Istiraha: A rare look inside the Saudi man-cave
The istiraha and mulhag are similar kinds of venues, where friends go to “chillax” in their free time, according to a young Saudi
The sun in Saudi Arabia’s New Diriyah beats down through the windscreen as Abu Talal lights up a cigarette and checks his iPhone. Eventually, the silence is broken by tires crunching on gravel as a 4x4 approaches on our left, the driver’s window rolling down to reveal a grinning Arab in aviator shades.
Abu Talal pops the car door and greets his friend Khalid with the traditional handshakes and kisses, as your correspondent struggles with the long white fabric of his Saudi thobe. Keys jingle in locks, and a pair of large metal doors swing open to reveal an astro-turfed courtyard containing a barbeque, a classic 4x4 and a large Bedouin-style tent. This is a Saudi istiraha.
The istiraha and mulhag are similar kinds of venues, where friends go to “chillax” in their free time, according to a young Saudi. The main difference is the location. The mulhag is on one’s home property, either inside the main house or as a separate bungalow. It is a place to entertain friends and other guests with tea, Arabic coffee, food, music, TV, cards, board games and conversation.
In the istiraha, the activities are much the same but the location is different. The istiraha lies outside of one’s home and often has more of a “holiday villa” feel. Bigger ones have swimming pools, volleyball and basketball courts, in addition to the indoor areas, which feel more like the mulhag. Another difference is that while one owns a mulhag, an istiraha is more commonly rented between a group of friends on a yearly, monthly or even daily basis.
Istiraha culture is popular among the younger generation, perhaps partly for the sanctuary it provides from the conservatism of public Saudi life. It is a place to get away from their families, from the city and from work.
This relaxed atmosphere was immediately apparent inside the boys’ Bedouin-style tent. We were faced with a space about seven meters squared, lined along three sides by a traditional Saudi-style sofa - low cushions underneath and at one’s back, with large, moveable, block-like armrests for reclining against or setting a teacup on.
The floor, walls and ceilings were covered in traditionally-patterned carpet and fabrics. One TV was already on, playing a Will Ferrell movie, the other lay dormant, entwined with the wires of various games consoles. This was the ultimate Saudi man-cave.
Walking across the room toward the stove and maamel (coffee-making paraphernalia), one had to be careful not to trip on the hoses and glass chimneys of numerous shisha pipes. Alcohol and drugs are strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia, so at social gatherings people instead smoke cigarettes and shisha, eat dates, and drink tea and Arabic coffee.
The latter of these was already being prepared on the stove. Abu Talal ground the coffee beans - less harshly roasted than Western coffee so they produce a yellowish rather than a brown liquid - and the cardamom, which gives Arabic coffee its distinctive taste. He took a pinch of expensive saffron from a pouch, then turned back to his bubbling pot of water.
Around the tent were dotted other distinctively Arabian items. By the TV were a few tablas and mirwas - small percussive drums and a pear-shaped, eight-stringed oud, an ancestor of the guitar. One of the men picked it up and began to sing as he strummed, modulating his voice in the traditional Arab style. When you switch on the radio in Saudi Arabia, these are the sounds you’ll hear, not the pumping bass or distorted guitars of Western pop and rock.
Everyone took their cups of coffee to a handcrafted fabric table for a game of sheesh, a cousin of Ludo. The rules were simple: roll a pair of dice and move your four counters around the board to the finish line. Try to stay in the ‘safe zones,’ or to land on the same square as one of your opponents’ pieces, thus sending them back to the start. Easy to understand, but hard to follow the subsequent torrent of Arabic numbers and flailing hands.
After a long and sadly unsuccessful game, everyone’s phones buzzed with a notification - it was time for midday prayers. The Saudi day is defined by the five sets of compulsory prayers, with the atmospheric sound of the athan sounding from the minarets of thousands of Riyadh mosques. Phones were put aside and a peaceful silence fell in the tent, to be punctuated only by softly-mouthed prayers.
Miles Lawrence is a freelance journalist and graduate of the University of Oxford. He currently lives in Riyadh and writes about culture and the arts in Saudi Arabia. In the past he has written for British newspaper The Express & Star, online arts publication Native Monster, as well as student publications Cherwell and The Tab. He blogs on a wide range of topics at www.mileslemarchant.wordpress.com, and tweets @milesfromyou.