Ok so maybe a book fair doesn’t sound the most THRILLING of days out but bear with me, firstly because I love books, secondly because I work in a library, and thirdly because, well I live in Saudi Arabia – how many new and exciting days out do you really think are going on round here?!
Okay so that last point is maybe an exaggeration – as it happens more and more cool stuff seems to be cropping up in and around Jeddah in recent times. Ive heard word of a big cultural festival with comedy and music supposedly coming soon (apparently its even a mixed one – oooooh) but thats a post for a different time.
So yesterday I got on a bus and made my way to Jeddah to visit Jeddah Book Fair 2016, which is a large hub of communication for vendors, publishers and consumers from all over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to meet, liaise and purchase all kinds of books and materials.
The fair is seriously ginormous, I got totally lost 0.3 seconds after stepping foot through the entrance, If you are Arabic (or can read Arabic) this place is phenomenal – I have never seen so many books in one location. Twinned with the fact that it can be kinda hard to get books in the Kingdom (and when you can they are hella expensive) this place was an absolute treat to the many scholars, students and literature fans that crowded the place.
There was a decent amount of English books dotted around the fair which was music to my, um, eyes as its really hard to get english fiction here – up to now I’ve been relying on lugging back a suitcase full of books on each return trip from the UK. Plus side – great upper body workout, downside – slipped disks. The main thing I noticed however was that this was a really, really great place for children’s books, toys, educational pieces and so on – there was all sorts! Robots, puppets, mini kitchens, building blocks, bicycles – you name it, they had it. Anyone in the Kingdom who has children I strongly advise you to go and visit, the quality of the toys and other children’s items they had was really impressive. It almost made me sad that I didn’t have a kid I could buy sone stuff for….then I remembered that I like sleep waaaaay too much to ever give it up for a baby. Phew, close call.
So this fair seemed like a potentially safer way to sate my literature thirst, until the Mutawa struck. Dun dun duuuun.
For those of you that are not familiar with the word – the mutawa are Saudi Arabia’s religious police and it is their duty (using the term loosely) to encourage morality in the Kingdom. In April this year however the Saudi Arabian cabinet removed their right to arrest people who were deemed to be breaking any laws or were thought to be acting in a immoral way. They have now been encouraged by Saudi Arabian Governors to act in a “gentle and humane” way which of course is a brilliant step forward.
Funnily enough even during my time in Kingdom before these laws were brought in and when the mutawa had more powers and were generally more strict, I myself had never been approached directly. There was a slight incident about a fortnight after we moved here when I was ‘tutted at’ (I know this sounds a bit “oooh Deirdre” but theres no other way to say it – it was a tut) for loitering. Which is fair enough, if by loitering you mean waiting outside a mens shop waiting for Paul but whatever.
During the book fair, I guess I had my eyes opened to this small part of Saudi culture that I had been vaguely aware of before but had never come face to face with. The fair was mainly populated with Saudi families and as a result 99% of women there were covered. As an expat I am not required to cover my hair – or so I thought – but after the third time I was approached by this gentleman who was (not aggressively, but firmly) saying the word ‘Hijab’ at me over and over (and over) again, I began to suspect that he might want me to cover my hair. Which I did, out of respect for the culture I live in and my surroundings – after all, the last thing I want to do is insult or offend anyone.
Apparently though this wasn’t good enough and the gentleman then approached my male colleague, asking why I wasn’t covering, asking him to tell me to cover and so on. I really want to stress that the man was not rude, angry, threatening or otherwise aggressive at all and I didn’t feel unsafe or upset – just a mild annoyance. Ok, maybe not so mild. I mean just leave me and my hair alone to chill with all the lovely books in peace dude! So in the end, in an attempt at having an easy life I fashioned a make shift burkha which seemed to satisfy him and off he trotted to find some other morals to encourage *raises eyebrow*.
Which sort of brings us to the end of my time at the fair. The pop up building the fair was held in was right on the water front and there were a number of coffee shops and places to get a quick bite to eat where you could sit by the waters edge looking out which was lovely. I thoroughly recommend you give the fair a visit if you get the chance, especially if you have children and you are maybe looking for some last minute festive gifts!
The fair runs 20th – 25th December and you can find out more information on their website here.
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Have a wonderful day!