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DESERT TALES

OH CHRISTMAS TREE, OH CHRISTMAS TREE, OH...

Christmas is coming. The Festive Season is here - festive spirit, busy shoppers, hustle bustle, cotton wool snow, glittering shop window displays, the sound of carols, shoppers hurrying and scurrying home with parcels and gifts, the Christmas tree lights twinkling...ah, yes, the Christmas tree.

Trying to find a Christmas tree in Saudi Arabia is like trying to find a cloudless sky over Newport.

In fact finding anything to do with Christmas in Saudi Arabia is difficult because it is forbidden. For here, it is forbidden to practise any other religion apart from that of Islam. Likewise, the Christmas tree is forbidden as it is thought to be an icon, which we worship, symbolising our Christian celebration.

But like anything forbidden, it can always be found if only you look hard enough. And Saudi Arabia having something along the lines of 30,000 ex patriot residents has a huge demand in the 'all things Christmassy' market.

The handycraft shops seem to get away with selling all sorts of things Iím sure they shouldn't, as do the local markets. However, when you think about it, there are lots of things we use for decorations, which have absolutely nothing to do with the religious side of Christmas, as over the years weíve kind of left that behind in preference to glitz, glitter and anything shiny and golden. Consequently, to find things like ribbon with holly and berries, golden baubles and a Santa Claus candle, doesnít take too much searching in comparison to finding a tree. Oh, by the way, no way is there anything Ďready madeí, so you have to buy all this clutter along with 30 tubes of UHU, lug it home, tip it out and wonder just what the heck you can make out of it. It always looked so easy on children's TV.

I find the box in which Iíve stored my year's worth of loo roll thingies, 17 empty squeezy bottles and no sticky backed plastic (the heat does nothing to help preserve that, I can tell you, so it was binned in June), and I think, just how did the Blue Peter crew do it !! I've been busy for the last 3 weeks making decorations and a festive wreath (ok ok I'm not too hot at these things). The dining room looks like the Elves workshop after a gang of demented reindeer hit the booze and had the party of the year. Iím hoping that with only another week or so left, something worthwhile will come out of the disastrous mess in there!! And my husbandís hoping to get the dining room back before our guests arrive for Christmas Eve dinner.

And that brings me round to telling you the tale of the great Christmas tree search.

Well, it's rather like skulking about trying to score a bag of drugs. Or is that a 'hit' of drugs?† Whatever. Off I go into town, and find a shop that may be likely to have such illegal things stashed away, and search out the least Muslim-looking shop assistant I can find - Phillipinos are a good bet as a good number of them are Catholic.† So I sidle up to the chap and whisper 'Have you got any Festive Holiday Tree'... (dare not mention the word CHRISTMAS, walls have ears and Iíll do a story on the Religious Police another time). So the guy looks furtively over his shoulder, and whispers a yes or a no, and then points to where I have to go. It's all very cloak and dagger, there's usually a back store-room where they keep these things. In fact, one of the major International supermarkets was my first try, as last year I heard their back storeroom was like an Aladdin's Cave just bursting with Crimbo stuff. But not so this year, as 3 of there shop assistants have not long been out of prison as a result of last years roaring trade!! Risky business. But big business, as is anything illegal. And with all these ex-pats gagging for anything Seasonal (there's a story in there somewhere, but it'll have to wait for another day), it's very tempting for the shopkeepers to take the risk as there is quick and easy money to be made.

And so my search goes on, doing the rounds of the shops, all for a Christmas tree. It's not easy, shops must close 4 times a day for Prayers, and it being Ramadan just now, they're closed most of the morning!! My phone is like a hotline to Epping Forest. My 'ansafone' at home is full of tree messages. Anyone would think I've applied for a job as a lumberjack. We're obsessed. As soon as anyone hears the slightest rumour of where there may be a tree, all phone lines are completely congested. Thank goodness for mobiles! We spend all day like important executives, zooming around town, phoning each other. Chasing the Tree.

It's crazy. It's Saudi.