If you have ever smelled a Middle Eastern person's cologne or perfume as they walked past you, you might have wondered what makes it so much more exotic smelling. It's probably oud.

The word 'oud' literally means 'stick', but is used in the fragrance industry and in the Mideast to refer to the fragrant resinous wood from aquilaria trees after they have become infected with a type of mold. The healthy agarwood is fragrance free, but as it fights off the mold infection, it creates a resin that has become prized for its aromatic qualities. It can all vary by the country of origin, the conditions of growth and infection, and other factors. The final wood and resin or oil, if expressed out, are more valuable than gold. After all, it takes 20 kilos of agarwood to produce only 12 millileters of oil. The wood can be over $2000 per pound!

There are soooo many oud (fragrance) stores here because fragrance is really important to the Saudi people. Known for their hospitality, the bedouin will greet you with Arab coffee filled with cardamom, dates for nourishment, and fragrance. There's often an incense burner somewhere and they will waft the smoke onto you and your clothes as well as around the tent or room. One other touch might be the splashing of rose water on your hands. 

As mentioned, oud refers to the infected wood. You can burn this as incense. Perfume and fragrance makers will process the wood to extract the treasured oil from it. This is what they use in perfumes. Either way, oud has a very distinctive and exotic fragrance to it.

I had seen the pieces of wood in stores and also watched as a salesman would carefully sort through a bin of wood looking for specific pieces. I found one store which had a nice display of several kinds of oud, so I thought I'd see if I could an education. Waleed was kind enough to help me, but his English was a bit sketchy. I hope I kept the details right.

He pointed to the different windows and gave the prices and their rankings. The most expensive was over $1000 Saudi riyals for 30 ounces and the prices, and apparently quality, went down to about 350 SR. They were also from different countries. One was from Cambodia, another from India, etc.  

Waleed went and grabbed the incense burner so he could show me the difference. First step is to light a piece of charcoal. Then you snip off just a tiny piece of wood and put it on top of the charcoal so it smolders and gives off smoke. He did this with a couple versions of oud and the fragrance was a bit different for each. He explained that you burn this for about five minutes in your home and the smell should linger for several days, depending on the quality of the oud.

The amount you see on the left is 30 ounces and four pieces. Waleed then took snippers and cut it into smaller pieces. The size you need is smaller than your pinky fingernail though.

Here you can kind of make out the bit of shiny edge as the resin is melting and smoking.

Waleed then showed me another product which is a paste made from oud resin, other fragrances, balsam, patchouli, and more. There are also some woods that have extra fragrance soaked into them. These are known as bakhoor.

Once the incense or bakhoor is burning, you only need to let it burn for about five minutes, preferably walking around your house with it or wafting it on your clothes. The fragrance will linger in your house for several days.

There are so many to choose from, but Waleed gave me the snipped pieces you see above and a sample of a couple pieces of paste. I look forward to trying them out back in Sacramento!

I've been going into Jeddah quite a bit while I'm here and notice the same thing every time we drive past an Al Baik ... it's crowded!

The number one fast food chain in Saudi Arabia is Al Baik. The name is derived from  the title used to refer to an important person in Turkish – similar to “Sir”. It's meant as a respectful way to address its customers. 

The chain serves fried chicken, shrimp, and fish and you have a choice of regular or spicy coatings. They do not use chicken mince in their nuggets, instead they are whole breast meat pieces. Like Colonel Sanders and KFC, there is a secret blend of spices that are used in the coating. Finally, they have a signature garlic aioli that is served with everything - and it's pretty good!

I had a hankering for fried chicken last night and it's the only fast food that is not on the KAUST campus (surprisingly). Since I was going to Balad again, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try them out and battle the pressing crowds I always see.

But I was surprised because for the first time I was confronted by the gender segregation I'd so often heard about. Saudi Arabia has segregated stores and restaurants due to their strict adherence to Islam. That means that unaccompanied women cannot eat in the same area with any unrelated men. As a child I was always with my father, so I was accompanied by a male family member. Back then there were also not many places to go out to eat anyway. Yet I had often heard and knew that there was segregation in the restaurants. Better establishments had sectioned off rooms while other establishments would have men inside and women were stuck outside. Air conditioning and comfort vs none. 

