The preservation of these 500 houses surrounding a souk marks an attempt by the Saudis, whose oil profits turned them into bling addicts, to appreciate the beauty of what they dismissively call “old stuff.”Jidda means “grandmother” in Arabic, and the city may have gotten its name because tradition holds that the grandmother of all temptresses, the biblical Eve, is buried here—an apt symbol for a country that legally, sexually, and sartorially buries its women alive.
(A hard-line Muslim cleric in Iran recently blamed provocatively dressed women for earthquakes, inspiring the headline SHEIK IT!
,” I asked.“Women can be buried there,” he conceded, “but you are not allowed to go in and look into it.”So I can only see a dead woman if I’m a dead woman? It’s the most bewitching, bewildering, beheading vacation spot you’ll never vacation in.
Saudi Arabia is one of the premier pilgrimage sites in the world, outstripping Jerusalem, the Vatican, Angkor Wat, and every other religious destination, except for India’s Kumbh Mela (which attracts as many as 50 million pilgrims every three years).
The royals doubled down on the deal when Islamic fundamentalists took over the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, in 1979.
Now, with bin Laden’s attacks, the bargain the royals struck with the fundamentalists—allowing anti-Western clerics and madrassas to flourish and not cracking down on those who bankroll al-Qaeda and terrorism—had borne its poison fruit.
The warrior al-Sauds got religious legitimacy; the anhedonic Wahhabis got protection.
The Web site of the resulting Supreme Commission for Tourism was “a disaster,” one Saudi official abashedly recalls, shaking his head.
It was a smile I would grow all too accustomed to from Saudi men in the coming days.
It translated into “No f---ing way, lady.”“Women are not allowed to go into cemeteries,” he told me.
Leslie Mc Loughlin, a fellow at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, led tours to the Kingdom in 20, and both groups included affluent and curious Jewish men and women from New York.
But on 9/11 the passageway narrowed again as Saudi Arabia and the United States confronted the reality that Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers were Saudi nationals.