To begin the day by opening your curtains and being faced with the view of a brick wall gives you a bit of an idea of the accommodation the team is staying in. But I love it. This is the real Saudi Arabia. I was concerned that this expedition would provide the team with a lavish lifestyle but we got to experience so many different aspects of this amazing country.
The highlights of today included roaming around the streets of Jeddah with Seb and Marouan, visiting Athr Gallery and eating at Nakeel. The restaurant was very generous with its portions and the food just kept on coming. I was full after just the starters. During the meal, Seb voiced his disapproval of the segregation there is in public places. What I loved the most was the fact that, even though Seb disagreed with the setup of the seating plan, he still respected the rules of the restaurant. His willingness to be open-minded is very admirable and I am proud that he is from the UK. I was also pleased to hear that the leftovers from the restaurant would go to help feed the poor in the vicinity.
Later on, we were lucky enough to be able to spend some time at the successful Athr Gallery; the future of art in Saudi got brighter as the day progressed. Hamza Serafi explained how he wants to set new standards for artwork in Saudi Arabia.
The struggle faced by Saudi artists was evident even just from the location of Athr Gallery. We had to walk through a mall, up two floors and through a car park to reach the gallery. Conversing with several people painted a bigger picture of the need of aspiring artists and how this has affected the kingdom as a consequence of the lack of creativity.
We seriously need to catch on some sleep now so it is fitting that we have a four-hour coach journey to Abha. This wasn't the first time my semi-functional iPhone alarm let me down. Nor was it the first time that we slept at 3 in the morning! I am going to tell you the story of our trip to Medina; so let me set the scene for you. It was 7:50 am, we hadn’t packed, showered or even had breakfast and Steve was shouting his head off, telling us that we were going to miss our flight to Medina. The thought of missing the chance to visit the Prophet’s mosque was the driving power behind our swift exit from the hotel. It was funny when Steve pointed out that he had left the room shouting at Ahmed for being too slow only to find him in the same exact place ten minutes later, still trying to fasten his belt.
When we eventually made it to Medina, we were welcomed with a pleasant breeze. The temperature was 20oC but the expression on our Saudi tour guide’s face looked like someone had just shoved him into a freezer. It is compulsory to enter the mosque with the upmost humbleness and humility. The lack of preparation however meant that I was frantically looking through my luggage for my thobe.
The visit to the mosque in Medina is just as significant as visiting the Haram in Makkah. This is the city chosen by God for his messenger to flee to when he was driven out of Makkah by the Quraish and this is the city where God revealed the commandments to the Prophet. When I think of it like that, it enables me to understand just how important Medina is to Muslims. It is the city where Muslims were among some of the first to understand and apply the obligatory duties. 1400 hundreds later and I am still practicing those obligatory duties.
It is advised to give some charity and be in constant supplication before entering the mosque. I was travelling with great enthusiasm and excitement and as we got closer this yearning increased. I was overjoyed when the green dome came into sight. Underneath the green dome is where the Prophet is buried. The mosque was more beautiful than I had imagined it. The minarets and the umbrella shaped shelters stood out the most for me. Once inside, the excitement had reached its climax, I offered my prayer and tried very hard to focus my thoughts on the exalted personage of the Holy prophet. His high position means that some pilgrims unintentionally perform wrong practices during the visit. It was a different feeling to the Haram mosque. Time just seemed to slow down for me. The thoughts of how God had granted me this blessed opportunity filled me with emotions. It is a feeling you can’t explain. Just as I had within the Haram, I felt a surge of energy as I conversed with my Lord asking him to forgive me. I collected myself and proceeded towards the grave. I walked towards the gold wire meshed enclosures. Tears flowed uncontrollably from my eyes as I sent salutations upon the final messenger. My role model. My beloved. Prophet Muhammed, peace be up on him.
Photograph by Ahmed Hamed
Going to the Haram is an invitation from God, which is why I am so honoured that I was given the chance to go. The anticipation was finally over and I was going to perform Umrah. But it didn't come easy. Being told that we had to wear the ihram (I'll explain later) 10 minutes before departure completely threw me off guard. It was a nightmare because I was expecting someone to show me how to put on the white garments. The daunting feeling of the bottom cloth falling off during the pilgrimage was something that I was dreading. I have heard stories of how friends have been left exposed because they didn't tighten the cloth properly.
