Pud­dles a small price to pay for Paddy par­adise

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Puzzles - Fiona O’Con­nell

THE party is over, this grey Jan­uary. The sky is over­cast and it’s driz­zling. Yet a lo­cal in this coun­try town, who re­cently re­turned from nearly two years work­ing abroad in siz­zling tem­per­a­tures — a beach across the road from her cushy tem­po­rary res­i­dence — is lit­er­ally soak­ing it all in with a bliss­ful smile.

For she found the re­al­ity of life in Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia, “like liv­ing in an up­tight ver­sion of that movie The Tru­man Show, ev­ery­thing clin­i­cal and un­real”. She es­pe­cially missed sea­sons. While the only 40 shades she saw was at a St Pa­trick’s Day gath­er­ing last year: “Lots of Saudi men wear­ing bits of green stuck to them.” It was hot all the time in a land­scape that seemed to con­sist of “sand, sand­stone, sand, palm tree, sand”.

There was no es­cape at her lo­cal cafe, a fran­chise of a Cana­dian chain that was air-conned, snazzy and stream­lined. For there was noth­ing chilled about it, with no sounds be­yond that of robed men click­ing on their lap­tops. Be­cause mu­sic, “like any­thing else that was ba­si­cally fun”, was banned.

Though “the nicest and big­gest sur­prise” in this Is­lamic coun­try that op­er­ates un­der Sharia Law (the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs ad­vises Ir­ish cit­i­zens to be sen­si­tive to lo­cal cus­toms) were the well-in­formed Saudis she en­coun­tered. “They were the way re­li­gious peo­ple should be: kind and funny and friendly.”

Per­haps this helped her draw par­al­lels with “Ire­land two gen­er­a­tions ago, when Catholi­cism was in the Ir­ish Con­sti­tu­tion.”

There were funny sides to the cen­sor­ship: “They would blip out any ref­er­ence to pork on Masterchef. It was sur­real.”

Like­wise, it amused her that there was no word for cleav­age, though “women are re­ally crude when they talk among them­selves about body parts and func­tions”. She be­lieves it is a ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. “The fam­ily is the main so­cial unit and within that the mother is queen.”

Never did she wit­ness any vi­o­lence. “They say vi­o­lence is not in the Ko­ran. What loony kings do is an­other thing.”

On that note, “the whole at­mos­phere changed” af­ter Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Ja­mal Khashoggi was mur­dered last Oc­to­ber. A Saudi col­league agreed with her de­ci­sion to leave — un­til “some­one passed be­hind him and a look of ab­so­lute ter­ror crossed his face. Be­cause there are se­cret po­lice ev­ery­where”.

Which is why one of the things she is en­joy­ing about home is be­ing able to sit in a cafe that is play­ing back­ground mu­sic and crit­i­cise any politi­cian who she feels de­serves it. She smiles out at the driz­zle and re­calls watch­ing men in yel­low pon­chos rush­ing about with sweep­ing brushes when it rained. “It hap­pened so rarely that there was no drainage sys­tem, so they sort of sloshed the wa­ter around.”

“Which re­minds me,” she laughs. She but­tons up her jacket and waves; off to splash her way through pud­dles for a catch-up pint with pals in the pub.

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