Today was the 80th anniversary of the death of Turkey’s founder and great leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Every year, on the 10th of November at five minutes past nine in the morning, Turkey stands still and sirens can be heard all over the country.
Schools are often open on this occasion, and children come with their parents for a ceremony of commemoration.
Atatürk died at the age of 57 in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, and this is where I chose to go this morning to see what was happening.
There were thousands of people, amongst which many families or groups of friends, plenty of bikers, some colleagues too, and of course a few fans of the football club Beşiktaş JK which has its stadium located just across the Dolmabahçe Palace.
Many people had flags, t-shirts, or just a rosette or badge with a photo of Mustafa Kemal. Everyone was very quiet, often cheerful although a bit solemn, and enjoying this wonderfully sunny autumn morning. Sometimes, they were chanting slogans or songs for Mustafa Kemal, in particular İzmir Marşı.
There were so many people that traffic was blocked and the roads were covered with people. A group was carrying a long, long, long flag – I believe this must be a world record of the longest flag, it could possibly have been a kilometer long.
At exactly five minutes past nine, we heard a number of sirens which lasted for a minute, after which everyone sang the national anthem.
It turns out that the Dolmabahçe Palace was open specially and for free for this occasion. Visitors had to wait long queues to get in – it took me two hours in total – and had to follow a circuit that takes them through the gardens, inside the palace, in the bedroom where Atatürk passed away (where some people laid flowers), then through the other side of the garden to the exit.
Atatürk is dead, long live Atatürk! Turkey still loves you so much.
This week I was lucky to be one of the first ever travellers using the new Istanbul Airport which opened on Monday.
Located 40 km away from Istanbul by the Black Sea coast, this airport has been built as an answer to the ever growing congestion problem in Istanbul’s main airport, Ataturk. From currently 64 million passengers in Istanbul’s main airport (for comparison, Heathrow has 78 million and JFK is at 59), the capacity will gradually grow up to 150 million by 2030.
The ambition is to make the new airport the biggest in the world – you won’t fly through the Gulf anymore when hopping across continents but through Istanbul.
The airport opened on Monday, at the occasion of the Turkish Republic’s anniversary, in a grand ceremony attended by the president. Flights started on 1st of November – but only 4 daily flights for now.
I was in one of them, bound to Antalya, so I could get a chance to see a preview of the airport.
Yes, I chose the term “preview”, as although our departure experience was smooth, it really felt as if this was just a run-through before real opening.
I had great fun walking around this ghost of an airport, and enjoyed a lot the propaganda! Let me take you through the journey…
What is it like in Saudi Arabia? My week-long business trip to Saudi Arabia has been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve experienced so many feelings, often mixed feelings. I’ve had bizarre dreams many nights, a sign that my brain had a lot to process during the day.
A few (bizarre) impressions from Saudi Arabia:
The plane to Jeddah: a 40,000 feet high changing room
An international flight to Jeddah is hilarious because almost the entire plane changes outfit halfway. Men dress down, women dress up.
Men flying to Jeddah are often pilgrims on the way to Mecca; at some point during the flight, they swap their shirt and trousers for the ihram, a sort of big white towel they wear as a toga.
For women, arriving in Saudi means adding layers, and in particular an abaya, a dark, plain, loose, full-length over-garment, which it is recommended you get before you board the plane so you can arrive in a Saudi airport wearing the perfect attire.
And whilst this means, as a female, that your body is completely hidden, I’ve seen quite a few men really embarrassed that the ihram was showing their bellies and love handles, and were constantly trying to pull the towel down to mask their forms.
What a bizarre feeling, to see pilgrim males embarrassed to show their curves!
The rhythms of daily life
Navigating opening hours in Saudi Arabia is a real struggle. Places like museums typically have different opening days for women and men, so you really need to plan ahead to make sure you arrive somewhere at the correct moment.
Another challenge is the regular interruption that prayer time represents. Five times a day, life pauses for up to 30 minutes. I was in Saudi Arabia for market research, and we had to offer a break in the middle of the group discussions for the ladies to pray.
Many shops and restaurants close, but interestingly, they won’t kick you out if you’re already in; so the challenge is to arrive at least 10-15 minutes before prayer time.
I was in a supermarket during the afternoon prayer; the music and some of the lights were shut off, the staff completely ignored me, the store went quiet. It felt as if I had been locked inside the supermarket after hours.
What a bizarre feeling, to be left alone inside a supermarket several times a day!
The femininity and nuisances of the abaya
Life in Saudi Arabia for a woman means wearing the abaya all the time, which is a pain in the neck, really. The weather is way too hot to add an additional layer, the abaya prevents you from enjoying the refreshing breeze of the wind, and the fact it is constantly touching the floor, in a desert country, means that it’s getting dirty pretty quick.
