She left Finland ten years ago to follow her Saudi love and husband. Since the first “salaam amkum” at the airport in Riyadh, Laura Alho started to post the photos of her travels on the blog Blue Abaya, where she reveals the secret wonders of the Kingdom.
KAWA : Can you describe the first days, the arrival in Saudi Arabia?
Laura Alho: It happened 10 years ago. Saudi Arabia has changed a lot since then. Arriving at the airport, I remember that everyone was covered from head to feet in black or white. Nowadays Riyadh is more colorful. The way people dress has changed a lot, you can see variety, personal style and colors.
Which was the first word you heard in Saudi Arabia?
The first words were most likely “salaam alekum”, the standard Muslim greeting in Saudi Arabia which means “peace be upon you”, which I did not know back then though!
What pushed you to leave Finland?
After graduating I had been thinking about going abroad to work for a short period to gain new experiences and travel opportunities. The Middle East’s culture and heritage has always fascinated me, and Saudi Arabia seemed the most adventurous and interesting place by far, so I chose it over other options.
You have a Saudi husband. How his culture is different compared to a European?
There are many differences, but also similarities. The Saudi culture has very closely knit family ties compared to the Scandinavian one. My husband goes to see his parents once a week or more. It’s an obligation and a honor to take care of elderly parents and grandparents in their homes. Serving and hosting guests is in a totally different ballgame in Saudi Arabia. When we go out to the desert and come across some bedouins, they will always without exception invite us to their tent or camp for coffee or dinner. And they don’t take no for an answer! They will look after guests with the most generous feasts you can think of.
How was the wedding?
We had a simple civil ceremony in both countries and saved our money for traveling.
What is the hardest part of integrating into Saudi society?
Probably the language barrier if you’re not fluent in Arabic, and for me as a Scandinavian it’s very difficult to get used to the gender segregation in the homes. When visiting Saudi relatives I don’t even see my husband because he has to be in the men’s side of the gathering, and this is something I’ll never be able to integrate with 100%.
Which is your favorite place in Riyadh ?
The surrounding desert areas, red sand, the Edge of the world, and historical Diriyah.
How is Riyadh changing ?
It’s changing in so many ways, it’s hard to keep track. As I mentioned before, the way people dress out in public is becoming more and more relaxed and less “black or white”. Colorful abayas are now more common, whereas in 2008 when I arrived I did not see anything other than black abayas. Riyadh now has an event or concert or art gallery opening almost weekly. Movie theatres are opening soon, women can find places to sit outside and have a coffee in public, which used to be impossible just a few years ago. The gender segregation in public places and events is no longer as extreme. Life is just generally becoming more and more enjoyable.
Lunch with a view! Tag who you’d like to share lunch with at the Habala rope village, a place that was once accessible only by climbing down ropes from the cliffs above! . . . . #saudiarabia #habala #aseer #abha #saudiphoto #saudi_nature #explorearabia #picnic #roomwithaview #travel #travelphotography #ksa #gatewayksa #saudi #thisissaudi #doorsofthemagickingdom #magickingdom #saudiheritage #janub #photooftheday
When did you understand that things were really moving forward ?
That would be when the women driving announcement came. It was so sudden and unexpected, something people have been waiting for decades. It’s the most important part of making the everyday life here easier for me as a woman, to have the freedom of movement and no longer needing to be dependent on a man, only myself is sufficient enough. When I heard the announcement, I cried! I could not believe it was finally happening.
If your best friend from Finland came to Saudi Arabia, what would you like to show her?
That’s a difficult question! There are too many things to show! I would take her on a city tour and show the the modern side, then to Historical Diriyah for the history. Shopping at the Bedouin souk and maybe dinner at a traditional Saudi restaurant. I would definitely take her out to the desert, the edge of the world and the great red sand dune desert. If we’d have time then a visit to Jeddah would strike a perfect balance in showing these two very different areas of Saudi Arabia to my friend. Swimming in the beautiful Red sea coast would be unforgettable memory.
I think Saudi Arabia is a very underrated place as a tourist destination. The country has so much to offer. I have been exploring Saudi Arabia since 2008 and I have traveled to every province and corner of this magnificent country, but I feel like I just got started! There’s simply so many different kinds of destinations to discover here, lots of history and natural beauty. You could check out more places in Saudi Arabia on my blog Blue Abaya.