New Jeddah/Old Jeddah

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December 23rd 2008
Published: December 24th 2008
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As everyone in our group came to know (and probably got tired of hearing!), I was a student of Ottoman history in a former lifetime. The second part of our journey - to Jeddah and the Hijaz - was an opportunity for me to walk the walk of the Arabian Peninsula's Ottoman past. And with the end of the Hajj just a few days before our arrival, I got to experience the aftershocks of the most important of Islam's communal rites. An Ottomanist's dream!


Landing in Jeddah's airport, I realized right away that we were in a very different Saudi than what we'd experienced in Dhahran, even considering our foray into the desert. Jeddah, from it's earliest days (which stretch back well over a thousand years), has been a cosmopolitan entrepot and the staging point for the pilgrimage to Meeca. The hustle and bustle of people coming and going, wheeling and dealing, give the city a wonderful energy. And, while still extremely conservative by "Western" standards, there is a definite sense of openness that might surprise the casual observer of Saudi culture and politics. Everyone we met expressed a certain pride in their difference from the rest of the country and kept warning us of how conservative Riyadh and the rest of interior were. Not surprisingly, Jeddah is where many of the major advocates of social and political change live and work.

Unfortunately, for fear of drawing undue attention to the Saudis that we met in Jeddah, I cannot use names. However, I do want to describe some of the inspiring individuals we had the privilege of meeting. First, there was the charismatic woman in charge of an organization of Saudi businesswomen who was working within the Wahhabi-Islamic framework to get the government to overturn laws limiting the role of women in commerce. It was fascinating to see how she used Islam to show the inconsistencies in the Wahhabi clerics' interpretations of Islamic law. Pointedly, her organization was named for the first wife of Muhammad, Khadijah, herself a merchant and Muhammad's employer. There was the young woman who, right out of college, had started the first design magazine in Saudi Arabia. Besides providing a platform for Saudi designers, she was pushing boundaries with provocative social awareness campaigns (such as ads about censorship and the mistreatment of foreign drivers). Then there was the Sufi-esque architect/dissident trying to protect the cultural heritage of Mecca and Medina from the relentless pace of condo development. He has made it his mission to save what few historic buildings remain in these important holy cities. And I cannot forget the benefactors of the first center for special needs kids who deliberately stay independent of government sponsorship so that they can operate free of the laws requiring gender segregation of employees. They are working hard to make the plight of these kids known, and accepted, in Saudi society. The list of such Jeddah-ites was long and impressive.

In the atmospheric souk of Old Jeddah, on our last day, I escaped from our group to explore on my own. Lost in a dizzying array of colorful hajjis shopping for post-Hajj gifts to take back to their home countries, I made a promise to make every effort possible to return to this city that is so grounded in history and yet racing towards an uncertain future.

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