By Nyree Cox
The Al Batha neighbourhood is in southern Riyadh.
It’s crowded, chaotic, colourful and comprises different ethnic areas – each exploding with its own cuisine and culture. Nations including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Syria, Yemen and the Philippines are all represented.
There are shops producing everything from camping equipment to discount clothing – hundreds of tailors sitting at their sewing machines overlooking the crowded streets. These talented men can make literally anything and the workmanship is superb.
Delicious honey from Yemen, head scarfs of every colour and quality, abayas, thobes, the gold souq, ayurvedic medicine stores, my favourite Indian supermarket, mechanical workshops next door to Pakistani restaurants all co-exist within the confines of a few city blocks.
Weekends in the Middle East are enjoyed on Friday and Saturday. Many work 6 days a week. Friday is the not negotiable day – everyone gets Friday off. After lunch on Friday is the best time to visit Al Batha.
Middle Eastern sweet stalls, holes in the wall selling samosa (sambusas) and bhaji’s, roasted nuts and cobs of corn cooked on the footpath. Blackened woks sit over open flames alongside vendors selling fruit and vegetables from wheelbarrows. Sugarcane juice, fresh coconuts shredded while you wait, cheap electronics, fake everything, handmade musical instruments, baskets and ceramics.
Money exchange offices are prolific with expat workers queuing in long lines to wire money home to loved ones, sidewalk auctions selling second-hand mobile phones, the list is endless…
People everywhere bartering their way through life in this melting pot of nations.
Men prevail in Al Batha but there are women peppered throughout the crowd – all covered in conservative dress and very rarely alone. Groups of two or three usually. I never fear for my safety.
Restaurants are overflowing with customers. There are very few knives and forks, everyone eating with their hands, lots of plastic tablecloths and chairs. No napkins – just a box of tissues on each table should you need one after devouring a tasty Biriyani or curry. The way these people massage and manoeuvre food around a plate or banana leaf with one hand is poetry. No Michelin stars here but who needs that.
There is never any aggression, people wave and stand back to let you pass by, no one is impatient while waiting in line, everyone is smiling, there is no road rage (there is a lot of horn honking but it seems friendly and merely precautionary), and I repeat literally everyone is smiling – and that is not because I carry a camera.
Thousands of people just doing their thing and it all seems to work. Yes, it smells and it’s dirty, you need eyes in the back of your head to avoid the infinite modes of transport but it all hums along.
These are some of the poorest people in our community – they work hard, earn very little, they buy only what they need, have a strong faith and they seem to me to be some of the happiest people I know.
Thank you Al Batha, you are a breath of fresh air in this world of competition and wants and what ifs…
As Saudi Arabia continues with the implementation of Vision2030 and heads towards a more “western” model, I do hope everything that makes this neighbourhood so vibrant, so simple and so wonderful stays exactly as it is.