I know my entries focus a lot on the spiritual side of my time in the holy cities, but that’s not to say my day-to-day life outside of worship was just more worship. The question most people want to know—no matter where you travel to in the world—is “What’s [insert country] like?”. It’s in our nature to be curious, and when we meet others who have seen parts of the world we’ve only imagined, our curiosity is immediately piqued. To satisfy your curiosity, I’m including these entries that describe the day-to-day life in the places I visited.
Blazing hot and surprisingly humid. Moving on.
In Arabic, Medina literally means “city” and its full name is “Medina tun Nabi”—City of the Prophet. At the heart of the city is Masjid An-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque, and surrounding it are hotels, a few malls, and some marketplaces. Interestingly, you could fit the entire city of Medina during the time of Prophet Muhammad (p) into the current area of Masjid An-Nabawi.
One of the first things that struck me was traffic. Not literally, but just the chaos of it all. On the bus coming in to Medina, once we got off the freeway and into the core of the city, there was little-to-no separation between sidewalks and roads. Vendors would cart their goods across the street with no regard for traffic; people would walk beside, around or towards oncoming busses; bus drivers, meanwhile, would steadily inch their bus forward, honking frequently, and I was almost certain that we were going to run someone over. So I tried to stay away from streets as much as possible.
The hotels are exactly what you’d expect from a hotel; as are the malls. Most of the shop signs are in both Arabic and English, and follow a very similar naming convention: Name + for + merchandise. So, for instance, you might have a shop called “Al-Munir for Perfume” or “As-Safiya for Jewelry”. Most stores are small enough that they could probably fit into your living room, and most are either outside, attached to a mall, or inside a shopping mall. The idea of a building being used for just one store is pretty foreign here.
Street markets are also very common. Vendors will set up stands on a sidewalk or in a market. You can usually get a good deal if you’re skilled at haggling (which I’m not; the Canadian-politeness in me prevents me). Most vendors usually end up selling similar things: sandals, souvenirs, toys, jewelry, prayer rugs, prayer beads (lots of prayer beads), water containers. The Medina Marketplace is the most famous. It’s located just behind the Prophet’s Mosque, and is an open area that has served as a market since the time of Prophet Muhammad (p). During the day, independent merchants sell their goods; in the night, the stalls are closed and tarps are drawn over the wares.
One day I went for a walk away from the downtown core, into a quieter neighbourhood. It was a long, quiet street with shops (some of which were closed), restaurants and apartments. A small mosque was even tucked in between the buildings. The occasional car was parked near the sidewalk, most of them old with dents and bumps and scratches; I thought it amazing that they could even run in this heat. All of the buildings had a faded, sandy brown colour to them. The plaster on the buildings was constantly chipping off. To someone from Canada, it would look like it was on the verge of being a run-down neighbourhood. But I knew that was just my cultural bias talking. This was their normal.
Having avoided fast food in Canada—usually because the meat isn’t halal (permitted), according to the opinion I follow—I decided to allow myself a little indulgence. I went to a Hardee’s and got a roast beef and cheddar sandwich. And I tell you, after 8 years of fast food abstinence, there’s nothing like salty meat slathered in processed cheese between two soggy buns. Most of the food is either fast, fried, cheap or all of the above. Good luck finding a gourmet, low carb, gluten-free, “healthy options” salad. Of course, there was Starbucks, KFC and other familiar restaurants.
Wanting to experience the local cuisine, I decided to live on the edge a bit. During my journey in the city neighbourhood, I found a restaurant with no English menu or signage, pointed at a random item on the menu, and said “this”.
It was good! The meat was goat stewed in some kind of broth, which I mixed with the rice. The soup was a kind of tomato-ey rice soup, and the beans were, well, beans. The salad was refreshing; the onion gave a nice kick to the sinuses, and had a nice parsley-cilantro bite to it. However, I didn’t finish it after I found pieces of a plastic wrapper in it.
Outside of that, I was mostly nourished at the hotel buffet which consisted of a mix of western and Middle Eastern fare.
In general, the people I met were all well-mannered. I couldn’t tell if they were locals or travelers.
One of my biggest fears was the language barrier—the only Arabic I know is from the Quran, and you can’t have a conversation with someone through just Quran verses. Or maybe you can. I never tried it. But in any case, most of the people there knew some form of English, at least enough to greet you, and tell you how much that pair of sandals is. Shopkeepers can be pushy, and sometimes have little patience for someone (like me) who doesn’t really understand Arabic. I had a section of my notebook dedicated to Arabic phrases and words, but usually ended up leaving my notebook at the hotel or just not using it. Shopkeepers that spoke English were at an obvious advantage. I was once in an Islamic bookstore and found a volume I was missing from a collection of books. When I tried to buy just the volume, the shopkeeper tried to sell me the whole set. And when I tried to tell him I already had all the other books, he tried dropping the price. Sadly, I had to leave it behind.
Other interesting things
Medina used to be surrounded by fortress walls, and if you were outside those walls when the time for the sunset prayer came, you were stuck out there. The bedouins and travellers would tie their camels and horses up outside the walls, as a sign of respect for the cleanliness of the city. Eventually, the walls were taken down and you can now drive your car in wherever you want.
Uhud is a range of mountains just about half an hour outside of Medina. It’s the site of a famous battle in Islamic history. There’s a large hill just before the mountain range called The Archer’s Mountain, called so because that’s where the archers were stationed in the Battle of Uhud. There’s also a graveyard near the mountain where many Companions of Prophet Muhammad (p) are buried.
Masjid Quba was also a short drive from Uhud. It was the first mosque in Medina, built after Prophet Muhammad (p) migrated there. There’s a small museum/exhibit near the mosque, which housed scale models of Medina, the Prophet’s Mosque and the Prophet’s house. I was only able to get pictures from inside the mosque.