When the wind blows hard, the abaya gets trapped between your legs and makes it difficult to walk. In escalators, I’m always worried that the abaya will get stuck and tear apart.
But indoors, what a feminine feel to wear a long robe, which is large enough to flow around you as you walk and turn. It sometimes gave me the feeling of being a princess from another era, when women used to wear petticoats under their long dresses.
What a bizarre feeling, to experience a boost of femininity whilst hidden under an oppressive garment!
The constant segregation of the genders
If you want to freak out a conservative Saudi cleric, just mention the possibility that a woman may have speak to, or even see, an unrelated man.
Layout, architecture, operations, everything is designed to maintain a precise segregation of genders.
Businesses typically have a backdoor (I call it a shame door) for women and families to enter and stay in a space that is hidden away from the public, so men cannot see them.
But all service-related jobs, including waiters and shop assistants, are male, so the opportunity for women to enjoy full privacy are really scarce.
Many restaurants even separate booths closed by a curtain or screen, so women can uncover their face when enjoying a meal; and the waiter has to knock and ask permission every time he enters with a new dish, meaning women can have the time to put their niqab back in place.
Two days ago in Riyadh, spotting a Starbucks right when I was in need of WiFi, I made a terrible mistake and entered the coffeeshop through the main door. I didn’t realise it immediately, because as a female in Saudi Arabia you are used to be surrounded by nothing but males.
But as a female, I was supposed to use the other door, the one that’s on the side, the one that’s reserved for women.
What a bizarre feeling, to be told off for entering a store through the main door!
More than ever, my white privilege
I am a white European person; all my life, I’ve been witnessing what white privilege is about. I grew up in a multicultural environment, and the concept of white privilege made me really, really angry when I was younger.
Over the years, I’ve learned to admit it, if not accept it; but it’s still something I am really not proud of.
Many women wonder what it’s like to travel as a female in Saudi Arabia; is it even safe to travel to Saudi Arabia? And the answer is, it depends on your religion.
Time to debunk some of the myths: many of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslims like me. I didn’t need a male guardian, I didn’t need a male to pick me up at the airport, I didn’t need a male permission to leave my hotel, I didn’t even need to cover my face and hair.
And as a white European, none would question whether I am Muslim or not.
There is a lot I’ve been doing in the past week, such as walking around, visiting restaurants alone, having a conversation with a male shop assistant, shaking hands with a local man, exchanging a laugh and a high five with a male taxi driver, etc., that no local, Muslim woman would even dream to be able to do.
I have travelled in other Islamic, conservative countries before, and was typically experiencing the same treatment as local women, which was extremely tough. Nowhere like in Saudi have I had the chance to enjoy a different treatment than the locals, for not being Muslim myself.
What a bizarre feeling, to enjoy my white privilege to make my travel richer…
I’ve done it; took the opportunity of a business trip to Jeddah to spend a free day here. I came once last year already, but for a 15-hour long working day. Now, finally, came the occasion to take the time and explore a little.
No, it’s not North Korea
Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the reputation to be female-friendly, as confirmed by the reaction of my two female collaborators last year, when I told them at the end of the day that I would go to a shopping mall to find a restaurant for dinner. “No, no, no” they shouted, one looking puzzled (a Syrian), the other properly terrified (a Saudi).
They made me go back to my hotel and order room service. Was this a sort of North Korea for women? Was I going to be stranded in my room all weekend?
No, no, no, I assure you. I’ve been absolutely fine. Partly because things are not as strict as we might think; partly because Jeddah is “liberal” by Saudi standards; partly because some of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslim women.
I still can’t drive a car, although this will soon change, but I have been free to walk and move around (I’ved used Uber), enjoy a meal out, admire sights, and do some shopping.
I didn’t have to be escorted from the airport by a male guardian, unlike what some websites still say, but instead found a taxi ride to my hotel, like the big girl that I am.
I was often the only woman on the streets, except at the family-friendly areas of the corniche, but never received any unwanted attention.
No, it’s not Dubai either
I thought oil had made Saudi a rich country. Surely, it has made some families rich – but the overall impression from Jeddah is rather that of an emerging city, like one could see in India or Egypt.
There are a lot of palaces and luxury shops in Jeddah, but also a lot of ruins, wastelands, and abandoned sites. I saw beggars, litter, and quite some misery on the streets. Traffic is dense and chaotic, accidents are common, cars are typically covered with dents.
