A cry to save Jeddah’s heritage

Colors of Jeddah, one of the collages on display at "The Everlasting Now" exhibition

“Colors of Jeddah,” one of the collages on display at “The Everlasting Now” exhibition

Some 1.5 month ago, I visited Jeddah’s Old Town, also known by the Arabic term Al-Balad, when my family was visiting me here. Not having been there for quite some time (we usually only go there during the month of Ramadan once or twice), my husband and I were amazed how much the area had been improved: it was cleaner, car-free, and many buildings had been renovated or were under restoration.

One of the pictures I took when visiting Jeddah's Old Town.

One of the pictures I took when visiting Jeddah’s Old Town.

The efforts to revive the Old Town are part of an attempt to have Jeddah’s old city center included in the UNESCO list of heritage sites. The last time the committee came together it rejected Jeddah’s bid, mainly due to the state of negligence the area is in. The committee will come together this year in June in neighboring country Qatar, and the Saudi authorities are determined to succeed in including Jeddah this time around.

It is in this context that a famous Saudi photographer, Mohamed Al-Khatib, better known under his artistic name Emy Kat, has made a series of photos that are currently on display here at Athr Gallery. I was lucky enough to meet him and write an article about it, which came out in the Saudi Gazette on Saturday, April 19.

Here is the full article I wrote:

Emy Kat in front of his collage "Indoors"

Emy Kat in front of his collage “Indoors”

Emy Kat’s ccry to save Jeddah’s heritage

Another attempt has been made to show the public the importance of preserving their city’s heritage. Photographer Mohamed Al-Khatib, better known as Emy Kat, has documented historical buildings and palaces of Jeddah’s Al-Balad (or Old Town) in a solo exhibition currently on display at Athr Gallery.

Named “The Everlasting Now,” the exhibition tries to capture the beauty of a heritage that is vanishing due to neglect. As such, it serves two goals: To preserve the heritage, if only through photographs; and to raise awareness about the importance to preserve what is left. The images on display do not try to hide the dilapidated state of some of the buildings. The crumbling walls are clearly visible, as are the traces of rats and worms that occupied the buildings after the owners abandoned it.

"Jokhdar Entrance," one of the photographs on display

“Jokhdar Entrance”

However, to simply say that Kat is criticizing the authorities’ failure to preserve the Hejazi heritage does not do justice to the exhibition. According to the artist himself, he did not want to bring the neglect forward more than the beauty. The two had to be equal, and this was the toughest part of the project, he admits. Rather than criticizing or imposing his own opinion, he intends to provoke questions with his work, like “What happened to these historical buildings?”, “Why is no one preserving them?” and “Why do so few people know about this heritage and the importance to preserve it?” The most important question, however, for Kat is “What can be done to preserve it?”

And while this question cannot easily be answered, Kat hopes that by creating awareness people will at least pressurize the authorities to exert more effort to preserve their heritage.

Kat is in no case the first to notice the neglect. In June 2011, UNESCO turned down Jeddah’s request for Al-Balad to become included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly due to the district’s negligence. “It was a blow, but at the same time, we still have hope. UNESCO meets every three years,” is Kat’s reaction.

Since the rejection, much has happened. The Kingdom invested SR50 million into the area’s renovation and promoted domestic tourism heavily. The 10-day heritage festival held in January this year was part of the efforts to acknowledge the importance of Al-Balad and Hejazi culture.

This year, the city has submitted its request for nomination again. Whether it can convince the UNESCO World Heritage Committee this time remains to be seen in June, when the committee’s next meeting is scheduled in Qatar.

"Walls of Jeddah," one of the collages on display

“Walls of Jeddah”

Kat’s affinity for Jeddah’s Old Town started at a young age, when he used to cycle down to Al-Balad without permission from his parents. “For me, it was a huge adventure,” he says, and to see it dying in this manner created anguish and frustration in him.

His love for photography began early in life as well, when his father gave him his first camera at the age of 12. But Kat was not destined to become a professional photographer until he moved to the United States at the age of 29 following his father’s death. Prior to that, he was a successful industrial consultant who appeared to have it all. But soon he realized that money did not make him happy and that, after his father had passed away, nothing tied him to Jeddah anymore. On the fields of Iowa, he attempted to find himself, soon realizing he wanted to pursue a career in photography. He became a fashion photographer and earned several awards. His work got published in prestigious magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Elle Décor, and Kat lived in New York and Paris. To be closer to his mother when she fell ill, Kat moved to Dubai in 2000, where he took up a job in advertorial photography in order to sustain himself at a time Dubai did not yet have a developed fashion industry.

The wish to capture the dying heritage city of his childhood was there ever since he came back to Jeddah after 17 years and saw what was happening to the Old Town. In 2006, the photographer was asked by a senior heritage curator — Kat laughs when remembering the title — to take photos for a book about the old town. Seeing the ignorant and irresponsible attempts at restoration, Kat had to politely turn down the offer. “You can’t just smother paint and cement onto coral and [call it] renovation. It won’t marry; it will fall off,” he illustrates. “This needs to be brushed.” The idea to perpetuate the historical district, however, remained.

Photographer Emy Kat

Photographer Emy Kat

Meeting Hamza Serafi, co-founder of Athr Gallery, enabled Kat to turn his dream into reality. The artist lived in Al-Balad for three months, while the whole project of research, execution and developing his photographs covered some one and a half year. “I wanted to tell the story [of the Old Town], but I wanted to say it in a contemporary and personal way,” relates Kat, who decided to resurrect a home through his photographs of various homes. The result encompasses three types of approaches and techniques: There are the photos of spaces – an entrance and a Majlis (sitting place); the macro photos to give the intricacies and the intimacies of the details of the story; and the summarizing, digital collages, for which Kat invented the title “Stripe Collage.”

The current exhibition, Kat adds, is only the first part of his work. Eager to leave a lasting impact on the audience, the artist and Athr Gallery will organize a second edition of this project, although the when and how have yet to materialize. “Because it’s work in progress. It’s a documentary project, so we’re putting it together, and we’re trying to see what is the best way to communicate awareness on a long run.”

