Think flea market.
Think the world's biggest jumble sale. Anything and everything you can imagine on sale, out in the open and covered in a fine yellow layer of desert dust. That's Haraj bin Gassem, better known to many of us as the Princess Souk.
We saw the whole gamut of female formal attire from wedding gowns to dresses for small princesses.
Friends had told us that we needed to bargain before buying anything. The general rule of thumb was that nothing should cost any more than 25 Saudi riyals. That’s about NZ$5.00!
And then there were the ones that were just overdone and eye-grabbingly awful. We saw everything from the 'pretty' to the 'pretty awful', the absurd, the eclectic and the OMG-totally-over-the-top-and-theatrical.
Many gowns looked as if they had taken hours of machine and hand sewing. There were more frills and flounce per square inch than a Cinnabon has calories. Not to mention yard upon yard of fabric of every imaginary variety: tulle, chiffon, silk, velvet, satin...
I was on the look-out for costumes that would do for a children’s drama production. I spotted one that looked workable. I needed something that would do for a child who was a small bird. This was blue and had a skirt made of strips of fabric that I imagined would flow and flit in a bird like fashion.
We paid 5 riyals. At this price, I thought, it really didn’t matter whether we used it or not.
At midday the call for prayer sounded. Some stalls covered their wares but many didn't bother. I'd heard that the muttawa (religious police) rigorously patrolled this area, but we saw none. I wondered how some of the clothing on display had avoided their attention. Given Saudi's conservative Muslim culture, there were things on display that just looked wrong!
I’d heard many stories of the men who worked here and their perverted behavior. We were prepared for the worst and moved around pretty quickly from stall to stall. Thankfully we saw nothing amiss, but I accept that our experience was probably not the norm.
And then it was time to leave, away from all this colour and flamboyance back to the Riyadh where women are covered in abaya and headscarf. From tradition to modernity and from conservatism to haute couture; this had been a visit where I'd seen both the contrasts and contradictions in the way women here live.