Navigating around prayer times
The first thing you do when you arrive in Jeddah, is to check the prayers timetable. Shops and restaurants close during prayers, and that’s five times a day, so it’s better to know in advance what to expect.
What’s good to know is that some restaurants actually have a back door for families (and as a woman, that’s where you belong) and they can let you in. You still have to wait until the end of prayer time to order food, but at least you don’t have to wait outside in the heat!
That being said, not all shops stop during prayer. Cars still drive, strollers stil walk; life keeps going.
What to wear as a female in Saudi?
First, imagine it’s very hot. With almost 40 degrees Celsius at this time of the year (that’s over 100 in Fahrenheit), I prefer a fluid and light dress, but I still suffer from the heat.
But it doesn’t matter anyway, because you have to cover it all with an abaya. The abaya is a long, dark robe with long sleeves that goes down until the floor (and sweeps all the dust, yes), and I have never seen a woman in Saudi not wear it, apart from Michelle Obama on pictures.
There is no obligation for non Muslim women to cover their heads however, and, unlike when I travelled in Iran where I had to be covered, this time I enjoyed the refreshing feel of the wind in my neck.
If you see me with a headscarf on some pictures, it’s nothing religious, it’s rather to protect my head from the sun.
The Arab hospitality
Ah, the Arab hospitality; overwhelming by Western standards, and yet so delighfully cheerful.
It started at the airport already. Seeing that I am French, the immigration officer said a few warm words in my native language. Searching for my visa, he spotted that I’ve been in Russia and also spoke some Russian. Once my passport was stamped, he gave me a large smile and said “Welcome in Saudi Arabia”.
Many more people have greeted me this past day. Regularly, someone comes my way and says “Welcome”. Those amongst the Uber drivers who speak some English wished me to enjoy my stay; one even called me “sister”.
The Arab hospitality primary rule is to take care of guests. Even a policeman did it: seeing that I was struggling to cross a busy road, he simply stopped the cars to let me go.
The Arab hospitality is also wat Muhammad demonstrated, a friendly Yemeni (although born and raised in Saudi) whom I met Saturday afternoon and insisted to take care of me, driving and showing me around, and even buying me a meal and ice cream.
Well educated, speaking perfect English, Muhammad is a soft and warm man who dreams to move out to the West (which isn’t easy with a passport from Yemen) and claims he prefers the company of Westerners than Arabs.
From our conversations, I learned a lot of insightful details about daily life in Saudi, and people’s struggles and aspirations, which made my stay so much richer.
His overwhelming sense of hospitality also meant that I’ve had to slightly adjust my plans to what he thought it to be a good host, which frustrated me a little – but hey, if I’m all about living and doing like locals, then why should I admire a sunset contemplatively walking on a sea promenade, when I can do the same driving around in a car…
My Jeddah pick: Al-Balad historical district
Jeddah has a few sights that guidebooks can tell you about, and a newly renovated North corniche that’s pedestrian and family friendly, but my favourite place has been the old district of Al-Balad, so full of Oriental charm.
Alas, with the exception of a few restaured houses, the neighbourhood is not in a good shape, with many decrepit facades and unsanitary ruins.
Saudis, please don’t demolish them! They are your heart and your soul. And plus, they’re the authenticity we seek when travelling in your country.
But I guess Saudis prefer to build new stuff elsewhere, and abandon the old, rather than renovate it.
Luckily, some of Al-Balad is still there, and I enjoyed a lot to aimlessly stroll amongst the narrow streets filled with smells of cardamom and patchouli.
I don’t like knowing too much about places before visiting them, so I don’t get a distorted view before setting foot there. And thus, my knowledge of the Japanese life and culture is fairly virgin, and now is the time to figure it all out.
How do things work? What am I expected to do? What do people want? I have absolutely no idea. But as a well-travelled person, I want to know, so I can do the same as locals – to experience life as a local.
It is all about observing behaviours, and understanding the rules and codes. It is the work of an anthropologist!
Always with the same goal: playing anthropologist, to become a good traveller. Understanding the codes so I can conform to them.
In the few hours that I’ve been here, Japan has already been a fabulous experience for the anthropologist in me. I have absolutely no idea of what I’m doing and what’s going on, which is baffling and hilarious at the same time!
A man told me to go to the second floor, but I don’t know the floor numbering conventions here. I also don’t know why I need to stay here, and am not entirely sure I’m queueing at the right place.
I smile politely at people but I have no idea what they’re telling me or want me to do!
But I’m making progress. I’m mingling with locals at the bar of tiny restaurants, I’ve figured out that I should stand on the left in escalators, and I take a nonchalant look, as if I’d been doing this for years, when paying my streetcar fare as I get off.