It is hard not to get the impression that everything Kat touches becomes gold. A successful industrial consultant turned fashion photographer turned advertorial photographer turned artist, Kat is a staunch believer in the adagio “impossible is nothing.” But thinking that everything in Kat’s life is handed over to him on a silver platter is an illusion. Besides his enormous talents, it is perhaps his determination and perseverance that helps him obtain what he aspires, even if he has to wait for it, as happened when he moved back to the Gulf.

“In Dubai, there was no art, and I wanted to jump to art,” Kat says. Going back to Paris was no option, as he had let his studio. He was stuck in Dubai, so to speak. To sustain himself, Kat worked as an advertisement photographer from 2000, until in 2008 he got the opportunity to become an artist, which he grabbed with both hands.

Kat is an energetic man and full of ideas. It is clear he loves what he does, and he passionately talks about the techniques he used and the challenges he faced, such as when he thought he had shot the perfect image only to find out back in Paris — where he developed his analogue photos — that the picture, although technically impeccable, was soulless. In his Stripe Collages, he used a striking technique of summarizing a space into one two-dimensional image. His works are a combination of colorful details and monotonous gray. Kat has seamlessly achieved his aim to capture the beauty as well as the decline of the Hejazi heritage — a decline that is the result not only of ignorance but also unwillingness to preserve and invest in the city’s true history.

Only two weeks ago, the roof of one of the buildings caught fire. While firemen attempted to extinguish the flames, the roof collapsed, running down the entire structure. Captured on the Stripe Collage “Indoors,” the building is just one example of what is happening to the city’s heritage, but it gives “The Everlasting Now” an additional sense of urgency that time is running out.

Picture taken when I last visited Jeddah's Old Town

Picture taken when I last visited Jeddah’s Old Town

“The Everlasting Now” can be seen daily at Athr Gallery until April 30 on the 5th floor of the Business Center, Wing B, at Serafi Mega Mall on Tahlia Street in Jeddah.

Short trip to Stockholm

Stockholm is surrounded by the Lake Mälaren.

Stockholm is surrounded by the Lake Mälaren.

So far, this year has been great! Travelling-wise, I mean. I have been going abroad quite a lot, and more exciting trips are coming up. I didn’t even had the time yet to write about them; it’s about time to change that!

Last month, Ahmed had to go to a small town in Sweden for work. Romantic as he is, he decided he wanted to take me with him and spend a couple of days in Stockholm prior to going to that tiny Swedish village where his training took place. So on a Friday in March, we flew to Paris and then to Stockholm, where we landed in the afternoon.

Stockholm is one third water, one third greenery, and only one third urban space.

Stockholm is one third water, one third greenery, and only one third urban space.

The remaining part of that day we spent exploring the hotel surroundings and resting a bit at the hotel, to be woken up by a phone call to inform us that someone was waiting for us in the lobby. We had been invited by a Swedish couple Ahmed had met nearly a decade ago in Seville, and we would be picked up by them from the hotel in the late afternoon. We were so tired we had fallen asleep and not put any alarm to wake us up!

Long story short, we got to spend a lovely evening at their home with their cute two-year-old daughter with some delicious Swedish food and drink and nice chats. Who would have thought the Swedes were such a hospitable nation! The ones we met during our stay definitely were.

The Nordic Museum, dedicated to the cultural history of Sweden

The Nordic Museum, dedicated to the cultural history of Sweden

The following day, the couple took us on a tour of Stockholm. They had in mind to take us to Skansen, a large and the world’s first open-air museum full of historical houses dwellings as well as people wearing traditional clothes. However, the weather, although sunny, was too cold and windy for a day outside. Springtime had yet to arrive in this northern town!

So instead, we paid a visit to the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum) on the green island of Djurgården, which shows the intriguing story of the “Vasa” warship. The ship was built in 1628 and sank on its maiden voyage right off the Stockholm harbor, instantly ripping Sweden from its mightiest warship while at war with Poland. The giant wreck lay under water for centuries until it was finally salvaged in 1961 and a museum was built around it.

Reconstruction of the“Vasa” warship.

Reconstruction of the“Vasa” warship.

The original Vasa warship

The original Vasa warship

We then took the ferry to another island, where we had lunch before heading to the Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, which is among the world’s oldest and best preserved medieval city centers.

Stockholm's old town

Stockholm’s old town

It is a lovely area of cobblestoned alleys and souvenir shops to wander around, go for a drink, or visit one of the historical buildings, such as the Royal Palace, Stockholm Cathedral, and Nobel Museum.

Stockholm feels like a friendly village on the countryside.

Stockholm feels like a friendly village on the countryside.

The following day we already had to leave this wonderful town, which we feel deserves another visit, but perhaps in late spring or summer, when the weather is a tad more enjoyable. However, before taking the train in the afternoon, we walked back to Djurgården island. While the weather felt only slightly warmer, we realized this is how many Swedes spend their Sunday, as the town was full of joggers and pedestrians enjoying the sun and a “fika” – which means meeting up for coffee and a piece of cake or pastry and is considered a typical Swedish thing to do – in one of the many cafes.

Having a fika, or coffee break, is a popular habit among Swedes.

Having a fika, or coffee break, is a popular habit among Swedes.

We had a lovely fika in a greenhouse in the middle of the Rosendal park including a cardamom roll, a typical Swedish treat made with cardamom and/or cinnamon.

The Royal Dramatic Theater is a beautiful Art Nouveau building located on the waterfront.

The Royal Dramatic Theater is a beautiful Art Nouveau building located on the waterfront.

On the way there, we passed by this shimmering building located on the waterfront. I would have loved to have a look inside, but unfortunately there was no time.

After our fika-break, we headed back to the hotel, where we retrieved our luggage and continued to the train station.

