for a different size, they’d rather try and convince you that what you are holding/looking at is perfect for you, rather than actually move around the shop to get you the size you need. Believe me it’s true. Happened to me a few times. I now have an abaya that is too small for me and that I never wear. And if I had listened to that one guy at the shoe shop, I would now be wearing a size 43 pair of shoes instead of my usual 39!!! Yep the guy handed me a pair of size 43 shoes and when I asked for a size 39, he tried to convince me there was no need, that 43 would be just fine. It’s only when I stood up to leave that he reluctantly moved his a** to go get me a size 39!
Now I know! I never buy anything without double checking 🙂
Do you have any funny anecdotes from back home or from your travels? What is the funniest things you have seen recently? Share in the comments so we can all have a good laugh.