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Saudi Arabia Opens its Doors to Westerners

Indeed, Saudi women are kept well-hidden. Typically, they can leave the house only if accompanied by a husband or male relative. On the few occasions we see women on the street, they are behind their husbands and clad head to toe in black, "like death out for a walk," as Guy de Maupassant once wrote. Because they do not like to be seen on the street, they generally have drivers ferry them around as they do their errands. (They're not allowed to drive; Saudi Arabia is one of only a few Muslim countries where that is the case.) It's said that when women gather outside a school at the end of the day, their children sometimes recognize them only by their shoes, because no other part of them is visible.

Since we are the first tour group, we get to do some things that won't be on the standard itinerary. Years ago, on a Red Sea cruise he organized, Peter Voll met Marianne Alireza, who had written a memoir of her marriage to a Saudi. In the 1971 book, At the Drop of a Veil, she describes her decision to leave her husband when he took a second wife; to keep her three children with her, she smuggled them out of the country to Switzerland. But the children have all returned, and in Jidda, Hamida, Alireza's oldest daughter, throws a big party for our group. It is preceded by a fashion show of traditional garments, modeled mainly by the daughters of her friends. Only the women on our trip are allowed to attend; they're thrilled. The woman I sit next to at the party afterward speaks perfect English and is dressed better than most upper-middle-class Americans. Her husband handles the Saudi Rolex franchise and is also the national agent for British Airways. Their children attend boarding schools in Switzerland and New Jersey.

Another contact of Voll's arranges for us to tour the private primary school she and her husband started outside Dhahran. Though in many ways it resembles an American prep school, it is divided by sex, and so the males enter through one door, the females through another. Finally perceiving a chance to get some photos of Saudi women without their veils, an enterprising (and male) photographer hands a camera to another member of the group as she disappears inside. But his efforts are for naught: the Saudi women won't be photographed unveiled, even by another woman.

The most revealing look at typical Saudi home life comes one night in al-Jouf, a seldom-visited small town not far from the Jordanian border. Here, an American diplomat who has joined our trip for a while, Hugh Geoghegan, invites a few of us to dinner at the compound of a prominent local family, the al-Juraids. The matriarch, Terfa, mother of 13, demonstrates how to make a flat masali bread over an open fire. Her head scarf keeps falling from her face and one of her sons keeps pointing this out, but she ignores him. The home is clearly her domain, and the evening, we come to see, is about her. Pieces of hot bread are passed around with a jar of honey. I could eat the bread all night . . . but it's on to a weaving demonstration. Her sons shepherd us over to a rough loom where Terfa shows how she weaves rugs and bags out of homespun camel's wool, which she has also dyed. The traditional weavings that hang on the walls of our hotel lobby, Hugh tells us, were all made by Terfa.

The heavy loom has no shuttle between the strings; she does it all with her hands. A sharpened antelope horn helps separate the strands. Next, on the rugs of the large majlis room behind the house she lays out what we presume is a showing of her work: camel bags, shoulder bags, small rugs, long rugs. But before we know it, they're all being given to us. Everyone tries to refuse the shower of gifts but Hugh says we must accept. Elizabeth, Hugh's wife, is given a rug more than 25 feet long. All the others are laden with bags representing hundreds of hours of work. This awkward event is only happening, says Hugh, because Saudi Arabia is "one of the last places in the world with such intact cultures, such tribes." The gift-giving is traditional. So, too, is reciprocity--but we'll never be able to repay this hospitality.

The Internet arrived in the kingdom only a few months before us, another sign of the changes sweeping the country. (Actually, it's not quite the Internet as we know it--all the Web sites are screened by censors before residents are allowed to take a look.) And as we near the end of our trip, government officials are hinting that, to encourage outside investment, foreign nationals may soon be permitted to own real estate. This is a big deal on more than one level. Presumably it means major adjustments to the country's visa system, which now requires that all visitors be sponsored by a Saudi organization or individual. (Our sponsor for the Smithsonian trip, for example, is the national airline.) A subtler change is noticed by our trip lecturer, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Virginia Tech named William Ochsenwald, during our tour of the expansive new National Museum in Riyadh. The collection is a fascinating hodgepodge, presented in more than one voice. The wall labels in the rooms devoted to pre-Islamic cultures have the sophisticated academic tone one expects from museum displays. That tone shifts sharply just upstairs. In a space devoted to the history of Islam are long textual lessons and excerpts from the Koran--you can almost picture the white-bearded clerics dictating the content. Across a wide plaza you enter the King Abdul Aziz Memorial Hall, dedicated to the founding king. The building is essentially a showroom for the king's former belongings, from his Rolls-Royce, Chrysler, and Pierce to his radios, muzzle loaders, and pince-nez. On one wall hangs the following caption:

"He was modest, kind, fair and generous to his people. Together with the power he had been granted by God, he was slow to anger, merciful and ascetic. He was multi-talented, experienced, highly respected and pious. He never spoke without a smile on his face and he hated hypocrisy and liquor."

From what I can tell, the voices of the museum are the chorus of Saudi Arabia: the nationalism (actually, a kind of family pride) of the Abdul Aziz collection, the fervor of the Islamists, and the quiet yet confident tone of apparently Western-educated scholars. Bill Ochsenwald tells us that the Koran calls the time before Islam "The Age of Ignorance"--and so reads a sign in one of the rooms devoted to pre-Islamic cultures. He doesn't think Saudi Arabia has ever comfortably acknowledged these cultures before. Bill also notes that there are few nasty references to the Ottomans in the museum, and that "this is real progress."

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