Here are some more pictures of our weekend in Stockholm:

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Photo credit: Ahmed AlQassem

Photo credit: Ahmed AlQassem

What I’ve been up to – March

Filipino children's choir "Serenata" performed a show of commitment, hope and charity.

Filipino children’s choir “Serenata” performed a show of commitment, hope and charity.

Months come and go… I’m not even gonna say how fast this last month passed, ’cause if February flew by March was a rocket. I wonder whether time would go slower if my months were not so packed. And March was especially full of travel. First I accompanied Ahmed on a trip to Sweden (about which I will write in my next blog – I promise!) and at the last day of the month I went on a media trip to London. Yes indeed, my “life as a rich girl” got a second part! (Or technically a fourth part, as part 1, 2 and 3 were all about my trip to Switzerland last September.)

Yummy feta cheese at Park Hyatt's Greek food festival

Yummy feta cheese at Park Hyatt’s Greek food festival

All types of olives at the Greek food festival

All types of olives at the Greek food festival

Culinary highlight of the month was the opening of the Greek Food Festival at Park Hyatt’s Nafoura Restaurant, which I attended with my parents. It was very nice they could attend it as well, to get a taste of how these kind of events look like.

Serenata children's choir

Serenata children’s choir

Performance highlight of the month was Serenata, a musical show by a Filipino children’s choir that took place at the American International School in February, but got published on March 8. It is incredible how professional the Filipino community set up the show, and the children blew everyone’s mind with their jaw-dropping performance.

Park Hyatt's Nafoura Restaurant has a terrace overlooking the Red Sea and King Fahd Fountain.

Park Hyatt’s Nafoura Restaurant has a terrace overlooking the Red Sea and King Fahd Fountain.

I got the chance to do several interviews, such as the one with Park Hyatt’s new General Manager Ashwini Kumar, as well as a talk with a plastic and cosmetic surgeon from France. The latter, in particular, was fascinating. Me, strongly opposing any beautification procedures involving needles and/or knives, had no interest whatsoever to do an interview about skincare and cosmetic surgeries, but my manager opined differently. He told me to do it for the newspaper’s weekend edition Wholesome Living page and be critical, so I went and was amazed to hear the doctor’s side of the story. I hope the article reflects how interesting our conversation was. (Had I known the interview would open the fancy doors of a glamorous press trip to London I would have immediately agreed to conduct the interview. More about the press trip soon!)

Ballet intermission on Strauss' "The Blue Danube" during the Serenata concert.

Ballet intermission on Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” during the Serenata concert.

Other exciting interviews included one with the beautiful Saudi filmmaker and actress Ahd Kamel, which was conducted as part of the ’21,39′ events by my colleague Roberta Fedele; an article about the booming Saudi tourism industry following an interview with the senior vice president global sales at Atlantis, Dubai; as well as an interview with an interior designer.

Signature Interior Design showroom

Signature Interior Design showroom

Signature Interior Design showroom

Signature Interior Design showroom

I also got a little bit healthier by learning about the importance of breathing and how to breathe correctly for a happier life, something a very nice and warm lady who lives here in Jeddah teaches company employees and other people interested. And I got concerned about vitamin D levels. That may sound strange, as it is sunny practically every day in Jeddah, but many people don’t go outside at all, or when they do they fully cover themselves. Knowing that too much is the number one cause of skin ageing, I was curious how much sunshine is enough and wrote this article about it.

Park Hyatt's idyllic garden

Park Hyatt’s idyllic garden

Another hot health issue this month were energy drinks. They made headlines when the Saudi government decided to “clip the wings” of energy drinks by restricting the sale, promotion and consumption of these caffeinated beverages. I was curious if energy drinks are really that harmful and wrote my findings in an article.

Lovely cakes at the Greek food festival

Lovely cakes at the Greek food festival

And then, of course, there were the more tedious events I “had” to cover for one reason or another: the Italian business delegation that came to Jeddah, Ghana’s Independence Day, Greece’s National Day (which turned out more interesting than expected), and the launch of a luxury hair care product.

Exhibition depicting Parisian life by Palestinian artist Ayman Yossri Daydban

Exhibition depicting Parisian life by Palestinian artist Ayman Yossri Daydban

The French celebrated a whole month of “Fête de la Francophonie,” which I mostly missed, but I did attend one chamber concert that was, in fact, pretty good. I was less impressed by another event organized at the French Consulate – a Palestinian artist depicting Parisian life during the French presidential elections. But hey, I’m a journalist and cannot just blend my opinion into the news article, my colleague and editor reminded me. He was right, of course, but sometimes I wish I could. Like my opinion concerning the “marathon” that is taking place tomorrow in Jeddah. Luckily, I have this blog for venting my sentiments.

Marathon mutters in Jeddah

Image to promote Jeddah's yearly marathon in April

Image to promote Jeddah’s yearly marathon in April

It’s that time of the year again. The time of Jeddah’s yearly “marathon” event. And every year I think, “Shall I join this year? Shall I just be brave and run this race? (Which, by the way, is not a real marathon but only a 21 km run that in other countries is called a HALF-marathon.)

Running my first marathon on January 24 this year in Dubai

Running my first marathon on January 24 this year in Dubai

The reason I’m doubting is not because I’m not in shape. Or because I’m afraid of the 5 p.m. heat in Jeddah in April. Or because the stories I heard from friends about the lack of water stops, lousy organization, cheaters who go by bus and get dropped off 200 meters before the finish line, the 1.5 hour cut-off time. It is because I am officially not allowed to run this race as a woman.

Running a 15-km race in The Netherlands

Running a 15-km race in The Netherlands

While I think it is important to respect the rules and culture of this country I find it extremely difficult to accept that the marathon is a “male-only” event and that women have so few opportunities to exercise. Especially when you realize that in the beginning of Islam, women used to ride horses and fight alongside men! So what’s so unislamic about women running or exercising to get fit?

Who says running for women is unislamic?

Who says running for women is unislamic?

