Truly Amazing Ha’il and a Car Rally

Our first trip to Ha’il is one that will be remembered fondly for many years to come.  Hubsters work colleague suggested that we visit Ha’il, his home town, to watch the annual Ha’il Car Rally.  The idea of watching cars racing in the desert dunes certainly appealed, so we agreed to go.

The flight from Riyadh was very quick and we were picked up by a young man who whisked us off to our hotel and a waiting home cooked traditional meal that was not only delicious but was a perfect introduction to the region.

The 2016 Hail International Cross Country Rally is organized by the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF) in conjunction with a few big wigs from Ha’il.  Thanks to the father of Hubster’s work colleague we were fortunate enough to be invited to the opening ceremony held at the Maghwat Conference Center.  It is a very impressive location with the mountains of Hail standing solid and proud against a clear blue sky, proving an imposing yet beautiful backdrop to the formalities.

I followed the boys out to the official seating area and, looking around at all the white thobes and checkered ghutras, came to the conclusion not many women were here.  Hardly surprising that in a land where women aren’t permitted to drive female rev heads are few and far between at a Saudi based car rally. (I did double check that our invitation was in my handbag, just is case someone queried my presence).  

The officials arrived among a rush of buzzed excitement and the speeches began. To be honest I didn’t know who was who or what exactly they were saying so at some point, because my Arabic still sucks, I passed the time taking pictures of the guards on the mountains and rows of male feet – I figured that would be visual representation of the lack of females without pin pointing any particular male. (If I could have inconspicuously knelt on the floor for really good shots I would have, but The Hubster was giving me the evil eye for being a fidget).

The presentations by officialdom were over quickly as everyone was keen to get to the real purpose of the day – seeing and welcoming the cars and drivers.  Initially I thought there weren’t many rally cars present as none had been spotted on our arrival to the conference center, but soon the sound of revving engines could be heard and the procession of vehicles grew as, one by one, the cars waited their turn to drive up on to the purpose built platform for the official briefing signifying the start of their rally before disappearing up the valley in a cloud of dust.

We lined up alongside TV cameras, photographers and news crews to take our own photos of the vehicles and drivers.  It was a well organised occasion with just the right amount of pomp without being over the top before getting down to business – a great way to start our car rally experience in Hail.

Our next stop was to watch the start of the Super Special Stage, a compulsory part of the event for all crews according to rally regulations I found on the net.  There was a buzz of excitement as rally cars lined up on the road and the general public gathered around their favorite driver and his navigator to offer encouragement while they waited for their start time.  Many a call could be heard as groups chanted their support.  Four-time winner from Saudi Arabia, Yazeed Al-Rajhi, and his German navigator, Timo Gottschalk, were popular among the crowd.  

The teams were more than happy to pose for photos with a thumbs up.  As the vehicles approached the starting gate crews could be seen checking and rechecking their safety harnesses and helmets.   There was security on hand to keep the spectators organised as the rally proper got under way to the sound of grunty engines and flying sand.  

It had been an exciting afternoon and it wasn’t until we were seated on the floor of the oldest restaurant in the heart of Ha’il, At Turathii, watching local dishes being uncovered that I realized how hungry I was.  

I love the way Saudi meals are eaten around a central dish.  It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that I have to use my hands to eat.  And I’m perfectly happy sitting on the floor – so long as there is room to stretch out my legs.  Discarding scraps on to the plastic sheet that protects the floor in front of me suits me just fine as well.  Clearing the setting and carrying off the leftovers to whoever may be waiting for them is a breeze too.  The whole arrangement is my kind of dining.  At this meal we had jarish, harisa, murguk, and more.  It was a feast and absolutely delectable. 

That evening, after a rest in the hotel, I was dropped off at the family home, while The Husband went to an Isteraha to spend the evening with a few of the younger Hail men folk. 

I’ve met a number of married western expat women who are not happy that, should they visit a Saudi home, they will be separated from their husband and whisked off to goodness knows where and have to cope on their own.  It can be a scary idea, of course, being out of your comfort zone and alone, especially when a language barrier is also included, but in the scheme of a lifetime it’s only for such short while.  It does help to be prepared for such occasions.  These days I make sure I have my phone fully charged and, for extra insurance, the charger in my handbag because the Arabic dictionary on my phone gets a workout.  (I use the English Arabic Dictionary by Xung Le – available free on Google Play and iTunes in case you were wondering).

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I think if you want to get the most out of Saudi it pays to get over your fear of separation else you will miss out on some awesome experiences.  When I arrived at this family home the adults, consisting of mum, grand-ma, grand-dad, a sister, and a younger brother were all sitting around an outdoor table enjoying lively conversation and snacks in the cool night air while younger children were running around. 

