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Place Lag

High on a rooftop above the city. Sunset. And that triggers the call to prayer, beginning right here, in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam. First in Mecca, then rolling westwards with the sun across the world, wherever there are Muslims across the world. Th

High on a rooftop above the city. Sunset. And that triggers the call to prayer, beginning right here, in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam. First in Mecca, then rolling westwards with the sun across the world, wherever there are Muslims across the world. The imams on minarets cry out “God is great. God is great. Allah-u-Akbar, Allah-u-Akbar!”

One mosque begins the call. The words reach us on the warm breeze. We are sitting on soft, thick red carpets, bare footed, and conversation falls to stillness as ever more mosques cry out like a song in the round. A faint scent of incense and woodsmoke in the air, mingled with diesel fumes, rubbish bins, and the hot tang of sandy desert. My mind is racing, boosted by tiny cups of bitter, cardamom coffee, poured with pride and show from a curvy brass pot. But it’s more than that. It’s the power of dozens of mosques all around this ancient city, calling out to their faithful as they have done five times a day, every single day for more than a thousand years.

I am taken by how emotional, how powerful this moment is, as the waves of voices (amplified by loudspeakers) build to a crescendo, washing raggedly all around, like waves. It’s probably the jet lag too, a sleepless night catching up with me. But always when I travel I am struck by “place lag” much more than jet lag. Place lag is realising that last night I ate dinner in London, but tonight I walk through lamplit souks busy with Yemeni traders. How can this be? How can the world be so big? So varied? So many people and stories happening every moment in every single place on Earth without me even knowing? Place lag may be the greatest drug of my life, the addiction of wanting to see as many of these moments as I can, and knowing that I can never grasp it all. To learn what is new to me, to always move on, to go, to go, to go…

My eyes are closed but in my head I see the dirty, crumbling, enchanting old streets of Jeddah in the soft dusk light. I smell the warm desert, taste the spicy coffee, feel the soft carpet. And I listen, really listen to the absolute unique magic of this mundane moment, an endlessly repeated prayer calling, calling to the faithful, “come, come, come now…”

Strolling the streets of old Jeddah. Excited by my first visit to Saudi Arabia.

Snoozing far from the dash and bustle of the shiny malls and the status symbol cars of modern Riyadh.

Jeddah doorway.

The peaceful, almost sleepy streets of the World Heritage area of old Jeddah.

A fine old Ford, rusting merrily in old Riyadh.

Coffee? The fabulous Sami Nawar, carer, curator and voice piece for the importance of rescuing beautiful old Jeddah from the crass glass shopping mall building obsession.

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