A friend of mine spoke to the organizers of the marathon recently, and they told him they are interested in organizing a female-only running event as well, but they cannot find women able to organize it. That, obviously, is nonsense. Women here organize and run anything, from wedding parties to their own restaurant and from private Arabic schools to universities. Finding a women-only venue would be a tad more difficult, but even that could easily be overcome. What about the university campus? Or what about all those palaces with enormous gardens?

I know joining the race under a man’s name would not solve anything and get me into serious trouble. As a foreigner, I would not be afraid to end up in prison, but I could easily be sent back to my home country, without any prospect of returning legally to this country. That would go a bit too far for me. Plus I believe change should come from Saudi nationals, and not from expats living here. If I went to protest the inability of running freely outside, they would say I want to impose my Western mentality and culture on the country. Which is exactly why I think the West should not pressurize Saudi Arabia to allow women driving.

For the time being, I do my runs indoors on the treadmill or on a compound. (Picture taken by Krisztina Olofsson)

For the time being, I do my runs indoors on the treadmill or on a compound. (Picture taken by Krisztina Olofsson)

Rather, I would like to see this whole “marathon” boycotted, and I can’t help but regret that most of my guy running mates have signed up for it this year again,  despite all the criticism about last year’s organization. Some of the critics I hear:

- Why do they call it a marathon if it’s only a half-marathon? It used to be even only 20 kilometers, a totally random distance for anyone who is into running.)

- Why is there a cut-off time of 1.5 hour? Anyone who runs knows that running a half-marathon in 1.5 hour is possible only for elite athletes and very good amateur runners. If the organizers, as they claim, want to promote a healthy lifestyle with this event, they should allow also those who just started or are not that fast to finish in glory.

- Why do they organize the race on a weekday at 5 p.m. in April? Jeddah has a very warm climate, so we usually do our runs early in the morning or close to sunset. The Jeddah Road Runners’ yearly marathon (which is not an official one) is held at the end of January, when the temperature is at its lowest. The marathon runners start at 4:30 a.m., and the half-marathonners at 6 a.m. And, needless to say, the marathon is held on the weekend. Most probably, the organizers of this marathon did not want to work on the weekend and decided to hold it on a weekday. (And who would still be working after 2 p.m. anyways?)

- There isn’t enough water for all participants. This is another serious shortcoming. When you’re running 21.1 kilometers at 30 degrees Celsius you need some water (and preferably some carbs as well) to prevent dehydration. How can you organize an event and not provide enough drinks for EVERYONE? And with anyone, I mean also the amateur whom you said you were targeting to get fit, but who is still 20 kilos overweight and sweats like a haram animal! This can lead to serious cases of dehydration and hyperthermia.

- Cheating. There are people getting unto a bus after 1 kilometer, to be dropped of some 200 meters before the finish line! Sigh, what do you expect from a lousy organization?

It is praiseworthy that the organizers try to introduce a major sports event in a country where 70 percent of the locals are obese, but there is clearly still a lot to be learnt. Perhaps they should hire some advisers who KNOW about running, including some ladies?

Picture courtesy of Hester Roth

Picture courtesy of Hester Roth

P.S. Did I forget any complaints regarding the organization?

What I’ve been up to – February

"Orientalism" by Dana Awartani, one of the artworks on display at the “Moallaqat” exhibition.

“Orientalism” by Dana Awartani, one of the artworks on display at the “Moallaqat” exhibition.

We are almost leaving March behind us; Spring has officially started. Though most people around the world anxiously await the arrival of this season and the longer and sunny days accompanied by it, in Jeddah we are sad the temperature’s increasing, fearing the months ahead of us. A few days ago I woke up in the middle of the night realizing I hadn’t written my ‘What I’ve been up to’ blog post about February yet! I’ve been so busy this month – first with my parents visiting me here and then a trip to Sweden (about which I’ll write more in a subsequent post) – that I hardly had any time to write something. So let’s take a look back at the events in Jeddah I attended last month and the articles I wrote about them.

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“Holy-wood” by Musaed Al-Hulis and in the background “Food for Thought” by Maha Malluh on display at the “Moallaqat” group exhibition

We could easily call February the Month of Art in Jeddah. A new initiative, ’21,39 Jeddah Arts’ launched its art program with two group exhibitions of Saudi artists. The two-month program is an effort by the recently-established Saudi Arts Council that aims at introducing art into more people’s lives. The introductory week coincided with the Jeddah Arts Week, which I totally missed because I was so busy with the former. In hindsight I think it would’ve been better if I divided my time over both art initiatives and not stick to one program. That being sad, I wrote several articles about the two group exhibitions, a symposium during which Tate Gallery of Modern Art Director Chris Dercon said that Jeddah is ‘among the three biggest art centers in the Middle East,’ and an opinion-style essay about Saudi art, in which I wrote that Saudi artists are in search of their roots.

Tate Gallery of Modern Art Director Chris Dercon speaks at the symposium.

Tate Gallery of Modern Art Director Chris Dercon speaks at the symposium.

The Dubai Art and Design Week also took place last week. Unfortunately, I could not attend that due to my trip to Sweden (about which soon more!), but I did write an article about the Design Week after meeting Fair Director Cyril Zammit.

As usual, I wrote several health articles. The most interesting? Perhaps the one in which I explain how you can make your direct environment a lot healthier in 10 easy steps. You see, many people worry about pollution from cars and buildings in the city, but few realize the indoor air quality is often worse than outside.

Nonetheless, the most important factor ultimately defining our health is not the air we breathe, the food we eat, or the amount of exercise we squeeze into our busy lives. It’s our happiness, so (if you aren’t yet) get happy for better health!

Remember the article on breastfeeding I wrote a few months ago? That got a second part, in which expatriate women in Jeddah said infant formula is not so much promoted, but they face many challenges to breastfeed in this country.

Abu Dhabi Capital Gate

Abu Dhabi Capital Gate

A few posts ago I also wrote about the weekend in Abu Dhabi Ahmed and I spent following the Dubai Marathon. The article I wrote about that weekend appeared on February 8 under the name “Sane & Serene – Abu Dhabi offers soothing experience.” (Note to self: ALWAYS choose your own titles!) Some more tourism articles appeared, one about the Atlantis, The Palm hotel in Dubai which is trying to woos tourists in the Kingdom and another on a dull SkyTeam press conference.

