The main website for one of the largest malls in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia states that it was designed in order to “serve you in a special way – to make your shopping convenient and fun”. With its numerous entryways (called ‘gates’), I have never been able to go too far other than the vicinity of gate 6 to 8 in Al Rashid Mall, Khobar. We went today just to exchange my mother’s Dior mascara and entered confused and walking into another large designer makeup store right next to the one that we needed.
Before entering we made it a point to not stay long- it was starting to get crowded as it was Thursday night, the equivalent of Fridays in the U.S. here in KSA. It was 10 pm- just four hours left until closing time. People, especially young men went there just like you would to a nightclub- not right at 10 pm because that is not “cool” yet, and stay the whole time checking out the scene until they kick you out at 2 am, dressed in their best jeans and accessories.
Malls in Saudi Arabia are not like the malls in the U.S. which basically serve the suburbia. You cannot be casual in a mall. Designed like a tradition Arab fort on the outside, the inside is glistening in marble, gold, and glass, and plenty of money. Al Rashid has hundreds of stores in its multiple floors, along with an indoor theme park, restaurants and cafes, and specialty shops of all kinds. There is a multi-story parking lot that usually looks like a designer auto show It has three fountains, one of which has a fire in the middle, another whose water hits at a height that can be felt in other floors, and one which has multiple sprays of water crossing each other in angular form. Crowds gather around these fountains- usually bored husbands who want to take a break and children who annoy the bored husbands as they squal in delight.
Crowded would be another word to describe the mall. This is especially true on Thursday and Friday nights when the ratio of men and women begin to be skewed towards the Y chromosome. There are men in their groups everywhere, especially teens who use the opportunity to show off and eye flirt with women. It is a mall that attracts a lot of foreigners, meaning lots of women who are more relaxed in their outfit, such as not wearing a headscarf or adorning a shorter abbayah. More open faces of Arab women can be seen with their full makeup on. It definitely has a greater energetic, liberal atmosphere, even though an office of the muttawa (religious police that uphold dress codes among other things) is located here. And so it becomes one of the few public places that men, and women can check each other out, maybe even wink or whistle. A time to come so close to breaking social rules and enjoy the thrill of it. And there is plenty of that, ever so sly but detectable.
Today in particular, there were Saudi officials in walkmans checking all that entered into the mall, not allowing men inside unless they were with family- also termed as “bachelors” here. I at first thought that they were muttawa- and became slightly nervous because I was not wearing my headscarf (though I have always wanted to be caught by one just to see what its like to completely disobey them and walk away). This led to a lot of men outside hovering around the parking lot, still eyeing the girls that would pretend not to enjoy the attention. Fancy cars drove by blasting Akon or Lil Wayne, disregarding the looks from the older customers could not pretend to not notice. Even here in the parking lot my generation was rebelling in their own way.
If taking photos was not such a big deal here, pictures alone would say so much. Women in all black putting Roberto Cavalli animal-print cocktail dresses over their abbaya, or trying on heels over their socks in Chanel. Boys as young as twelve smoking in the food court, all wearing the same style of ripped jeans, rock-band fitted t-shirts and scarves around their neck in various patterns from paisley to the kafiyah. Customers literally carrying a small suit-case sized teal shopping bags out of Tiffany & Co. The blue-eyed Dutch salesman at Dior makeup counter wishing my mother a belated merry Christmas. The line at Krispy Kream doughnuts, all male. The way that this mall is able to bring communities together and say, “here is our people, people!” in one place.