RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
Maureen Dowd, good morning.
MAUREEN DOWD: Good morning.
LOUISE KELLY: So what did you pack for this Saudi getaway?
DOWD: But this time, since I was going to be a tourist, I knew I would have to wear an abaya. And...
LOUISE KELLY: An abaya, we should explain, is full body, from the neck all the way. It covers your toes.
DOWD: Right. And you have to wear a headscarf. So I was hoping I could get one that was less hot than the standard polyester version. So I went to a tailor and said: Can you make me a black abaya with linen or some lightweight material? But she was trying to make it fashionable, not knowing Saudi Arabia. So she put slits in. So they kept telling me to put an abaya over my abaya, which made it even hotter.
LOUISE KELLY: You did, I gather, make something of a campaign of trying to push the rules in Saudi Arabia. For example, you write about trying to infiltrate the men's section of a Starbucks in Riyadh and other restaurants and cafes. Tell me what happened.
DOWD: So I said I was going to order coffee, and the minder got very upset. And he's like, you can't do that. But the guy serving the coffee was foreign, so he didn't care.
LOUISE KELLY: Right.
DOWD: So he gave me the coffee, and we sat outside. But the minder was, like, looking up and down the street, like we've really got to get going. We've had this nice adventure. So that lasted about three minutes.
LOUISE KELLY: You quote one Saudi tourist official who said: You can't wear shorts to the opera. You know, you have to dress for the occasion. You have to behave for the right occasion. If you don't like it, don't go.
LOUISE KELLY: What's wrong with that argument?
DOWD: You know, I agree that Western women should have to dress modestly. I understand that completely. But it's a strange thing to have to dress exactly like them. For instance, even in American institutions, like the Jeddah Hilton, I was wearing a long navy blue dress to the floor that I wear to family funerals. And the guy behind the desk said, you've got to abaya on to walk across the lobby of the hotel.
LOUISE KELLY: Well, and the backdrop to all of this and the reason for this trip is that the Saudis are trying to open up a little bit. They're trying to encourage more tourists. What's behind this?
DOWD: So the tourism commissioner is sending the emirs and governors over to Italy and Spain to look at how they appreciate old buildings. And that's partly because they didn't appreciate architecture because they didn't want to find anything that was pre-Islamic, and they have just beautiful ruins, very much like Petra, called Madain Saleh. But it's pre-Islamic. So there was hesitation about even restoring it as a tourist site.
LOUISE KELLY: What can you see when you go to Saudi Arabia as a tourist? Because off the list, as a non-Muslim, you can't go to the holy sites, to Mecca and Medina.
DOWD: No. No. That's the main thing. I mean, it's one of the greatest tourist destinations in the world, and has been for a long time, but only for Muslims.
LOUISE KELLY: If you're Muslim.
DOWD: But that's where they're trying to develop these other sites. Like Madain Saleh is spectacularly beautiful, but they're just building the runway. I mean, the guide there was so excited that someone was actually coming to look, and it's these beautiful tombs from when they used to run the, you know, silken incense routes.
LOUISE KELLY: So would you encourage people to go - adventurous spirits to go?
DOWD: If they could go. But the whole point of this - I mean, I wanted to do a travel piece about a place you couldn't travel to, because the whole concept is so funny. And the Saudis are so deeply schizophrenic and ambivalent that, of course, they say they want tourists, but then they probably won't get around to it for another century.
LOUISE KELLY: All right. Maureen Dowd, thanks so much.
DOWD: Okay. Thank you.
LOUISE KELLY: Maureen Dowd. You can read her article, "A Girl's Guide to Saudi Arabia," in the latest issue of Vanity Fair.
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