Latte Art at Casper & Gambini's

Latte Art at Casper & Gambini’s

A peak in the kitchen at Casper & Gambini's.

A peak in the kitchen at Casper & Gambini’s

Have I forgotten a thing? Yes, I have! Ahmed and I had a superb experience at Casper & Gambini’s, where I attempted to remain undercover while trying their food and service. Unfortunately, my big camera and notebook made it slightly hard to do so. So, although I am not sure how the service would have been had I not been so obviously a “journalist trying to do a restaurant review undercover” I do know that the food was fresh and mouthwatering, and their Latte Art to ask for more (and I usually don’t even like latte or any coffee involving milk!).

Italian designer Alessandra Serafini at the Abaya Fashion Days

Italian designer Alessandra Serafini at the Abaya Fashion Days

There were also the Abaya Fashion Days (which I attended because my friend Alessandra Serafini was one of the participating designers. Her abayas are amazing!);

The Chris Curton Band performing at the American Consulate

The Chris Curton Band performing at the American Consulate

Singer Chris Curton during the concert at the American Consulate

Singer Chris Curton during the concert at the American Consulate

A fun concert at the American Consulate (concerts here are scarce, so any opportunity to go to one should be grabbed immediately);

Fancy cars at the Aston Martin & Park Hyatt dinner to celebrate their cooperation

Fancy cars at the Aston Martin & Park Hyatt dinner to celebrate their cooperation

A dinner to celebrate the cooperation between Park Hyatt and Aston Martin;

Nespresso cocktail to celebrate the opening of their boutique at Red Sea Mall

Nespresso cocktail to celebrate the opening of their boutique at Red Sea Mall

And Nespresso opening its second boutique in Jeddah at Red Sea Mall (good for us to have one closer to our home!).

JRR Half and Full Marathon

JRR Half and Full Marathon

Last but definitely not least, my local running club Jeddah Road Runners organized its yearly marathon and half, this year for the first time at King Abdullah Economic City, some 80 kilometers north from Jeddah. I decided not to run myself, because it had been only one week since the Dubai Marathon, but went to help my fellow running buddies giving water and juice, take some pics, and write an article for the Saudi Gazette about it.

All in all an entertaining month!

Sightseeing in Jeddah – Al Balad

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Jeddah’s Al Balad or historical town

When you live somewhere you sometimes forget to see and photograph the places tourists would go to. You just take them for granted. While Ahmed and I did quite a lot of sightseeing the first few months I lived here, the only times we return to Jeddah’s historical town is when we have visitors (or sometimes during Ramadan).

Roshan (the wooden structures in front of the windows) characterize the historical buildings in Jeddah and other parts of the Hejaz (West Saudi Arabia).

Roshan (the wooden structures in front of the windows) characterize the historical buildings in Jeddah and other parts of the Hejaz (West Saudi Arabia).

Today we paid a visit to Al Balad – my parents are currently here – and we were positively surprised! Unlike in Europe, Jeddah’s old town used to be dirty, chaotic, and poorly maintained. While a major part still is, this time we saw the municipality had carried out a lot of work to restore buildings, clean and pave the streets, and even make some areas pedestrian zones only! Will Jeddah ever attract tourists from all over the world? The truth is its old town is charming indeed and could easily be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In fact, the municipality is working hard to get it on the list, but UNESCO have told them they need to show first they are able to take care of it.

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Mosque near Al Balad

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Flowers are everywhere! You just need to look for them.

We started our morning checking this mosque, which, by the way, is not in Jeddah’s Old Town. It’s quite different from most mosques in Jeddah (I’m planning to write a post about mosques soon); nevertheless, I had never noticed it. DSC_0229 We then thought of going to the fish market, but the smell repelled us so much we decided to skip that. Next stop were some ruins of an interesting building. Rumour has it this used to be a church, built during Ottoman times. It does indeed look like a church. For sure it is not a mosque, because it is not built in the direction of Makkah. It is, however, unclear why the authorities do not demolish the ruins (as they would do with any other building (of importance) in this country. Some say the land belongs to the Vatican…

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Ruins of a church in the middle of Jeddah

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Jeddah’s Al Balad

The church ruins are on the edge of Jeddah’s historical center, where we wandered for a couple of hours. We were amazed how much cleaner it was than the previous times we visited it. I took tens of pictures, but most of them do not have any information about what kind of buildings they were. Many are still inhabited, including the ones that are about to collapse. DSC_0259

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Most ‘roshans’ in Jeddah are brown, but there are exceptions, such as these green ones. Green ‘roshans’ are commonly found in Madinah.

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Fruit and vegetable souq in Al Balad

Fruit and vegetable souq in Al Balad

DSC_0313 After our visit to Al Balad, we went for a refreshing drink at the marina – a completely different scenery but nonetheless worth a visit (or 2, 0r every few weeks). DSC_0315 DSC_0318

Saudi woman becomes first newspaper editor

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We officially heard the news a week ago, but last Sunday (Feb. 16) it was made public that our respected editor-in-chief, Khaled Almaeena, stepped down. Not fun news to hear, and what was even worse is that it was the second time we had to say goodbye to him, as one of my colleagues remarked.

Khaled Almaeena announcing his leave in the Saudi Gazette

Khaled Almaeena announcing his resignation from the Saudi Gazette

In 2011, I worked for Arab News, the other English-language newspaper in Saudi. Almaeena was our editor-in-chief until he was asked to leave in October that year.
The time that followed was tough. The board under which Arab News fell appointed a new editor-in-chief who came from Riyadh and was extremely conservative.
When Almaeena was asked to head the competitor, Saudi Gazette, he did so combining the SG team with his old team. In April last year I followed numerous ex-colleagues from Arab News to work for the Saudi Gazette as well, and I’ve seen three paper improving under his leadership.

