+ "My Baffling Question"

from Martin Smith

saudi dispatches

+ Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

+ My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

+ An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

+ An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

related links/interviews

On Friday morning, Sept. 27, we head northwest to Buraydah. Buraydah is known as one of the most conservative, most devoutly religious cities in Saudi Arabia. While Mecca and Medina, sites of the two holy mosques, are entirely closed to non-Muslims, Buraydah appears willing to receive a few infidels from time to time, although we are told that we cannot film on the streets. We can talk to people in their homes.

The road to Buraydah stretches across a desert of sage brush and sand with camels roaming here and there, tended by Bedouin tribesman. Every so often, a "camel crossing" sign appears and a kind of oversized pedestrian bridge follows. I am told by our guide today, Khalid, that hundreds of people die in Saudi Arabia each year from crashing their cars into camels. I imagine what happens to the camel when it's hit by a Caprice. Khalid says this road "is improved safety," with special camel bridges and fencing.

The road is four hours long and monotonous. We stop once at a rest area where I meet a man sitting in the desert sucking on a hookah. "Hubbly-bubbly" Khalid calls it. His truck idles nearby while he inhales the smoke of dried strawberries and various spices. He seems quite happy and greets me with energetic nodding of his head while offering the mouthpiece of his hookah to me. I politely decline, although it smells quite good. His truck is full of baby milk powder.

Suddenly, just as I dose off, we arrive in a city the size of Fresno or Bakersfield, California. Unizah and neighboring Buraydah occupy an oasis in the desert where palm dates are the cash crop. We are greeted by some contacts Khalid has made and spend two hours at mid-day in a small sitting room with five young Saudi professionals discussing religion, politics and war. It is a conversation that I grow weary of if only because we seem to tread over the same territory day after day. It doesn't get interesting until the conversation turns toward personal issues. I ask a question that I have been contemplating since I arrived here.

"Why do you all dress exactly alike?"

The Saudi outfit is universal here and the familiar signature of Saudi men everywhere: a white ankle-length "thobe," topped with a red and white checked head-piece which is carefully folded into a triangle, draped along the hairline and held in place by a thick double ring woven out of camel hair. To be fair, there are a few options in apparel. In the summer months many men choose an all white head-piece in place of the red and white. And sandals come in various styles; some men even wear black or brown shoes. But that's about it. I have learned that meeting someone in a crowded room means you have to study their faces very carefully. On first glance, they all look alike.

Some details help -- beards and moustaches, for instance. The Wahhabi clerics all wear untrimmed, long beards, the white head-piece and rarely use the camel-hair ring. The more worldly wear goatees, mustaches or full but trimmed beards. A minority are clean shaven.

Though conformity here is beyond any I've seen anywhere on earth, my question finds a curious sort of blank response. One man, a young university teacher, says, "What do you mean?" I am incredulous. "What do you mean, what do I mean?" I point out that everyone in the room is dressed exactly alike except for Scott, Chris and me. But I press gently. Wanting to draw them out, I ask if it is freeing not to have to decide what to wear each morning. They listen blankly.

I ask what the origin is of the red and white checked headdress. I have asked this of several men since I arrived. All say it is just the way it is. No one seems even remotely curious.

"Why not, let's say, blue and white checkers? Or green stripes, or solids or something just a little different?" I feel like I am asking a roomful of fish why they all have gills. It's a non-starter, my inquiry. They insist on not understanding the question. I point out that the cars they drive all come in different colors and styles. This seems to bring home the point. One young man, the owner of the house, leaves the room. We talk a while longer and they conclude that while they could dress differently, they just don't for no particular reason.

The young man who left returns. He has changed his thobe. It is light beige instead of white, and everyone has a good laugh. We all get ready to leave to explore the town. But I notice that before we depart our host has changed back into his white thobe.

Besides protecting them from the harsh sun and keeping them relatively cool, I think that the way they dress mimics the desert environment with its long monotonous spaces. I wonder who is wearing all the clothes being sold in the malls in Riyadh.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

home - introduction - mapping the journey
inside the tribal areas - ground zero: pakistan
discussion - interviews - producer's dispatches - readings & links
producer's chat - teachers' guide - tapes & transcripts - press reaction - credits - privacy policy
FRONTLINE - wgbh - pbs

photograph ©afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation