Monday, August 23, 2010

Balad and Buffet

Last weekend's adventure in Balad, a district in Jeddah containing the old city, was quite an interesting one.  This is where the streets are narrow and unpaved, the stores and kiosks spill out onto the street and the sellers call out as you pass, bags and boxes are brimming with fragrant spices and herbs, the buildings are old, and there's a hub of activity as people go about their daily shopping.  Amazingly, things were open in the late afternoon on a Friday, probably because it's the equivalent of Sunday, and we were there close to evening prayer.  We spent two hours meandering through the souqs and streets and taking it all in.  I was finally able to take some pictures, which I'll upload soon.  Balad is what you might picture an Arabic city to look and feel and sound and smell like (or at least how I pictured it), and it's different from most other places in Jeddah.  It was HOT.  We were there in full traditional dress, men in long, white thobes, and the women in abayas.  Many people stopped and stared at us; clearly the blending in we were trying to accomplish didn't happen.  It was curiosity more than anything; we were all speaking Arabic and were accompanied by two locals.  The heat really got to one of my companions all of a sudden, and she had to sit down or else she would have fainted.  By luck, this happened in the perfect spot.  We happened upon a group of Saudi men lounging on high wooden benches with cushions and waiting to break the fast.  Not only did they let her sit down, they plied her (and us) with water and dates and samboosas and engaged us in conversation.  Given that eating and drinking before sunset is illegal and that we were a mixed gender group, this spoke to the generosity and hospitality of Saudis.  This group is all loosely related and gathers in this spot on the 10th and 20th days of Ramadan, in the shadows of their crumbling family home, for iftar and reunion.  It was such an unexpected and unpredictable encounter, but it was easily one of the highlights.  Elsewhere, especially in the courtyards of mosques, people bring food and drink and host iftars for the poor.  We saw several such feasts getting ready to start.

Balad is thought to be about 2,500 years old, the settlement site of tribes of fisherman.  The area is characterized by historic buildings, many of them now crumbling due to lack of preservation, which are often made of coral and feature mashrabiya.  Mashrabiya, according to Wikipedia, is, "a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second story of a building or higher."  It's a beautiful feature; I couldn't stop staring at the gorgeous woodwork.  While the wood comes mainly from various countries in Africa as well as from Indonesia, the materials used for the buildings themselves is local.  The buildings are constructed from blocks of coral and shells from the Red Sea, mixed with cement.  The two different techniques complement each other.  The wooden beams inserted throughout the building create a structural shell and allow for easy access to repair and/or replace bad sections with new blocks.  While these blocks may not strike you as the most structurally sound materials, the buildings are in disrepair due to lack of care rather than disintegrating materials.  It's very sad to see so many of these amazing buildings falling to ruin; preservation efforts have not been widespread.  One house in particular has been meticulously preserved - Nassif House.  I have yet to go there and meet with its dynamic protector, a local engineer who is devoted to preservation of the historic area, but I will soon.  And I will post pictures as soon as I can locate my camera cord...

Our final destination was the Red Sea Palace Hotel, only a few hundred meters from both the beach.  They, like many major hotels, host a daily iftar buffet.  Dozens of people were filling their plates with food from the ample buffet tables and then returning to their seats to wait for the adhan, signaling the official end of the fast for the day.  Then everyone drinks and eats a little bit before adjoining to the prayer room to perform the Maghreb prayer, returning to feast.  We were served a selection of juices, drinking yogurt, dates, water, and lentil soup.  The buffet had dozens of traditional salad dishes, including the well-known hummus, fettoosh, tabouleh, babaghanoush, etc..  There was a foul buffet (a sort of mashed fava beans, with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice).  The foul was served in a large, traditional, pounded-metal, urn-like container, complete with a long handled spoon for serving.  Main dishes included lots of meats and potatoes and rice, and some pasta and fish.  The dessert selection was amazing.  (Like the journal I kept during my first overseas trip, to France at age 13, I find myself chronicling food and meals in much greater detail than many other experiences.  I will try to diversify in future posts...)  All in all, a great way to spend a Friday afternoon!

1 comment:

Julia said...

Hi, I'm Julia (DoS intern / FSO-to-be, insh'Allah), and I found your blog from Digger's link to it. Basically, I can't resist sharing an etymology:

When I was in Cairo, I was told that the word mashrabiyya comes from the root شرب -- you hang your drinking water from the mashrabiyya at night and the breeze cools it off.