Somayya Jabarti cutting the cake to celebrate her appointment as deputy editor-in-chief at Arab News

Somayya Jabarti cutting the cake to celebrate her appointment as deputy editor-in-chief at Arab News

The bad news was immediately followed by another announcement that cheered us all up: his successor would be Somayya Jabarti. The two had been working together for 13 years, and Jabarti had been the deputy editor-in-chief at Arab News since April 2011, when I joined the paper. I still remember the party my new colleagues threw for her, including a feminist “We Can Do It” cake and mugs with the writing “The best man for the job is a woman!”. She followed Almaeena to become the deputy editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette nearly one year later.

"We Can Do It" cake

“We Can Do It” cake

Party with all women at Arab News for Somayya's appointment

Party with all women employees at Arab News for Somayya’s appointment

Her appointment made headlines all over the world. A first for conservative Saudi Arabia: a female newspaper editor, wrote CNN. Saudi woman named first editor-in-chief of newspaper, reported the BBC. Saudi Arabia’s first female editor of national newspaper appointed, headed the Guardian.

Swiss newspaper reporting Jabarti's appointment

Swiss newspaper reporting Jabarti’s appointment

Dutch news website reporting Jabarti's appointment

Dutch news website reporting Jabarti’s appointment

While Jabarti is indeed the first woman in Saudi to head a daily newspaper, it is definitely not the leap forward many (Western) media want us to believe. As said, she was already deputy editor-in-chief, and there are several magazines in this country headed by women. And not only that. There are female CEOs, entrepreneurs, women in the  parliament (which was indeed a giant leap forward) and women heading universities.

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That is not to say that I am not very happy that Jabarti is now heading the paper I am working for. I am, but first and foremost because of her skills, vision and ability to do so. As Almaeena wrote in his farewell article in the Saudi Gazette, “It was not a question of gender but of merit that decided and earned her this opportunity.”

I feel lucky to be working for the Saudi Gazette.

Mada’in Saleh: Capital of Monuments

Tomb in Mada'in Saleh

Tomb in Mada’in Saleh

The following article is about Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archeological site, and arguably the most interesting in the country. It is only for the last few years that the Saudi authorities have become aware of the tourism potential the Kingdom has apart from religious tourism, and slowly they are developing sites to attract tourists. For the time being, they focus on peoplefrom within the country, but who knows, the country may open up for international tourism any time when oil revenues alone are not enough anymore to keep the country running.

Surroundings of Mada’in Saleh

The article appeared in Arab News on August 1, 2012. It also appeared in the English version of Sayidaty, a weekly (in Arabic) and monthly (in English) women’s magazine in the October 2012 issue.

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While most mortals are currently fleeing the blistering Saudi heat, those who stay in the Kingdom do not need to feel bitterness. Saudi Arabia has numerous touristic sites of cultural and historic importance. One of the most interesting, indisputably, is Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archaeological site located in the area of Al-Ula in the northwest of the country, some 400 km north from Madinah. So, for those unable to leave the office this summer to go on a long holiday, Mada’in Saleh — also called Al-Hijr, Arabic for “rocky place” — is a good way to escape the daily grind for a couple of days. A long weekend is all that is needed to visit the place and see everything.

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Mada’in Saleh’s most important remnants date from the Nabatean Kingdom, which was established in 168 BC. In the first century AD, the kingdom gradually became encircled by the expanding Roman Empire, until it was annexed by the Romans in 106 AD. Situated between the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula, its capital and wealthiest place was the city of Petra in Jordan. Mada’in Saleh was the second city in importance and the most southern settlement of the kingdom. The Nabatean Kingdom flourished due to its location at the crossroads of several trade routes and its monopoly on incense, myrrh and spices.

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The surreal site of Mada’in Saleh covers an area of about 12 square kilometers. It is located on a plain, at the foot of a volcanic rock plateau. Yellow and pink sandstone rock formations, sculptured by the wind into the most fascinating shapes, are scattered all over. The geology itself already makes the place worth a visit and resulted in the Nabatean invention of carving stones into houses, temples and tombs, with decorative elements and scripts inscribed on their facades.

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Little is left from Mada’in Saleh’s residential zone, which is fenced off from the public, as the houses were mainly built with sundried mud brick. However, the necropolis built around it was sculptured from the sandstone rock formations, and a total of 131 rock-cut tombs have survived the ravages of time.

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The tombs are grouped in four areas of the cemetery. Some rocks contain only one tomb, whereas bigger rocks have tombs on all sides. Their facades are decorated with inscriptions as well as images of birds, human faces, and other creatures. Clearly, the several international trade routes that crossed the Nabatean Kingdom resulted in Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman influences on the facades. Some of the tombs also contain writings on top of their entrances, giving information about the person or family buried in it, the date of the carving, and the name of the carver. The interior of the tombs, on the other hand, is empty and without any decorations.

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Once the area of the Nabatean Kingdom became part of the Roman province of Arabia, it fell into abandonment, as the Romans used the Red Sea for their trade routes instead. Mada’in Saleh remained merely a station of minor importance to provide water and supply to pilgrims traveling to Makkah. The Ottomans, however, built a fort in the place in the 18th century to protect the pilgrimage route. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottomans decided to construct a railway, connecting Damascus and Jerusalem to Makkah and Madinah. The largest station of the so-called Hijaz railway was built in Mada’in Saleh. It included a maintenance site for locomotives as well as offices and dormitories for railroad staff. This railway was not in use for a long time when World War I saw its destruction.

Mada’in Saleh railway station

In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia officially identified Mada’in Saleh as an archaeological site, and from 2000 onward, the government is keen to promote cultural heritage and develop the site into a tourist attraction. This led its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 — the first UNESCO site in the Kingdom — and construction of an airport in Al-Ula, which has started operations recently, although flights are very limited. The Al-Hijaz Railway Station is currently under restoration.

