I’ve just come back from ten days visiting schools in Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip and to the three schools for their warm welcome: the King Faisal School, the American International School of Riyadh and the British International School of Al-Khobar.
I was excited to visit Saudi Arabia, not least because I have a tenuous family connection with the country. In 1761 a young German cartographer called Carsten Niebuhr set off to Arabia as part of a six-man academic expedition organized by the King of Denmark. The trip was fraught with illness and quarrels (recounted in lurid detail in Thorkild Hansen’s book Arabia Felix), but it did prove to have some academic usefulness: Niebuhr’s transcription of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis proved to be a key turning-point in the decipherment of cuneiform.
Carsten Niebuhr was the only member of the expedition to return to Europe alive. As his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, I am very glad he did.
Back to the twenty-first century…King Faisal School is a boys’ school in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. During my visit the boys showed great imagination developing stories set in Riyadh and other Saudi settings. The day after I left they held a Young Author event, where students sold their own books in Arabic or English.
The American International School of Riyadh has a beautiful new campus on the north side of the city. I met lots of enthusiastic readers during a packed schedule of assemblies and workshops, and even managed a selfie with Readosaurus Rex, the pride and joy of the Elementary Library.
School starts and finishes early in Saudi Arabia, so I had plenty of time in the afternoons to lose at Risk to my host family and to explore downtown Riyadh: the beautifully preserved Al-Masmak Fortress, notorious ‘Justice’ Square and the dizzyingly tall Kingdom Tower. The black and white photograph below is from 1951 and shows a street of barbers and dentists in a street near Al-Swelem Gate (wince).
One night my hosts treated me to dinner at Nadj Village. We sat on plush Arabian carpet and feasted on camel meat and flavoured rice, surrounded by Arabian antiques. I thought of my seven-greats grandfather and imagined him enjoying just such a meal at the Ottoman court in Jeddah, in a pre-oil pre-Saud pre-warplane Arabia.
Arabia Felix indeed.