Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, isn’t known as a tourist hotspot. It’s right in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, high, hot/cold, dusty, and policed by a force called the Mutawwa who ensure strict adherence to Islamic standards of morality, arresting unescorted women, shutting down public revelry, enforcing modesty in dress, generally outlawing fun. So, it was with some surprise that we spent three quite full days ‘touring’ the sites of Riyadh.
First, the souq was a real souq, a working souq, where anything could be purchased and where the prices were reasonable. We (errr . . . my wife Angie) bought a decent version of a brand-name purse for about $40.
Then we toured Musmak Fort where the Family Saud, on horseback, stormed the front gate in 1902 to re-unite Arabia. All the displays had been removed to participate in a touring exhibit, but the painted and carven doors were beautiful and the place had a cleanness and realness to it that made it simple and interesting.
The third event, the National Museum, was also well-worth our time, on par with Smithsonian for presentation but with a Saudi and Islamic skew to all the displays.
Yet, the most moving, the most gut wrenching of the sites we visited was Deira Square. Called “Chop-Chop Square” by the expat community, it is the site where Saudi Arabia conducts its public executions and corporal punishments, Friday mornings after communal prayer. While the larger social issue of capital/corporal punishment, its pros and cons, has been debated elsewhere, the Not Quite Right moment, the contrast, made itself felt on the square itself, even on a non-execution day. It’s a big place, colonnaded, and on three of the four sides it is bordered by Musmak Fort, the souq, and a big government mosque. It is a communal area. And it has been invaded by commercialism: coffee shops, snack shops, vendors selling cashews and candy tucked away under the colonnades.
I found myself — mocha in one hand, a bag with my wife’s new faux Versace purse in the other — standing at the spot where Saudi’s condemned kneel and look upward at a dust-filled sky as the sword of righteousness dispatches them.
In that place, drinking my coffee, I was the element of Not Quite Right.