The restored Mada’in Saleh railway station

The Nabateans, apart from being traders, also excelled at oasis agriculture. They drilled more than 56 wells and dug rainwater tanks in the rocks to irrigate their crops. Some of these wells can still be found in the area. The largest of them, near Al-Mehjir Mountain, is located north of Mada’in Saleh.

The heritage site of Al-Ula, locally known as Al-Deerah or “the old town,” is another must-see. The village was built in the 13th century and abandoned only 40 years ago. It consists of over 800 dwellings surrounded by a wall with 14 gates, which used to be closed every night so as to protect the inhabitants from invaders. Walking in this town feels like being in a maze, but the place is small enough to prevent visitors from getting lost in the narrow alleys, many of which are covered as a protection from the heat of the sun. The foundations of the two-story buildings are mostly in stone, whereas the upper floors are made from mud bricks. Palm tree trunks and reeds, covered with mud, were used for the ceilings. The stones were taken from nearby ruins, and as a result, some still carry inscriptions, writings and ornamentations from the time of the ancient Lihyan Kingdom on them.

Al-Ula’s restored Old Town

Adjacent to this old town lies an ancient castle, whose origins date back to the 6th century BC and which was used to protect the town. Visitors who climb up to the top will be rewarded with astonishing views of the valley full of palm trees.

View from the castle: Al Ula’s old town and on the background the new town

Al-Ula valley

The Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, located in Al-Ula’s new town, is an outstanding way to learn more about the region’s geology and pilgrim routes. It contains many artifacts from the several civilizations that inhabited the area throughout history, including the Nabateans. One to two hours are enough to visit this small museum.

View from the castle: Al-Ula’s Old Town that was under restoration when we visited it three years ago.

After a long day of exploring the intriguing historical sites, make sure to watch sunset from the cliffs above Al-Ula. The rocks and oasis in the valley assume exceptional colors at this time of the day.

Sunset from the cliffs above Al-Ula

Getting there

Al-Ula and Mada’in Saleh are easily accessible by car. To date, flights to and from Al-Ula’s Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz Airport are infrequent and limited to Riyadh. (Update: Appearently, Saudia starts flying from Jeddah directly to Al-Ula this month) Therefore, most travelers choose to fly to Madinah Airport and drive from there to Al-Ula, a four-hour long ride through a remarkable landscape. It is also possible to do the whole trip by car, as the roads from the major towns are in a good state and provide basic amenities like petrol stations and some restaurants. From Jeddah, the journey takes around eight hours, while 14 hours from Riyadh. Hail and Tabuk are a five-hour drive away.
Another option is to arrange an organized tour with a travel agency or join a group.

The Arac Hotel in Al-Ula

The Arac Hotel in Al-Ula

Where to stay

There are two good four-star hotels in Al-Ula: Mada’in Saleh Hotel and Resort and Arac Hotel Al-Ula. Both can arrange the permit of SR100 that is necessary for visiting Mada’in Saleh if you apply at least one week in advance. The permits can also be obtained at the National Museum in Riyadh.

What I’ve been up to – January

Abu Dhabi's Eastern Corniche

Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Corniche

Following my first marathon in Dubai on January 24 Ahmed and I spent two lovely days in Dubai’s neighbor Emirate Abu Dhabi. I already wrote before why we like Abu Dhabi more than Dubai and this time we had the opportunity to enjoy a different hotel and other activities.

Abu Dhabi Capital Gate

Abu Dhabi Capital Gate

Before traveling, I had contacted the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority here in Jeddah and they had not only given free premium entrance passes to the Yas Waterworld - a water park with 43 rides, slides and attractions – and the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi theme park with the fastest rollercoaster in the world; they had also arranged a stay at one of the nicest business hotels in town, located in the scenic Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi’s counterpart of Pisa’s leaning tower.

The Rayana Spa at Hyatt Capital Gate

The Rayana Spa at Hyatt Capital Gate

At the Hyatt Capital Gate hotel, I received a treatment at their Rayana city spa. Rayana means “Gate to Heaven” in Arabic and heavenly it certainly was. The milky warm bath with aromatic oil and massage were exactly what my muscles needed after the marathon. It could not totally prevent soreness for the next couple of days, but without a doubt I can state it was beneficent. Naturally, I wrote an article for the Saudi Gazette about this experience, which was published in Saturday’s (Feb. 8) newspaper.

Apart from everything revolving the marathon – preparation, doing the actual marathon, recovery – I wrote several articles for the newspaper and attended some interesting events.

Steamer on the Lac Léman

Steamer on the Lac Léman

My last article about the trip I made to Switzerland in September last year finally appeared. Although it had been a while, I remembered my visit to Lausanne very well, including the lovely boat trip on the Lac Léman, the chocolate visit and workshop, and the steep pedestrian streets the town boasts of.

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Italian Food Festival at Rosewood Corniche

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Italian Food Festival at Rosewood Corniche

January was also the month of the food festivals. There were so many I lost track. There was an Italian Food Festival at Rosewood Corniche, which featured for the first time a woman (Italian) chef as the star of the evening. It was a nice dinner, not only because of the food (who doesn’t enjoy a dinner of pasta/pizza/risotto and other Italian delicacies?) but also thanks to the company: Ahmed accompanied me on this occasion.

Moroccan Food Festival at Park Hyatt

Moroccan Food Festival at Park Hyatt

Another food festival in Park Hyatt’s Andalusia Restaurant celebrated Moroccan cuisine. It was less daring than the Italian food festival, but nevertheless included some delicious dishes. Read the article here.

Dessert at P.F. Chang's

Dessert at P.F. Chang’s

Mr. Chiang shows us how to use chopsticks correctly

Mr. Chiang shows us how to use chopsticks correctly

Thirdly, I attended, together with nearly 50 other journalists, the official opening of P.F. Chang’s on Tahlia Street (sometimes hyperbolically compared to the Parisian Champs-Élysées). Mr Chiang himself had especially come to Jeddah for the opening. I may have been slightly prejudiced – generally, I don’t like Chinese food, and I like them (or any other cuisine) even less when they are American chains – but I wasn’t really impressed by the place. There is not enough parking, no bathrooms inside the restaurant, and… Well, read the whole review here.

