My Trip To Saudi Arabia

As a musician, I’ve spent a good portion of the last decade touring the world and broadening my perspective. Nevertheless, there’s still so much else for me to explore. Through my involvement with the UN Nexus Global Youth Summit, I’ve been lucky to connect with innovators and philanthropists from all corners of the globe. Recently one of those very good friends invited me to perform a private acoustic show in her family’s palace. Three weeks later and with zero hesitation, I boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia.  Here are a few notes and photos from my trip…

I nursed a 26-Lira lager on my layover in Istanbul and tried to imagine what adventures awaited me in the Middle East. I’d been warned about the uber-strict Islamic doctrines of social conduct; I’d even read about “Religious Police,” the scary bearded Orwellian authorities who are known to jail and torture anyone for defying even the Koran’s most subtle dress-codes. My head swirled. I knew almost nothing about this exotic world where alcohol is illegal, where women remain virginal until marriage and are forbidden to drive.

I was cognizant that any faux pas I made would reflect on my hosts. Thus, in the rush before my departure, I paid a Brooklyn barber $50 to buzz about 2lbs of my nasty afro onto the checkered tiles; my first military dweeb cut since kindergarten. I rubbed my palm over it like a hot scar. Fuck it. It’s so worth it.

How often does one get invited to Saudi Arabia, arguably one of the toughest Visas to secure in the world, by one of the kingdom’s preeminent families?

I carried only a small bag (jeans, hoodies, a borrowed tux) and my guitar.

My senses stayed heightened from the moment I landed in Riyadh. The view from my room, 30 stories up, was beautiful; alien Bauhaus – as if an army of glass Transformers froze mid-battle.

I memorized the region’s greeting, “As-salamu alaykum”, happy to learn that its literal translation is “Peace upon you.” I watched two minutes of a soccer match then face-planted on top of the comforter and slept the comatose sleep of the deeply buried.

The next 6 days were a bit like a wonderful Oz-esque fever dream:

I became instantly hooked on "Al-Qahwa," the traditional cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee, served with gooey dates.

I became instantly hooked on Al-Qahwa, the traditional cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee, served with gooey dates.

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I attended an inspiring charity event where the stunning Princess Ameerah Al-taweel and other charismatic Saudi celebs spoke passionately about the spirit of philanthropy.

camel meat

I had my first bite of delicious hashi (camel meat)…

…and wore the traditional shemagh & thobe.

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I spent a late night inside a private “compound” where codes of behavior are more relaxed.

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I spent a full day in the desert learning Arabian dance moves around a bonfire…

…and “drifting” ATV’s and SUV’s over the dunes at night.

racing lesson

I had my first racing lesson at Al Reem Speedway – also, my first international anxiety attack!

croc

I taunted a new friend’s pet crocodile…

…and played squash at 3AM in my combat boots.

I was reminded how alike we all are when a great song starts to play on the car radio.

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I visited one of the first gallery shows for Saudi modern artists.

I got a tour of Chop Chop Square, where monthly public beheadings still take place.

I performed the MOST REMOTE acoustic show of my career…

palace

…inside this jaw-dropping country palace.

sheep meat

I removed and ate the eye and tongue from this delicious slow-cooked whole sheep.

In a setting so foreign, under the same crescent fingernail moon that inspired so many of my wandering heroes, I sat down to write a new song. I pulled on aromatic “sheesha” tobacco as a funny new friend ignited fireworks that echoed against the sandstone cliffs and flowered in my periphery. The ideas came rapidly, and I found a new sense of gravity that eluded me in my NYC apartment.

I was inspired by Princess Ameerah’s speech about Change; her courageous fight to gain greater equality for women and more tolerance for personal expression.

I was inspired by the chiseled features, the stolen glances; by the exotic smell of incense, dark woods, musky oils and thyme honey.

I was inspired by all the wonderful characters I met and the covert double lives which they all lead: their stoic public identities, and the vibrant fearless personalities that sprang to life behind the walls, gushing about Rihanna lyrics, Timberlake dance moves, 90210 plotlines, Christian Louboutin collections, and about which Instagram filters are the most flattering.

I was inspired by the tension of a young country with an ancient culture—the need to fight to preserve their heritage while still embracing the shrinking-of-the-earth that comes with modernity.

Landing back at JFK, I bookended my trip with another overpriced beer and took a deep breath.

After such a privileged tour, I wonder how much I truly know about the country that seduced me. Had I just lived out my own custom-made Kevin Bacon Footloose fantasy, where I was cast in the role of “edgy outsider” in an ultraconservative state? My general world-view and stance on individual freedoms and equality are still at odds with a Muslim theocracy where laws of “God” and laws of government are one and the same. Regardless, it was a great honor for me to explore Saudi at such a dynamic time in this country’s history, and to have such a rare opportunity to meet (and fall in love with) these people and their rich culture that is often misunderstood in the west. TC mark

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