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Friday, 06 February 2009

Goat Grabbing in Saudi Arabia

Written by Kristen Hamill
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Growing up as an American in Saudi Arabia meant spending most days behind the concrete walls of our compound in Al-Khobar. It was illegal for women to drive, or even sit in a car with a man other than her husband, so day trips outside of Al-Bustan village were limited to the one day a week when my father could take us on the road in his company car. So when my mother and her friend planned a trip for our families to Al-Hofuf, a city about an hour and half to the south, we were thrilled at the prospect of escaping the compound for the day.

 

On the Friday of our trip, my sister Alex, my parents, my friend Matt, his parents, and a friend from school, packed into two cars with our picnic coolers and set off for Hofuf. The highway outside of Al-Khobar was empty except for the oil pipelines snaking across the desert, and the occasional herd of camels. It was mid-March, and it was hot. The radiating heat created a familiar mirage, transforming the asphalt into a shimmering lake – one that looked so good in 90-degree temperatures. Although we weren’t on our way to the beach, the town of Al-Hofuf had the second best alternative- Al-Hasa- one of the world’s largest oases.

 

After roaming Hofuf’s souk and gold market, we made our way to the Jebel Qara, the eastern side of the oasis that housed Ghar Al Hashshab, “the cave of the arrow maker.” Narrow caverns eroded into the limestone rock allowed sunlight into the front sections of the caves, and here potters made simple, unglazed pottery on their wheels. As we walked further inside, the temperature dropped and we found ourselves wishing we’d brought sweaters, a rare thought in the Saudi Arabian heat.

 

Matt led the way through the caves, kicking up sand with his “LA Lights” sneakers as he searched for a spot to picnic. He rounded a corner at top-speed and nearly tripped over a Saudi man and woman on an Oriental rug. The man called out to my father, inviting him and the rest of our caravan of Americans to join the couple. The eight of us spilled out onto the burgundy rug, unsure of what to do with ourselves. The young man introduced Goat Grabbing in Saudi Arabia, Growing up as an American in Saudi Arabia, Al-Bustan village, Al-Hofuf, Al-Hasa, world’s largest oases, Ghar Al Hashshab,  Kristen Hamillhimself as Karim, and his wife, Marwa. He invited us to stay for lunch, adding that a few friends and family members would be joining them shortly. Before anyone had time to protest, Marwa had already brought over bowls of snacks to share on the rug.

 

While Karim and our fathers chatted, Marwa shimmied over to our corner, clutching a bowl of dates and roasted nuts. Dates were not my favorite food, I couldn’t stand how sickly sweet they tasted and how gooey they left my teeth and fingers, but I gave in to her eager waving of the basket and took a handful, grinning my thanks as I stuffed one in my mouth.

 

Strong Arabic coffee, qahwa, was poured for the adults from a gold-plated dallah into tiny cups. Cans of Pepsi, the soft drink of choice in Saudi Arabia, were passed down the rug to Matt, his friend, my sister and I. At the time, Coca-Cola was still relatively unpopular in the Kingdom. The Saudi government had banned Coca-Cola products until 1989, due to the company’s business ties with Israel, and was only just starting to bring back limited quantities in the 90s. We peeled back the can tabs and saved them in our pockets to add to the chains we had at home.

 


 

Voices echoed behind the cave walls, and I looked up to see about twenty more Saudis round the corner to join us on the rug. They were carrying coolers and trays of food, rolling with steam. Not one of them seemed to think it was odd that a group of unfamiliar Americans had joined their party, or at least they didn’t show it. The newcomers plunked giant hookahs in between the trays of coffee and ignited the round coals, sending tiny sparks flying into the sand.

 

An older woman ushered us behind the wall to join the all-female lunch crew on a smaller rug surrounded with coolers of drinks and fruit. The women’s long black abayas floated behind them as they scurried from one cooler to another, preparing the mid-day feast. A large silver platter, wafting spicy, savory aromas, was carried into the opening, and Marwa motioned for us to join the circle of women, crouched around the rug.

 

For some reason, I expected the platter to be piled high with chicken and lamb shawarmas, my favorite Middle Eastern dish. But there, in place of the meaty wraps and shish kabobs I’d hoped for, was a goat. Eyeballs, hooves, and all, the barbequed creature laid on a bed of rice, vegetables, and boiled eggs, surrounded by a red watery substance that thankfully turned out to be tomato broth.

 

The women rolled up their sleeves and dug in, ripping off bits of the flesh with their right hands. Grease dripped down their wrists as they squeezed the meat, rice, and broth into a tight ball of food. Their left, unsanitary hands were kept behind their backs, only used when lifting up the flaps of their veils to deposit food into their mouths.

 

Alex looked up at my mother, horrified, then back down at the goats bulging eyeballs. I was afraid she was going to cry, so to avoid a potential embarrassing meltdown, I made the first move. I started with an egg, and then a handful or rice mixed with pine nuts and tomato chunks, wrapped in a piece of flat wheat bread.

 

Customary to this sort of meal, some of the women took it upon themselves to dig around in the goat, looking for a choice morsel of meat to place at our corner of the platter. After our hosts had built us a small mound of goat meat, I took a deep breath and plucked one of the lightest strips, drenching it in the tomato broth before bringing it to my mouth. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that bad. Goat was a little stringy, but tasted similar to lamb. Mixed with the broth, spices, and veggies, I actually enjoyed it, as long as I didn’t look back at the eyeballs staring off into space.

 


 

Goat Grabbing in Saudi Arabia, Growing up as an American in Saudi Arabia, Al-Bustan village, Al-Hofuf, Al-Hasa, world’s largest oases, Ghar Al Hashshab,  Kristen HamillAfter the goat had been thoroughly picked through, basins of water were brought out to wash our hands, and the women served chai tea and fruit. Alex, Matt, his friend, and I ran around the caves with the Saudi kids. They didn’t speak English, but somehow we settled on a game of tag. My Dad interrupted the fun with his camera, trying to get a picture of all of us. Our new friends seemed uninterested in posing except for the smallest girl who stared down the camera defiantly as the shutter clicked. Alex and I stood in the middle of the group awkwardly, waiting for the photo op to be over so we could get back to the game.

 

When our hosts began to pack up their coolers our parents thanked Karim and his wife for lunch before we wandered back out into the sun. While we all had a good time eating and chatting with the kind family that had invited us out of the blue, some of us were still a little shell-shocked by the goat ordeal, most notably my sister. Before making the long drive home we decided to relax in date palm groves and give Alex the chance to have a sandwich, since all she could manage to eat was a single boiled egg. As we shared stories from our lunch in the cave, Matt and his friend came running from behind the date palms where they had been playing.

 

“We just met another family, they invited us to have lunch with them too,” Matt said breathlessly.

 

We looked around at each other, wondering if we could handle a second “goat-grab.” Alex’s face puckered as she wailed, “Noooo.”

 

“Just kidding!” Matt and his friend laughed hysterically. The rest of us laughed along with them, relieved. Alex on the other hand, cried, and continued to do so until we were back on the road.

 

Goat-grabs, it seems, are certainly not for the faint of heart.

 

©Kristen Hamill

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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