They steered me indoors to the guest room while a discussion took place outdoors to determine who should come and keep me company.   I asked if it would be OK to come outside and join the family instead of splitting everybody up.  And besides, it was such a pleasant evening to be sitting outdoors.   Seconds after my request I was ushered to a seat at the patio table and spent the next few hours getting to know the family.  They were wonderful.  So relaxed and all with a keen sense of humour.  Being with them reminded me of our own family gatherings at home with its good natured banter, the ebb and flow of discussions and that sense that this is where you belong.

It had been an excellent day.  Truly excellent.  That night we settled into the Golden Tulip hotel very impressed with our first full day in this northern city.  We couldn’t wait to see more.

The next day was Friday and our itinerary for the day was a spot of sightseeing.  First we went to A’arif Fort which, though closed, affords an excellent view of the city and the enveloping arch of mountains within which the municipality is nestled.   We drove past the Qishleh Heritage Palace and then headed up to the top of the hill at Samra’ Park.  From there we could survey the city of Ha’il out to the distant horizon.

It was into this distant horizon that we ventured later that afternoon.  Our host family took us into the mountains we had been admiring where we clambered among the rocks after enjoying another sampling of home cooked traditional food – this time kayaba and a spicy chicken dish on milk baked rice, called sliiq. 

We then had the option of going to watch the afternoon rally in the desert or to visit a local historical grave site.  We chose the siteseeing because we presumed we had the next day to watch the rally.  The grave, and attached mud ruins, are reputed to belong to folk legend Hatim Al Tay, the most generous man whose stories of giving and generosity have been passed down through the generations and are said to epitomize the spirit of Arabic hospitality.  The sun was starting to set while we were at the site, turning the mountains aglow in various shades of burnt orange.  It was time to move on.

That night this Wifey headed back to the family home where I felt as welcomed as all the other relatives who were coming and going that night, while The Husband went to a gathering of local tribal leaders.  (I really ought to get him to write a piece about that shouldn’t I).  It was there that a gentleman extended an invitation to attend a celebration at the small village of Al Mortadh, about 60 km south of Ha’il the next day.  

Of course, Husbster wasn’t quite sure what it was exactly we had been invited to.  The way he explained it to me we were going to an Ambassador’s house for a coffee and then we’d go to the desert for more of the car rally.  So bright and early the next morning we were picked up and, after a U-turn or two, found ourselves guests at very important and rather large international event.  (Not quite coffee).  

Thirty years previously Marcel Kurpershoek, a former Dutch diplomat was posted to Saudi Arabia.  He traveled extensively through the northern and central regions establishing contacts with tribal leaders and Bedouins to research and learn their history and stories through their poetry.  He has since written a number of books on the what he learned during that time.  This day was a celebration of his return to the village of Khalid Al Dabais, one of his valued contacts.  (The complete Corpus is available on Amazon.)

There was a minor hiccup when, because we arrived earlier than the Ambassador and because the village wasn’t expecting another white guy other than said Ambassador, we were mistaken as the guests of honor.  As with all mixed gender hui (Maori word for gatherings) in Saudi, the men and women were housed in separate areas so, once I realized what was going on, some Arabic words were dredged from the back of my brain, and supported via Arabic Dictionary on my phone, to explain to the collected group of females busy taking my photo that I was nobody really.  The proper guests were yet to arrive.   (Hubster had a translator to do his Arabic communication out in Man Tent). 

Photo Credit: سبق حائل

Even with my extensive range of Arabic language skills and Hubsters English speaking colleague, some things were still lost in translation.  After the real guests had arrived, (that being the Ambassador, his daughter, a female translator and a group of media personnel for a planned documentary on the Ambassadors travels), one local Saudi woman insisted we should be allowed to sit out with the men once the formal welcome was over and the speeches had begun. (At least that is what I gathered she was saying, while getting me to follow her out to the gate).  I wasn’t too sure that was a good plan, given there were a lot of men who might be upset should a mere femme simply wonder out into their midst, and asked, more than once, if she was sure.  The local men thought otherwise, too.  There ensued some form of discussion and the woman, believe it or not, won out because midway through proceedings we three western females were ushered to seats out in the Man Tent. 

To my surprise, and most definitely to his, The Hubster was called to give a speech too.  He did well thanking the people of Ha’il for their fabulous hospitality.  And their hospitality was fabulous…and it hadn’t finished yet.  After a photo with the Hubster in his newly gifted Bisht, Shamag and Guttra, I was ushered back to the ladies side for a display of dancing by some of the younger women and then moved to the dining hall for a huge lamb meal.  This was meat heaven.  (True Kiwi.  Love lamb).  Some of the honored guests were not so thrilled, being vegetarian as they were.

Soon after the meal it was time to move on from the village to a couple of other places that The Hubster had been invited to, that being a visit to a camel farm and then qahwah at the remarkable home of another local leader, Muhammed al Suaied.  It is not often I see The Hubster overwhelmed, but there were so many people offering open invitations to him, and accepting I was tagging along too, that he was quite overcome.

It goes without saying that we had a great time in Ha’il.  The next day Hubster sent me a message, ‘Still buzzing a bit from weekend.  Truly amazing’.

Ka Kite,

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