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  • Michelle Smythe

My life as an 11 year old in Saudi Arabia - Part 2

Shopping was an amazing experience in Riyadh, the food shops were huge American supermarkets, predominantly selling American products. We were amazed by the choice of crisps, sweets and chocolate bars you could buy! There were a few shopping malls in Riyadh too, these were so clean and modern. The shops were amazing, selling things we’d never seen before, outdoor toys, roller boots, skateboards. There were shops that only sold stickers, by this I mean Hello Kitty stickers, Snoopy stickers, in fact any character off US TV. As children we used to have sticker albums and collect them, there were puffy stickers, scratch and sniff stickers, paper stickers, glow in the dark stickers... all sorts of stickers in one shop!


As women weren’t allowed to drive, there were shopping trips during the week for the wives on the compound. The school buses were used to take the mums to the supermarkets for the weekly shop! Al Jazeerah Super Store was one of them, I seem to remember one called ‘Panda’ too.

Then there were the markets, or souks as they are known in Arab countries, in particular the gold souk, which only sold gold - 18 and 22 carat gold which was sold by weight. Necklaces, bangles, puzzle rings, earrings, bracelets, you name it, the gold souk sold it, we’d never seen anything like it!


For clothing we had to go to the markets, fashion was just not on their radar, the clothes were very basic for us and for our parents. When we came home on leave we would always do a huge clothes shop and take it all back to Riyadh with us. My friends would come and see us as soon as we got back to Riyadh, to see what clothes I had brought back with me, all of the 11 and 12 year old girls did this... the boys didn’t bother!


Fridays in Riyadh were spent doing a whole load of activities. Sometimes the company dad worked for, hosted special events for the British employees and their families. These were always outside and were sport themed, like running races, football games, scavenger hunts and team games.


Another popular event was a Hash House Harriers race in the sand dunes I had no idea what Hash House meant when I was 11! This was a club of runners/joggers/families that went running in the red sand dunes outside of Riyadh, with a barbeque at the end of the race.

There were loads of barbeques in Riyadh, trips out into the desert with other families and a barbeques were the norm’ on Fridays, all the children would play and run around, the adults would cook and chat.

Our family and several other families went on a road trip in convoy from Riyadh to Jeddah (approx 600 miles one way!). Halfway there we slept overnight under the stars at Al Taif, and once in Jeddah we camped on the shores of the Red Sea, sleeping under canvas. The coral in the sea was beautiful and the waters were crystal clear. As Jeddah was a

very humid city, all our clothes were constantly damp, a very uncomfortable feeling.


Camel racing was an experience I’ll never forget! In a flat, gravel-like part of the desert, everyone just seemed to make a huge oval shape to race the camels, it was an important event for the Saudis who all turned up in Toyota pick-ups and stood in the pick-up and on the bonnets to watch the races. We went with other families and took picnics, which we ate out of the back of our cars.

Indoor ten pin bowling was a weekend and evening pastime too, the building had the best air-con ever! I remember it being super modern and brand new.

Television was practically non-existent. We all had TVs but the only English speaking programmes was the news. Instead, with the help of a rota, every week a family went to the video library (my memory of this isn’t too clear), to choose a selection of videos that would be shown at certain times of the day. All the family’s videos were connected somehow. The videos weren’t videos with proper boxes and information about the film, they were just black video cassettes with a handwritten film title on a white sticker on the side. Most were copies brought back from the UK, some were television programmes. I think they were Betamax videos too.

Thanks to Facebook, I am in touch with some of my school friends from 1982/83.

The memories I have of these two amazing years of my life will be with me forever. My parents certainly made the right decision to take a huge risk and move to a completely different country. I wish my own children could have the same opportunity and experience.

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