Things are changing in the kingdom and you do see a lot more freedom of movement for the women here. It's especially easier for those that are still completely covered. As a Westerner, I go around without my head uncovered and I tend to think that if I had wanted to, I might have been able to go into the men's side to order. But frankly, I didn't want to. The men's side is chaos and I thought I might have quicker and better service if I just went to the women's side.

In the picture at the top you can see the men's side in the left, pretty crowded.  You can see the partition for women's side toward the right and how much narrower that side is.

The women's side was also a bit chaotic with only one register. Service takes a while and so I had to wait and ask the ladies to help me to recognize when my number came up. 

What about the food?  I actually carried it around while I continued shopping to save it for eating on the bus. No pictures because I ate in the dark.  I ordered a four piece chicken meal. It came with french fries and a bun. At first I thought, "oh, there's a biscuit in here!" only to find out it was simply a burger bun. I did not eat that. The fries were typical fast food fries and would have been better with more salt.

I ordered the spicy chicken and it did have some heat to it. I liked that it was a very different spicy than, say, Popeye's. More like a tandoori type of spicy. What impressed me was that it permeated deep into the meat. When I pulled apart the breast, there were streaks of red spice well into the center. The coating was good and probably crispy had I eaten it right away.

They have cocktail sauce and garlic sauce and I tried the garlic. I have to say, I'd love it if some American chains served garlic sauce.

It was definitely an experience. I doubt I'll go again unless my fried chicken craving is too strong. The ordeal of ordering and waiting is a bit much. Although, now that I think about it, I often deal with that at In-N-Out!

If you have ever seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, you know it takes place around the first World War when the British were aiding the Arabs in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire that had controlled the region off and on for centuries. Most of what you see is a land of Bedouin tribes that roam the region with their camels and goats. Rarely is there a scene of an actual town.

minor gate into Balad from Corniche Commercial side

That's why it is somewhat surprising to find buildings that are over 400 years old in the old section of Jeddah known as Al-Balad. On the one hand you have the images of the movie in your head, while on the other you have a logical realization that people have lived in the region for thousands of years. It only makes sense that there would be a very old city on the shores of the Red Sea. A city that has been not only a port for centuries of trade, but also as a landing place for people on their way to the Holy City of Mecca. 

Balad, for short, is a historic district in much need of preservation. It is rare to see the old style of Arab homes still existing when there is so much modernization all around. There are also the problems of deterioration as some buildings are apparently sinking into the ground due to flood damage and time. This includes the main mosque, which the government is trying to restore.

Here I am with my roommate, Azhar. She's a Saudi and acted as my translator for the day. Her family lives in Mecca and part of her ancestry includes Indian blood. She reminds me that for all those centuries, the Red Sea coast of Saudi was quite cosmopolitan due to all the trade. She says that when the country was unified in 1930, all inhabitants were granted Saudi citizenship, no matter what their background. 

Hejaz House
Most of the old homes in Balad are vacant now, although some have been turned into museums. During evening prayers we stopped at the Hejaz House, one of the old homes that has been turned into a coffee house and museum. While there, a family sat next to us and started a conversation with my roommate in Arabic. She told me that the wife's father still owns a nearby house that the  family has owned for many generations. Like others, they have moved to more modern accommodations, but have held onto the home and are investing in its preservation. 

Speaking of Prayer Time, take a listen to this clip. Forget the picture because it is unimportant. It's the sound of about a half dozen mosques all calling for prayer at the same time. I've heard a lot of calls to prayer in my life, but never so many together.

There's a real beauty in the old buildings and their windows. The old shutter-balconies are called Hejazi mashrabiyya.

We also went to another museum, the Matbouli House. Inside it was a maze of floors, stairways, tucked away rooms.

 I was hoping to stumble across the old style souks from my childhood, but not on this day. There may be a second Balad post later in my stay as I plan to return a couple of times for exploration.