Italian pianist at the Italian Cultural Center

Italian pianist at the Italian Cultural Center

Apart from food and travels, I had the opportunity to attend an amazing concert, I interviewed Saudi women who demand more possibilities to exercise in the city, I became aware of the importance to learn CPR, and found out the shocking truth about breastfeeding in Saudi Arabia (or rather the lack of it).

Cup of perfectly brewed Illy coffee at our hotel room in Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi

Cup of perfectly brewed Illy coffee at our hotel room in Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi

Lastly, I got myself into trouble by writing about Saudi’s failing immigration policy. This was not my own observation, but of a French scholar who was not so amused that I had chosen that title. Of course, nothing happened to her, but I had to write several emails to put her at ease. Why are people so afraid in this country to say anything? Especially Westerners, who (in my opinion) have no reason to worry so much…

My First Marathon: A Memorable Event

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I did it! I finished my first marathon. Last Friday morning in Dubai, to be precise. In this post, I’ll tell you all the ins and outs about this experience that I will not soon forget. (If you’re not interested in running, please bear with me. I have a post coming up with some nice pictures of my stay at one of the most amazing hotels in Abu Dhabi!)

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Getting ready for the race!

Ahmed and I flew to Dubai on Thursday. The whole week I was asking myself whether I had taken enough rest – maybe I should have taken more days off and not done all those runs the week before? My legs felt heavy and I felt exhausted – maybe I was anemic again? I was supposed to carbo load, but wasn’t the fact that I didn’t do long runs anymore not enough to fill up my stores? Miraculously, I managed to have good sleeps the days prior to the marathon.

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Waiting for the start…

But then was there the Thursday afternoon that we flew to Dubai. Thinking about the run made my heart skip a beat, and sleeping in the plane was impossible. Luckily, I had packed my own lunch, because I foresaw a hungry stomach and no possibilities to eat carbo-rich food without too much fat. The plane was a bit delayed and we landed around 7 pm. The ride from the airport to the hotel went smooth, and I felt relieved when I got my running pack, which the wife of one of my running friends had picked up for me and delivered to our hotel.

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… and off we go!

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant and the cook didn’t mind I created my own meal of whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce and some vegetables. While waiting for the food, we quickly went to do some last groceries: pre-marathon breakfast of yogurt with oats and banana, and some bananas to have along the way. So far so good.

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The 10-k race was much more crowded!

But then came the moment that I had to lie down and fall asleep. I did lie down, but falling asleep? Impossible. Not only was my body full of adrenaline, our room was right above the bar and loud music entered our room. I closed my eyes, wore my headphones, and slept a few minutes, but then woke up from a crying baby in the next room, who obviously had trouble sleeping too. At 3 in the morning, the music finally stopped and I could sleep for 2 hours, because at 5 am I wanted to eat my breakfast.

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The fast (and furious?) men…

The only good thing about the hotel was that it was near the start of the marathon, so we could walk there. From that moment, everything went rather smooth. I got overwhelmed by the crowd I saw at the start, but soon we realized most people were doing the 10 km, which started 15 minutes after us. I made my way to the start, had my first energy gel (so disgusting!) and found my running mate.

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… and the this year not so fast (though muuuuch faster than I can dream of) ladies!

The marathon itself went very well too. I had to curb my enthusiasm so as to not run too fast in the beginning. My plan was to start slow and if I felt halfway that it was going well, I would speed up. The kilometers passed in the blink of an eye and soon I noticed the 10-km mark, where I saw Ahmed for the first time after the start and ate another energy gel. It surprised me I could actually swallow it while running! Meanwhile, my running mate had mustered a great team of pacers and supporters.

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Still going strong!

When I passed the half marathon mark, I still felt like I was flying. Only after 30 kilometers things got more difficult. My hips, knees, and ankles started to hurt and I was unable to keep my pace, or so it felt. That part was also more quiet with less audience, and we went further and further away from the start – and finish! It took an eternity until the last U-turn came, which would take me back toward the finish line. It was true what someone had said halfway: Now the real race started. And while I am used to having some pain towards the end of the race, it is different when you know you still have to run another 10 kilometers. I cursed the one who had decided to make the marathon 42.195 kilometers. Why wasn’t it ‘just’ 40?

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Enjoying my achievement (and giving my legs a much-needed break!)

However, I managed to increase my pace in the last kilometer and finished in a time of 3:20:48. The moment I stopped running felt incredibly weird. My legs had forgotten how to walk. But I didn’t feel bad. I received my medal and although I did not feel like eating or drinking at all, I forced myself to drink the Gatorade I found in the bag I was given. Soon I found Ahmed and we sat down on the grass while talking about the whole experience. We also saw our running mates from Jeddah, chatted a bit with everyone, and made some pictures. Approximately 1 hour after I had finished we walked back to the hotel, ready to leave Dubai and revisit our love Abu Dhabi!

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All in all, it was a memorable experience. I am happy with the way things went. However, to say that running a marathon is a life-changing experience is an overstatement. Perhaps for some people it is, but not for me. I think maybe because I had been ready to run a marathon for the last 1.5 years, so it didn’t feel like I had overcome a major challenge.

Running my first marathon definitely made me want to run another one! And another! I am not sure I would be able to improve my time though. The course in Dubai is very fast. It is basically one street along the sea that you run up and down. The weather was perfect – around 14 degrees at the start and maybe 20 in the end – and there was hardly any wind.

Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2014

Race splits (click to enlarge)

For the time being, however, I focus on my recovery. My legs were extremely sore on Friday and Saturday. I could hardly walk down the stairs and after we had dinner the first evening it was impossible to walk normally! On Sunday, I already felt much better and today I only feel a slight soreness. I will take my time though to fully recover both physically and mentally, focus on some other (pending) things, and think of my running goal for the next months.

Pictures by Ahmed AlQassem

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