Thursday, 20 March 2014

A Weekend In Al Jouf

Recently, I flew to Al Jouf in northern Saudi to spend a weekend sight seeing with a van full of outspoken Saudi women, one quiet Aussie lady (not the norm for Ozzies, I know) and a bloke from the Netherlands courtesy of Haya Tour.  It was a long, tiring trip and sifting through the numerous photo's I took, it was easy to see why.  We packed quite a lot into our 48 hours.

Our flight to Al Jouf on Saudi Air was at 5am on Friday morning.  Saudi Air, I have to say, is a nice airline to fly.  They have in the past had a few issues to deal with (things like being on time and bumping people off flights for no rational explanation) but seem to have sorted themselves out, just a little.  And the seats on their aircraft are very comfortable.  If they had a points system with Emirates, I'd fly them more often.  (Other expats decry the lack of booze on Saudi air but, really, I'm more interested in comfort and safety).

Anyway, on arrival at Al Jouf airport we were met by our guide and introduced to his daughter, who kept us company the entire time, and the young bloke who was to be our van driver.  After assuring our guide that luggage for nine women was not going to fit in the van with us, he eventually piled it all into his SUV, and we got straight into the tour.

Our first stop was Marid Castle and Omar mosque, both recently reconstructed, and the village that surrounds them (soon to be reconstructed).   Having visited a number of old towns outside Riyadh I'm used to the old mud structures.  This town, however, was stone, and there was a lot of it with pieces piled precariously on top of one another, without cement between.  Stepping carefully among them was highly recommended.  I wouldn't have liked to be the one responsible for bringing a pile down.

The fortified Marid castle built on a rocky hill and standing over the town would have been impressive in its day.  Apparently it used to be a governors residence with a resident garrison of soldiers for protection.  This day though, despite the new face lift, the collapsed brick wall atop it is like a gaping tooth against the blue sky and it is purely a tourist stop.  Those of us wanting a bit of early morning exercise climbed to the top of the fortress and were rewarded with a pleasant view over Sakaka, while the rest of our crew fossicked about the castles lower regions.

We spent quite a bit of time here.  It was quiet in the early morning and Omar mosque was cool and reverent, while the minaret stool tall and dignified above.  Both of these structures are said to replicate the original design of the first mosques in Islam.

With the sun beginning to warm up the day, we drove to our next destination - a lake in the surrounding hills of Domat al Jandal.    Originally a natural formation for water collection, it has been expanded and upgraded for modern irrigation purposes.  It's a lovely day time picnic spot, and we certainly had a very relaxing time there, though I imagine the mozzies would come out in force at night.

Next on our agenda was a visit to an olive farm.  Al Jouf is known as an agricultural center in the north and as well as dates and oranges they have discovered the climate is perfect for olives.  I understand the plan is to expand olive production to the extent Al Jouf Olive Oil achieves a large market share in Saudi.

In fact, this weekend was the last of a month long Olive Festival in Al Jouf.  Apparently there are two festivals - one for picking of the olives and another, a few months later, for selling the olive oil produced as well as other olive related products.  Our trip was to the former and, as we had come at the end of the month most of the olives had been picked though we did manage to find a few stray olives to examine.  Our olive farm visit was simply a nice stroll through an Orange, Olive and Date Grove.  What was interesting though, was this is the first place in Saudi where I have seen inter-cropping of other plants with date palms and, apparently, it's all going very well.

Our group had been up and about for a number of hours by this time, and decided it was time to visit our hotel, scoff a late lunch and have a power nap before heading out that evening to the Festival Hall where we could meet a few locals and suss out some local produce.  We met ladies spinning wool and dying wool and hand looming decorative wall pieces for traditional tent settings among other things.  Although we had come to an Olive Festival, most of the ladies in our group walked away from the market with well priced carpet and tent decor!

This is a ladder!  Uh huh!
The next morning bright and early we were off to Zabil Fort where some of us attempted to climb on to the lookout platform up what our guide called ladders but in reality were little more than wooden pegs stuck into mud walls.  (We failed miserably owing largely to our largeness!).  After stopping off to view a now empty well,  it was off to an oil pressing factory.

