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STRANGERS

Map showing the location of the ad-Dirah market

The ad-Dirah market was in the heart of the old city, a covered souk with labyrinthine walkways, cool and shadowed after the relentless sun. The air smelled of sandalwood and spices and the stalls were piled high with goods that ranged from the commonplace to the exotic: translucent chunks of frankincense and reddish brown myrrh, brass coffee pots as tall as a child or small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, camel-hair shawls and scarves. Old men reclined on Persian carpets, smoking hookahs and drinking tea, enticing their customers in with gentle persuasion.

Roisin, dizzy with jet lag, wondered if she was dreaming a Hollywood incarnation of an Arabian street market. She felt as if she had closed her eyes in London on a grey October morning, and opened them again to the opulence and glitter of the souk.

She pulled her headscarf forward over the tell-tale blonde of her hair. She had never been in a country where she had to veil before. The abaya had felt odd and theatrical when she had put it on an hour ago, but here in the bustling market, she was glad of the anonymity. All the women she saw had covered their faces, and were dark shapes in abayas and veils. She could see nothing of them but their eyes, which gleamed in the shadows as they flickered in Roisin's direction. They looked oddly, exotically beautiful.

In the cool dimness of the walkways, the light reflected off the brilliant fabrics, the silver of the jewellery, and the white of the men's robes.


Map showing location of As Sa'ah Square

Just then, the crowd parted to let a man through. He was tall and his robes were dazzling in the light. Her eyes followed him instinctively. In the next instant a sudden surge caught her unawares, turning her around in a wave of bodies and almost knocking her off her feet. When she tried to turn back, O'Neill and Joe had vanished and she had no idea which way they'd gone.

They couldn't be far away, but she wasn't tall enough to see over the heads of the people and she was getting pushed back, further away from where she had been. The next surge carried her to the edge of the street, and then she was against the wall, trying to make herself inconspicuous as she oriented herself. The streets, narrow and shadowed, ran away from her in all directions. She had the sudden feeling - something she had never felt before - of hostile eyes searching for her, eyes that wouldn't be fooled for long by her disguise. She could feel the start of panic constricting her chest, and made herself breathe slowly and steadily. There was nothing to worry about. She'd got separated in the crowd. The worst that could happen was that the Mutawa' ah would shout at her.

Then she recognized the corner of a building. That was where they had left the souk. In that case, they had been heading towards... or was it this way? There was a straight lane ahead of her, free from the confusion of the market-place throng.

She followed it, and suddenly, to her relief, the crowd was gone. A square opened up in front of her, paved in patterned stone, surrounded by palm trees. At the far end was a low, flat building raised on pillars, and to her right a minaret reached up towards the sky. The shadows were solid and hard-edged. A white-robed figure stood in the shadow of the pillars, but otherwise the square was empty. It was shocking in its unexpected silence.

As Sa'ah Square

...Encouraged by the first sign of warmth, she tried again. "Tell me about that square. It was so ..." She searched for words. The cathedral-like silence had caught her imagination. Despite the hard glare of the light, she could imagine banks of candles lit for the souls of ... who? She tried to catch Joe's eye, but he was staring out of the window, lost in his own thoughts.

O'Neill glanced at her again before he answered. "It's known colloquially as Chop-Chop Square," he said.

"Chop-Chop Square?" For a moment, she didn't understand what he was talking about, then she realized. The bright square with the blue patterned stones and the palm trees was the place where malefactors against the rigid laws of the Kingdom were dealt with. The place of punishment. The place of execution. All the impulse to laugh drained out of her. People had died on those sun-dazed stones, close to the place where she had been standing.

O'Neill had observed her reaction. "It's part of what this place is," he said. "I give it a wide berth. Some Westerners go. For them it's the nearest thing we've got to a tourist attraction."


Follow the links to explore the world of Strangers

| Riyadh by night | | Map of Riyadh | | A tour of the city | | Wearing the Hijab | | Press Cutting |