Prior to performing Umrah, we visited the Museum of Antiquities, which had an exhibition of things that had previously been in the two Harams. The exhibition displayed everything from the first copies of the holy Quran to the cloth which covered the Kaaba (the house of God) and only served to add to my excitement.
The construction that had engulfed the Haram did take me by surprise but nothing could prepare me for the shock of glimpsing the clock tower parallel to the Kaaba. Apart from the obvious benefit of being on time with every prayer, I struggled to understand why this huge clock tower was ever built to begin with. I wasn't put off in any way as I got off the coach and saw both the clock tower watching down on the Kaaba and the construction, but I still think that it doesn't belong there. I felt that the transformation around the Haram was somehow affecting the spirituality of the Holy site.
Nevertheless, I could not have had a better experience during my time there. Once inside, I felt a sense of unity and equality similarly to how Malcom X felt during his pilgrimage. You can try to imagine what umrah will feel like over and over again, but nothing compares to the moment when you find yourself amongst some of the most diverse people from all walks of life all praising God together.
Describing how I felt throughout is most difficult. For the first time I wasn't thinking about anything or anyone except praising god. I felt so pure and focused. Most of all, I felt happy. Being happy is the objective of life. If we look at our lives, we work not only to become financially stable, but we work because that stability brings us happiness. If we keep questioning why we do these things then we will find that the questions end with the word ‘happy’. The outcome of everything we do is for the pursuit of happiness. Any we don't need to question why we want to be happy. That’s obvious…
If I told you that I just visited one of the best houses in Jeddah then would you believe me? A house so eco-friendly that it uses the draught as an air conditioning system. It is perfectly built to meet the needs of the Angawi family. One example being that you can see who is at the door from the master bedroom. We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the house; it was fascinating to listen to one of the best architects in Jeddah revealing each room’s unique story and design process.
For me, the most memorable moments were the 300-year-old door in the entrance and the arrangement of the bricks on the balcony. The positioning of the bricks only allows you to look directly ahead and not up or down. Ahmad explained that this not only improved the ventilation on the roof but also showed the significance of not looking down on those around you. This challenged my stereotype. I am so delighted that I met Ahmad. He showed me that Saudis don't think their superior to anyone. In fact, most of the people I have met are like this. They have strong Islamic principles and are proud of their cultural heritage. So much so that people such as the Angawi family are battling to preserve Al-balad, known as the old town.
The old town is a warren of ancient buildings and traditional souks (markets), and the teetering, multistory coral houses that Jeddah is famous for. Unfortunately, coral is not a very durable building material, and most of the buildings are in disrepair. We spent time wandering around the old city and getting lost in the seemingly endless souks. I found myself in another world and entirely 'in' the world, surrounded by people from all over the Arab world, Asia and Africa. You don't need to travel very far to find city streets in London or New York but the balad is truly unique. You get a taste of what stood before the concrete jungle we see presently. Al Balad or Al Baik (a fast-food chain)? I know what I’d prefer.
If someone had told me that I could only come to Saudi to experience the flight via Etihad airways, then I would have said yes. The flight just does not compare to Easyjet. Enjoying hours of endless entertainment combined with great brainstorming sessions with the Arabia Offscreen team was the perfect start to what will surely be one of the most life changing experiences of my life. Stephen inspired me from the moment I met him. Hearing about his personal experiences, what we can expect from the expedition and how the team managed to get a Saudi Arabian princess to issue the ‘impossible’ Saudi visa, has allowed me to appreciate my achievement even more so than before.
I also enjoyed finally meeting the winning participants, especially the UK team. The funniest part of the day involved Lizzie’s baffled face when meeting Lujain for the first time. Most people from the Gulf greet with a hand shake followed by a kiss on both cheeks. It came as a huge surprise to Lizzie when Lujain leaned forward. It was extremely awkward to watch, but that moment made me realise I will be in the company of people who are not only older than me, but have also experienced a totally different upbringing. This will be chance to learn directly from my peers and not from the box in the corner of my front room from which most of my information comes from these days.