I live in Riyadh, where booze is officially absent, movie theaters are banned, music in public is basically nonexistent, most women are covered head-to-toe in black, and the call to prayer rings out six times a day from mosques that seem to pop up every ten blocks across this dusty metropolis of several million people.
So what do Saudi men do all day? Smoke. Not all of them, but a significant proportion of them. In fact, a pretty standard image of a modern Riyadh Saudi male is a goateed 24-year-old, expensive watch on one wrist, Bluetooth headset in one ear, immaculate white thobe covering body from head to neck, fancy pen in breast pocket, red-checked head scarf in place… and a cigarette in one hand, the smoke mingling with heavy perfume.
Coffee and tea are the other principle releases (along with Whoppers and Pepsi, though slightly less ubiquitously) but again and again, it seems the picture of a male here is almost always incomplete without a burning butt.
All this is mainly a prelude to sharing this image: I walk through a mall here every day around 10:45 a.m. It’s mostly deserted at this time, except for the far western end, which is home to several offices of a major bank. Without fail, there are always two dozen to three dozen Saudi men standing around, smoking, their office IDs swinging from smoke-spewing necks.
What caught my eye today was this: The glass wall they often congregate along was tattooed with a brilliant smear of hand-prints, of all sizes, each illuminated by the weak morning light. Sizing up the crowd, I thought to myself how much the smudged glass wall was a kind of accidental art, a result of smokers leaning against glass in a mall and simultaneously a strange throwback to the ancient cave paintings in France and elsewhere. What of equal durability could any of this leave behind?
With that question unanswered, I quickened my pace, fleeing the tobacco haze, happy at least to have excavated beauty out of habit.
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