The olive oil factory is part of a co-op which means a collective of farms sends in the olives and the factory presses them and ships the resultant product off in rather large cans for sale.  We spent a bit of time here watching the process from washing the olives, to mushing them into and paste and then extracting the oil.  As was expected, we got to sample some of the produce.  According to our resident olive oil expert, Al Jouf Olive Oil is good quality stuff - fresh, slightly fruity, bitter and burns the back of the throat when you swallow, good for salads and dunking your bread in.  (Of course I went straight to Google to see what if he knew what he was talking about and fruity, bitter and pungent are the extent of the list for "Characteristics of Good Quality Olive Oil").  I have to say, the peppery aspect of olive oil was news to me and is only present if the oil is fresh.  Sounds like I've been using older olive oils all this time!

Our van left the olive oil factory loaded with cans of freshly pressed oil.  (Flying with oil is not permitted, however, so the guide organised for all our oil to be delivered to Riyadh by road over the next couple of days).  Next stop was to the offices of the Al Kayid Brother Company.

Doors to the office.  If the doors look good, you can bet the office looks fab!
The President of this company had met Salwa the previous evening and, on hearing we were touring the town, invited us to visit their local offices.  Apart from being a contracting company Al Kayid Brothers is also involved in community activities, specifically the Al Kayid Cultural Center for Community and the OUN Social Project that assists local families into small enterprise.    The President, Mr Muflih bin Abdullah Al Kayid, was at the Olive Festival as many of the women presenting products were part of this social project. The company has also built the local amusement park for women and, two years ago, completed the towns first Mall. With such a big player in the town offering his hospitality, it would have been impolite of us to decline this offer, so we added a visit into our busy schedule.  It was nice to take a bit of time to sit down after our early start.

But all too soon we were back on the mini-bus and driving into the desert.  Our next stop, the standing stones of Rajajil.  No-one is quite sure who put the stones here or why.  Theories abound of sun worship, cursed tribes turned to stone or some astrological connection.  The stones, though currently in various degrees of tilt, are mysterious enough to swing conversation of their origins from historical to fanciful.  The area is being developed for future tourism so is fenced off but, as always in Saudi, a hole in the fence means come in!

After qahwah, dates and biscuits, and relieving oneself behind the dunes, we were off to visit a hobby farm.  The owner of this farm grows olives and also has a number of horses.  He welcomed us to his land and then talked about his hobby as we followed him around.  It was a nice way to spend the late afternoon.  Everyone got a thrill when the horses came over and started running about.

Soon, with the sun setting in a wash of orange and fiery yellow, we were whisked down the road toward a local museum  (no visit to Saudi townships is complete without a visit to a local museum).  The pieces in this place had been collected by the owners father, now deceased, and the gentleman showing us around was happy displaying Dad's hard work.

Our weekend in al Jouf was drawing to a close and though tired from our sight seeing at no point did the chatter in the van slow down.  In fact, when it came time to tell our driver what food would sufficiently meet all our tastes, discussion got louder and more excited.  If you have ever traveled with Saudi women you will know that chatter, discussion, laughter, opinions, debate and friendly chiding are all par for the course - usually not quietly! At one point I admit I had to close my eyes and try to shut out the noise of it all.  But then I thought, I'm spending the weekend travelling in a van loaded with Saudi women, seeing new sights and learning new things about the country and its people - something not many expats get to do, and I should enjoy every last minute of it.  So, with a deep, centering breath, I did.

Finding a local eatery that would keep everyone happy was a test for our driver, but he came through and we ate our food in the van as we traveled to the newly built mall.  We were met by the manager of the mall who had been informed of our arrival and had organised a meal for us (if only we had known!).  This time we had to say thank you, but no as after a quick scout through the shops, we still had one other item on our schedule before heading off to the airport.  We were going to look through the local date market and oh what a lot of dates there were.  Having become quite partial to Saudi grown dates, a few were purchased to keep our house stocks up.

 And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my weekend in Al Jouf.  I'm quite certain I got more out of it than the weekend to Dubai that Hubster had originally planned and I decided to forego (you resident expats will think I'm crazy for turning that down, I know!)  Next year maybe I'll go back to Al Jouf for the Olive Products Festival and drag Hubster along with me.

Ka Kite,

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