Art and Culture Opinion Travel

Des in Pardes – Expat Life in Saudi Arabia

Riyadh, meaning garden in Arabic, is the Capital City of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It’s a very well planned modern city with a State-of-the-Art infrastructure set-up, a superb road network and a very imposing Skyline. People who have traveled circuitously would agree that this city is surely nonpareil in the region and is comparable to any modern city in other parts of the world.

In one sentence, the city of Riyadh can be described as the city with a network of bridges, fly-overs, over-passes, under-passes, grade-separated intersections, clover-leaf intersections, beautiful Malls & super markets, white-colored limousines (Taxis), flood of cars & vehicles on the road. Besides all of these above, I bet one would never miss the opportunity of having to come across too many Keralites (South Indian Malabaris) &; Bangladeshis around.

The readers must have noted a conspicuous mention of two nationalities above; few may be wondering as to why there is a need of it at all. Well these two nationalities, by the bye, form the largest community amongst a large number of expatriates that live & work in Riyadh. This analogy also applies on the entire Kingdom level basis. In a total population of 26,712,824 (as on 1st January-2010), about 8.8 million expats (estimate of 2009) work in Saudi Arabia. The nationality wise break-up stands as: Indians 1.5 million; Egyptians 1.2 million; Pakistanis 1.2 million; Filipinos 1.2 million; Yemenis 600,000; Jordanians 500,000; Syrians 400,000; Lebanese 400,000; Sudanese 300,000; Afghans 200,000; Bangladeshis 200,000; Sri Lankans 200,000; Europeans 150,000; North Americans 50,000; Others 700,000. Interestingly, of the 8.8 million expatriates, perhaps 6.5 million are bachelor status men, 500,000 married status men, 1 million working women (mostly bachelor status and some married wives), and 800,000 non-working wives and children.

Lots of jokes spin around here about Keralites in the expatriate communities which, naturally, also trickle down & precipitate to the local Saudis, mostly, either through expatriate themselves or through the media. One such joke I would like to share with advance apology to them, just in case they may feel offended. I am sure they would not because this was in fact narrated to me by a Keralite Dentist here in Riyadh whom I often visit for consultation.
It goes like this:

Just after US landed Apollo-11 on the surface of the Moon, way back in 1969, the Chinese over whelmed with their sheer numbers decided to climb their way to the Moon. They did manage to do that and established a camp there thinking very proudly & rightly so, to be the first human settlement on the Moon. They were just about to relay this news to the world when one of their crews found out, to his utter chagrin, dismay & surprise of them all, a typical Keralite Bakala (Arabic word for small provision shop) and a tea-shop already there with crowds of Lungi-cladding Keralites flocking around, in one of the craters of the moon. Lungi is a one-piece towel like cloth worn by both Keralites and Bangladeshis alike, as a National dress.

There are some places in Riyadh, that are seen to be flocked by these Single-Keralites/ Bangladeshis (who live here alone, either are single or if married live in single-status) especially during the weekends, which fall here on Thursdays & Fridays.

One such place for their hang-out is called BATHA. This place is a downtown now but until some 25 to 30 years ago this very place used to be the center of the city and the Capital hub & the Center of Power. This dates back to the days of King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdur Rahman Al-Saud, the founder of the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The late King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud also used to operate from his office & Palace located in this district. It was perhaps after his sad assassination that the Center of Capital began to move from here to its present locations. Interestingly enough, all these old Royal Palaces and the DARAT (Arabic word from Dar meaning the residential complex, mostly mud houses, used by King Abdul Aziz and his family) located in this area; have now been fully refurbished & rehabilitated recently & converted to a stunning modern complex to form what is now called the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. This was built to commemorate the 100th year of the establishment of the rule of Al-Saud in what is now the present Saudi Arabia.

This is a huge historical complex and consists of: a National Museum & King Abdul Aziz Memorial Hall (in Darat Al Malak
Abdul Aziz & Murabba Palace); a Women Research Center (in Darat) and King Abdul Aziz Public Library, having a Men library Section and the other one a Women & Children Library. This Historical Center is simply a marvelous piece of creation, equipped with most modern & admirable gadgets and is one of such places in Riyadh, which is really worth visiting.

