We rolled into Madinah just as the sun was setting. I immediately liked the place. For some reason I just felt comfortable there. I loved the drive there - the farther we got from Jeddah, the more mountainous the terrain became. Groves of date palms are abundant throughout the region. Madinah's weather was delightful, much cooler than Jeddah's winter. We had traveled up to Madinah with my husband's brother's family, and the following day we were expecting more branches of the family. The winding city roads led us to the energized downtown area where the enormous and beautiful Prophet's Mosque is nestled amid dozens of highrise hotels.
Adnan managed to squeeze the car into a small space next to his brother's car outside the hotel. The two brothers went inside to check in to the hotel while we (the women and children) waited in the cars. Adam and I got out to stretch our legs after the long drive and we stood between the two cars. I started snapping a few photos with my ever-present camera when suddenly my sister-in-law (SIL) "H" let out a little scream as she excitedly pointed to a handsome young man walking by, blubbering that he was a famous Egyptian movie star! He heard her little scream and turned around, waving and smiling at us. Thinking quickly, I asked him if I could take his picture with my son, and the attractive actor happily obliged. I pushed Adam over toward him and snapped the photo and then thanked him. He was most gracious, asked where we were from, and then turned away and he disappeared into the darkness. The funny thing is that neither Adam or I had a clue as to who this guy was. From H we learned that the mystery man's name is Ahmed Ezz, who started out as a model and from there broke into Egyptian movies. Adam was thrilled to learn all of this since he had not been paying attention and was miffed at why I had pushed him over to take a photo with a total stranger in the first place. Later we bluetoothed the photo to Adam's phone and H's phone, and you should have heard all the "Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" as other female family members gazed upon the photo.
The hotel we stayed at was literally a few steps away from the Prophet's Mosque, so the location was great. However the hotel itself had seen better days. Since we were late in making our hotel reservations, this was the only one available. Honestly it was a bit disappointing. Now considered a "Hajji" hotel which is used to house large groups of religious pilgrims who come to the country for the Hajj, our "two bedroom suite" was actually furnished with a total of ten twin beds - six crowded into one room and four in the other. There was not room for much else in the units, as you can imagine. It was clean, but clearly it was past time for the carpeting to be replaced and the bathroom and kitchen could definitely use updating. The booked-to-capacity fourteen floor hotel had nine elevators which were totally full every time we wanted to get on. This was a major pain! But not only that, this was the first time in my life that I have ever seen segregated elevators. Yes, there were signs clearly marking certain elevators for "Men" only or "Women" only, and it was enforced! Luckily we didn't spend that much time in our hotel rooms and the rest of the family that arrived a day after we did were booked into a couple of neighboring top notch hotels, so we spent more time relaxing in their luxurious suites.
The first night we ate dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the fancier hotel restaurants, and it was lovely. They offered a magnificent self serve buffet with a wide variety of exquisite dishes. The Hajj attracts visitors from all over the world, people from different cultures with different customs, with one thing in common: Islam. Even so, the Saudi culture is a much more closed society than most countries, and other Muslims may not be entirely familiar with proper Saudi etiquette and customs. So there can be a bit of clashing of the cultures as I found out in that hotel restaurant that night.
Since I arrived here in Saudi Arabia a little more than a year ago, my husband has constantly reminded me that Saudi women do not speak to or even look at other men. Ok, but I am not Saudi and I never will be. He brings this up when we go into a shop and I naturally greet the clerk, or say "Thank You" or "Goodbye," in Arabic of course! To me, this is just part of my friendly American upbringing in being polite and acknowledging another person's assistance. Anyway, as we sat at our table enjoying our meal, the group of men at a neighboring table got up to leave. An older gentleman of the group stopped by our table, smiled, and said "Good Evening" to us in some type of European accent. Then, apparently having heard me speaking English, he directed a question to me, asking if I were British. So I replied that No, I'm American, and he asked from what part, etc. The man was only trying to be nice. But after he left, my husband made a little stink about how the man should not have spoken to me, that culturally this was very wrong of him, and that I shouldn't have answered him. I'm sorry, but I feel to ignore someone speaking to me is rude. This is a very Saudi thing, just like wearing the abaya. I wear the abaya and if I had my druthers, I would not. But we are here in Saudi Arabia where all women must, so I do. Now honestly, I am in my 50s and have been very comfortable speaking to people/men all my life, and to expect me to change this behavior at this stage of the game is just not something I can or will do.
I might add that during this trip to Madinah, no fewer than a dozen men - mostly sales clerks, and yes, even the lovely Ahmed Ezz! (that's him on the right) - asked me where I was from, or if I were Turkish or British. Luckily my husband wasn't around or did not hear. I do not mind being spoken to and I do not mind answering. It's what I have always done. Actually I was a little surprised and flattered by my husband's little display of jealousy, but he made a big deal out of it in front of his brother and the family too, and they agreed with him. Of course, remember that THEY are Saudis too. What do YOU think?