Batha then was the Center of Capital and Batha now is a hustling-bustling business center. It is sometimes said, “If you don’t know Batha, you don’t know Riyadh”. Batha attracts single- expatriates for numerous reasons. It’s easy to get there. Limousines especially pick such passengers who flash a V-sign, meaning they are the passengers for Batha. V sign in fact symbolizes two for the Taxi driver who charges them only 2 Saudi Riyals for the trip per person; US$1=3.76 Riyals. Batha, as I mentioned above, is a business center so it has all sorts of charms including cheap restaurants. In Batha the expatriates (principally Keralites & the Bangladeshis) gather on the weekends, literally in thousands, for the purpose of rendezvous & reunion. The principal advantage is that they get to meet all their buddies in one go only. For a newcomer in Riyadh, it’s a terrifying scene to see thousands of human heads in one place with a peculiar humming sound of endless chatting & confabulating.

There is yet another place in Riyadh where one finds a similar look of a neo-China town. Here the Indo-Pak-Bangladesh expatriates don’t simply gather for rendezvous rather live here. This place is very famous and is called Haiyya-al-Wazarat (Arabic word for Area of Ministries) and over the years its name got metamorphosed dramatically to a simple HARA; HA from Haiyya and RA from Wazarat. This area is now popularly known as HARA alone and whether it is a limousine driver (of any nationality) or even a local Saudi, almost everybody in Riyadh now knows it by this new changed name. May be some day even the local Municipality (known as BALDIA in Arabic) might as well yield and make this new name of Hara, as official.

For the interest of the readers the background of this name change goes like this: Some 30 to 40 years ago, when the expatriates in fact bean to arrive in the Kingdom for employment in large numbers, they preferred to live here in this locality. For simple reason: their workplaces (at that time they were largely employed in the Public Sector rather than Private Sector) were mostly located here. Many offices of the Government ministries still happen to be located here. This human settlement then saw its natural growth and the development followed to accommodate the incoming expatriate workers and their families.

This explains the reason for this unusual concentration of such communities here in HARA. In Hara, you’ll find all sorts of
small shops that sell those especial food items and provisions of daily use which are exclusively used and consumed by the Indo-Pak-Bangladeshi community alone. Mutton & beef and even some vegetables & fruits and similar supplies from Pakistan/India and frozen fish from Bangladesh are easily & abundantly available for sale here. By virtue of these, Hara enjoys a unique place and reputation amongst these Indo-Pak-Bangladeshi community in Riyadh. The residents from other places of Riyadh, even Arabs and Filipinos, are also known to be frequenting to Hara in search of their “desi” stuffs or simply for stuffs at bargain prices.

Interestingly enough, in Hara even the sign boards and neon-signs posted outside Bakalas are found to be written mostly in Bengali & Malyalam, the language spoken by the Bangladeshis & Keralites, respectively and in Urdu & Hindi, the languages spoken in Pakistan and the northern India. Perhaps, this motivated the Saudis to bring out Daily News Paper in two of the widely spoken expatriate languages; the “Urdu News” in Urdu and “Malyalam News” in Malyalam have a very large circulation here across the Kingdom and even are in high demand from Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE.

Last but not the least, there is a street in Hara which is known by a very funny name of “SHARAE GHIBAT”. SHARAE in Arabic is called street while GHIBAT means to back-bite or to speak against somebody in his absence. I have driven through this street and have found a considerable number of people standing on both sides of it like Keralites & Bangladeshis do in Batha. It’s another place for hang-out and hundreds of the expat Indians are
found chitchatting with each other, often in a fashion of bickering. I was curious about this name already and investigated about the same. An Indian friend of mine informed me that this place (around this particular street) was mostly inhabited & frequented by single young men from HyderAbad in South India. They sort of gather here in the evening as a routine for socializing purposes and some jerk, out of pure joviality, branded them to be doing Ghibat and hence goes the name of the street.

Funny indeed, isn’t it?

But, this is what is Des in Pardes!!

About the author

Faiz Al-Najdi

Syed Faiz Ahmad with a pen-name of Faiz Al-Najdi, is a civil and structural engineer based in Saudi Arabia. He writes on current affairs and issues of human interest besides technical writings related to his professional works. He has been President of Pakistan Writers Club - Riyadh, which is an association of expatriate Pakistani writers, poets and journalists living and working in Riyadh.
His works regularly appear in several journals in USA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

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